PRINT November 1967

Surprise, Invention, Economy in the Sculpture of Picasso

IN HIS SCULPTURE, PICASSO CONTRADICTS the views the views of both the public and many sculptors that the artist should always be straightforward, stylistically single-minded (or single-moded), constantly working to the very limits of his ability, and displaying reverence toward his craft and materials.1 Sculptures like his bicycle-derived Head of a Bull and the modeled Skull, show that he can be playful as well as serious, and that there are as many modes to his style as he has moods, motifs and materials to work with. Like owners of great cars he prefers to operate not flat out, but with something in reserve. Picasso’s attitude toward his craft often gives the impression that he is suppressing his skill or that he is indifferent to technique and disinterested in materials. (When he’s not near the material he loves, he loves the material that’s near. But he locates his studios where he can successfully scrounge.) To those who feel the artist must be a model of sobriety and originality, Picasso can appear as only a visual punster or one who will readily plunder the art of others. Picasso did tell Francoise Gilot that, “when there is something to steal, I steal it.”2 (But he steals ideas, not rules.)

Exhibitions of more than two hundred of his sculptures, as put on at the Petit Palais, the Tate and now the Museum of Modern Art in New York, do much to create the impression that Picasso’s art, varied as it may be, does not proceed from any kind of orderly or consistent intellectual base. Just as there are discernible constants that unify his myriad modes into an overall style, so too has he grounded his thinking and way of working in a few premises to which he has been faithful throughout his life. In his own words, as recalled by Francoise Gilot, “We mustn’t be afraid to invent anything. . . . You must always work with economy in mind . . . I’m out to fool the mind, not the eye.”3 Invention, economy and surprise are conditions of mind, and habits of work that have overlapped and reinforced each other since Picasso’s youthful beginnings and were fully developed and operative by the time he was making Cubist paintings and assemblages in 1912. Recognizing these premises helps us to understand the paradoxical public image Picasso presents as a sculptor as well as a painter.

Picasso’s commitment to invention goes back to the early years of this century. Before the First World War in Paris many young sculptors and painters were looking for viable alternatives to imitation (of nature), as the basis for their art. Attitudes towards life and art rather than the exhaustion of illusionistic formal means led to this basic change. Picasso, Derain, Matisse, Brancusi, Archipenko Duchamp-Villon and others felt that the surface appearance of nature had been discredited as the revelation of reality; hence the frequent reference by these artists to their search for “true” or “essential” form. Cézanne, Gauguin and Seurat had provided painters and sculptors alike with the precedent of this rejection as well as that of the artist assuming an autonomy over his motif, reshaping it according to his personal temperament and vision. Picasso was a beneficiary of the 19th-century inheritance that continued to regard nature as indispensable to art, but made imperative the artist’s reformation of the visible world to make it more truthful, expressive and beautiful through his art. (Deformation presupposes a norm of beauty such as existed before and implies a negative action. Picasso and others were not after the ugly and recognized no such prior norm of beauty.)

Archipenko has claimed that he came to Paris in 1908 with the experience and aim of sculptural invention. He probably found in the paintings, drawings and sculpture of Picasso many of the premises of his own sculpture thereafter. The early revolution in modern sculpture was in form, not content. It was above all, but not exclusively, Picasso’s work that provided young sculptors with the model of a living youthful artist reforming nature and objects with a form language largely of his own devising. The vogue for primitive sculpture and primitivizing were symptoms, not causes, of the pre-1914 sculptural revolution with its premium upon conceptual art, the remembered rather than the seen, the treated as opposed to the natural look. A personal unnaturalistic or unacademic style that gave evidence of invention was the way to be modern.

Picasso’s inventiveness starts with his refusing to accept the given. All that he touches must be changed in some way, either in its form, meaning or context. Accepting the idea that five or even three shapes can make a human face, for example, he has spent a lifetime conjugating these shapes and their sequence. It is a creative activity that Meyer Schapiro has called “transforming manipulation.”4 The Goat, in my opinion may be its greatest embodiment in Picasso’s sculpture.

