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Picasso & The Vollard Suite

Sculpteur et modele agenouillePablo Picasso Sculpteur et modele agenouille [Sculptor and kneeling model] 1933 © Pablo Picasso, 1933/Succession Pablo Picasso Reproduced by permission of VISCOPY Ltd, Sydney 1998

David Hockney wrote of his hero, Pablo Picasso: `By common consent Picasso was a very great artist, and one must go to the very best artists to find comparisons: Goya, Rembrandt, Velazquez'.1 Visitors to the National Gallery over the Christmas holiday period are fortunate to have such an opportunity. While they will be able to view the major Rembrandt exhibition, they can also see Picasso's superb exploration of classicism, the Vollard Suite. The Gallery is fortunate to own a complete set of Picasso's 100 intaglio prints of the 1930s, named after Ambroise Vollard, the foremost French art dealer and publisher. Vollard had been instrumental in the production of these works, although his untimely death in 1939 meant that management of the suite was left to others.

The Vollard Suite contains many themes which reveal Picasso's obsessions, including the classically derived subjects of the Minotaur (the man-beast) and Pygmalion (the artist obsessed with the model). Picasso once said of the role of an artist, `it's not what the artist does that counts, but what he is'.2 He was to identify himself, along with his own sense of artistic creativity and sexuality, with the mythical Minotaur. Nowhere is the link between the artist and `the untamable beast', to use Picasso's words,3 more apparent than in the Vollard Suite, where a major emphasis was devoted to transformations of the artist into his alter-ego, the Minotaur. In legend the Minotaur, who had the head of a bull on the body of a man, was the result of the coupling of Pasiphaë, wife of King Minos of Crete, and a white bull. Minos suffered the wrath of Poseidon, god of the sea, when he failed to sacrifice a white bull as he had promised. As retribution, the god mesmerised Pasiphaë and caused her to be infatuated with the bull. According to the ancient Latin poet Ovid's account, Pasiphaë was overcome with lust for the bull and disguised herself as a cow, `so she could kneel to let a bull mount her and carry in her womb half-man, half-bull'. (Metamorphoses, Book VIII)

Ovid's writing had resonance for Picasso, for the poet had approached the stories of Graeco-Roman gods and heroes with a lightness of touch and intensity. Just as Ovid in the Metamorphoses twisted and turned the ancient stories with passion and inventiveness, so Picasso, in the Vollard Suite, transmuted themes of love and bestiality: sometimes the Minotaur usurps the role of the artist/lover in his studio; sometimes the artist appears instead of a bull in the ring of a bullfight, or is a participant in scenes of erotica or acts of rape and carnage. Distinctions between what is god-like, human or bestial become blurred.

In 1928 the publisher Albert Skira commissioned Picasso to create original intaglio prints for his translation of the Metamorphoses. This new edition appeared in 1931. Picasso depicts the mythological characters in delicate line drawings which enliven Ovid's themes of abandonment, savagery, lust and betrayal. Working on Skira's publication would have reinforced Picasso's fascination with the process of metamorphosis in his own art, to which he continually referred: whether it was the photographic documentation of various stages of a painting, or noting progressive changes when making sculpture.

While one principal theme for the Vollard Suite prints was Picasso as the Minotaur, another was his reworking of the legend of Pygmalion the artist's obsession with his model. The story of Pygmalion, most inventively told in the poetry of Ovid (Metamorphoses Book X), is one which appealed to many artists. The king, Pygmalion, lived in Cyprus, the home of Venus. Beset with problems of his attraction to women, the king resolved to sleep alone; and he developed an interest in art as a distraction. Pygmalion was also a talented sculptor and he created an ivory statue of a young woman, Galatea, so beautiful that he fell in love with it. As Ovid tells it, Pygmalion was overwhelmed with his passion for the sculpture of Galatea, as `he had made it lovelier than any woman born, and fell in love with his own creation'.

As with the subject of the Minotaur, Picasso's interpretations of Pygmalion were obviously autobiographical in tone, and his view of himself as an artist and lover figured largely in depictions of this theme in the Vollard Suite - as does the woman he was obsessed with at the time. In the mid-1920s, Picasso met a young woman, Marie-Thérèse Walter, outside the department store Galeries Lafayette. With her extraordinary `classical' countenance, Marie-Thérèse became both lover and inspiration for Picasso's art.

In a group of prints made towards the end of 1934 we see the themes merge of the man-beast and the artist and model. When the Minotaur is finally blinded by his own unbridled passions and is led away by a young girl whose physiognomy recalls Marie-Thérèse she appears as an Ariadne, daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë, leading her Theseus through the maze, only to be deserted by him.

Marie-Thérèse was the lover who inspired Picasso in the classical look of the Vollard Suite, and as Picasso abandoned its subjects and its style, he abandoned her too, as he focused elsewhere in matters both of art and love.

Jane Kinsman

  1. David Hockney, Picasso, Madras and New York: Hanuman Books, 1990, pp.11-12.
  2. Conversation with Christian Zervos at Boisgeloup, 1935, quoted in Dore Ashton, Picasso on Art: A selection of views, London: Thames and Hudson, 1972, p.11.
  3. Picasso: Collected writings, preface by Michel Leiris, New York: Abbeville Press, 1989, p.xxii.