Le repas frugal is Picasso's second etching, created when the artist was only 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 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.' (F. Olivier, Picasso and his friends, London, 1964, p. 27-8.)
Thus Fernande Olivier describes Le repas frugal, which she saw on her first visit to Picasso's studio at the Bateau Lavoir in August 1904. What she probably did not know was 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 ultimately became the artist's first great love and muse. In the Summer of 1904, however, Madeleine still played an important role in Piccasso's life in Paris. The man seated next to her is a figure from the artist's past 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 the large painting Le repas de l'aveugle of the same year. Both the blind man from Barcelona and Madeleine from Paris would continue to haunt Picasso's imagination and their chiselled features and gaunt bodies re-appear in different guises until 1905. Le repas frugal thus bridges the Blue and Rose Periods and 'links Picasso's Spanish past with his French future.' (John Richardson, A Life of Picasso, vol. I, p. 300, London, 1991).
Whereas Madeleine would eventually be superseded in Picasso's life and work by Fernande, the blind man (and his alter ego the minotaur) would, as Roland Penrose observed, remain a central figure in the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.' (R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, London, 1981, p. 89.)
Between his Blue and Rose Periods Picasso's interest shifted from the urban poor to the saltimbanques, the strolling acrobat players of Paris. The style and mood of his work also gradually changed. This is best illustrated by comparing Le repas de l'aveugle with the gouache Acrobate et jeune arlequin of 1905: there is an earthy weight and sense of deep sorrow about the former, whilst the latter is imbued with an ethereal elegance not found in the earlier pictures. Melancholy rather than intense grief became the prevailing sentiment. This transition towards a less sombre atmosphere is also manifest in Le repas frugal: the misery of the 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 in the print: 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. Not without reason has it been described as a mannerist print.
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 experiments or preparation, created the large-scale etching of Le repas frugal. That a work of such technical mastery and haunting beauty was only his second attempt in the medium is hard to believe. Le repas frugal in that sense marks another departure: the beginning of Picasso's life-long exploration of printmaking.
The earliest impressions of Le repas frugal were printed in small numbers by the master printer Eugène Delâtre over several months between September 1904 and March 1905. Delâtre probably printed these first impressions according to demand, whenever Picasso requested one. It is not clear how many early impressions were taken - Geiser and Baer suggest about thirty - but whatever the figure, relatively few appear to have survived, and fewer still remain in private hands.
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 passed on to Picasso's father, the other to show to prospective purchasers. (The latter impression was sold at Christie's in London on 1 July 1976). It was exhibited for the first time in early 1905 at the Galeries Serrurier in Paris, together with some of his subsequent etchings. 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 were never properly published until 1913, when the plates were purchased by the publisher Ambroise Vollard and printed in an edition of 250. Vollard had the plates 'steel-faced', i.e. they were electroplated with a thin layer of steel, in order that they could withstand being printed in larger numbers. In the process, the etched lines lose depth and definition and print much less strongly. It is therefore only in the early impressions before steel-facing that the beauty and atmosphere of the prints can be fully appreciated. They print much more richly, with intense contrasts and a strong sense of three-dimensionality.
The present superb, rich impression of Le repas frugal is undoubtedly one of the earliest - in fact one of only two known impressions dated 1904. It is dedicated to Picasso's close friend and fellow-artist, the Catalan sculptor Enric Casanovas (fig.5), who lived and worked in Paris and Barcelona during those years. It was he who told Picasso about the mountain village of Gósol in the Pyrenees, where he would spend the Spring of 1906 with Fernande Olivier.