By 1912 in his Guitar, Picasso showed that sculpture could not only be modeled, carved and cast, but cut out, assembled, bent, folded and twisted, in short, manipulated. His inventions that grew out of the shared experience with Braque of papier collé led to an ethic of complete permissiveness of means in modern sculpture. As is also well known, for his Cubist assemblages Picasso used materials that had not previously been considered the raw or noble materials of sculpture and which had been given a manufactured shape before he chose them. He thus contributed to this ethic of permissiveness of materials. That Picasso did not intend these assemblages as pure formal demonstrations or for the sake of novelty, but rather as part of serious inquiry, is evidenced by his statement in 1949 to Sabartés: “Thus when we devoted ourselves to our creations we produced ‘pure truth’ without pretensions, without tricks, without malice. What we did then had never been done before: we did it disinterestedly, and if it is worth anything it is because we did it without expecting profit from it. We sought to express reality with the materials we did not know how to handle, and which we prized precisely because we knew their help was not indispensable to us.”5

Picasso’s interest in reality takes the form of preoccupation with the banal or commonplace motif. His inventiveness has consisted in part in a permissive attitude toward subject matter, seeing “humble” subjects as possible for sculpture as well as painting, drawing and prints. (“Painters beget pictures as princes beget children, not with princesses, but with country girls.”6) The guitars, mandolins and still lifes of the Cubist period that Kahnweiler has called “signs” and “emblems” differ from their prior sculptural history in that they are not trophies, indications of military or political victory, symbols of families and professions, or business advertisements.

As in his paintings and his and Braque’s “tableau-objet,” so in his Cubist sculptures Picasso contributed to the self-sufficient or self-explanatory sculpture. Defecating cats, pregnant women, potted flowers, mothers strolling with prams, girls in gardens and skipping rope retain their common nature but take on uncommon form in the context of Picasso’s transforming manipulations. (But they also remind us that his sculptural gifts, along with manipulation, include modeling!)

It was after 1906 and the emergence of Cubism that Picasso’s inventiveness with respect to making shapes and their union became most apparent. His still lifes and musical instrument sculptures show that our attention was not to be diverted by reconstructing their identity in our minds—a trivial and unnecessary activity as we can now see—but rather we were asked to focus upon how these motifs had been submitted to a variety of segmentations or divestments, flattening or augmented relief, manifold ways of insuring an incompleteness that gave each part a contingency on some other part and the whole. (Guitar of 1912 was at times hung on a wall as part of a composition involving other reliefs.) With the Cubist sculpture’s gain in self-sufficiency of meaning, there was a corresponding loss of the formal independence of the parts. Perhaps Picasso’s most important invention for sculptors like Laurens and Lipchitz, was in making the whole sculpture or its motif unpredictable on the basis of its parts as seen in such works as the crumpled metal and painted version of Guitar of 1914. Both Picasso and Braque, in their painted portraits and figure compositions created between 1909 and 1912, offered influential alternatives to shapes that imitated the biologically formed or looked modeled. (Picasso felt that his use of straight marks and flat angular planes might have been a personal reaction to the Art Nouveau which surrounded him in Paris.) Resemblance gave way to analogy in Cubist figure sculpture.

It was Picasso’s friend Julio Gonzalez who pointed out how the former’s Cubist sculpture made possible the denial of the closed, continuous silhouette as a basis for sculptural form. Sculpture acquired a continuity of inside and outside, open form in its fullest sense down to 1914, and suggested that the artist could literally work by starting within his composition and not determine its final shape by making successive contours, as in naturalistic modeling. This was also an open-minded, empirical way of working that was to lead in his own work, that of the Constructivists and Gonzalez to sculpture without mass and freer incorporation of space within the sculpture’s implied limits. (But Picasso was not the first to enact “transparency” in sculpture as Kahnweiler avers. Boccioni’s Development of a Bottle in Space, and Archipenko’s Walking Woman of 1912, both preceded the Absinthe Glass series by two years, although they in turn reflect the ideas of Picasso’s Cubist painting and drawing.)

