Picasso on Paper
Until September 23; Dean Gallery, Edinburgh

Picasso: Fired with Passion
Until October 28; National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

Never before has there been a major Picasso exhibition in Scotland, and like buses, suddenly two have come along at once. With the Spanish artist’s ceramics on show at the National Museum of Scotland, and his graphic works at the Dean Gallery, we’re spoilt for choice.

The choice, in fact, is pretty clear. While the museum’s show gets points for variety, and for its refreshing exhibition design, it does little to interpret Picasso’s art, and focuses instead on the easier topic of his love-life. All around, overblown photographs attempt to pad out the relatively limited quantity of ceramics actually on show.

Meanwhile, the Dean’s exhibition is packed with high quality prints and drawings, and enough information to guide you through the jungle of Picasso’s creative mind. “People who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree,” said Picasso once, but while it might not be possible to explain his art, it helps a great deal to flesh out the details.

Picasso was always one step ahead of art historians, and even since his death in 1973, he has kept them on the run. Capable as a child of drawing like Raphael, he would soon move into his Blue Period, followed by the Rose Period. Just as collectors were enjoying his wistful pink paintings, he invented Cubism. And as that movement’s popularity took hold, he would (to the disgust of some) rediscover the joys of classical art.

This pattern continued for the rest of Picasso’s life, and many of his countless styles – though instantly recognisable – are just too slippery to classify. “I am probably a painter without style,” said the man himself. “I always thrash about rather wildly. I am a bit of a tramp. You can see me at this moment, but I have already changed, I am already somewhere else.”

This constant exploration of new territory is an ever-present theme in both exhibitions; Picasso discovered ceramics at the age of 65, and immediately started turning all the rules upside down. Enjoying a life-long passion for print-making – also without any formal training – he ricocheted from one technique to another, always inventing new processes to the bafflement of the experts.

“He looked, he listened, he did the opposite of what he learnt, and it worked”, marvelled Fernand Mourlot, the lithographer whose close collaboration with Picasso resulted in 400 prints. In the Madoura pottery where Picasso discovered his love for ceramics, the professional potters would joke about how irritating it was to work with someone whose crazy experiments always turned out so successfully.

Making top-heavy pots which should have collapsed, and using nail-varnish, suet and petrol in his printing processes – not to mention hosing down his linocuts in the shower – Picasso was always on the look out for new shapes and textures. And just as quickly as he would pick up the habit of etching, or lithography, or lino cut, he would drop it for something new.

It’s impossible to disentangle Picasso’s creative life from his love life, and both exhibitions acknowledge that fact, pointing out the sudden changes in media and style which new lovers would usher in.

Picasso on Paper spans 70 years of the artist’s career, in which time, it’s pointed out, Picasso took six lovers or wives and a similar number of printing techniques. He tired of each in turn, moving on to conquer new frontiers. “If you know exactly what you’re going to do,” said Picasso, “what’s the good of doing it? Since you know, the exercise is pointless. It is better to do something else.”

The museum’s exhibition concentrates largely on one woman, Françoise Gilot, whose time with Picasso coincided with his passion for ceramics. Gilot, an independent-minded artist 40 years his junior, had been resisting Picasso’s advances since 1943. He was tiring of his photographer partner Dora Maar, and by 1946, when he first visited Vallauris, he had successfully supplanted Maar with Gilot.

Vallauris, a small town in the South of France, had been famous for its pottery since Roman times, and Picasso found himself attracted to the classical shapes of the Madoura pottery in particular. On his first visit he was encouraged to decorate a few blank plates, and the following year he returned with enthusiasm, and lots of drawings.

The next few years were a time of great contentment for Picasso and Gilot, who settled in the area and had two children, Claude and Paloma. Picasso’s ceramics reflect this happiness. The many blanks he decorated in 1947 are full of exuberant child's play: simple fish, still lifes and faces splashed on with a few quick brushstrokes of slips and oxides.

The artist then took to adapting the shape of the pottery itself, transforming functional vessels into bizarre concoctions, and delighting in decorating them as birds, or demure women with flowing tresses. Seen beside the work of his professional contemporaries at Vallauris, many of Picasso’s ceramics retain that childish freshness which he prized so highly, but a handful of the exhibits demonstrate an astounding sophistication.

His red earthenware vase of 1950, borrowed from the Centre Pompidou, marries classical pottery with the artist’s own vigorous vision of naked beauty: the incised figures are a mix of front and back views – allowing all the most voluptuous parts to be seen at once. Other impressive vases and plates from the 1950s depict the artist at his easel, and numerous bullfighting scenes, in Picasso’s dynamic, calligraphic brushwork.

While the artist’s passion for ceramics didn’t start until his mid-sixties, legend has it that Picasso’s very first words were to ask for a pencil with which to draw. During the course of his long life, the artist made over 2200 prints (largely etchings, lithographs and linocuts), and so many drawings that no-one has ever successfully counted them all. In fact, the Dean’s exhibition brings to light an early drawing not previously known to Picasso scholars, lurking in Edinburgh University’s collection.

Of the 125 prints and drawings in the show, nearly 100 are from one of the world’s best collections of Picasso’s graphics, at the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. Every kind of style is represented in this show, Picasso changing his habits with bewildering frequency. One motif which recurs throughout is that of the minotaur, a sexually charged creature who is said to represent Picasso himself. In Minotaur Caressing The Hand Of A Sleeping Woman With His Head, the artist successfully combines areas of densely worked drypoint with clean, bright, outlined passages to heighten the physical and emotional drama of the piece.

Four years later, Picasso made the classic Weeping Woman I, closely related to the development of his famous painting, Guernica. Dora Maar is depicted, her face a bulbous concoction of misplaced features, twisted in anguish. Picasso had mastered many techniques by this time, and his complex combination of these comes together in a strong, unforgettable image.

The most arresting section of the whole Dean show is a series of 11 lithographs of a bull, made over seven weeks in 1945/6. The same image was repeatedly reworked, and every few days an impression was made. The result is a fascinating development from naturalistic portrayal, to geometric reduction, stage by stage. This is the closest you will ever get – if you’re brave enough – to being inside Picasso’s mind.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 15.07.07