Near the end of his life, Pablo Picasso predicted to a friend he
would be remembered as a "Spanish poet who dabbled in painting,
drawing, and sculpture." The most famous artist of the 20th century
was certainly joking. Picasso (1881-1973) knew he would be forever
identified as the figure who rejected Renaissance traditions,
ushering in a complex new relationship of the artist to the visible
world and the audience.
The comment is meaningful, for it provides a glimpse into a
lesser-known side of the protean master. From 1935, when he was 54
years old, until 1959, Picasso devoted himself to a body of writing
that was boldly and consciously poetic.
"I abandon sculpture, engraving and painting," he wrote to
Spanish poet and boyhood friend Jaime Sabartes in 1936, "to dedicate
myself entirely to song." The result was a series of notebooks,
sketchbooks, journals, even napkins filled with prose poems that,
like his paintings, are dense in imagery, relentlessly energetic,
and frequently enigmatic.
Now the poems are available in English for the first time with
the publication of a comprehensive volume of Picasso's writings,
"The Burial of the Count of Orgaz & Other Poems." Coeditors Jerome
Rothenberg and Pierre Joris collected the writings from the original
Spanish and French.
Picasso's literary output has been little more than a footnote to
public awareness of his artistic contribution, but "it's the work of
an accomplished poet," says Mr. Rothenberg. "It was not trivial
work. It's part of the history of experimental poetry in the 20th
The painter began writing seriously at a time in his life when a
divorce impelled him to take a break from painting. Rothenberg
explains in the book's preface that through 1935 and 1936, Picasso
largely ignored paint and canvas and immersed himself in written
expression. Afterward, over more than two decades, he often returned
to writing, producing three plays in addition to the 300-plus texts
"He didn't feel like painting, but the creative rush was still
coming through, so he wrote,'' says Mr. Joris. "It became one of the
ways he expressed that energy."
The writings are unlikely to remake Picasso's image into that of
a poet, at least in the conventional sense. His poems are not
deliberate constructions of meaning, but rather rippling Surrealist
wordplay. They could just as well be called literary paintings. They
unleash a dazzling, allusive torrent of sensory description and
dreamlike action in such images as "wings of forgotten colors," "the
sundrop falling on the tip of the knife," and "white blue white
yellow and rose white of an apple green." Nearly all the writings
were created as prose blocks, rarely in traditional verse lines, and
dated rather than titled.
Picasso wrote in a stream-of-consciousness style, without
punctuation or capitalization, following the counsel of poet Andre
Breton in his 1924 "First Surrealist Manifesto," to "write quickly
with no preconceived subject." The aim, for Breton and Picasso, was
to bypass literal meaning and sweep the unconscious for unexpected
riches of expression. A Picasso entry dated May 4, 1935, begins,
"All the shredded shadows peel off the bodies with haste of the
start of a journey and faithful to their appointment with light...."
"It's a kind of writing at top speed. …