In 1928, Alfred Skira, a young bibliophile who had recently established himself as a book publisher in Lausanne, Switzerland, approached Picasso to produce an illustrated book; he was quite anxious to work with the esteemed artist on his first project. Picasso, who was by now quite famous, was at first somewhat put off by working with an inexperienced publisher and was uninspired by Skira’s initial proposal of illustrating a text on Napoleon. According to his own account, Picasso suggested “a classical author—perhaps something mythological.” * As told by Patrick Cramer, the author of the catalogue raisonné of Picasso’s illustrated books, it was then Pierre Matisse, the son of Henri Matisse, who suggested Ovid’s Les Métamorphoses. Written in 8 A.D., this book of Roman dactylic hexameter verse is considered to be one of the great epic poems of Classical literature. It is comprised of nearly 250 myths from both Greek and Roman mythology that, though unrelated, are ingeniously woven together through the sheer storytelling talent of its author. Delighted with the idea, Skira quickly provided Picasso with a bilingual copy of the book including highlighted areas that he felt would be particularly fascinating to illustrate. He requested fifteen full page illustrations, one for each book in the text, and fifteen half-page chapter headings.
Picasso began work on the project in September of 1930, over a year later. He had recently installed his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter in an apartment across the street from his own, which greatly reduced the previous effort required to see her. Picasso was energized by the scandalous arrangement, all the more so because he was able to get away with it. He was also emboldened to introduce her image into his work with more frequency during this period. Marie-Thérèse’s regal profile, which was particularly well suited to classical subjects, appears several times in his plates for Les Métamorphoses.
1930 marks the beginning of an intense period of printmaking activity that inaugurated a lifetime of intaglio printmaking for Picasso. (Picasso’s approach to intaglio would later undergo a deep transformation due to the influence of printmaker Roger Lacourière.) Around the same time he agreed to Skira’s publication of Les Métamorphoses, Picasso also undertook two similar projects for Ambroise Vollard: illustrations for Le chef-d’oeuvre inconnu by Balzac, and the suite of one hundred plates that would later be known as the Suite Vollard. The narrative implications of these three endeavors led him to fully appreciate the storytelling capability of printmaking, a quality he would develop to the fullest in his subsequent work in the medium.
The two book projects, as well as the initial plates of the Suite Vollard, share a distinctive, elegant, linear quality that has been compared to Greek and Etruscan vase painting. Scholar Lisa Florman has noted that Picasso’s approach also bears a close resemblance to that of Etruscan mirror engravings, which may have been a source of inspiration (in Myth and Metamorphosis: Picasso’s Classical Prints of the 1930s. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2000, 18-19). Though the subject matter in Les Métamorphoses is often brutal or dark, the images themselves are airy and light—the figures seem to exist in a space free of gravity. Picasso also used multiple perspectives and filled the entire picture plane—sometimes abutting his figures to the border—to lend the figures a sense of movement and action. In Florman’s words, “the overlappings, foreshortenings, and other uncertainties of Picasso’s Metamorphoses illustrations necessarily give the viewer pause. And it is precisely this vacillation before the image that endows its figures with a sense of motion.” (ibid., 34). This quality is particularly innovative for its ability to engage the viewer and compelling him to “enter the picture.” (ibid., 42).
Picasso created twenty-seven remarkably refined and sophisticated line etchings during the fall of 1930 and spring of 1931, re-working the same subject up to six times. Of these, fifteen were selected (one for each book of the epic poem), which were printed on full sheets. For the full-sized plates, Picasso also created remarques in the margins that only appear in the deluxe edition of thirty and the supplementary proofs that were pulled before and after the edition (as described by Baer in the catalogue raisonné of Picasso’s prints). They do not relate to the images directly, but often add another dimension to the narrative.
Picasso also made fifteen half-page chapter headings (printed in-texte). Like the remarques, these relate only tangentially to the text. They are comprised of simple, elegant studies of classical male and female nudes and faces that provide pauses between long passages of poetry. The fertile ground laid in the plates for Les Métamorphoses is particularly apparent in these chapter headings, which anticipate themes and ideas that Picasso would develop in further detail in the renowned Suite Vollard—a grand cycle of one hundred prints that he completed between 1930 and 1937 for Ambroise Vollard, the famous Parisian publisher and an early supporter of his work.
The fifteen full-page illustrations are a rare instance in which Picasso remained true to the original text when working on a book project. He greatly enjoyed the subject matter, which ignited his imagination and came at a time that he was ripe for a new influx of source material. MoMA curator Deborah Wye points to the plate titled Mort d’Orphée as an early example of the bull in Picasso’s prints, and though it is a minor aspect of the story, the herd of oxen in the myth of Orpheus allowed Picasso to explore his fascination with the bullfight (A Picasso Portfolio: Prints from the Museum of Modern Art, New York , 62.) This intermingling of bulls and mythology would lead to his involvement with the story of Minotaur—an important leitmotif in his prints of the late 1930s.
Louis Fort, Picasso’s trusted intaglio printer at this time, printed the edition in a total of 145 copies (he retired a few years later and Picasso acquired his press, which he installed at Boisegeloup). Thirty deluxe copies were issued on white Japon Impériale; these included a separate suite of the fifteen full-sheet plates with remarques, printed on Japon with wide margins and signed in ink. Some of the deluxe suites were printed in black and others were printed in bistre. The standard edition was printed on Arches, did not include the remarques, and was signed in pencil.
Les Métamorphoses was published on the auspicious occasion of Picasso’s fiftieth birthday, October 25, 1931, to great critical acclaim. In particular, it was praised as a model example of illustrated book publishing by Christian Zervos, the book publisher, collector, and critic who would later author the catalogue raisonné of Picasso’s unique works. Unfortunately, this did not translate into strong sales for the publication; however, a New York dealer eventually bought half of the edition from Skira. Today, it is considered to be an important precursor to his work on the Suite Vollard and the images are greatly valued for their simplicity and grace.
*As quoted by Florman in Myth and Metamorphosis: Picasso’s Classical Prints of the 1930s. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2000, 14.