WILLIAMSTOWN — Competitive, restless, voraciously inventive — Pablo Picasso is seen as a generative genius alone in his studio, spawning masterpieces. That trope was Modernism’s gauzy dream, and Picasso played into it. Why not? He was a singular architect of 20th-century art.
And he had an ego. “If I’d been a shoemaker,” Picasso once told printmaker Jacques Frélaut, “I’d have wanted to be the one who made the largest number of shoes.”
Picasso relied on his own wit and guile when painting or sculpting. But he was also an audacious graphic artist, and printmaking requires working well with others.
“Picasso: Encounters,” an exhibition of mostly prints at the Clark Art Institute, nods to the artisans who ran the printmaking shops. They knew the techniques; they ran the presses. The show, which runs through Aug. 27, frames Picasso’s work within his relationships — to printmakers, to muses, and, more in the realm of imaginative dialogue, to heroes such as Rembrandt and Manet.
Master printmakers, lovers, and influences — each group really merits its own exhibition. Here these connections merely provide a thematic armature upon which to hang a show that’s really about Picasso’s extraordinary versatility as a printmaker. It features 35 large-scale prints made throughout his career, from bustling linear narratives to harrowing portraits and radiant still lifes. Aquatints, etchings, lithographs, and more — Picasso hungrily conquered them, and then pushed their limits.
Three paintings provide a foundation. “Picasso: Encounters” opens with an early, Blue Period canvas, a self-portrait of the soulful, young artist. Blue haunts everything, save for his pink lips and the red in his beard. He meets our eyes, stern. Not, apparently, out to please.
Nor is the show’s first print, only the second one Picasso ever made, “The Frugal Repast,” depicting a gaunt, exhausted couple seated at a table. The man has his arm around the woman, but he looks away, dark-eyed. They hold on to each other for security, perhaps, more than love.
Picasso had no training as a printmaker, yet his lines are confident (those attenuated fingers!). The deep shading is a matter of debate — at least for the artist.
Printmaker Eugène Delâtre locked Picasso out of his workshop and made the impressions according to his own whims. Some artists were grateful to have a specialist take over — Matisse, for instance. But it irked the hands-on Picasso, who altered a later version of the print to give it less inky depth, and less romantic gloom.
“The Frugal Repast” is one of only two works by Picasso in the Clark’s collection — Jay A. Clarke , curator of prints, drawings, and photographs, has orchestrated remarkable loans to put this show together — and it tees up the delicate relationship between artist and printmaker. The artisan may have, in skills and tools, the keys to the kingdom. The artist, however, is king.
In the 1930s, Picasso experimented hungrily at Roger Lacourière’s atelier. The mythological prints he made there, full of muscular emotion, enigmatic detail, and bravura technique, show him at his best.
The bustling, haunted “Minotauromachia” anticipates “Guernica,” Picasso’s roiling antiwar mural, painted two years later. The Spanish Civil War was brewing. The minotaur, with a massive bull’s head on the frame of an Adonis, encounters a girl. Between them, a horse carries the corpse of a female bullfighter. The girl holds flowers and a light; she is purity and hope. But a Jesus-like figure appears to be escaping up a ladder to the left. Is salvation fleeing?
The bullfighter has the face of the artist’s lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Picasso regularly depicted his wives and lovers. Clarke has slyly set a portrait of Olga Khokhlova, his first wife, beside “Visage (Face of Marie-Thérèse),” the girl he left her for. Marie-Thérèse appears in a cropped close-up, placid and impossibly perfect. In another context, Olga, less ideal and more human, might look thoughtful, eyes drifting, but here, gazing at her rival, the line of her mouth seems resigned.
Clarke quotes the artist in wall text: “There are only two types of women — goddesses and doormats.” That’s machismo talking. His images suggest he saw more.
The wrenching “Weeping Woman” series, derived from a figure in “Guernica” and modeled after another paramour, surrealist photographer Dora Maar, has heart enough to be contorted by grief (and by Cubism). Tears like knitting needles fall from her eyes; her pupils are scribbled stars.
Picasso moved nimbly among methods. He urged his collaborators to develop techniques to make the regimented printmaking process more immediate.
He abhorred, for instance, the laborious task of digging into several linoleum plates, one for every color in a linocut print. In the 1960s, printmaker Hidalgo Arnéra introduced him to the reduction linocut, which enabled the artist to cut into the same plate for each pass through the press. It demanded the feat of visualizing the end product before he began.
Several remarkable states of “Luncheon on the Grass, After Manet” chart the process. Here’s a run with yellow and purple layers; here’s one with orange added. In the end, it’s a punky, Cubist take on Manet, one that renews, in garish tones and jazzy, jagged forms, the bristle the beloved masterpiece prompted when first exhibited.
Picasso belongs, along with Dürer, Rembrandt, and Goya, in the pantheon of towering graphic artists in Western art. After Delâtre, he partnered with artisans eager to push their craft on his behalf. He no doubt made them better printmakers. He must have been a thrilling collaborator — as long as you were working in service of his vision.
At Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, through Aug. 27. 413-458-2303, www.clarkart.eduCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.