Organizing an exhibition tends to be an arduous process, but at the same time a very rewarding one for the people involved. For curators and coordinators, the lengthy task of selecting the works that support the thesis, tracking these down and arranging the necessary loans usually brings both joys and disappointments. Each success is greeted with enthusiasm, even euphoria, but every refusal comes as a let-down, damping the whole team’s spirits.
In putting together the show Secret Images. Picasso and Japanese Erotic Prints, the disappointments have been few and the joys many. On the strength of our perception of certain compositional similarities between Picasso’s late erotic works and Japanese prints, and with the idea of ‘rethinking Picasso’ – a key line of action for the Museum at present – we set out to shed light on how Picasso responded to a style of image-making that exercised a significant influence on many Western artists in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The challenge was considerable, because in all the vast literature on Picasso there are only a very few references to this question. In fact, the artist himself repeatedly claimed that he had no interest in Japanese art. Paradoxically, he had in his personal collection 61 Japanese prints of the highest quality, a number of which he hung on the walls of his house at Mougins.
For Picasso, art and eroticism were intimately connected1, and all his work is imbued with a strong erotic charge. However, during two periods of his life – his teenage years in Barcelona and Paris, and at the end of his life – eroticism is manifested most powerfully. In view of this, we focused our researches on these two stages, and in both we have found stylistic, compositional, thematic and technical similarities with Japanese erotic prints.
Tracing the works has been a cumulative process of detective work, because small-format drawings and prints are not often reproduced in catalogues or on websites with details of their whereabouts. In some cases, we had to follow a piece through various changes of address to reach our goal.
The exhibition criteria have been determined by the nature of the works themselves: their fragility and small size. One of the problems that most concerned us was how to avoid the dispersal of visual concentration resulting from hanging small pieces in rooms over four metres high. After a number of very productive sessions with the designer of the exhibition, Anna Alcubierre, and the Director of the Museum, Pepe Serra, we opted to reduce the length of the sightlines by dividing up the rooms and focusing the lighting on the exhibits. The itinerary through clearly delimited but interconnected spaces allows the secret images hanging on the walls to reveal themselves in a subtle and sensual way.
Without looking in much detail here at the phenomenon of Japonism in Barcelona – a subject we believe deserves an exhibition in its own right – we felt it was only right to include one or two examples, in view of the importance of this form of expression at the time the Ruíz Picasso family was living in the city and the young artist’s response to it.
A comparison of Picasso’s drawings and cartoons of an erotic nature from the early years of the twentieth century – which are at once irreverent autobiographical chronicle of his amorous escapades and a reflection of his sexual fantasies – it becomes clear how closely his iconography resembles that of the most daring Japanese prints. As an outstanding example of this we might single out Picasso’s versions of the famous woodcut by Hokusai, Woman Diver and Octopus, and compare these with the variants made by other artists such as Rodin, Rops, Knopff or Correa.
The work of the second period considered here, from the artist’s later years, is striking for its tremendous erotic charge, the freest and most explicit of his entire output, and for Picasso’s dialogue with the Japanese prints from his own collection, which we are presenting here for the first time in public. It is not easy to generate new insights into Picasso, which makes this exhibition especially gratifying, offering as it does a new perspective and a new reading of the works of Picasso by way of the surprising and enriching dialogue with the masters of the Japanese erotic print.
Malén Gual and Ricard Bru
1 ‘Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.’ Pablo Picasso to Antonina Valentin: Picasso, Paris, Albin Michel, 1957, p. 273.