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The surprising history of Pablo Picasso, book illustrator, and the artists he inspired

Wednesday, Jun 28 2006
You may have heard of Pablo Picasso. He was a painter and sculptor, I understand, and the co-founder of cubism. He was also, many people don't realize, a prolific book illustrator. He contributed drawings and etchings (Wikipedia says 34,000 of them) to more than 150 titles over a period of almost 60 years; the Legion of Honor, which is displaying 19 of those volumes, calls him "the greatest book illustrator of the 20th century." Having seen the show, I'm inclined to agree with that assessment.

When Picasso was illustrating books — from about 1914 until his death in 1973 — publishers came to him with ideas and manuscripts. He knew many of the most important novelists and poets of his time, and he often teamed up with them to create fantastical finished pieces. He also worked from older, previously published texts; as curator Robert Flynn Johnson's introduction to the Legion of Honor show has it, Picasso's "competitive instincts" were "to make his art comparable to these classical texts."

Yet even he labored under a sort of secondary artistic status. "Although a man of legendary ego," Johnson writes, "Picasso, like all illustrators, had to subvert his inclination to work unilaterally to allow the collaboration with author, publisher, and text that is crucial to the success of an illustrated book." In other words, no matter how imaginative an artist you are, when you're illustrating a book, the words come first.

When an artist illustrates a book for adults — which doesn't happen often these days, because such books are expensive to produce and somewhat hard to sell — he doesn't just do the cover; he also creates images that will appear throughout the volume, interspersed with the story. He has to find his way into the narrative without becoming overwhelmed. When the results succeed, as Picasso's books do (and as lots of stuff from McSweeney's does), it's a blast. But it's not an easy relationship.

By way of understanding how it must feel to a talented and creative person to play second fiddle (of a sort), I spoke to two San Francisco illustrators, Mark Ulriksen and Ward Schumaker. Both of them produce work I'm sure you'd recognize: In addition to a few books and a handful of book covers, the 49-year-old Ulriksen has done numerous covers for The New Yorker (including the recent Dick Cheney/Brokeback Mountain visual pun); Schumaker, 63, has 17 commercial books and two limited-edition titles under his belt, not to mention work published in more than 100 magazines and various logos (think Moose's). Neither of them complains about being subservient to the theme or story; they both love what they do and feel lucky to do it. But it's not an easy time to be a book illustrator — certainly not as easy, say, as it was for Picasso. And he worked his ass off.

"Illustration has a bad name," says Ulriksen (who illustrated the classic story of Willie Mays' great 1954 catch, A Day in the Bleachers by Arnold Hano, in a new edition coming out soon). Some try to argue that illustration isn't fine art, he says, but Ulriksen points out that even the Renaissance masters were working for patrons who wanted them to create paintings that illustrated a point. Today the job of book illustrator is even harder: People are "more visually literate — and maybe more illiterate," Ulriksen says, and now we have so many more pictures to absorb that we have to "edit out the junk."

Ulriksen usually works from finished manuscripts or synopses. "There's very little collaboration with the writer," he explains. He gets some input, but not too much. And that's as it should be, he thinks: "Most creative people just want to please themselves."

When Picasso illustrated books, by contrast, he often worked directly with writers to create etchings and prints that might enhance and expand the text. In La Barre d'appui (The Handrail), for example, he added to Paul Eluard's 1936 collection of poems an image of his own right hand, made by dipping it in ink and applying it directly to the copper plate. For Le Chant des Morts (The Song of the Dead) by Pierre Reverdy — what the Legion of Honor's description calls "one of the most radical works of [Picasso's] entire oeuvre of book illustration" — the artist added bold red strokes between and around Reverdy's handwritten lines of poetry. The thick, abstract patterns "functioned as an illuminated manuscript," but were "closer in emotional force to the power of calligraphy." In other words, Picasso's graphic illustrations made the words into a kind of prayer.

Schumaker saw Le Chant des Morts in an earlier show at the Legion of Honor, and it had a huge effect on him. "I just got blown away by that," he says, and started using hand-lettering in some of his own pieces. He, too, works with finished manuscripts most often, rather than collaborating with a writer. Like Ulriksen, he understands that illustrating to a text is something of a compromise, and he has no problem with that. "It's service. I'm from the Midwest — we believe a lot in that," he says with a chuckle. Given that the things he'd really like to do (such as hand-painted books) don't have much of an audience, he's grateful for the work.

Schumaker — whose most recent title is Two Cats and the Woman They Own, or Lessons I Learned From My Cats by Patti Davis (yes, Ronald Reagan's daughter) — agrees with me that there's something old-fashioned about illustrating books. "Maybe the respect for books seems old-fashioned, the respect for printed pages." Then again, he says, "respect can be the worst thing." It's limiting, he feels; if you respect something too much, then "you don't have the freedom to just do what needs to be done."

Picasso clearly had enormous respect for the texts he chose to illustrate, but that didn't stop him from creating uncompromising art for each one. For the newest volume in this exhibition — La Celestine by Fernando de Rojas — Picasso chose a text first published in 1499. He originally created 347 prints for this "tragedy in 21 acts"; 66 of the frantic yet delicate etchings made it into the finished product, released in 1971, just two years before he died. (The show doesn't say what happened to the rest.)

Yet he also had fun. The closest the master comes to cute is a tiny book, Temperature by Jacqueline Roque (whom Picasso eventually married), which is just 1 1/2 inches wide and three-quarters of an inch high, with four etchings. La Rose et le Chien by Tristan Tzara is a "poem machine" made of movable disks — it's DIY poetry circa 1958, sort of like those refrigerator magnets. According to the book's publisher, it even holds a hidden message under one of the disks; "the secret can be learned," the accompanying text explains, "only at the price of destroying the book."

Despite the compromise all book illustrators face, they don't give up their essential artistry in the process. Ulriksen and Schumaker's styles are still very much in evidence in the titles they've published, and the same goes, of course, for Picasso. Though the books in the Legion of Honor show range from a 1911 novel with cubist etchings to the famous, spare 1956 engravings of horses (for Chevaux de minuit by Roch Grey) to the dark aquatint prints of 1971's La Celestine, there's no doubt who did the illustrations. Schumaker, for one, is impressed: "To think that you could go in that many different directions and still be Picasso."

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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