According to Picasso, 'He had the vanity of a woman, that man' but the Parisian art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard – hardly a looker if his portraits are to be believed – evidently earned his egoism. After all, he was shrewd enough in 1895 to give Cézanne, then a neglected painter in his fifties, his first solo show, and subsequently supported many of the young artists who would go on to dominate twentieth-century art, Picasso included.
In 1936, when asked to round up the 97-strong collection of etchings he had made for Vollard over the previous six years, Picasso quickly rounded them up to the full ton with three etched portraits of the pushy dealer in a day, hence why it would become known as 'The Vollard Suite'.
It stands as one of the great masterpieces of printmaking, a collection that, even though Picasso neither titled the works nor assigned them any particular order, offers a pulse-quickening account of his preoccupations during the period.
From a return to a kind of restorative classicism that had appeared in his work after WWI, through increasingly fevered depictions of encounters with his young mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, to intimations of his political re-engagement amid the encroaching clouds of the Spanish Civil War and WWII, the suite is an ever-shifting reflection of Picasso's influences and compulsions.
Displayed according to themes such as the 'The Sculptor's Studio' and 'The Minotaur', which were given their labels in the 1950s by the art historian Hans Bolliger, it enables us to see the workings of Picasso's mind with a focus quite unlike that of any other Picasso exhibition in recent memory.
The level of elucidation is partly down to the excellence of the display. The prints are shown with antiquities similar to those which Picasso would have seen at the Louvre, including engraved Etruscan mirrors, statues of Venus and a Roman well head decorated with scenes of erotic pursuit, as well as judiciously placed Old Master works on paper from the British Museum's collection by Rembrandt, Goya and others, that were of direct influence.
As a result, Picasso's Janus-like vision is brought into focus. Here he is looking at Ingres, who in turn looks to Raphael in 'Raphael and the Fornarina' (1818), an image in which Ingres imagines the sixteenth-century painter and his lover entwined in folded cloth in front of an easel. In the 'The Sculptor's Studio', the 46 etchings that form the fevered heart of the 'Vollard Suite', Picasso revives the scene, intensifying its eroticism through a variety of encounters between artist, model and artwork, the best of which set up a not always easily fathomable relationship between creator and created.
No artist has conflated making art and making love with quite the same gusto as Picasso. He courts then overwhelms his subject (it's best to leave feminist scrutiny at the door). More predatory still is his alter-ego, the Minotaur, whose thuggishness is in stark contrast to the finesse of Picasso's line.
The same heavenly touch adds real pathos to the threatening darkness of later images, in which the brutish Minotaur, now blind, is reliant on his young muse. So anguished are these images that it's not difficult to think of them as paving the way for 'Guernica'.
A few months before WWII was declared, Vollard was killed in a car crash. According to rumour, a copper etching plate placed on the back shelf behind his head delivered the fatal blow. His death and the outbreak of war impeded the distribution of the prints until the 1950s. The British Museum had the opportunity to acquire a set in 1955 but declined. That we at last have this jewel to admire is thanks to a gift by the private collector Hamish Parker. Even in a year of extra-specially polished exhibitions, it is unlikely to be outshone.
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A thoughtful exhibition, bigger than expected, showing an under-appreciated side of Picasso, and his interest in works of antiquity and of old masters. Don't go by the online images; the actual prints are a delight.
The exhibition is clearly seperated and closely connected by 9 parts, with self observing, thinking, and illusion by Picasso. Like it much!