If Picasso had never made a single painting or sculpture, he would still be a major 20th-century artist by virtue of his mind-boggling graphic output. So whether or not you saw the recent Picasso retrospective in New York, the exhibition "Picasso on Paper," which opens today at Meridian House International, merits attention as a rare look at a hefty slice of his work.
As prolific in printmaking as in other media, Picasso drew 2,000 images upon etching plates and lithographic stones over the span of his 92 years. In this show, 104 etchings, drypoints, aquatints, lithographs and linocuts are included, all lent by the Spanish government.
Most telling -- and poigant -- are the flood of images of the artist and his model that came in Picasso's final years, well documented here. Here, the strong, young artist seen in the earlier, "Vollard" prints has become a wizened old geezer, a lecher, a grotesque. He portrays himself in costume, as a clowning Rembrandt, with a perpetually young and beautiful model still by his side. Here, as in his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, the most powerful revelation of the late work is how much Picasso loathed and feared the coming of old age and death. He did not, as a poet said, "go gently into that good night."
The show begins with 36 exquisitely drawn intaglio prints from the Vollard Suite, published in 1939, which reflect the Classic phase in which Picasso had been immersed for a decade. Here the artist shows his virtuoso mastery of line -- his ability to sum up not only form but mood with the sparest of gestures. Certain subjects dominated his graphic work, notably the idealized young artist-laureate with a nude female model always by his side; the bullfights and lovers, always lovers. Eroticism is subdued, but barely, in several images depicting the mythical Cretan half-man, half-breast with which Picasso so clearly identified.
At the age of 64, Picasso began to work directly on the lithographic stone, and shortly after World War II he made several large, happy images, such as the portraits of "Francoise" show here. Though decorative, most of the lithographs and subsequent color linocuts lack the depth of the Vollard Suite etchings, and rather mirror what was going on in his paintings at the time: playful variations on old styles and themes.
In the late 1960s, Picasso began a prodigious new series of etchings and engravings, turning out not less than 347 images in seven months of 1968 alone. But now the familiar subjects -- the minotaur and bawdy scenes from the Spanish play "La Celestina" -- become both more cartoon-like and blatantly erotic, some might say pornographic.
By museum standards, the show is flawed: It is an ill-lighted, frustratingly labeled, prepackaged exhibition that starts in 1930, omitting the first half-century of Picasso's graphic oeuvre. But that's nit-picking, considering the fact that no better-equipped Washington museum in recent memory has come up with any major exhibition on the subject of Picasso's graphics.
This collection was acquired and organized for travel by the Spanish Ministry of Culture to introduce Picasso to the countrymen from whom he was estranged during Franco's rule. This is the only American stop on the tour, and honors the 20th anniversary of Meridian House and its efforts on behalf of international understanding and cooperation.
Meridian House, at 1630 Crescent Pl. NW, is in elegant headquarters -- a former residence built by John Russell Pope -- which makes a visit doubly rewarding. This show will continue through Jan. 2, and will be open every day, 10 to 5, except Christmas.