PABLO PICASSO (1881-1973)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more
PABLO PICASSO (1881-1973)

Las Repas Frugal, from La Suite des Saltimbanques

PABLO PICASSO (1881-1973)
Las Repas Frugal, from La Suite des Saltimbanques
etching with drypoint, on Van Gelder paper, 1904, a fine impression of Baer's second (final) state, from the edition of 250 on this paper (there were also 27 or 29 impressions on Japon paper), published by Ambroise Vollard, Paris, 1913, with full margins, framed
Image: 18 1/4 x 14 3/4 in. (462 x 375 mm.)
Sheet: 25 7/8 x 19 7/8 in. (657 x 503 mm.)
Bloch 1; Baer 2
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Lot Essay

Le repas frugal was only Picasso’s second etching, created when the artist was just 23 years old, yet it is one of the greatest in the history of printmaking and a key work of his early career, perhaps the quintessential and final Blue Period icon.

Picasso’s first print, El Zurdo, was created in 1899 in Barcelona. It is a rather awkward work and the young artist presumably printed just a few impressions, of which only a single example survives. Four years later, probably prompted by his friend and neighbour Ricard Canals, Picasso tackled the medium once more and, apparently without further practice or experimentation, created Le repas frugal. That a work of such haunting beauty was only his second attempt in the medium is testament to the artist’s extraordinary innate talent.

We will never know if his intention was to create a graphic masterpiece, but one cannot doubt the confidence with which he embarked on the project, despite his inexperience. The plate is one of the largest he was ever to work on, and whether because he was too poor or nonchalant to care, he used one which had already been etched by Joan González, the brother of the sculptor Julio González. Neither Picasso, nor Canals who helped him prepare the plate, managed to completely remove González’ original design – a horizontal river landscape - and ghostly traces of reeds and aquatic plants can still be seen in the background.

The earliest impressions of Le repas frugal were printed in small numbers by the master printer Auguste Delâtre (1822-1907) over several months between September 1904 and March 1905. Delâtre probably printed these first impressions according to demand, whenever Picasso requested one. Picasso was clearly proud of his print and had high hopes of making money from it. He sent two impressions to his friend Sebastiá Junyent in Barcelona, one to be given to Picasso’s father, the other to show prospective purchasers. The etching was first exhibited in early 1905 at the Galeries Serrurier in Paris, together with some of his subsequent etchings of street performers. It is not known whether he sold any impressions through Junyent and the proceeds from the exhibition hardly covered Picasso’s costs. Together with Le repas frugal, this group of early etchings later came to be known as La suite des saltimbanques. They weren’t formally published until 1913, when the plates were purchased by the publisher Ambroise Vollard and printed in an edition of 250.

‘Picasso was working at the time on an etching, which has become famous since: it is of a man and a woman sitting at a table in a wine-shop. There is the most intense feeling of poverty and alcoholism and a startling realism in the figures of this wretched, starving couple.’ Fernande Olivier [1]

Olivier (1881-1966), a painter in her own right, was Picasso’s first muse and the subject of over sixty portraits by the artist. She saw Le repas frugal on her first visit to Picasso’s studio at the Bateau Lavoir in August 1904, and was probably unaware that the woman in the print is a portrait of Madeleine, Picasso’s lover at the time. As it turned out, Picasso would divide his attentions between Madeleine and Fernande for quite some time before Fernande became the sole focus of his attentions. The man seated next to Madeleine is a figure from the artist’s life in Barcelona, which he had finally left only four months earlier. He first appears in several sketches and a gouache from 1903 and then in a large painting, Le repas de l’aveugle [2] of the same year. Both figures would continue to haunt Picasso’s imagination and their chiseled features and gaunt physiques appeared in different guises until 1905.

Whereas Madeleine would eventually be superseded in Picasso’s life and work by Fernande, the blind man would, as Roland Penrose observed, remain a central figure in the artist’s personal mythology: ‘The allegory of the blinded man has pursued Picasso throughout his life like a shadow as though reproaching him for his unique gift of vision’ [3]. Thirty years later, in the etching Minotaure aveugle guidé par une fillette dans la nuit (Bloch 225; Baer 437) Picasso would recast this figure of self-reflection as a truly mythical creature, a blind minotaur. Just like the blind man in Le repas frugal, the minotaur is depicted as dependent on a young woman or girl for help and support.

For Picasso, the months preceding 1904 had been overshadowed by the suicide of his close friend Carles Casagemas in February 1901. This is the time now known the world over as his ‘Blue Period’. With his relocation to Paris in April 1904, he slowly began to shake off the gloom this tragedy cast over him and the style and mood of his work gradually changed. In terms of subject matter, Picasso’s interest shifted from the urban poor to the saltimbanques, the strolling acrobat street performers who had haunted the streets of Paris since the Middle Ages. There is an earthy weight and sense of deep sorrow about the earlier paintings, whilst the latter – the so-called ‘Pink’ or ‘Rose Period’ - is imbued with an ethereal elegance. Melancholy rather than intense grief became the prevailing sentiment. What makes Le repas frugal so pivotal is that elements of both emotional states are present: the wretchedness of the overall scene is alleviated by the couple’s tender embrace and the woman’s knowing smile. The stylistic shift towards more refined, elegant figures is particularly pronounced; the bodies are emaciated and their limbs elongated to the extreme – an effect that is perhaps intensified by the linear quality of the etching technique. In John Richardson’s famous phrase, this seminal work ‘links Picasso’s Spanish past with his French future’. [5]

[1] Fernande Olivier, Picasso and his friends, London, 1964, pp. 27-28
[2] Zervos, vol. 1, no. 168; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
[3] John Richardson, Picasso: His Life and Work, London, 1981, p. 89
[4] Zervos, vol. 2a, no. 164; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
[5] J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, vol. I, London, 1991, p. 300

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