‘You are what you keep’ the artist once said, and a stunning exhibition at the Royal Academy proves his point. Daisy Dunn explores the master’s love of ephemera and creative clutter.

Picasso would have little time for today’s neat and minimalist interiors. He surrounded himself with clutter, knowing that even the tatty, mundane items other people threw away could have artistic interest. He hoarded everything, from old newspapers, scraps of wrapping paper and used envelopes, to packets of tobacco, bus tickets and paper napkins. When his piles of papers grew too high for his table tops, he would clip them together with bulldog clips and suspend them, chandelier-like, from the ceiling.

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By the time he died in 1973, aged 91, he had accumulated thousands of assorted bits and pieces, a number of which have gone on display at the Royal Academy in London as part of an exhibition dedicated to his passion for paper. Three hundred works of art and items from his collection, spanning more than 80 years, reveal the extent of his hoarding – and the extent of his vision.

The artists’ studios that Picasso drew were seldom as chaotic as his own. One of his preparatory sketches from 1903 for ‘La Vie, a melancholic painting from his Blue Period, depicts a single canvas positioned neatly on an easel. The Sculptor’s Studio, from 1931, is as tidy as can be. But photographs reveal a different picture: Picasso relished mess. His studio at La Californie, his villa in Cannes, was crammed with stuff – scrolls of paper, boxes, and jars of paint filling every imaginable surface, even the chairs. 

He was very conscious of keeping and recording things, so I think it was part of his self-definition – Ann Dumas

“Picasso once said, ‘You are what you keep’, and I think he did have a highly developed sense of posterity,”’ says Ann Dumas, co-curator of the Picasso and Paper exhibition. “He was very conscious of keeping and recording things, so I think it was part of his self-definition.”

He took newspapers and responded to their stories by sketching on them in pencil or ink. There was little, in fact, he would not scrawl on. If a sheet of packaging was covered in pattern or text, he would draw over it, his own handiwork merging with the print until the two were barely distinguishable. The effect could be comical, as when he took an ink pen to a photograph of a model in Vogue and extended her legs so they poked coquettishly out of her ball gown.

As for many artists, chaos meant creativity, and in his hoards Picasso found the perfect objects with which to animate his still lifes. His friend, the artist Georges Braque, is usually credited with inventing modern collage at Sorgues, north of Avignon, in 1912, but Picasso was quick to take up the art form. That year, he assembled his celebrated Still Life with Chair Caning, using a piece of oilcloth for the seat of the chair. His genius lay in finding the right object for each space, and in maintaining form while disturbing the picture plane. In 1914, tobacco packaging and newspaper were among the materials he used to create his collage Glass, Bottle of Wine, Packet of Tobacco, Newspaper. There was, as often, a relationship between the material and the object it represented. 

Cut and paste

Long before recycling became an environmental concern, Picasso showed that there was beauty in the refuse of daily life. No one would have missed the old nails and bits of cloth and string that he put into his pictures of guitars. Nor, one hopes, the single button that lent itself so perfectly as a sound hole for his Guitar of May 1926. Picasso even created from cardboard a guitar in three dimensions, leaving the tape with which he constructed it clearly visible.

For many artists, paper was merely a preparatory medium, a ground upon which to work out ideas before translating them onto canvas or bronze. For Picasso, paper was not only for draft, nor simply a means to an end. With Femmes à leur toilette (1937-8) he demonstrated how effective collage could be on a grand scale. Measuring 4.48 metres wide, the collage is daubed with gouache, and features clashing wallpaper samples pasted onto canvas to evoke the drama of a domestic scene. 

That Picasso kept this ephemera suggests that he wanted to be remembered for far more than his finished masterpieces

Later, Picasso looked at Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), and recreated its figures, stripping them of all decorum, and transferring them from canvas to cardboard. His freestanding paper people from the early 1960s seem to rebel against their painterly forebears.

In their forms, these figures harked back to the paper cut-outs Picasso had made from his earliest youth. The London exhibition features a remarkably accomplished dog and a pigeon which he appears to have cut from paper without any use of drawing at the age of just eight or nine. A decade-and-a-half later, he was still cutting shapes from paper, only this time they were slightly more ambitious – a cuttlefish, a pear, the fret of a guitar.

Picasso had always been resourceful. His earliest surviving print, depicting a Bullfighter Seen from Behind (1900), was made by engraving and heating the base of a wooden salad bowl. During World War Two, resourcefulness became necessary, and Picasso took to cutting, tearing and burning paper into shapes with new abandon. Materials were hard to come by in Paris during the German occupation, but behind the blackout blinds of his studio, Picasso fashioned from his store of scraps a knife and fork, a goat, a bird, glove, a row of dancers, and most poignantly of all, a series of skulls, which he also painted. A burned paper napkin served to represent his lover Dora Maar’s deceased white bichon. It was no accident that many of these wartime shapes resembled ghosts.

An old napkin with holes burned into it for eyes may not have the immediate impact or appeal of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon or La Vie. Indeed, it would be easy to dismiss much of Picasso’s ephemera as the insignificant flotsam of everyday life. The fact that he kept it, however, and went to such care to preserve and date – with day, month, year, sometimes even time – even swift sketches on paper – suggests that he wanted to be remembered for far more than his finished masterpieces. The piles Picasso left behind document his daily existence. They are the thoughts, the half-thoughts, the distractions out of which so many of his ideas grew.   

Daisy Dunn is the author of Of Gods and Men: 100 Stories from Ancient Greece and Rome. Picasso and Paper is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 13 April.

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