The greatest painter and most innovative sculptor of the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso was also its foremost printer. His graphic oeuvre spans more than seven decades, from 1899 to 1972. His published prints total approximately 200 different images pulled from metal, stone, wood, linoleum, and celluloid. His unpublished prints, perhaps 200 more, have yet to be exactly counted.
Picasso’s prints demonstrate his intuitive and characteristic ability to recognize and exploit the possibilities inherent in any medium in which he chose to work. Once he had mastered the traditional methods of a print medium, like etching on metal, Picasso usually experimented further, pursuing, for example, scarcely known intaglio techniques such as sugar-lift aquatint.
The printed graphic work of Picasso shows a clearly defined succession of periods in which certain techniques predominated. Early on, the copperplate, with its variants of the etching and drypoint, fascinated the young artist. Between 1919 and 1930 he occasionally turned his hand to lithography. Then, in the etchings of the Vollard series, his creative powers reached a first culminating point. Most of the compositions that followed during the war years were intended for book illustrations.
After World War II, Picasso’s production as a printmaker substantially increased and the etching and engraving continued to be his favorite medium for graphic expression. During several concentrated spans of time, however, he was profoundly involved with two other techniques: first, lithography on stone (and its surrogate zinc), and subsequently, linocut, a relief method of carving and printing similar to woodcut but utilizing a linoleum instead of a wood surface. Picasso adapted the processes of both lithography and linocut to his own language and to his individual methods as a peintre-graveur. His continual inventiveness sometimes challenged his collaborators, the printers, to the limits of their own skills as craftsmen.
Picasso has astonished the ablest printmakers again and again. It is not only that he mastered the difficulties of the new techniques with playful ease; he soon went on to obtain results that had hitherto been deemed impossible. A virtuoso craftsman in engraving, etching, lithography, and linocut, he explored their secrets with patience and love and elicited from each medium the very subtlest effects it was capable of yielding. It is hardly surprising that five, ten, or even thirty states were sometimes necessary before a masterpiece emerged from his hands.