‘Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honour’ (Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon)
La Tauromaquia was first commissioned by Gustau Gili Roig in Paris in 1928. Under the imprint Ediciones de la Cometa, Gili Roig planned to extended his firm's expertise into the bibliophile market for livre de artiste, commissioning leading artists to produce original prints in response to literary texts. The project began well, with Picasso producing six plates, before it floundered, interrupted by the Spanish Civil War. Almost three decades later in 1956, Gustau Gili Esteve, the son and heir to the business, contacted Picasso and visited him in Cannes with a view to resurrecting his father’s idea. They immediately struck up a rapport and the artist agreed to revisit the project.
Written in 1796 by the legendary bullfigher José Delgado, colloquially known as Pepe Illo, La Tauromaquia is the first documented handbook for bullfighting. It was a source for the series of etchings of the same title, by Francisco y Lucientes Goya first published in 1816, in which he famously depicted Pepe Illo’s fatal goring by the bull Barbudo as the final plate in the suite. Picasso, a life-long lover of the corrida de toros, knew and admired Goya’s La Tauromaquia. However, where the former’s imagery highlights the brutality and violence of the mortal struggle between man and beast, Picasso’s rendering evokes its poetry. Following the bull from the tranquillity of the field into the bull ring, Picasso charts the course of the numerous encounters between the torero and the bull. Executed directly onto copper, he produced all 26 plates in one sitting, using a sugar-lift solution of ink mixed with syrup applied with brush. The scenes are rendered with an extraordinary economy recalling the fluid precision of Chinese brush paintings. Each pass of the bull and torero is reduced to its essence, focusing the eye on the pivotal flourish of a cape or lunge of the torero’s sword. Leaving large areas of the sheet empty, Picasso uses the contrast between the black figures and the white ground to suggest the brilliance of the noonday sun. The cover, the only plate executed in drypoint, features a kite flying over a bull in a landscape, a visual pun referencing the publisher’s imprint Ediciones de la Cometa, cometa meaning kite in Spanish.
The spontaneity of these intaglio prints was facilitated by the use of the sugar-lift method which Picasso had been introduced to by the famous printer Roger Lacourière in his workshop in 1934. Allowing the artist to paint directly onto the copperplate, it particularly suited Picasso’s way of working, leading him to comment to Francoise Gilot ‘with sugar-lift everything is more direct and at the same time more delicate’. Although Picasso used it extensively in the ensuing decades in combination with etching and aquatint, it was in the last decade of his life that he began to use it to its full potential. In La Tauromaquia he achieved a degree of freedom in intaglio printmaking that had never been seen before.