After 1929 Picasso’s sculpture took new inspiration from Surrealism and its celebration of instinct and biomorphic form. Picasso’s inventiveness with respect to body imagery which helped open up new areas of expressing a human subject’s feeling about its own shape and proportion, led to his challenging notions of the formless in a series of brilliant modeled running and prancing figures. The “felt” body image and recourse to found objects revitalized and expanded Picasso’s gifts as a shape maker. But equally impressive is the way in which the activity of the Surrealists encouraged him to create, find and transfer what for sculpture were new textures. The importance of texture for sculpture had earlier been recognized by Picasso while making papier collé compositions and Cubist assemblages: “Aside from rhythm, one of the things that strikes us most strongly in nature is the difference in textures; the texture of space, the texture of an object in that space, a tobacco wrapper, a porcelain vase and beyond that the relation of form, color and volume to questions of texture. The purpose of papier collé was to give the idea that different textures can enter composition to become the reality in the painting that competes with reality in nature.”7

One of the many contributions of the current Picasso sculpture exhibition is that it allows us to see so many of his early and later modeled sculptures, thereby showing the range of textures of which his hands are capable. Even when emulating flesh he has never repeated the same texture, and after about 1905 he resisted modeling surfaces that were ingratiating by their smoothness. The “flesh” or modeled anatomical sections of the Woman in a Long Dress shock by their rudeness and his minimal concession to the conventional form and surface character of a face and arm. (The face can be pathetic or cruel, depending upon the angle from which it is seen.) There is, however, an innate sense of decorum in Picasso’s selection or fabrication of a texture in terms of the personality of a given subject. That of his Goat, for example, is preserved without Picasso’s having imitated a hair of its body, because he has been able to invent equivalent textures that evoke the animal’s unkempt scraggly covering. Picasso concocts textural qualities that our memory accepts with respect to those in nature such as a long exposed human skull, an alley cat, a cock or a rugged shepherd holding a lamb. The rough and smooth of the Pregnant Woman, evoke in the latter’s bulging passages the stretching of the breasts and belly, and also the locus of maternal self-consciousness. Those textures made in the thirties and forties by taking impressions of corrugated material, leaves and crumpled paper are interesting and opened still-to-be-fully-explored avenues for other sculptors. But those surfaces fashioned by his own hands impress the strongest and longest. No other sculptor has found as many ways of leaving his mark.

Picasso’s commitment to nature and hatred of symmetry help to explain another side of his creativity; the individualizing of paired motifs. Not only are no two pairs of eyes similar to any other pair, but always the left and right eyes, the sides of the face, the arms and hands, breasts and legs, all show dissimilarity in man and beast. (Even the pregnant cat is lopsided, and the Girl Skipping Rope has two left shoes, which defeats symmetry.) In the human head the result of this type of sculpture serves not only to enrich the form, but also to broaden the character of his subjects, as is so forcefully shown in the great Boisgaloup series.

Working in series is an important symptom of Picasso’s self-assuredness as a creator, and not evidence of restlessness or indecisiveness. From the Impressionists and 19th-century artists such as Cézanne (and not from African tribal art as one writer would have us believe), Picasso was bequeathed the example of an artistic idea being expressed not in a single finished masterpiece, but in a series. He can work both by premeditation and improvisation, and is always alert to those crossroads where he could take different routes in making a sculpture. He will often go back and take another turning, or explore several alternatives at once in a group of sculptures. Kahnweiler told me recently that the Boisgaloup heads were not all made consecutively, but that he remembers many of them in the course of simultaneous development. Like Matisse and Brancusi, Picasso often finds it hard to concede that a work is finished and that he has either no more ideas on the subject or can’t improve upon it. Picasso has tied his art to his own growth and change believing all his life that he must work like nature, by never repeating himself.

