25 July – 10 September 1998
Gallery of works
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,
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.
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.
one principal theme for the Vollard Suite prints was Picasso as
the Minotaur, another was his reworking of the legend of Pygmalion and the
artist's obsession with his model. The story of Pygmalion, most inventively
told in the poetry of Ovid (Metamorphoses Book X), is one that
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'.
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.
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.
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.
1 David Hockney, Picasso, Madras and New York: Hanuman Books, 1990,
with Christian Zervos at Boisgeloup, 1935, quoted in Dore Ashton, Picasso
on Art: A selection of views, Thames and Hudson, London, 1972, p 11.
Collected writings, preface by Michel Leiris, Abbeville
Press, New York, 1989, p xxii.
Pablo Picasso Sculpteurs, modèles et sculpture. [Sculptors, models and sculpture.] 20 March 1933 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1984 © Pablo Picasso/Succession Picasso. Licensed by Viscopy