La Célestine. Fuite
La Célestine. Fuite (Bloch 1582)

1968 (May 21.II, Mougins)

Etching printed on Auvergne Richard de Bas laid paper with "La Célestine" watermark
From the Suite 347 (Plate 102, La Célestine), one of thirty HCs from the edition of 400
Printed by Crommelynk, 1971
Published by Crommelynk as an illustration for Fernando de Rojas's La Célestine, 1971
Image: 3 1/2 x 4 7/8 inches 
Sheet: 6 1/4 x 6 1/4 inches
Framed: 13 3/4 x 14 1/2 inches
(Bloch 1582) (Baer 1598.B.c) (Cramer 149)

Célestina is the elderly, greedy, and cunning procuress in Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea, a seminal work of Renaissance Spanish literature that was written in 1499 by Fernando de Rojas. Though she is only one of the primary characters, Célestina’s presence in the drama is so remarkable that the work has become known simply by her name. The narrative is highly complex and layered, but the main plot can be summarized thus: Célestina is hired by the nobleman Calisto to arrange a meeting with his love interest Melibea, who has spurned him. Célestina agrees, but hatches a plan to extort him with two of his henchmen, who are frequent customers at her brothel. Later, Calisto’s men learn that she has kept the spoils to herself and they kill her, but their crime is witnessed by Célestina’s prostitutes and they are executed. Afterward, the lovers are on the verge of being united, but Calisto falls off a ladder as he climbs to Melibea. She jumps to her death in response.

 

Picasso was fascinated with Rojas’ drama (he owned two early editions from 1501 and 1534*), as well as its self-serving antagonist– the archetype of a seemingly omnipotent old woman who would fulfill any request for a price. As noted by Memory Holloway Picasso’s interest in the character stemmed not only from the drama, but also from life—as a youth, he lived down the street from a woman of similar character and painted her portrait in 1904.i From this early point in his career, the haggardly Célestina appears intermittently in his work—she lurks in the background of a 1934 etching, En la Taberna. Pêcheurs Catalans en bordée (Catalan Fisherman at the Cabaret) (Bloch 286), and plays a minor role in his 1954 series of drawings, La Comédie Humaine (The Human Comedy). In 1968, however, she takes center stage in a series of sixty-six prints now known as La Célestine. As usual, Picasso was not interested in remaining true to the author’s text. Rojas’ story is complex and has a number of characters and subplots, but Picasso focuses “solely on the lovers, their meetings, and Célestina’s role as intermediary…”.ii Departing from the chaste relationship between Calisto and Melibea in the original, Picasso’s version of events is highly erotic in nature and seems to suggest an alternative outcome in which Melibea becomes a prostitute herself.iii

 

As for Célestina, what accounts for Picasso’s sudden preoccupation this procuress, who had previously been of only occasional interest? Holloway believes that the elderly Picasso saw a great deal of himself in this fictitious character, “an aged dabbler in magic and a voyeur who discovers pleasures in the sexual activities of others”.iv He seems to take vicarious pleasure in what unfolds before his brothel madam (many scholars believe that Picasso’s virility was compromised after his ulcer surgery in 1965), and through her, he explores a ribald fantasy world of exposed bosoms, splayed limbs, and smiling young faces. Holloway also notes that Picasso may have also been attracted to the character as a potent representation of the power of sight, “She had …a powerful capacity to alter events by the sheer act of looking... and misses nothing that passes before her”.v

 

As a series, La Célestine demonstrates a wide range of styles and techniques in keeping with La Suite 347 as a whole. Picasso employs loose, sketchy lines, broad brushstrokes, textural effects, and controlled linear patterning. Some of these methods are combined on one plate, while other etchings are executed with uniform mark-making. In terms of technique, he employed the full arsenal of traditional etching methods and experimented with them endlessly, manipulating the results with unconventional materials and approaches. He used a scraper tool as a drypoint instrument, scratched etched areas with steel wool, and covered entire areas in varnish and then re-etched them. In a number of plates with sugar-lift aquatint, he greased the plate in advance of painting with the sugar syrup; the oil-based material randomly repels the action of the acid on the plate, resulting in a blotchy textural effect. He also used gasoline as a solvent to dissolve hard ground in a controlled manner—a kind of reverse aquatint—that resulted in velvety and multi-hued tones. Ever in search of new means of expression, Picasso remained a pioneer in printmaking to the end.

 

The current impression is from the 1971 book edition in which Picasso’s illustrations were paired with Rojas’ original text, published by Atelier Crommelynck, Paris. As the book was prepared for publication, Picasso made it clear that his etchings should not be printed with text on the reverse. The total book edition was 400 and each copy was signed on the justification. The prints were also published as a subset of the 347 Suite, published in 1969 in a signed and numbered edition of fifty plus fifteen artist’s proofs.

 

 

i Memory Holloway, “Compulsive Attraction: The Late Works on Paper” in John Richardson, et al., Picasso: Mosqueteros [New York:
Gagosian Gallery, 2010], 214.
ii See Holloway, Making Time: Picasso’s Suite 347 [New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2006], 102.
iii Ibid., 102-3.
iv Ibid., 100.
v “Compulsive Attraction,” 214.