Picasso cuts the bull
A set of proofs recently acquired by Mia reveals Picasso’s printmaking process
By Tom Rassieur, John E. Andrus III Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Minneapolis Institute of Art
Throughout his long career, encompassing most of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso tried his hand in almost all art media. Of these artistic pursuits, printmaking absorbed much of his attention: he produced 2,430 images. But apart from his prolific output, his standing as one of the greatest printmakers of all time — in a league with Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, and Francisco Goya — is due to his restless investigation of new ways to produce his muscular images.
Mia recently acquired a set of proofs for a bullfighting image, Le Banderillero, that reveal the process behind one of his most influential endeavors, the making of reduction relief prints. Relief prints are made by inking raised parts of a surface, then impressing it on a sheet of paper — rubber stamps used in offices are a familiar example (you can watch a video of the process here). Linocuts are made by carving away part of the surface of a sheet of linoleum, then inking and printing the remaining surface. Picasso liked the bold, simplified forms that linocut readily produced, so he began to use it to make postersduring his summer stays in Vallauris, in the south of France.
Eventually, Picasso wanted to use linocut to produce more complex, multi-color images. One of his most ambitious attempts was an attempt to make an updated version of a portrait of a woman painted by Lucas Cranach the Younger in the 1500s. Picasso used about eight different blocks to produce all the colors. Unfortunately, he and the professional printer with whom he collaborated had difficulty aligning them when printing. He sought a more reliable method using just one block for all the colors.
In working on the linocuts, Picasso collaborated with Hidalgo Arnéra of Vallauris. Arnéra may well have introduced Picasso to the concept of layering and reduction. Which of them thought of applying it to block cutting, we don’t know. It seems that they hit upon the reduction linocut together. Nonetheless, the bravura use of the technique must be fully credited to Picasso.
The reduction linocut often, as here, entails printing a background color from the smooth, uncut block. The first sheet in our series shows just that, a caramel-colored rectangle.
Marks around the edge suggest that the linoleum was nailed to a backing board. The printer would probably run off about 70 to 100 such impressions, because the objective was to produce 50 for the edition, plus some extras for participants in the project. Variations in surviving impressions suggest that there was some experimentation with inks and papers. Mia’s impression is on a thin, buff-colored sheet. A sturdy, white paper was selected for publication.
Next, Picasso incised the main outlines of the image and added a few broader gouge marks to test his ideas for the abstract lines of force and the embroidered decoration of the banderillero’s trousers. This was printed in chocolate-colored ink onto one of the caramel rectangles, again using the thin proofing paper.
Picasso then cut away more of the block, adding many more lines of force, more spectators, and more decoration to the clothing of the banderillero and the matador. He also began to use some sort of scraper to roughen the surface of the linoleum, thus softening some of the lines. The bull remains very much a silhouette. Now the printer made a proof of this third stage.
Again Picasso returned to the block, gouging out more lines of force and scraping much of the surface, including the body of the bull. Mia’s proof of this state is printed on the sturdy, white paper used for the published edition. And there is another change: it appears that Picasso did not like the disruption of the nail marks in the borders of the caramel-colored layer and that a new set of background rectangles was printed from a second block — a bit of an end-run around the limitations of reduction block printing.
At this point, 70 to 100 impressions of the thrice-cut original block would have been printed in chocolate-colored ink over the caramel rectangle from the second block, all on the sturdy, white paper.
Now Picasso returned to the block for one final round of cutting. He removed much of the surface in the areas surrounding the figures of the matador, banderillero, and bull. Arnéra now inked the original block in black and printed over the previously double-printed impressions to produce the finished prints reserving a few of the unfinished versions as proofs. The result was an edition of three-color prints in caramel, chocolate, and black, strongly reminiscent of ancient painted pottery, one of Picasso’s great inspirations.
A banderillero is a bullfighter whose role is to thrust darts (banderillas) into the bull’s shoulders to anger and weaken the animal before the matador finishes it off. Picasso shows an arena filled with spectators where the lithe banderillero is doing his job. Behind him, to our left, the matador waves his cape. The bull lunges forward, head lowered with his horns nearly striking the banderillero, just as the darts strike their target. Abstract lines suggest the many vectors of force and motion in the brutal, balletic scene.
Bull fighting was a great interest of Picasso’s, and a major theme in his art. In 1958, He and Jacqueline Roque (who would become his second wife in 1961) moved to the Château de Vauvenargues in the South of France. There they were close to the village of Vallauris, which had recently begun to permit bullfighting. Vallauris is also where Picasso met the printer Arnéra. We don’t know the exact procedures for their collaboration. Picasso is said to have worked in the block for Le Banderillero in Vauvenargues and/or Cannes. We know that Arnéra printed the proofs on his big, commercial press in Vallauris. It would seem that all of the printing was done there. The edition of 50 was sold through Galerie Louise Leiris in 1960. Leiris was the sister-in-law of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, founder of the gallery and Picasso’s longtime dealer.
Mia’s five proofs come from Arnéra’s archive. Sets such as this are called “progressive proofs.” Over the past 30 years, sets of progressive proofs of Picasso’s linocuts have been making their way into major museum collections. Each set is unique or close to it. We believe that no other museum has such a complete set for Le Banderillero.
Mia invites you to come see the five proofs of Le Banderillero in the Herschel V. Jones Print Study Room, on the ground floor of the Target Wing. Please call (612–870–3105) so that we can prepare for your visit. While you are there, we also welcome you to see other works by Picasso and to explore our marvelous collection of prints and drawings ranging from the 1400s to the present.