In the span of 12 days in 1968, when he was 87 years old, Pablo Picasso made a series of 25 etchings that depict erotic episodes involving Raphael and his mistress Margherita Loti, known as La Fornarina (The Baker’s Daughter). Because it is Picasso and Picasso was a committed, promiscuous and successful borrower of style and subject matter originating from multiple places and historical moments, a small investigation, even a cursory one of these two dozen etchings yields names and references as varied as Michelangelo, the Vatican, Jean Auguste Ingres and psychoanalysis.
This little study is built upon the story of Raphael and his appetites, which is entertaining in and of itself but the story also offers a convenient way to mention some of the foundational ideas about sex, art, and inspiration held by Picasso.
First, we can say that Picasso’s statement “sex and art are the same thing” suggests ideas of sexual energy, sublimation, creativity, paraphilia, all terms familiar to us as post-Freudian subjects. In fact, it can be argued that when Picasso draws Raphael painting a portrait of his mistress while simultaneously making love to her (Raphael has paintbrush and easel in hand while he penetrates Margherita), Picasso is making art in order to sublimate sexual energy. In short, the artist, the exceptional man, can have it both ways: the paintbrush and the phallus can both satisfy and be satisfied.
And what of sex as compulsion? In several of the etchings we see Pope Julius II, sometimes sitting on a throne, sometimes on a chamber pot (his behind in full view), sometimes hiding behind a curtain, watching, and sometimes in full view of the lovers in action. Picasso’s message is clear: while the office of the Pope is meant to confer respect to the man who represents divine power on earth, this pope is a voyeur who permits the forbidden (sexual gratification — his and his employee Raphael’s — against the codes of Catholic orthodoxy), making him and his office mere objects of fun.
The other figure that lurks in these sketches, often hiding underneath the bed, is Michelangelo. The story (from Giorgio Vasari) goes that Raphael, curious, needing inspiration, viewed the work in progress in the Sistine Chapel without permission and proceeded to copy the style. Michelangelo never forgave him for stealing, uttering “Everything he knew he learned from me.”. Three hundred years later, Jean Auguste Ingres borrows from Raphael, painting “Raphael and The Fornarina”, using his own mistress Madeleine Capelle and justifying his borrowing by asking, “Is there anyone among the great ones who has not imitated? Nothing is made with nothing.”. A century and a half later, the Ingres painting provides Picasso inspiration: he too, sketches the lovers, claiming “good artists copy, great artists steal”. Perhaps Picasso is saying that a good artist merely transports theme and image from one canvas to another, one age to another, but a great artist transforms previous art so that it suggests a new and different understanding of life.
In these 25 sketches Picasso plays with ideas of patrimony, ego and method and besides challenging us, he makes us laugh a little.