Picasso Prints: The Vollard Suite @ The British Museum

In 1930 art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard commissioned Picasso (in exchange for paintings by Renoir and Cézanne) to produce 100 etched plates for the homonymous Vollard Suite. Picasso completed the series in 7 years and due to a series of events (including the death of Vollard) the etchings were not published before the 1950’s. This is the very first time the collection can be seen in its entirety thanks to a generous gift by a private collector to the British Museum.

The Vollard Suite reflects Picasso’s great influences and we are given the rare opportunity for an insight view into the artist’s inspirations during such a pivotal phase of his life. He had recently fell madly in love with 17 year old Marie Thérèse Walter who up until 1935 became his muse and mistress. His immense affection for classicism and ancient Greek mythology were filtered via the intense love affair with Marie Thérèse; she is in fact actively present in almost every single etching. Set at ‘the artist’s studio’, they are rich of an idealistic -arcadian- character, where love and pathos electrify all narrated scenes.

Picasso’s obsessions, particularly on the subjects of the Minotaur (the Minoan man beast) and Ovid’s story of Pygmalion (the sculptor falling in love with his model/statue), are progressively evident in the iconography of the series. The scenographic adaptations of both the Minotaur and Pygmalion have clear autobiographical references; Minotaur is his alter ego carrying the characteristics of dense eroticism, sexual desire and gratification. Pygmalion is the personification of the artist falling in love with his ever young model. This is clearly Picasso’s amatory crescendo reflecting an explosion of artistic creation and productivity.

In the course of the years, Picasso’s change of mood which involved both the waning sexual desire for Marie Thérèse and the troubled political situation leading towards the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War had a dramatic impact on his later prints. His Minotaur is now depicted on a darker background as a lonely, blind, tormented beast, battling with his own fears and agonies. This creature is unconstrained from its initial idiosyncrasy and has now become the pioneer figure of that soon to appear in his monumental work Guernica (1937).

The bronze engraved Etruscan mirrors, examples of classical sculpture and the works by Rembrandt, Goya, Ingres and other masters that Picasso also got his inspiration from, are an astonishing accompaniment that compliments the exhibition as a whole. Picasso also felt free to experiment with various print techniques such as aquatint, sugar aquatint, engraving and drypoint, all indicated clearly alongside the brief description for each print. The more in depth supplementary text placed around the exhibition helps for a better understanding of Picasso’s work for the Vollard Suite to a wider audience.

Through this show at the British Museum we are acquainted with another -not so widely known- side of Picasso’s work. Amongst the 100 etchings only one (Seated Nude with her Head Resting on her Hand, 09.03.1934) is reminiscent of his ‘traditional’ cubist style that most of us are accustomed to. The Vollard Suite is a journey to almost a decade of Picasso’s artistic activity and personal reality emphasising not only his tempestuous life but also his anxiety and distress reflecting the turbulent political situation of his home country.