NEWPORT BEACH — Much has been written about Picasso and his women--the real ones in his life and the nymphs, muses, sirens and harpies in his art. And no wonder.
A modest sampler of his prints at the Orange County Museum of Art, "The Graphic Art of Pablo Picasso" spans nearly 60 years of lustful observation. These graphic works, loaned by the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts at UCLA, also encompass other themes: poverty, the Spanish Civil War, still life. But the enduring subject is Woman.
Strangely, the museum provides no background for this show, no discussion of Picasso as a printmaker or as an artist whose personal life was intimately linked to his work.
For Picasso, the activity of making prints in various media served as a laboratory. He made them not as a way of disseminating his work more widely or cheaply (he often kept the impressions or gave them to friends) but as a method of testing visual ideas.
The earliest piece in the show, "Le repas frugal" (The Frugal Meal)for some reason, nobody translated the French titles--is intimately related to Picasso's Rose Period paintings of circus performers. The etching medium--which can create form with a single line or darken the mood with a nest of crosshatching--emphasizes the contours of the emaciated couple's bony fingers and the gloom that gnaws at them.
With "Salome" (a drypoint from 1905; this impression was made in 1913) the exhibition ushers in another side of Picasso. The 16-year-old girl whose dance for her stepfather, King Herod, so pleased him that he agreed to bring her the head of John the Baptist is shown performing in the nude.
In the print, her brazenly revealing high kick, head lowered in a vixen's pose, transfixes the corpulent Herod. The theatrical aspect of the scene might owe something to Oscar Wilde's transformation of the biblical character in "Salome," produced in Paris in 1901, or to the languorous Salome paintings of Gustav Moreau.
Drypoint, made by drawing with a dry needle on a bare copper plate, kicks up tiny ridges of metal shavings. Inked and printed, these ridges give each line a rich, velvety texture that increases the aura of sultry intrigue.
Skipping Picasso's Cubist period, the show moves into the 1920s, when his women were massive creatures with sculptural dimensions, posed in the fashion of neoclassical paintings. "La Source" (The Spring), an image of three solid-looking women whose drapery falls in regular folds like fluted columns, is related to his 1921 painting "Three Women at the Spring," now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Picasso's fluid and economical draftsmanship can be seen in the 1927 etching "Les trois amies" (The Three Friends). A single line forms the back of the left-hand figure, forming a small, errant pouch of flesh, curving grandly to indicate her posterior and wending its way down her leg, ending just past the small arc of her heel. A cluster of curves on the neck of the right-hand figure can be read either as the encircling fingers of the middle woman or a knot of braided hair.
In the "Minotaure" etchings of 1933, Picasso introduced the autobiographical theme of an anthropomorphic shaggy bull. In one print, he drinks wine with a pensive model; in the other, he's observed by a row of women--one reaching out a sympathetic hand, the others staring straight ahead--as he dies melodramatically in an arena. Her softly contoured face resembles that of Marie-Therese Walter, the teenager for whom Picasso had recently left his first wife, Olga. The artist-and-model theme was a perennial favorite of his, combining elements of lust, inspiration, creation and--as the years wore on--nostalgia for youth.
Yugoslavian photographer Dora Maar came into Picasso's life in 1936, when he was 55. He made an aquatint that summer called "Faune devoilant une femme" (Faun Unveiling a Woman) in which a shaft of light illuminates the handsome creature--part man, part goat--as he enters the room of a sleeping woman and lifts the sheet from her naked body.
The acquatint technique, which creates broad areas of tone, was particularly suited to this nocturnal scene, which borrows from a long history of images of men spying on nude women, inspired by biblical and mythological narratives.
The following year, Picasso used a combination of etching, drypoint and aquatint in a pair of prints, "Sueno y mentira de Franco" (The Dream and the Lie of Franco). Divided into cartoon-like panels, they show the Spanish dictator as a foppish force of evil, wreaking destruction while--a typical Picasso touch--his manhood shrinks. Viewers familiar with the Spanish Civil War painting "Guernica" will see some of its imagery taking shape in the last few scenes of the second print.
Works from Picasso's final years (he died in 1973) show him still experimenting with media. He used a humble linoleum print to make a decorative image of a women in a hat ("Femme au chapeau") that recycles juxtaposed frontal and side views he first used half a century earlier.
But in "Le Peintre et son modele," made on Dec. 7, 1963, a whiff of mortality has settled on the printing plate. We can't see what the old, bearded painter has on his easel, but the model's body is atomized into separate bits and pieces floating against a gray wash. The muse standing behind the artist is almost bodiless. It's as if these figures have dwindled into ghosts, faint traces of an immensely vigorous creative life.
* "The Graphic Art of Pablo Picasso" continues through Nov. 20, Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. $5; $4 for seniors and students, free for children under 16. (714) 759-1122.