In 1945, Pablo Picasso was invited to illustrate the elegiac Le Chant des morts, a book of poems by Pierre Reverdy that contemplates mortality after World War I. Yet when the publisher sent him a sample written in the poet’s handwriting, Picasso thought it “almost a drawing in itself.” Inspired by the shape of Reverdy’s script, Picasso crafted bright red, fanciful calligraphic images for the book, offsetting the poems’ melancholy and calling attention to the material presence of the page itself—what art historian Irene Small refers to as “a registration of painting pulled into the physical space of writing.” Picasso had long been fascinated with the correspondence between image and text; in his “papiers collés,” 1912–14, he famously collaged fragments of newspaper, inviting the viewer to read into the surface of the canvas; later, he treated newspaper pages as grids on which he composed figural drawings and paintings.
Picasso also tried his hand at writing. In 1935, suffering from a bout of artist’s block, he stopped painting and, for one year, zealously wrote poems instead. (His friend and patron Gertrude Stein was not a fan.) In reconciling his personal obstacles as an artist, Picasso declared, “i will no longer paint the arrow / we see in the drop of water / trembling in the morning.” Here, he rejects not only representation (pointing where to look and how) but also signification (painting as a visual trick that portends something it is not). But without these foundations, how would he paint?
An intriguing recent exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery attempted to answer this question by examining how various forms of writing inspired Picasso’s visual work. “Picasso and the Allure of Language” highlighted the artist’s myriad literary engagements, including his regular attendance at Stein’s salon, his hobnobbing with poets in the zenith years of the avant-garde (he was friends with Max Jacob, and André Breton wanted to recruit him as a Surrealist), his illustrations for poets and publishers (he contributed to editions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Aristophanes’s Lysistrata), and his insertion of words into his paintings. Still, language, reading, and writing are not the same thing, and Picasso’s friendships with poets, if interesting anecdotally, do not alone substantiate complex arguments about the language-based half of the exhibition’s theme. As a result, the show, though fascinating, was a missed opportunity to investigate what language really did for Picasso’s work.
If the exhibition fell short in this regard, its eponymous catalogue, edited by curator Susan Greenberg Fisher, effectively aims to be more comprehensive. The book, able to display images not included in the show, is divided into chapters that each address a particular dimension of Picasso’s interest in writing, ranging from his collaborations and friendships to his own doodlesexplorations of the relationship between an image and its constituent lines. Short overviews by Mary Ann Caws, a poetry scholar and a biographer of Picasso, are followed by longer, in-depth studies of specific works by Fisher and other art historians, including Small, Patricia Leighten, and Jennifer R. Gross. These studies inquire into how, for example, the artist’s illustrations operate as side narratives to the poems they are meant to illuminate and how the impact of William James on Stein’s writing may have, through salon conversations, affected Picasso’s notions of perception and conception. The artist’s influence on Stein is typically used to explain her linguistic experiments as a kind of textual Cubism, yet it is Stein’s sway over Picasso that is articulated rather beautifully here. Picasso and Stein alike investigated the perceptual surface of the page, the process of composition, and the relationship of parts to a whole, as in Picasso’s collages and Stein’s diligent sentence constructions.
The catalogue is at its most convincing in tracing how Picasso’s figures unravel into doodles, which, in turn, transform into an invented alphabet in his lithograph of imaginary letters, first composed in a 1938 epistle to Breton. These letters, abstract forms that beg to be read but cannot be deciphered, reject the notion that language is natural. The lithograph was submitted for Iliazd’s superb Poésie de mots inconnus (Poetry of Unknown Words), an anthology of (mostly Dadaist and Futurist) poetry the Russian publisher produced in 1949. Iliazd instructed that the collection be left unbound, thus “collaps[ing],” Fisher argues, “the distinction between book and art object, inviting the viewer to actively . . . manipulate, and . . . rearrange the pages at will.” Like the book-object, Picasso’s contributions emphasize both the materiality of art and its imaginative capabilities.
Drawing for Picasso then becomes an alternate form of writing; inversely, text is treated as little other than intersecting lines on a page. This dynamic suggests that writing and drawing are the same act. Picasso and the Allure of Language is a crucial starting point for understanding this significant move in the artist’s work and serves as a unique introduction to many of his most celebrated pieces. It seems retrospectively inevitable that if Picasso used writing as a way to work out the complexities of visual expression, his paintings would consume his writing, replacing the meaning of language with the meaning of form.
Stefanie Sobelle is a regular contributor to Bookforum and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and the Cooper Union.