Learning the language of Picasso

Yale exhibit shows the artist's work as a dialogue with his friends, peers

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / February 22, 2009
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NEW HAVEN - It's a stunning little object. Better yet, the story behind it is gorgeous.

It goes like this: One day, Gertrude Stein and her lover, Alice B. Toklas, were paying a visit to Pablo Picasso. The Spaniard was out, so they left a calling card, turning down its corner to signify that they had been there in person.

Finding the card upon his return, Picasso used it in a collage. He then paid a return visit to Stein and Toklas, intending to present the work as a gift. This time, however, they were out. So Picasso left the collage as his own calling card.

"Dice, Packet of Cigarettes, and Visiting-Card" is perhaps the most beautiful work in a show crowded with gems at Yale University Art Gallery. It's called "Picasso and the Allure of Language," and you should travel to see it.

Everyone knows Picasso could be a monster of egotism. But this show, selected from the treasure trove of Picassos in Yale's collection, and enriched by archival material from the university's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, reveals him at his most playful, receptive, and intimately inventive. Capitalizing on a great deal of recent scholarship, curator Susan Greenberg Fisher has focused on Picasso's relationships with poets, writers, and writing in general.

The critic Tim Hilton once referred to the "haughty privacy of Cubism." It's easy to understand what he meant: So often, when trying to figure out Cubist pictures, you walk away feeling snubbed.

But other writers have discussed Cubism - and especially Cubist collage - as a form of conversation, between fellow artists (e.g. Picasso and Braque) or between artists and writers (e.g. Picasso and Apollinaire, or Juan Gris and Pierre Reverdy).

"Dice, Packet of Cigarettes, and Visiting-Card," which comes near the start of the show, feels exactly like that. Picasso has drawn two lines at right angles to suggest a table top. On it are arranged the cover of a packet of Élégantes cigarettes, two painted dice, and the Stein-Toklas carte de visite.

The card makes a bold statement in itself: "MISS STEIN," it says, and immediately below: "MISS TOKLAS." In 1914, as Patricia Leighton points out in a catalog entry, such a frank assertion of lesbian cohabitation was rare indeed. By including the card, Picasso is paying his respects to the couple's courage.

The cover of the cigarette packet, a lovely aging yellow with a decorative logo and shading overlaid by Picasso's pencil, is glued directly onto the paper support. It, too, makes a charged statement, for on the whole, women of class did not smoke. Toklas did. Heavily.

The interplay between Picasso's drawing and the found pieces of paper is entrancing. The carte de visite is the real thing. But the turned-down corner is an illusion created by pencil shading. In other parts of the collage, Picasso has drawn shadows, conjuring the illusion of a light source to the right. A series of little circles above the packet represents cigarettes.

Finally, alongside the cigarette cover, Picasso has glued a label from another part of the packet. In neat print, it reads "CONTRIBUTIONS INDIRECTES."

The words refer to the French sales tax on cigarettes. But they also suggest something about the nature of Picasso's relationship with Stein. For not only was Stein his patron - the earliest and most important collector of his work; she also shared his radical ambitions as a modernist. Picasso is acknowledging both kinds of support, but also, perhaps, politely pointing out its limits: Stein's influence on him was "indirect."

What a concise little marvel of wit, feeling, and mischief this work is! And what an avowal of friendship and mutual esteem!

Drawing on almost seven decades of unchecked creativity, the show divides into four sections, each exploring a different aspect of Picasso's relationship with language. It feels stronger at the start than near the end. But in each section there are things you won't want to miss.

"Dice, Packet of Cigarettes and Visiting Card" appears, fittingly, in the section called "Conversations" along with works by Georges Braque, Picasso's great co-inventor of Cubism, and early collaborations between Picasso and such writers as Apollinaire and Max Jacob.

After Picasso's move from Barcelona to Paris, poets were his closest friends. A sign on his door in the Bateau Lavoir, the ramshackle warren of artists' studios in Montmartre, read "Rendez-vous des poètes." Looking back at that impoverished, happy period, Picasso said: "We saw nobody but each other: Apollinaire, Max Jacob, [André] Salmon. . . . Think of it, what an aristocracy!"

Picasso's French was poor in those days. But according to Apollinaire, "Even when he could hardly speak French, he could instantly judge the beauty of a poem. . . . Picasso laughed, and his laughter was our goal."

Apollinaire was the poet Picasso loved best. It was Apollinaire who urged Picasso to "innovate wildly" and Apollinaire who introduced him to Braque. The year after the painter and poet met, Picasso made the etching here called "Salomé," inspired by Apollinaire's poem of the same name.

The biblical story of Salomé, who danced before Herod in return for the head of John the Baptist, was a favorite in the late 19th century, cropping up in the writings of Gustave Flaubert and Oscar Wilde, the art of Aubrey Beardsley and Gustave Moreau, and various operas and ballets.

Apollinaire, however, was not a 19th-century man. He was 20th century through and through - poet, anarchist, and pornographer - and had no time for outworn artistic conventions.

Thus, his Salomé was radically reinterpreted. The young dancer became for him a symbol of innocent love and uninhibited sexuality caught in the midst of corruption and political intrigue.

Picasso's etching followed suit. The girl he drew, based on a circus equestrienne, is entirely naked. She displays herself without shame. She dances not to earn for her mother the head of John the Baptist - which already lies on a platter held by a kneeling servant - but, in Apollinaire's words, to "make him smile another time" - to bring him back to life.

The "Conversations" section also includes a pen and ink drawing, in proto-Cubist style, of a standing woman made to accompany Jacob's autobiographical and experimental novel, "Saint Matorel." This was Picasso's first book illustration and, like many of the illustrations he would subsequently make, the link between his image and the original text is only tenuous.

But this show is concerned with far more than Picasso's illustrations. It explores his fascination with qualities inherent in language itself. In work after work we see Picasso playing with the link between mark-making and written script, blurring the line between what is legible and what is illegible, cracking apart fixed meanings in order to arrive at things more ambiguous, suggestive, poetic.

In a 1948 lithograph called "Study of Profiles," for instance, he has drawn some two dozen male and female heads in profile, each overlapping with the other, so that the repeated lines representing nose, lips and chin - itself a kind of representational code - start to look like a sinuous script. Elsewhere we see pages of scrawled lines that, like Cy Twombly's exquisite brand of automatic writing, resemble script but denote nothing. And in his contribution to Pierre Reverdy's book "Le Chant des Morts," Picasso was inspired by Reverdy's handwriting to produce bold red linear designs that resemble early Chinese calligraphy.

Grammar was not for him. "I prefer to create myself as I see fit than to bend my words to rules that don't belong to me," he once said.

Picasso continued to befriend writers at every stage of his career. There was Stein, obviously, whose disintegration of focus and rejection of selective attention in writing was inspired, like Picasso's Cubism, by Paul Cézanne. There was André Breton, who was the first to champion, more than a decade after it was painted, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" - Picasso's and the 20th century's masterpiece. And later on there were Jean Cocteau, Paul Eluard, Roland Penrose, Clive Bell, André Malraux and René Char, all important in different ways.

Picasso himself wrote scores of poems and two plays. Examples are on display here. In most people's estimation, they weren't much good. But for that one is almost tempted to feel grateful. What Picasso left behind as an artist remains more than enough, and - like a feast that never ends - too much.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at


At Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, through May 24. 203-432-0600.

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