Picasso’s prints: An expert guide
Murray Macaulay, Head of Prints & Multiples at Christie’s in London, explores the artist’s seven decades of printmaking and explains why his etchings, lithographs and linocuts are as sought-after as ever
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) is most famous for his paintings, of course. The past decade, though, has seen a clear growth in the market for his ceramics and especially his prints. In March 2022, Le Repas Frugal set a world record for the price of a Picasso print when it fetched £6,014,500 at Christie’s in London, also making it the most expensive print ever sold at auction.
Picasso made prints throughout his career — his first in 1899, when he was still a teenager; his last in 1972, when he was 90. Experimenting all the while, he produced some 2,400 prints in total, in a wide variety of techniques, most notably etching, lithograph and linocut.
Printmaking, unlike painting, is a collaborative process, and over the decades Picasso worked with, and took instruction from, the masters of a host of different printing ateliers. These included the lithographer Fernand Mourlot, who spoke of the artist’s restless curiosity and how ‘he looked, he listened, did the opposite of what he’d learnt — and remarkably it worked!’
Picasso’s approach to making images was multi-disciplinary. Judging from the time and energy he spent making prints, it was just as important a creative process for him as painting. He would often work out ideas simultaneously in paint and print. A case in point is La femme qui pleure, I, above, where the etching pre-dates the famous painting of the same subject, Femme en pleurs.
‘I think there’s a wider appreciation of Picasso’s genius as a printmaker,’ says Murray Macaulay, Head of Prints & Multiples at Christie’s in London. ‘The chronology of his career is usually told through his relationships with different women or through the innovations of his painting style — Blue period, Rose period, and so on — but you could also chart these developments through the lens of his prints. The results were often just as extraordinary.’
Early experiments: The Saltimbanque Suite, Ambrose Vollard
Picasso began making prints in earnest in 1904-05, with a set of 14 etchings loosely on the theme of circus figures. This is known as his ‘Saltimbanque Suite’ and seems to have been made, principally, to make the impoverished artist some money.
The works went largely unnoticed, though, until the art dealer Ambroise Vollard set eyes on them six years later. Having bought the plates from Picasso, he published them in editions of 250 each.
That was an unusually large number and revealed the faith Vollard had in his protégé. It was such a large number, in fact, that the dealer had the plates steel-faced (coated with a thin layer of steel) to prevent them from wearing out.
The Saltimbanque Suite includes one of Picasso’s most famous prints, Le repas frugal, depicting a starving man and woman at a near-empty dinner table. He puts his arm around her, yet they look in opposite directions.
The initial proofs from Saltimbanque, printed prior to Vollard’s acquisition of the plates and before steel-facing, are some of the most sought-after of Picasso’s print oeuvre, and fetch significantly higher prices than the standard edition. Although steel-facing made the plates more robust to print from, there was a tangible diminishing of quality due to the process, with the loss of subtle etched details and textures. The earliest examples retain what Macaulay calls ‘all the original atmosphere’. In 2022, one such print of Le Repas frugal from the collection of Heinz Berggruen, sold for £6,014,500 at Christie’s in London – making a new record price for any print.
According to the specialist, Picasso’s typical approach to prints saw him ‘working intensively in a given technique for a period, developing a close relationship with a particular printer, innovating new ways of working, and then moving on’.
1930s: Roger Lacourière and the Vollard Suite
Among Picasso’s early experiments was the use of unusually large etching needles, as well as the introduction of suet and nail varnish to try to achieve novel results.
One of his most successful advances came after starting work with Roger Lacourière in 1934. The artist adopted a process known as the ‘sugar-lift aquatint’, which involved the use of a sugary solution that created tonal, painterly effects — such as those visible in Faune devoilant une femme (Faun Unveiling a Sleeping Woman).
That work was one of 100 etchings in the ‘Vollard Suite’, perhaps Picasso’s best-known prints series. The series was named after Ambroise Vollard, for whom it was produced, between 1930 and 1937 — in exchange for a pair of paintings the dealer owned by Renoir and Cézanne.
The suite features a number of Picasso alter egos — bearded sculptor, horned satyr, brutish minotaur — in a variety of interactions with a voluptuous girl. Inspiration came from the artist’s new relationship with his young lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter.
