A Collage before Collage

I first took a proper look at the Picasso drawing Man Leaning against a Wall, the starting point of the exhibition A Collage before Collage”, when I was preparing my essay on Miró and collage. In this early work the lines drawn by the artist’s hand are complemented by a mechanical reproduction of a photographic image, which set me to thinking that it could be seen as a forerunner of the subject was dealing with in the book. However, the date of the drawing — March 1899 —was so far in advance of the discovery of collage in the spring of 1912 that I decided to put off studying it until I had finished my work on Miró and had the time to tackle it properly.

Man Leaning against a Wall

Man Leaning against a Wall

When I got round to thinking about it again, I soon found that there was no oral or written source to establish the origin of the piece, and I directed all of my efforts to analysing the drawing and the image pasted onto it.

Picasso’s output at the end of the nineteenth century is well known, so it was relatively easy to place the drawing. The standing figure of a working man lounging against a wall is one of the series of life studies that the young artist did at the Cercle Artístic de Barcelona during February and March 1899. The modern and anti-academic treatment of the form sties in with the style of the street sketches that Picasso had been doing for a year or so, and the influence of the lively, fluid language of illustrators such as Steinlen also seemed clear enough.

If the drawing did not pose any major difficulties, the pasted-on card was another story. The uniqueness of Man Leaning against a Wall stems from the dissonance of this added element. From the outset, my working hypothesis was that identifying it and, above all, bringing to light the context from which it had been taken would provide new information that would lead us to a more accurate understanding of the work.

Guided tour through the exhibition “A Collage before Collage” by Fèlix Fanés

Although not much has been written about Man Leaning against a Wall, the few authors who have been prepared to refer to it have always identified the pasted-on element as a cutting from a newspaper. At that time, however, the daily papers did not print photographs, but the illustrated magazines did. I had to find a picture of a woman who looked as if she were an actress or entertainer, young, attractive and — judging from her pose in taking off the jacket — rather daring. I then began a thorough search of Catalan, Spanish and French weeklies from around 1900 that were likely to include picture of this kinds. Before my eyes passed an endless parade of pretty and slightly coquettish girls. I spent many hours in the periodicals archives in Barcelona (Ca l’Ardiaca), Madrid (Conde Duque and Biblioteca Nacional) and Paris (Bibliothèque Nationale), but none of the pictures I saw matched the one chosen by Picasso.

Showcase of the exhibition “A Collage before Collage”

Having tried the weekly magazines, I continued my search in other areas. Picture postcards, for example, were very popular around 1900, and often featured actresses and cabaret artistes, and these became the object of my second round of investigations. But again I failed to find any that matched the face pasted onto Man Leaning against a Wall. After the postcards, I embarked on a new line of research. The time had come to look at theatre programmes. From the late nineteenth century on, many of these included photographs of actresses. I now centred my researches on the archives of the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona, and it was there, after looking through literally dozens of files, that I stumbled on a box labelled ‘Foreign Actresses’. Inside this box was an album, which I later learned was of picture cards from matchboxes, and on the third or fourth page of this album I found an image identical to the one used by Picasso.

Fèlix Fanés, curator of the exhibition

Having made this discovery, the whole process became easier. The picture cards led me to picture albums, and in these picture albums I detected a widespread social trend. In order to fill their leisure hours in the drawing rooms of the fin-de-siècle, people cut and pasted. The scissors and the glue were in constant use on advertisements, trade cards, postcards, photographs, cartoons and popular prints, forming a dense network of images. This finding opened up new perspectives, and in the magazines, postcards and theatre programmes I sensed a thriving popular visuality that had gone almost unstudied. This period context, together with the vogue for cutting and pasting, explained Picasso’s gesture. Rather than inventing a new artistic process, what the young artist had done with a dab of paste was to appropriate part of the visual culture around him. My long investigation, often along lines that led me nowhere, had not been in vain. In fact, it could be said that the setbacks had not closed doors but opened them for me. The abundance of free and inexpensive images and the mania for cutting and pasting supplied the key to understanding what Man Leaning against a Wall really was. A collage, yes, but a collage before collage.

Fèlix Fanés
Curator of the exhibition “A Collage before Collage”

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