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Picasso: The Vollard Suite

Hood Quarterly, autumn 2013
Michael Taylor, Director

This exhibition presents the one hundred etchings that Picasso made between 1930 and 1937, which are collectively known today as the “Vollard Suite.” The dominant motif of the series is that of the sculptor in his studio, a theme that had biographical overtones for the artist, who in 1932 established a sculpture workshop in the stables of the Château du Boisgeloup, situated about forty-five miles northwest of Paris. Many of these etchings were inspired by the sculptures he completed at his country house between 1932 and 1934, and they present an idealized image of Picasso’s studio life. The artist appears in the guise of a classical hero—bearded, nude, and crowned with an ivy wreath—often accompanied by a beautiful young girl who resembles Picasso’s lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, as they relax together and gaze at his recent sculptural creations, including a composite furniture-figure inspired by the surrealist assemblages of fellow Spanish artists Salvador Dalí and Joan Miró.

In the etching Model and Surrealist Sculpture, a beautiful young woman contemplates with baffled curiosity a strange assemblage, in which male and female body parts are merged with fragments of furniture and other bric-a-brac to create a humorous sculpture that can be understood as a surrogate portrait of the artist. The deliberate juxtaposition of this fantastic image, which is simultaneously comic and frighteningly grotesque, with the timeless beauty of the curious young model, whose hair and waist are festooned with garlands of flowers, illustrates the two worlds to which Picasso’s art owed allegiance at this time, namely the harmony and order of classical mythology and the surrealist world of dreams and the imagination.

The atmosphere of the earliest etchings from the Vollard Suite is contemplative and serene, but as the series developed in the mid-1930s the mood darkened, reflecting the political turmoil of the time, especially after the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Picasso was deeply disturbed by the brutal internecine conflict then taking place in his homeland, and the final plates for the Vollard Suite series are populated by the Minotaur, the threatening half-man, half-beast from Greek mythology, often joined by other figures drawn from Spanish bullfighting, such as a dying female matador and a disemboweled horse. The remarkable images of the Minotaur in the Vollard Suite build upon Picasso’s earlier iconography of the bullfight to create a rich personal and political allegory in which the monstrous figure symbolizes irrational, unconscious forces and uncontrolled sexual aggression and violence. The exhibition also includes the final and most important state of Picasso’s 1935 etching Minotauromachy, which has long been regarded as the most important of all of his graphic works and arguably the greatest print made in the twentieth century. In this remarkable work, Picasso portrayed, with great tenderness and empathy, the bison-headed creature as a helpless, blind figure who is guided on his way by a young girl holding a candle. Picasso originally intended this print to be a part of the Vollard Suite, but it was determined by Ambroise Vollard to be too large for the series.

Always conscious of his artistic forebears, Picasso made frequent reference in the Vollard Suite to Rembrandt’s self-portraits and religious subjects, as well as Goya’s images of bullfighting. Like Goya, Picasso was fascinated by the Spanish tradition of the corrida, or bullfight in the ring, during which skillful matadors and picadors struggle with proud and ferocious beasts in a fight to the death. Images of the bullfighting arena appear throughout the Vollard Suite, and Picasso often made direct allusions to Goya’s graphic representations of the rituals and spectacle of the corrida, while also updating this imagery and making it his own by replacing Goya’s bulls with depictions of vanquished or dying Minotaurs. The exhibition includes Goya’s magnificent, rarely seen series of four Bulls of Bordeaux prints, which are among the most extraordinary lithographs ever created and mark the culmination of Goya’s achievement as a printmaker.

Rembrandt’s innovative printmaking techniques and compositions were another important source of inspiration for the Vollard Suite, which contains several imaginary portraits of the Dutch artist in elaborate costumes. Like Picasso, Rembrandt was the most famous painter of his age and an extraordinarily gifted draftsman. He was also an unsurpassed etcher, and Picasso sought to emulate Rembrandt’s painterly approach to printmaking in the Vollard Suite, especially after 1933, when he began working with the master printer Roger Lacourière (1892–1966). Lacourière introduced Picasso to new techniques for creating tonal variations on the plate, including sugar-lift aquatint, spit-bite, and openbite techniques, which were often used in conjunction with etching, drypoint, or scraper. These intaglio processes allowed Picasso to create dramatic chiaroscuro contrasts between the crisp white of the paper and the velvety blacks of the printed image that rivaled those achieved by Rembrandt.

A number of Rembrandt’s best-known prints are featured in the exhibition, including the 1659 etching Jupiter and Antiope, in which Jupiter, disguised as a faun or satyr, ogles the naked torso of the daughter of the King of Thebes, who lies sleeping, with her mouth slightly open, on a great pile of cushions, seemingly oblivious to the faun’s lascivious gaze. This work directly inspired Picasso’s Faun Unveiling a Sleeping Woman, one of the most dramatically expressive prints in the Vollard Suite, in which a faun—the half-man, half-goat of classical mythology—lifts a sheet to unveil the naked body of a slumbering woman. This action afforded Picasso a wonderful metaphor for the Vollard Suite itself, as the artist pulled or lifted sheet after sheet from the printing press to reveal the unbounded richness of his graphic creations, while also providing unique insights into his fragile emotional state during this turbulent time in world history.

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