Tuesday, September 15, 2009

More Picasso (and why not?)

I've been asked a number of times whether the works by Picasso now on view in the Picasso, Miro, Calder exhibition constitute our complete holdings of Picasso's work. Simple answer: no. Although we've hung that gallery fairly densely, there are actually only 15 works by Picasso (and one by Francoise Gilot) in that room, leaving nearly 50 additional prints by Picasso still in storage.

So how did we choose? And why aren't they all always on view?
This presents the useful opportunity for clearing up one of the most frequent misconceptions about museum practice. One reads again and again how museums only have 5% or 10% of their total collection on view at any time. While every museum would like to have more gallery space, the numbers game is the wrong way to think about it. The Museum of Art, like most museums, has thousands of works on paper - prints, drawings, and photographs - and these simply cannot be on view all the time.

Returning to Picasso: we have his first major print, the Frugal Repast, on view in the exhibition. In 1913, this was issued as part of the so-called Suite des Saltimbanques, a group of 15 prints that Picasso had designed back in 1904-05. It's his first masterpiece, one of the iconic images of his early career.
The Museum has four other prints from that suite. We didn't include them all not only because we wanted to leave room for other works from across Picasso's career, but also because they didn't all stand up from the point of view of impression quality and condition. And this gets back to the other question, of why we don't leave works on paper on permanent view.

Here, for example, is the Head of a Woman in Profile, another of the prints from the Suite des Saltimbanques. Looking at it, I think that the first things you notice are 1. that the paper is darkened (i.e. burnt) and 2. that there are brown foxing spots. The condition becomes the focus, not the print. And in contrast to all those prints that we have in brilliant impressions, there seems little point to have included this in the display. It's great to have the print as part of the collection, but in an exhibition that is about showing off highlights, it just doesn't make the grade.

So what has happened to it? Why the burn? Why those spots? There is some debate as to what causes foxing, but the general consensus is that the spots are inherent defects in paper, which become more visible with exposure to air, humidity, etc. In fact, many of the impressions of this print (and of the entire suite) that come to the market have some foxing, although perhaps not to this extent. Ambrose Vollard, Picasso's dealer, chose bad paper, one that in time has shown its defects. (It was 1913 and wove paper was still relatively new, so let's not be too hard on him.) The darkening of the paper is more straightforward. It results from exposure to light at high levels or for a long time. Our print is still in the frame in which we received it, and turning it around, the "long exposure to light" comes clear. Each of those labels represents some exhibition to which it was lent (most of them, it should be noted, date to years before the print was given to the Museum). The Head of a Woman in Profile spent a lot of time in the light, and it suffered because of it. It's no surprise that the fragile paper has darkened. And this, you see, is why we don't leave this or any other print on permanent display. Multiply this case by a few thousand similar objects, and you understand why only 10% of the collection is on view at any time.

I want to end with another object not on view. The Salimbanques Suite was issued in an edition of 250. Afterwards, the copper plates were cancelled - scratched out - to prevent further impressions from being made. In addition to the scratches, this particular plate was inscribed "biffe" (scratched out, cancelled) and dated, 29 October 1913. Often, the publishers ran off a number of impressions after the cancellation, perhaps to reassure buyers that their prints really were from a limited edition. The cancelled-plate impressions, however, have eventually become collector's objects in their own right. That's a bit of a long and complicated story to tell in a wall label, and it would have distracted from the main thrust of Picasso, Miro, Calder. It's really something more for a general "History of the Print" exhibition. But after bringing up the Head of a Woman in Profile, I couldn't resist showing the cancelled-plate impression as well. Print-collecting curiosity aside, this impression hasn't been too often exhibited, so despite the scratches, it gives a much better sense of what the print is meant to look like.

-John Marciari, Curator of European Art at the San Diego Museum of Art

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