Economy has plural origins and manifestations in Picasso’s sculpture. On one level it stems from frugal habits ingrained from the years of poverty, on another, it stems from his thoughtfulness about his own capacities and what he can learn from older practices of art. On still another level it is knowing precisely when and where he can express his individuality or what it is that he wants to be personal in his sculpture. From his work with Gonzalez down to that with Karl Nesjar, for example, he has not hesitated to employ an assistant to make an armature or a mold, to weld shapes together, or transfer paper cut-outs into metal, or, more recently, to make enlargements in a second medium. This shows conservation of time and energy in an aging artist that, while disdained by many sculptors, is well within the honorable European tradition of the artist and craftsman that freed thought and action for the former. Rodin belonged to that tradition, and Bartoldi called on Gustave Eiffel to make the inner armature of the Statue of Liberty.

Economy for Picasso also takes the form of the minimal input to get the maximal result. His constant problems include finding the most direct means to make his sculptures.8 The inventory of materials that went into making the Goat is more heterogeneous than that animal’s impressive dietary capacity. Doing such things as using old candy boxes as molds for plaster heads is not a sign of laziness. Picasso is disdainful of all forms of waste, redundancy, extravagant effort, and virtuosity. His cultivation of accident or chance encounters with found objects may help him to economize his inner creative resources when other inspiration is not present, but the use of objects, as he has pointed out, does not always imply that his work is easier.

One of the earliest and most important evidences of Picasso’s ideas about economy again occurred in his Cubist constructions. Unlike those of Laurens and Lipchitz, both full-time and professionally trained sculptors, Picasso’s work does not have the look of craft. Both in Guitar of 1914 and Man of 1958 (which looks like a painter’s battered easel) Picasso allowed the nails to split the wood with the technical insouciance of a child carpenter. These and many other works lack the finish and finesse, particularly the fine carpentry and neat painting of Laurens’s and Lipchitz’s Cubist sculptures. These men felt the imperative of learning and mastering their new materials unlike Picasso’s disinterested attitude. On certain occasions he has stressed how important it is to get the energy and enthusiasm that first accompanies the birth of an idea as quickly as possible into a work, before it wanes. He advised Francoise to always “have strength in reserve. You must always work not just within, but below your means.”9 If there is an analogous attitude it may have been held by Matisse and Rodin, who often refused to carry their work beyond a certain point if they felt they had captured the sensations felt before the model, thereby avoiding labored or unfeeling activity.

The staggering quantity of Picasso’s sculpture alone suggests that he has never let a good idea go untested. He stores ideas for years waiting for the right situation, such as discovering that bronze and the motif of a girl skipping rope would allow him to realize his desire to get sculpture off the ground. When Francoise had finished helping him collect scrap materials by hauling them in a baby’s pram, Picasso used his medium for the message Woman With a Pram. Since Cubism, Picasso has been able to think and work with an elastic conception of the human form because he knows that both he and we can recognize a face or body on minimal evidence, or by their unlimited analogies to other things. Evidence of this belief that there are those who share his own flexibility or reversibility of thinking comes from his statement about the Head of a Bull, which he feels some bicycle enthusiast will recognize for what it was and could be again.10

