Memory Holloway and Picasso

Picasso, Plate 1 from Suite 347, Self-portrait and Circus Figures (March 1968) Etching on paper

Memory Holloway, an art historian at the University of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, has written a wonderful book on a magnificent group of etchings by Pablo Picasso. It is titled Making Time: Picasso's Suite 347. Suite 347 is the name given to 347 etchings that the Spanish artist produced in his late eighties, all generated in just eight months of frenetic activity without preparatory sketches of any kind. The first plate (above) includes the only recognizable self-portrait in the collection, the short figure on the left. Holloway notes that Picasso "all but abandoned his own likeness". From then on, in the other 346 prints, "he slipped in and out of guises, crossed age and gender lines, and he tried on the costumes and manners of his favorite painters as he imagined himself in other roles."

In one brilliant insight Holloway writes that Picasso "also makes his presence felt synecdochically through fragmented body parts which he specifically selects for their role in the artistic process", namely the watchful omnipotent eye, the disembodied hand and the erect phallus. "Even when he is absent from the scene he is present, leaving oily residues and secretions of the body on the copperplate. Suite 347 is inescapably an extensive self-portrait but one undertaken by means that subvert the very notion of the unified self."

Holloway recognizes that the strongman in the print above has the features of the anonymous sculptor from an earlier suite of etchings and that the dark space between his thumb and forefinger is "an iconic sign of the female genitals" meant to resemble an eye as well. The woman on the horse, she notes, is placed centrally between the audience just visible in the background and the observer in the foreground, a position she says Picasso used for many other circus performers as well. She could have added that the bather in Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe is in the same position too. The reason why is that each of these motifs is a painted "painting" surrounded by artists like the real Picasso and his strongman sculptor. Le Déjeuner, which Manet called The Bath after the painted "painting" in the middle, also had a sculptor posing in the foreground as in Picasso's print.

Diagram of two details from Manet's Mlle. the Costume of an Espada (1862) on the left and Picasso's Self-portrait and Circus Figures (1968) on the right.

Manet's masterpiece continually haunted Picasso's imagination. "When I see Manet's Déjeuner sur l'Herbe", he famously said, "I say to myself: trouble's in store." Picasso's pictorial reference to Manet and Le Déjeuner in the print explains furthermore the jagged shape on Picasso's torso (above right). Holloway remembers the shape from a related drawing where it had appeared as lightning in the sky and claims that it now empowers Picasso on the ground. What she does not recognize is that the lightning in the image she refers to was probably inspired like this one from the hidden M Manet placed sideways between his alter ego in Mlle V.....  in the Costume of an Espada (1862) and her own painted bullfight behind her. Though Manet identified Mlle. V with Velazquez, Goya and Ingres through various means that I have explained in the picture's entry, he also makes certain to include his own initial and identity.

Sometimes individual specialists in art history shine a light on their chosen subject in novel and unexpected ways. Using imagination and their own insight in place of the more conventional methodologies of art history's discipline they offer, without knowing it themselves, a new and more productive way to look at all art, not just the objects of their own narrowly focussed specialty. For those wanting an insight into Picasso's mind and art in general, Memory Holloway's Making Time is a good place to start. 

The bad news is that this highly desirable book is expensive for no apparent reason. It is short (168 pages of text) with few illustrations, all in black-and-white. It went on sale in 2006 for $60 and is now selling in some online bookshops for $199. My advice is get a second-hand copy online or go to the library. 

Memory Holloway, Making Time: Picasso's Suite 347 (New York: Peter Lang) 2006

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