Art book unites poet and Picasso. Elegant, candid calligraphy and etchings celebrate Gongora's verse

Gongora, by Pablo Picasso. Introduction by John Russell. Poetry by Luis de Gongora y Argote, translated by Alan S. Trueblood. New York: George Braziller Inc. 176 pp. $50. The title is splashed in red across the spacious cover: Gongora. The very word suggests excess and affectation. Linked with the celebrated genius of Pablo Picasso, ``Gongora'' requires an explanation.

Gongorism, we read, is a vice of language, thought, and style. The epitome of the baroque style, it challenges our sense of order, proportion, and clarity. But it is said that Luis de Gongora y Argote himself, the poet (1561-1627) whose name gave us the word, practiced Gongorism only in his middle period. The early and the latest poems were ``simple and unaffected.''

So the textbooks say. Reading, or rather experiencing, Gongora in Picasso's ``Gongora'' is something else again. It is to discover a great poet, a poet virtually unknown to the general reader, and, at the same time, Pablo Picasso, but a Pablo Picasso balancing his fierce originality and that of the equally original Gongora.

In 1947 and '48, Picasso ``copied out'' 20 poems by Gongora and provided covers for them. They were published, etchings and aquatints, in a limited edition of 278 in 1948. As a Spaniard living in Paris during World War II, Picasso must have been deeply moved by Gongora, whom Federico Garc'ia Lorca has called ``the father of modern poetry.'' Picasso had already done an illustrated edition of Pierre Reverdy's ``Chant des Morts.'' In his introduction, John Russell says that with ``Gongora,'' Picasso did ` `the work of a collaborator rather than of a copyist.''

In dry point and aquatint, Picasso created covers and ornamented text pages for each poem; Braziller has added a title page in English for each and a page on which the poem is translated. Gongora's magnificent sonnets, superbly translated by Alan S. Trueblood, professor of Spanish and comparative literature at Brown University, can have had no more elegant and powerful presentation.

The pages by Picasso repay deep looking. The cover pages -- large portrait busts of imaginary women -- constitute what the publicist calls ``a veritable feminine kaleidoscope.''

Then we have the likewise monumental, yet intensely intimate, pages of calligraphy. The page reproduced above (and reduced to one-third its actual size -- the book is 11 by 15 inches) illustrates several aspects of Picasso's calligraphic art. First of all, the page is a whole; the ornamental marks in the margin (remarques) are inseparable from the marks composing the writing. With regard to the remarques, I have deliberately chosen one of the less-spectacular pages, better to isolate the calligrap hy.

As John Russell points out in his introduction, the portraits (especially those with great black manes), while only loosely related to the subject matter of the poems, come as a relief ``from the thicket of Gongora's syntax and the freight of auxiliary meaning that Picasso poured into his calligraphy.''

So what is it about the syntax and calligraphy that raises this project to the level of art?

Mr. Russell notes that Picasso did not blot these pages. Whatever happened in the course of their composition stayed. The ink itself flows unevenly; many lines begin bright and dark (brilliantly black is a paradox of Gongorian dimension), fade out toward the middle, then brighten and darken again.

There are splotches. The letters that begin each line tend to be not only darker, but larger. The letters lean every which way. And yet the effect of the whole -- the art is nothing if it isn't whole -- is one of balance and finality. Perhaps the remarques came after the text and were in part a response to the calligraphy.

There is much to respond to. Picasso's letters remind me of medieval Arabic calligraphy. Compared with block roman type, Picasso's page, like the stunning pages of the great medieval Arabic calligraphers, is busy with life: broad horizontal flourishes, no rationalized spacing of letters as in print, heavy accent marks and points (Picasso's blotches and periods), varying breadth of lines. The connection between order and ornament is a fascinating one. The Arabic calligrapher was considered artistically superior to the picture painter: An aura of the holy accompanied him.

What has this to do with Gongorism, with affectation, with irrationality? Here is the last stanza, in Alan S. Trueblood's firm, eloquent translation:

I shall tell how I saw your forehead crowned

with dazzling light and how your beauty

awakens song in birds, leaves men in tears.

There is nothing affected about these tears: They spring from a sudden awareness of how much more beautiful, in the fullness of time, the already so beautiful can become.

``Gongora,'' like Matisse's ``Jazz'' and Mir'o's ``A Toute Epreuve,'' also highly successful artists' books reproduced by George Braziller, bears witness to Braziller's desire to make works of art available to the general reader. The translations by Alan Trueblood are not only the best Gongora in English, perhaps, but they also reveal that obscure poet's great humanity.

And finally, there's Picasso. Deeply romantic as well as deeply ornamental, Picasso's page never detracts from the original text: It celebrates it, luxuriously, candidly. Like a good translation, Picasso's graphic work is bold enough to reveal what is most original, most universal in the text that inspired him, so that we, too, are inspired.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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