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Ryan Gander

Pablo Picasso: The Portrayal of the Self

When I hear the name “Picasso,” an array of cognitive images uncontrollably fills my head. This response is as instant as it is automatic. Curiously, however, not a single one of these images that springs to mind is of an artwork by Picasso. Instead, they are all historically significant photographs of the man himself. The images of Picasso precede those of his artworks. It could be speculated that the image of Picasso, the artist, as a persona, is a cliché. It’s arguable that this phenomenon is the result of a deliberate strategy, orchestrated by Picasso.

The images that we know so well of Picasso’s life inform and determine the popularly imagined image of Picasso: the maestro in stripy Breton jumper, the maestro fooling around with visual illusions in social situations, the maestro with hands seemingly made of miniature baguettes, or speedily executing fluid drawings of light in long exposure. The seated maestro smoking in an elegant studio in a French château, knowingly and ironically reading a monograph of his own work. The artist walking along sun-kissed beaches or relaxing with sophisticated young woman: Jacqueline, Olga, Eva, Dora, Françoise, Fernande. Picasso poses as a cowboy. Picasso poses playing a trumpet. Picasso poses as Popeye. Picasso poses in the bath. These are the very signs and signifiers that make Picasso iconic. Over time, the artist has become a signifier of himself in our memories.

As someone who is intuitively interested in the image and the self- styled persona of the artist, I see Picasso’s portrait-making, in particular his self-portrait-making, as the key to understanding the significance of his life’s work. In the production of portraits, an artist is necessarily chronicling his or her life: the people they met, the relationships they had and the situations they found themselves in—the oeuvre of an artist’s portraits creates a biopic as rich and complex as life itself. Through Picasso’s linocut prints, we’re constantly reminded of his love of Basque culture, of his glamorous bohemian lifestyle, as well as his obsession with an array of muses. The intriguing and desirable story of Picasso’s life is, in fact, entirely present in his work. Picasso’s life story is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a serpent gorging itself on its own tail—an image that I presume Picasso would have enjoyed very much. The artist’s instantly recognizable signature, which today adorns the trunks of millions of Citroën’s family cars, has, for the majority of people, far outlived any pictorial iconography that we can pull from the artist’s work.

In studying Picasso’s linocut prints, I’m reminded of the deterioration of self-identity. As an investigator, an “unraveller” of sorts, a stone- turner and a practitioner (in a very real sense of the word practice), Picasso used linoleum printing to find things out.

Mistake making, the need to defy expectations and to discover are all clearly discernible in these works. Many of the images have been reworked again and again, and in this reworking, we see the deterioration of the original composition, along with the physical deterioration of the linoleum plate during the printing process. Prints towards the end of each run deteriorate in quality: their lines decreasingly distinct, their blacks lessening in density and their details losing refinement. Contained within the Picasso linocuts, there is a definite sense that the final images are only starting points; starting points that are to be further explored with drawing. This reading of Picasso’s work posits the linocut prints as the domain in which to witness the artist’s cognitive trajectory, to witness his chronological decision making and, in a very real sense, witness to his journey as opposed to an inert destination–to witness the artist’s practice.

The fable of Picasso is a short one: it’s easy to remember and it’s easy to recite. Its narrative is exciting and its subjects are charming, glamorous and erotic. It is a story that is not only intriguing, but also easily digestible—and just as easy to retain. In many respects, Picasso’s is the perfect modern tale. Aside from my love of the artist’s work, I also love the fable of Picasso. It is a fable we know and cherish, one with a narrative and characters that are so well executed that it might as well have been written as a work of fiction.