Picasso had an enduring love affair with paper: ‘it seduced me’, he said of one particularly fine batch. And he spent his life environed by the stuff: when his tables and chairs and mantelpieces were filled to overflowing he would hang it on lengths of string from the ceiling. Paper lay at the heart of his artistic practice. Picasso would cut it, he would fold it, he would collage it, he would create sculptures from pieces of torn and twisted burnt paper, he would paste it together to make three-dimensional assemblages.
He drew on it too, of course. The Royal Academy’s latest blockbuster shows him at work in Henri-Georges Clouzout’s 1956 film ‘Le mystère Picasso’. I could write this review around that film. I love the little pauses he takes before putting down each mark, his pen hovering over the paper. Why does he do that? He wasn’t running low on inspiration, that’s for sure. My guess is that he was doing it for dramatic effect. The amused expression on his face is the giveaway; he always knew how to work an audience.
Picasso used traditional handmade art paper for his exhibition drawings and commercial sketchbooks for the studies he made for his major paintings and sculptures. Otherwise almost anything would do, particularly during the war years when paper was in short supply. He would doodle on napkins in cafés and on newspapers in bars. He seems to have been particularly fond of wallpaper – the more garish the better. He worked in all scales: the smallest pieces in this show are tiny cutouts of animals that he did when he was only nine or ten. The largest, over four metres across, is ‘Femmes à leur toilette’ (1937-38), which is collaged from cut-out wallpaper with gouache on paper pasted onto canvas.
Rather than zeroing in on a particular period or theme – which is how curators normally tackle Picasso – the Royal Academy has set out to cover his entire career through paper, on the whole successfully. Most of the exhibits are from the artist’s own collection and archive, now in the Musée national Picasso-Paris. (I should also mention that the city of Málaga, his birthplace, is the main sponsor of this show).
Work on paper rarely gets top billing and tends to get pushed to the margins in major exhibitions. Here it occupies all of the Main Galleries at Burlington House, and you get the impression that the RA could easily have filled another ten rooms if it had wanted to. As well as studies for iconic works like ‘Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon’ and ‘Guernica’ there are many rarely seen items. Not to mention such gems of ephemera as a postcard of Manet’s ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe’, on the back of which Picasso has written: ‘I think there will be trouble later on!’
I left this exhibition with the pleasurable sensation of having spent an hour inside a great artist’s head. You could hardly start your cultural year on a more uplifting note than by going to see Picasso and Paper.