Catalog Essay | September 17, 2020 | Lot 29
This famous work is the beginning of Picasso’s success as a print maker. Although he had no formal training as a printmaker, this is only his second known print. The despondency and isolation evident in this image are typical of Picasso’s work during this period, possibly his last work from the Blue Period. In 1904 when he finished the work, he had only a few copies. In 1913, his dealer in Paris, Ambroise Vollard, published The Frugal Repast in an edition of 250. Together with eleven drypoints and two etchings made by Picasso from 1904-1906, these prints are collectively known as the Suite des Saltimbanques. Saltimbanques were itinerant circus performers who fascinated Picasso and would become the primary subjects of his Rose Period from 1904-1907.
Picasso was working at the time on an etching, which has become famous since: it is of a man and a woman sitting at a table in a wine-shop. There is the most intense feeling of poverty and alcoholism and a startling realism in the figures of the wretched, starving couple.
Fernande Olivier from Picasso and His Friends (1964)
The woman in the picture is Madeline, Picasso’s lover and muse in Paris at the time. The man is a figure from his time in Barcelona, a blind man who had appeared in other works from Picasso’s Blue Period and would recur thematically throughout Picasso’s career. Despite the misery of the figures in the scene, there is a warmth and humanity in the couple’s embrace and the woman’s gaze confronting the viewer with a knowing smile. The print medium adds to the composition, the darkness suggests the interior of the wine shop and the verticality and lines emphasize the skinny figures. Picasso’s career would quickly prove his competence and skill with print media in subsequent years.
Picasso famously said “Painting is not made to decorate apartments...it’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.” These humanist portraits of people on the fringes of society, poor, hungry and ill demand attention to an often ignored population.
Pablo Picasso’s importance in the history of Modern art is apparent in the works of Cubist, Surrealist, Neoclassical and Expressionist artists. Although he is best known for his Cubist works, his Saltimbanques from this period were painted with a sense of social realism that would influence future generations of artists.
In the realm of 20th century prints, Picasso is a master printmaker and among the best of the period. He created more than 2,000 print images in intaglio, lithography and linocut media. His imagination fueled by exposure to new techniques and experimentation. Only two years after creating Le Frugal Repast he moved onto a new subject and a new muse. His woodcut of Fernande Olivier from 1906 shows the emerging influences of Oceanic, African and Iberian sculpture which foreshadow his use of simplified forms and his willingness to quickly adapt his style and pursue a new idea.