The current large exhibition leans heavily upon bronze casts, many of which seem to have been made for commercial as well as practical reasons. (I have in mind the bronze versions of Man With a Javelin, Head of 1958 and Man of 1960, and other works originally in wood or less durable material.) This tends to give Picasso’s work more of the conventional look of cast sculpture than would an exhibition which showed only the original materials employed by the artist.11 (Picasso wanted to keep the Goat in plaster, for example, but recognized that it would not survive the weather and a lot of moving around.) My point is that the latter exhibition would better demonstrate that, even before Harry Holtzman said it, Picasso believed that “Hardening of the categories produces art disease.” Economy has taken the form of Picasso believing that certain formal ideas in painting can be reworked in three dimensions. In the late twenties he seems to have extracted the drawn Cubist armature from his series of studio paintings and, with the help of Gonzalez, made an open form wire sculpture. Gonzalez recalled that Picasso had shown him how certain paintings could be cut up and sculptures made by following the suggestions of the colored planes as to angle or movement. In Woman in a Garden, which grew out of his paintings at that time, one can see not only that ideas born in painting can make good sculpture, but that Gonzalez honored Picasso’s ideal of frugality of means. There is not an excess drop of solder nor an excessive thickness of iron sheeting. So beautiful is the armature that the distinction of front and back seems irrelevant. This sculpture also testifies that economy need not mean simple form. Despite its complexity, Woman in a Garden exemplifies Picasso’s desire for economy or efficiency of seeing when we look at his work. Picasso was also heir to the late 19th-century preference for the quickly comprehensible image as opposed to that which one reads serially over a long period of time. The former strikes right at the emotions. He relies on strong initial impact and this guides him in deciding whether or not to intervene with found objects.

There is much to learn and enjoy beyond the initial moments of encountering a Picasso sculpture, however, and we underestimate him if we think he has no interest or pride in how his works are made. He is inquisitive about technical matters and consults with artisans who in turn respect him. Information thus derived can tell him how to avoid abortive projects that waste time and effort. Francoise recalls in her autobiography that during a seduction scene with Picasso they stood in front of a vitrine in his studio and he pointed out with pride and pleasure the ingenuity with which he had made certain small sculptures. Karl Nesjar told me recently how interested Picasso is in the movies taken of the work in progress on the concrete enlargements he is making in Scandinavia of recent small cut-out sculptures. (He also mentioned that Picasso now seems to want to conserve his energy for painting which he looks upon as his most important vocation at this point in his life.)

Picasso’s conservation of ideas as well as energy is most recently apparent in the metal cut-outs that have been transferred from paper. His problem was in a sense the reverse of his early Cubist works. Then it was adapting a three-dimensional motif to the Cubist vocabulary and grid-like composition on a flat surface. In these last years he has had to transpose a two-dimensional drawing into a self-supporting or three-dimensional sculpture. By folding the paper he was restoring in a sense the old Cubist grid, but now it has been applied over the drawn faces. From Cubism he knew that the axes of the folds need not accord with those of the lines or features and could be arbitrary in relation to anatomy. The results have been ingenious, but not as impressive as their early Cubist predecessors.

The third basic premise of surprise from which Picasso has worked since his youth is admirably explained in two statements made to Francoise, and the first reminds us of how much of Dadaism was implicit in Cubism: “One of the fundamental points about Cubism is this: Not only did we try to displace reality, reality was no longer in the object. Reality was in the painting. . . . The purpose of the papier collé was to give the idea that different textures can enter a composition to become the reality of the painting that competes with the reality of nature. . . . The sheet of paper was never used in order to make a newspaper. It was used to become a bottle or something like that. It was never used literally, but always as an element displaced from its habitual meaning into another meaning to produce a shock between the usual definition at the point of departure and its new definition at the point of arrival.”12

“I am out to fool the mind rather than the eye. And that goes for sculpture too. . . . I take the old metaphor, make it work in the opposite direction and give it a new lease on life . . . the form of the metaphor may be worn out or broken, but I take it however down at the heels it may have become, and use it in such an unexpected way that it arouses new emotion in the mind of the viewer, because it momentarily disturbs his customary way of identifying and defining what he sees.”13

Crucial to the element of surprise is Picasso’s idea about composition, which he refers to as involving “rapport de grant écart . . . tearing nature apart in every way.” The surprising conjunction of the unexpected depends, however, not just on tearing apart, but putting together. Picasso has a great eye for analogies, or “metaphors,” as he puts it. He has an exceptional faculty for making associations between the structures of things and finding a physiognomic in a wide variety of objects. The posterior of the Goat (prudishly avoided by most photographers) illustrates how he strips down and rebuilds such an unlikely subject into a structure more compelling than its inspiration.

