British Museum acquires unique sets of Picasso linocuts

The British Museum has acquired, with the support of the Art Fund and private donations, two important and unique sets of progressive proofs, along with the finished works, that document the evolution of two linocuts by Pablo Picasso. The two prints, Still Life under the Lamp and Jacqueline Reading, from 1962, made when the artist was eighty years old, are counted among Picasso’s most important works in linocut, a technique that he explored in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The progressive proofs show the step by step sequence by which Picasso created his linocut images showing the development of the image into its final form.

The acquisition builds upon the success of the Museum’s recent exhibition of Picasso’s Vollard Suite (1930–1937), the complete set of 100 etchings, that the British Museum purchased in 2011 with funds generously given through the Hamish Parker Charitable Trust in memory of the donor’s father, Major Horace Parker. No other collection in the world has either sequence of linocuts in its entirety and this acquisition, building on the Vollard Suite, establishes the British Museum as the most important collection of Picasso prints in the UK. The 13 new linocuts reveal another facet of Picasso’s astonishing creativity and deepen the Museum’s coverage of his work as a printmaker. These two sets will go on public display together in January 2014.

Picasso (1881–1973) is the most influential and celebrated European artist of the 20th century and the graphic arts played a hugely important part in his output. He made prints throughout his long career – over 2,500 principally in etching, lithography and linocut. His earliest linocut is from 1939, but his major period of working in this medium was from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s. During this time the artist resided mainly in the south of France, far removed from his collaborative involvement with the master printers in Paris where he had made his etchings and lithographs in the 1930s and 40s. He began by producing linocut posters for ceramic exhibitions and bullfighting events in Vallauris with the talented local printer Hidalgo Arnéra. Within a very short time Picasso was finding new ways of producing colour linocuts which dispensed with the orthodox method of cutting a separate block of linoleum for each colour. Instead Picasso, impatient to see the results, devised a method of progressively cutting and printing from a single block that required him to foresee the final result, as once he had gouged away the linoleum surface he could not go back.

These two sets of linocuts highlight Picasso’s astonishing technical innovation and creativity. The first set consists of nine progressive proofs for Picasso’s masterpiece, Still Life under the Lamp, made in 1962. The image depicts a still life of apples next to a glass goblet, brightly illuminated under a lampshade at night. In nine stages, beginning with a blank tabula rasa, Picasso progressively cut and printed the single block, gradually building the image with increasing complexity. At each stage the viewer sees an image that would appear finished but Picasso goes further, pursuing it to its final form. Each print is vibrant and fresh in the colours of the 1960s: citron yellow, acid green and bright red. The proofs are extraordinarily rare, being extant in only one or two impressions, and the complete set is unique. They come originally from the printer Hidalgo Arnéra, with whom Picasso worked in producing his linocuts. Still Life under the Lamp is perhaps the most often reproduced of Picasso’s linocuts and appears in nearly every survey of 20th century printmaking.

The second set is four progressive proofs for a monochrome subject, Jacqueline Reading, also made in 1962. The sitter is Picasso’s second wife Jacqueline Roque with whom he lived in the last years of his life. She is posed reading, one hand held to her face and eyes cast down, locked in an interior world. For this print Picasso used two blocks. In the first block he scratched the surface with a stiff comb to describe the form of Jacqueline’s head and bust in tonal terms. A second block was cut with gouges to leave just her outline. Then the print from the second block was superimposed over the first to achieve the final image. Jacqueline became the final muse in Picasso’s life and appears in countless paintings, drawings, prints and ceramics during this period. The British Museum already owns the colour linocut of her, Portrait of Jacqueline with necklace, resting on her elbow, which Picasso produced in 1959, and this set of black and white proofs made three years later amplifies the importance of this theme in Picasso’s work.

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said: "The visual impact, rarity and exceptional quality of the Picasso linocut sets makes them a fantastic acquisition for the British Museum, and one which we are delighted to be supporting."

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, said: "These two exceptional sets of linocuts are a significant addition to the British Museum’s holdings of Picasso’s graphic work adding to the complete set of the Vollard Suite donated to the Museum by Hamish Parker two years ago. I am very grateful to the Art Fund, the Patrons of the British Museum and the individual donors who have secured these unique works of art for the Museum’s Prints and Drawings Collection".

The sets will go on public display from Friday 10 January 2014:

Recent acquisitions: two sets of Picasso linocuts

10 January – 6 May 2014
Room 90, admission free

Acquired with the support of the Art Fund, the Patrons of the British Museum, James & Béatrice Lupton, the Vollard Group, Hamish Parker, Simon & Virginia Robertson and individual contributions.

Notes to editors

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Since its foundation in 1753 the British Museum’s collections have included contemporary works on paper. The Prints and Drawings collection covers the history of drawing and printmaking, with large holdings of the works of artists such as Dürer, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt and Goya. The Department also holds major collections of historical, satirical and topographical prints, as well as printed ephemera such as trade cards, playing cards and fans.

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