With its fine, linear style, the Vollard Suite complements Picasso’s paintings from the time — his so-called Neoclassical period. It was published in an edition of 310. Complete sets today are rare, but many individual images are recognisable in their own right, such as Minotaure aveugle guidé par une Fillette dans la Nuit.
Post-1945: Fernand Mourlot, lithography and The Bull
After the Second World War, with Paris newly liberated, Picasso found himself bombarded by visitors. He sought refuge in the studio of lithographer Fernand Mourlot, located in an unfashionable part of the city near Gare de l’Est. There began another prodigious artist-printmaker partnership. The result was some 400 lithographs, the high points including portraits of Picasso’s latest lover, Françoise Gilot.
Among his innovations was using his fingers to make marks instead of a brush or lithographic crayon. Picasso also liked the way lithography — more than other printmaking processes, and certainly more than painting — allowed him to easily erase, rework and amend an image as he went along. ‘The movement of my thought interests me more than the thought itself,’ he said.
The prime example came with ‘Le Taureau’, an 11-lithograph series made between December 1945 and January 1946. For this, Picasso made a succession of images of a bull, each one building on the one before, with Mourlot taking impressions along the way.
We witness the animal first grow into a massive beast, then end up as just a few schematic lines. The bull’s evolution over 11 prints allows us the rare privilege of tracking Picasso’s creative process.
1950s: Hidalgo Arnéra and linocut
In the 1950s, Picasso moved to the Côte d’Azur. Etching and lithography were harder to practice there, as both involved specialist equipment which wasn’t readily available.
Before long, however, the artist met a local printer called Hidalgo Arnéra, who specialised in posters — and who introduced him to the linocut process.
This usually entailed cutting separate pieces of linoleum for each colour one wanted to use. Picasso, however, found a way around this by inventing what became known as the ‘reduction method’, involving the use of just a single piece of linoleum.
Picasso and Arnéra collaborated for the best part of a decade, always with the same routine: the artist creating late into the night; having his chauffeur drive his work to Arnéra’s workshop first thing the next morning; Arnéra printing the linocut; and then returning it to Picasso at 1.30pm for assessment.
The printmaker said the Spaniard ‘had a sort of aggressive delight in encountering an obstacle and surmounting it. Difficulty gave him a jumping-off point from which to conquer fresh fields’. The linoleum works are characterised by their wonderfully rich colours and bold patterning.
1960s: Aldo and Piero Crommelynck and the 347 Suite
In 1963, the printmaking brothers Aldo and Piero Crommelynck so wanted to work with Picasso that they upped sticks from Paris and set up an etching studio in the village of Mougins, where he was living at the time.
With the Crommelyncks’ help, Picasso came to produce hundreds of etchings that count not just as a final hurrah, but as among the finest of his career.
They include the 1968 series known as the ‘347 Suite’: named after the number of etchings in it and produced by Picasso, aged 86, in a remarkable burst of intense working. ‘I have less and less time,’ he told Françoise Gilot, ‘and yet I have more and more to say.’
The images reveal, with some frankness, the erotic fantasies of an old man lacking the vigour of years past. The 347 Suite caused a scandal when exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago: it was deemed pornographic and the exhibition was closed down.
Showing zero diminution of his powers, Picasso worked on his final series, the ‘156 Suite’, after turning 90 — completing it in June 1972, less than a year before his death.
A life in printmaking
Picasso’s career as a printmaker lasted more than seven decades and is marked by innovation that Macaulay goes so far as to call ‘iconoclasm’.
Like his paintings, his prints can to a large extent be interpreted autobiographically. His lovers and wives feature regularly, as sometimes do the politics of the day, such as in the pair of prints lampooning General Franco, Sueño y Mentira de Franco I & II.
It tends to be etchings that sell for the highest prices — above all, La femme qui pleure, I; Le Repas Frugal; and the brilliant Minotauromachie, which was never published formally but reserved by Picasso for 55 close friends and patrons.
Macaulay, however, cautions against investing in the artist’s prints on those terms. ‘My advice for any potential buyer is, first and foremost, to find an image you like,’ he says. ‘There are recognised masterpieces by Picasso from all periods, in all techniques, so you can’t really go wrong by following your taste’.
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‘Exceptional artworks can be bought for well under £100,000 — such as, say, the etching and aquatint Vénus et l’Amour d'après Cranach or the lithograph Jacqueline de profil à droite,’ says Macaulay, ‘and there aren’t many markets you can say that about.’