Starting with Cubist painting and collage, Picasso developed, as did others, the devices of inversion and dislocation. It was not African Wobe masks, as Kahnweiler argues, that in 1912 led him to substitute the concave for the convex, the open for the closed, for these inversions can be seen earlier in the Cubist Head of 1909. Dis- or relocation of objects has taken the form in the Boisgaloup bust series of putting the nose above the eyes, elsewhere making a shovel into a bird, a palm branch into a goat’s spine, nails into flowers and light rays, a wicker basket into a rib cage, water basins into breasts and bellies, forks into fingers, raw cut lumber into semaphoric warriors and bathers. Picasso conceived of both a box and a spoon as separate evocations or metaphors of the human head.

His use of inversion has ranged from making concave fingernails for a hand, through reversing the concave/convex relationships for modeling reliefs, to casting his wooden pieces into bronze. (Bronze casting has not always compromised the esthetic in his sculpture and is sometimes constant with his desire for surprise.) If we had only the sculpture of Picasso we could not fail to be impressed by how extraordinarily alert he has been to all forms of experience which, coupled to a fidelity to his own nature, has made over his art into a monitor of his moods and whims as well as the means of working out a variety of interesting problems.

Last but not least of the surprising things about Picasso’s sculpture is his many forms of conservatism. The motifs of the human face and figure have been conserved throughout his art and are still central to it. He has drawn frequently on the old devices of frontality or the motionless figure. He has reveled in natural movements like running and dancing. Repeatedly he has returned to modeling and casting. Though begun for himself, he has produced works like Man With a Lamb that have come to serve as public monuments. He has rediscovered and called attention to old techniques like reliefs and graffiti, and emulated the styles and motifs of innumerable cultures without subscribing to their norms. He draws the face out of the stone, clay or object and feels that it is the artist, not the public, that should put meaning in the work of sculpture (unlike so many of today’s “minimalist” sculptors). Work is his joy and he shows his pleasure. For some, Picasso’s crime is that he doesn’t publicly agonize about art and seems to have fun instead. He has the old Rodin ethic of work: make something and an idea will come. Picasso’s salutation is, fittingly, “Have you worked well?” The current exhibition of his sculpture affirmatively answers the question with respect to his own lifetime.

Albert Elsen



1. This essay grew out of researches into the beginnings of modern sculpture sponsored this past year by the Guggenheim Foundation.

2. Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life With Picasso, London 1965, p. 293.

3. Gilot, p. 86 and 297.

4. Lectures on modern art at Columbia University, 1951–1952.

5. Jaime Sabartes, Picasso: An Intimate Portrait, London 1949, p. 212.

6. W. Boeck and Jaime Sabartes, Pablo Picasso, London 1955, p. 504.

8. “Everything interesting in art happens right at the start. Once past the beginning you’re already at the end.” Boeck and Sabartes, p.504. Henry Moore commenting on the Picasso show at the Tate said that he was pleased to see a quick witted sculptor and one who did not come to sculpture as a type of physical therapy whereby long slow labor replaced thought.

9. Gilot, p. 50.

10. “. . . he had made a sculpture of a bull’s head out of the seat and handlebars of a bicycle. He used to say that this sculpture was reversible. “I find a bicycle seat and handlebars in the street and I say, ‘Well, there’s a bull . . .’ Everybody who looks at it after I assemble it says, ‘Well, there’s a bull,’ until a cyclist comes along and says, ‘Well, there’s a bicycle seat,’ and he makes a seat and a pair of handlebars out of it again. And that can go on, back and forth, for an eternity, according to the needs of the mind and body.” Gilot, p. 297.

11. Picasso did not make his sculpture for exhibition and until recently preferred to keep it in his house and studios.

12. Gilot, p. 70.

13. Gilot, p. 298.