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A revealing look at Picasso's last years

NEW YORK -- From simple pen-and-ink drawings of nude women to a colorful and elaborate felt pen-and-ink rendering of two men ogling a nude woman, a sketchbook filled in a week reveals a mature Pablo Picasso at work.

The 26 works from a 1970 album of drawings and watercolors are on display for the first time. They offer an intimate look into the art and thoughts of Picasso less than three years before his death at age 91.

"Picasso: The Berggruen Album" opened Monday at the Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery in New York (in cooperation with the John Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco). It runs through June 26. The full book from the collection of art dealer Heinz Berggruen was carefully unbound for framing, and will be reassembled for sale at $3.5 million. Such sketchbooks are very rare, as most belong to the Picasso family, said David Nash, the gallery owner.

Picasso had sketchbooks throughout his life. But these drawings are "of a very personal nature," said Olivier Berggruen, a scholar and son of Heinz Berggruen. "It also gives a very good idea of his day-to-day thinking."

"Reclining Nude," a pen-and-ink drawing on paper, is the simplest of the works, with delicate yet clearly defined lines. It is reminiscent of Picasso's 1906 gouache and watercolor of that name.

On the day he did "Reclining Nude," Nov. 5, 1970, Picasso used a light touch with pen and ink for the outline of "Two Men and a Woman." On Nov. 12, he revisited the work with a felt pen to create the busiest page, and the only multicolored one, in the album.

An elaborately adorned nude with arms crossed at her chest, concealing one breast, is in the middle of two men. The more prominent image of the old man on the left makes eye contact with the woman, while the man on the right is relegated to the background and appears distant.

Nude women are a common thread in the drawings, most of them highly sexual and offering themselves to men -- which is typical of Picasso's late work, Olivier Berggruen said.

"The themes are a rehearsal of his early themes," he said. "This is, I think, an indication that his work is narrowing down. Not only is his work no longer part of the outside world, but he is obsessing on his old self."

Picasso created the 26-page album over seven days while at home in Mougins, France. He produced about four works a day, varying his medium from pen and ink to pencil, ink wash, and watercolor. A Picasso biographer, John Richardson, has suggested that the album makes references to the work of Ingres and Goya, and that some of the female figures depict the artist's wife, Jacqueline. "I think the interesting thing is the sequence," Nash said. "Picasso very carefully annotated and dated each work."

While mediums vary, strong lines are prominent throughout the album.

"It tells us that he had an extraordinary confidence in the lines, a sureness of how he handles the lines better than in his handwriting," Nash said, adding that the album could be seen as an "essay of bravado."

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