Carmen is, unquestionably, one of the most popular operas of all time.  First premiering in 1875, the opera was based off a novella written by Prosper Merimée in 1845. Set in Andalusia, the novella, and subsequently the opera, was the result of Merimée’s six-month tour of Spain in 1830. The operatic version differed slightly than Merimee’s original novella; the encounter between the headstrong gypsy girl, Carmen, and the bullfighter she enthralls is delivered as a straight narrative, full of tragedy and lurid detail. By the twentieth century, the operatic version was the more popularly known version of Merimée’s story. Still, his novella remained a fixture of French literature and was translated into many different languages.

Born in Andalusia, Pablo Picasso was intensely proud of his “deep-southern” Spanish roots. As an avid reader, it is more than likely that he would have read Carmen in Spanish in his youth, in French later in adulthood. Carmen is also one of the works of literature to posit the archetype of the “femme fatale”; known for his problematic relationships with women, Picasso most likely would have also found the story of the fiercely independent and manipulative woman captivating.

Picasso began his work on the livre d’artiste in 1948; at the time, his relationship with Françoise Gilot was decidedly cozy and domestic. The cool, elegantly minimal images he realized that year, and in 1949, are certainly a result of the calmness in his relationship. Even the four aquatints produced in May of 1949 for the eleven deluxe copies--two heads of mantilla-bedecked señorita, one of a matador, and one of a bullfight in progress--exude a calmness that is in direct odds with the melodrama associated with both the Carmen story and Picasso’s relationships.

The thirty-eight engravings with burin are of highly stylized faces, some of indistinguishable gender and most pared down to a very few black lines on white. The first engraving in the volume, preceding the first page of text, is of a woman’s visage crowned by an Andalusian mantilla – it is the only topical reference among the images to Carmen herself. A few are recognizable as bull’s heads, but just barely. Such elegance and simplicity was not unusual for Picasso, but he rarely attained such extremes before or since. It is possible that Picasso was paying homage, tinged with satirical overstatement, to his friend and rival Matisse, whose work had become exemplars of such simplistic austerity.

Unlike his previous livres d’artiste – such as Pierre Reverdy’s Chant des Morts and Vingt Poems de Gongora, in which he rewrote the text by hand – Picasso typeset Merimée’s text, except for the first letter of each paragraph.  Along with similarly effervescent notations inserted after each paragraph, these illuminations, outsized and florid like their medieval predecessors, bristle with marginal embellishments called remarques. These sunbursts, hints of landscape, a single wide-open eye, and seemingly non-objective doodles occupy the upper and lower margins left by the typesetting. The severity and geometry of these linear inventions are reminiscent of Picasso’s first experiments with surrealism and geometric abstraction in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Carmen was published in an edition of 320, including the eleven deluxe volumes containing the four aquatints, by the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, part of the library’s extensive activity as a publisher of bibliophilia. Following World War II, the Bibliothèque was instrumental in reviving French publishing activity, especially specialized formats associated with French arts and letters. No such format better represented the marriage of visual art and literature than the livre d’artiste. The coupling of Pablo Picasso with Prosper Merimée--the Spaniard at the center of French art, and the French writer at the center of Spanish culture – made perfect sense in this context, especially as Spain itself remained under the yoke of a fascist dictator. Whether Picasso had picked Carmen himself or was approached by a Bibliotheque official, the French-Spanish collaboration spoke of neighborly amity and implied ultimate triumph over political and social oppression.