Picasso Prints – The Vollard Suite

So it was my first members evening at the British Museum, and 3 exhibitions that I wanted to see.  I carried on up the steps, past the exhibition on the Horse, the restaurant, through the eerily quiet Mummy room and into room 90 for the evenings choice, the Picasso’s prints.

The Vollard suite contains 100 etchings produced by Picasso between 1930 and 1937.  Picasso himself did not number the etchings or suggest an order, but the have been grouped together after a fashion.  At the beginning of the exhibition there are some classical etchings, thin drawn lines in an expanse of white, such as Masked Figures and Bird Woman.
The Paris painter Roger Lacouriere introduced Picasso to sugar aquatint which introduced tonal effects into the etchings.  These are displayed beautifully in Fawn Uncovering a Sleeping Woman, where the light in the window highlights the simple, classical lines of the womans face, contrasting with that of the detailed fawn.  Based on Rembrandts Jupiter and Antiope (displayed nearby), it is one of 3 such scenes, the others being Man Uncovering Woman and Minotaur Uncovering Woman. All these scenes show a certain tenderness riding on an undercurrent of lust, or is it lust held back by tenderness?

The Sculptors studio is the most predominant theme and Reclining Sculptor Before the Small Torso is one of many  where the lines are classic and crisp and the whole evokes a tranquil contemplation, while the discreet inclusion of a vase of flowers indicates the presence of Marie-Therese Walter, Picasso’s then muse, model and mistress.  In almost all of these etchings Picasso shows the sculptor  in the style of  classical greek sculpture complete with curly beard, reminiscent of Hercules, who features in some of the etchings, his virile masculinity taunted as he reduced to a dislocated head that other sculptures rest on.

The Battle of Love theme includes the Rape series, all of which show a broad Herculean man on top of a smaller woman in differing styles, but almost all with violent curves drawn over and over again.
Marie-Therese, whose sexual exploits with Picasso possibly inspired the rape series, figures in the only etching in the collection with cubist lines – Seated Nude Woman with her head resting on her hand.

If all the ways i have been along were marked on a map, and joined up with a line, it might represent a minotaur” (Picasso)

In the Minotaur theme the sculptures,  earlier of classical nudes, metamorphose into minotaurs, firstly toasting the sculptor, before replacing him and reclining with, and caressing the models.
The etching of this time seem to soak in the emotional turmoil from Picasso’s personal life.  His affair with Marie-Therese (who was pregnant at this time) was causing the break up of his marriage to Olga Khokhlova, while he had started gaining interest in another woman.  Minotaur Attacking an Amazon, Wounded Minotaur and Female Bullfighter and Vanquished Minotaur, the first one shown in the public arena of a bull ring.  Dying Minotaur, again in a bull ring but where the crowd have all become Marie-Therese seems to be Picasso making his final appeal to his muse to stick with him.

The most interesting prints for me were the Blind Minotaur series, based on the Blindess of Tobit by Rembrandt in 1651.  Blind Minotaur Led by a Little Girl I features The Death of Marat crossed out in the top left corner.  At first glance I thought I could see a hint of Guernica, the lines and horses head an echo of the horrific masterpiece that Picasso would paint a few years later.

The etchings are broken up by sculptures, such as a beautiful statue of Venus, a marble group of a Nymph Escaping From a Satyr, busts of Hercules and Aphrodite of Knidos, as well as Estruscan mirrors and sketchings by Goya and Rembrandt.

But the etching that caught me on the way in and the way out was the tender Blind Minotaur Led by a Little Girl in the Night, that inspired and captivated me on so many levels, and I thought of a reworked Greek classic, Theseus finding the centre of the labyrinth to see the other sacrificed youths either dead dying of hunger, while the remaining few help a little girl tending the blind Minotaur.

After the exhibition I grabbed a bite to eat and a cold beer, before leaving with a beautiful lullaby from Kalia floating out down the steps behind me.

British Museum website with info on the Vollard Suite exhibition here


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