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Picasso Prints Offer Solace And Sympathy

After a war like World War II, victors show scant concern for the trauma that individuals of the defeated nation may suffer. Consider Peter Ludwig, an 18-year-old German who was a soldier for two years, then invalided, and then was a prisoner of war in an American camp. He witnessed his city of Coblenz bombed into rubble and his mother taken dead from the ruins of their home.

When he took up his university studies in art history in 1945, reproductions of one artist's work spoke to him: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Professor Ludwig, who has since become a major collector of Picasso's prints, recalls, ''I was profoundly moved: The image of mankind that Picasso's art captured seemed true to life in an intensity that had never been seen. For everything that was said of Picasso's art -- it is dreadful, gruesome, and terrible -- it seemed to me nothing other than a true reflection of reality. This is ... how I myself felt: dealt an inexplicable fate, ... defenseless and yet rebellious, always ready to survive, to begin again and not give up hope, filled with longing for understanding, for security, and for love.''

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So Picasso, who's so difficult for many to understand, who fractured and distorted the image on the canvas, became a lodestar and clarifying factor in this young man's life and the subject of his doctoral dissertation. A carefully chosen exhibition of prints from the collection of Ludwig and his wife is being presented at the Robert Hull Fleming Museum of the University of Vermont in Burlington.

As a printmaker, Picasso was more extraordinary technically than he was as a painter. His prodigious output included etching, drypoint, aquatint, sugar-lift aquatint, lithograph, and linocut. He unhesitatingly combined several techniques on the same plate. His printer, Also Crommelynck, who moved his studio from Paris to the village of Mougins, France, to be near the master, wrote: ''Working with Picasso, there is no technical failure.... When he was dissatisfied with a plate, he would take it and scrape large areas.... He would use the marks of the scraper in a brilliant way, obtaining beautiful grays.''

In the coarse technique of the linocut, Picasso might take one block of linoleum and print four colors from it (instead of the customary use of a block for each color), destroying the block in the process.

''The Frugal Repast'' (1904), an etching, demonstrates his early mastery of the process and interest in tonal grays. It was made two years before his famous Blue Period painting of the same subject. The print also points to Picasso's almost obsessive awareness of his great predecessors, and many prints shown include his visual dialogues with them. In this case, the French artist is Edgar Degas, but aided by the captions, one can recognize echoes of El Greco, whom Picasso claimed as his ''artistic father,'' Carvaggio, Cranach, Rembrandt, Goya, Ingres, Delacroix, Manet, and Cezanne, as well as Minoan and other more primitive art objects as one moves through the show.

Portraiture is a more traditional area of artistic concentration, and Picasso's mastery is evident in the exquisite drypoint of his first wife, ''Portrait of Olga with a Fur Collar'' (1923). Accompanying the finished work is the actual zinc plate on which the needle-fine lines seem to have been drawn spontaneously.

Not at all traditional is his beguiling lithograph of his daughter, ''Paloma and Her Doll'' (1952), which was also done on a zinc plate. The result, made with a greasy black crayon with the light areas scraped and engraved, is strikingly different from the drypoint's fine lines, both in technique and style.

Fifty years of collecting Picasso prints has not dimmed Ludwig's enthusiasm, although his world is now stable and prosperous. All periods of Picasso's many decades as a printmaker are represented in his collection.

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Art, like society, needs innovators to help it reinvent itself, to offer solace and empathy when it is most needed, no matter what the circumstances.

* 'Picasso: Inside the Image, Prints and Print Plates from the Ludwig Museum, Cologne' will be on display at the Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont, until June 4.

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