See Picasso's cast of characters at the Clark

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Two prints tell a story just by being placed next to one another. The one on the right is a drypoint etching Pablo Picasso made of his first wife, the dancer Olga Khokhlova, wearing a fur and turning a knowing, dignified face to the side. The craftsmanship shows in the shadow cast on the side of her head, a cross-hatching of planes and grids that seem to rhyme with the Cubist experiments of his earlier career.

And to the left is a smaller lithograph Picasso made of his much younger mistress, Marie-Th r se Walter, whose ghostly profile seems to emerge out of a cloud of ink. It is a profile you'll see over and over again through the rest of the exhibition.

This subtle personal drama is one of the threads running through "Picasso: Encounters," at the Clark Art Institute through Aug. 27. In the roughly 65 years between the earliest and latest prints on display, there will be many more women, many more personal dramas, and just as importantly, many more collaborators.

It is an exhibition not just about the artist and his biography, but about the depth and fury of his exploration of printmaking, a medium he tackled with the same gusto as he did painting and sculpture. The show includes a dizzying variety of styles — etchings, lithographs, aquatints, drypoint, linocuts. Each were rooted in his own larger-than-life mythos, but also often with the help of professional printers and publishers who were sometimes near co-creators.

"Artists always get the credit for doing everything, when they maybe did half of the work," said Jay A. Clarke, the Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Clark. "But actually, the printers and the publishers are a very important part of the equation as well."

The story begins with one of Picasso's best known prints — displayed here just next to the artist's famous self-portrait from 1901, on loan from the Mus e national Picasso-Paris. "The Frugal Repast (1904)" dates from his well-known Blue Period, showing an emaciated, elongated couple sitting before a bottle and an empty bowl, each looking in a different direction.

Clarke said it was this work — which the Clark acquired as part of a collection in 1964 — that got her thinking about this show. "I've always thought we had one of his most important prints, but it has no friends to play with," she said. "Wouldn't it be great to do an exhibition that looks at all his major statements in printmaking?"

Picasso went through styles faster than people, and many are represented here. There is a print from his Cubist period, "Still Life with Bottle of Marc (1912)," with its sharp, winding geometric perspectives. It was commissioned by dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler as part of an effort to generate buzz around the young artist's painting exhibitions.

"Early on, it was more about expanding his renown," Clarke said. "But, like everything else he created, he really wanted to push the boundaries of the medium."

But beyond commercial considerations was the manic need to explore and create. That includes a curious oddity — one of only a handful of woodcuts Picasso made of lover and muse Fernande Olivier in 1906. He had taken an interest in wood sculpture at the time, and the image is roughly gouged out of a board, with the wood grain still visible.

The undertone of the women in his life would be constant. In a few prints from the 1930s are complicated allegories for his personal life, or rather his imagination of his personal life. There is a bullfight featuring his wife and lover goring one another and him in front of a crowd of onlookers. And there is his remarkably intricate, mysterious "Minotauromachia (1935)," featuring the mythical bull/man, a girl with Marie-Th r se's unmistakable profile holding a candle, a boat, a horse, and a Christ-like figure escaping up a ladder. The procession continues up to his last wife, Jacqueline Roque, whose long profile is seen in "Woman with a Flowered Blouse (1958)."

How much of Picasso's personal drama do you have to know to make sense of this? "I think the answer is as much as you are interested in it," Clarke said.

The drama of some artists' lives lends itself to this kind of direct thinking, but Clarke wants viewers to think more about the context. "Don't just think about Picasso, but think about this cast of characters who helped him become who he was — the printers, publishers, spouses, partners who he used and abused — how did they participate in his fame?"

And, of course, his art wasn't just a medium to explore his personal drama. A series of prints represent his "Weeping Woman" series, based on a particular segment of his legendary painting "Guernica" about the fascist bombing of the Basque city during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.

The images are based on his lover at the time, the surrealist photographer Dora Maar, and show how he tinkered and explored different ways of representing the suffering, settling on a very graphic and almost caricature of suffering. Included is another painting from the Picasso museum, his "Portrait of Dora Maar (1937)."

The attention to new techniques would continue right through his career. Some are unexpectedly bright and colorful, like his linocuts. This process entailed carved linoleum blocks, and he worked with printer Hidalgo Arn ra to create layers of color that would be combined to form a finished image — in this case an homage to Edouard Manet's iconic painting, "Luncheon on the Grass."

That awareness of past masters was always in Picasso's work, and was a major theme of the last big Picasso show at the Clark, 2010's "Picasso Looks at Degas." A few late prints explore this idea further, including lithographs from his very last years, from a time in his career that was long dismissed as the sloppy, pro forma end of his career. These include images based on Cranach and Rembrandt. But there's also another, "Picasso, His Art and His Public (1968)." It features the great artist again, imagining himself as part of a circus show, before a crowd of onlookers.

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