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“Picasso prints: the Vollard Suite” at the British Museum.
David Franchi – Monday, 2nd July 2012
“Marie-Thérèse Walter soon became his model, muse and lover”
The Picasso’s series of etching ‘The Vollard Suite’ is on show at the British Museum. “Picasso prints: the Vollard Suite” displays for the first time in the UK a complete set of the most celebrated Picasso’s series of etching.
“Picasso prints: the Vollard Suite” comprises 100 etchings produced between 1930 and 1937, a crucial moment in the life of Picasso. This exhibition celebrates the recent acquisition of these etchings, thanks to the generosity of Hamish Parker. It is the only complete Vollard Suite held by a public museum in the UK. At the British Museum works of Picasso alternate with classical sculptures and works by Rembrandt and Goya that inspired him.
The prints were made when Picasso was involved in a sexual extramarital affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, whose classical features are a recurrent presence in the series. She was the French mistress and model of Picasso from about 1927 to about 1935, and together they had a daughter, Maya Widmaier- Picasso.
Marie-Thérèse Walter was born in Le Perreux, France, on 13th July 1909. It is not known exactly when Walter first met Picasso, but it happened around 1927. Their affair began when she was seventeen years old and he was forty-five; it was kept secret from his wife until 1935. Marie-Thérèse Walter soon became his model, muse and lover.
At that time Picasso was still living with his wife Olga Khokhlova, a Russian ballerina from Diaghilev entourage, with whom he had a five-year-old son, Paulo. From 1927 onwards, Marie-Thérèse Walter lived close to Picasso’s family. From 1930, she lived in a house place opposite the one of Picasso.
In 1935, Marie became pregnant. When Olga was informed by a friend about the sex-art-affair and
the child, she immediately left Picasso. They lived separately until her death in 1955, but never divorced, because Picasso wanted to avoid the division of property according to the French law.
María de la Concepción called ‘Maya’, the daughter of Picasso and Marie, born on 5th September 1935. Marie and Maya stayed with Picasso at Juan-les-Pins in the South of France and then at Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, near Versailles, where Picasso visited on the weekends.
Marie-Thérèse became jealous when Picasso started another sexual affair with Dora Maar, a surrealist photographer and model for Picasso, in 1935. Once, she and Maar met accidentally in Picasso’s studio. They asked him to choose between them, but he replied they would have to fight themselves, and the two women started brawling, actually delighting Picasso. Apparently, he had been quite happy with the situation of having two mistresses.
Picasso portrayed the two women in an opposite way: Dora dark and in pain as the ‘weeping woman’, while Marie-Thérèse was blonde and light.
In 1940, Marie and Maya moved to Paris, for the house at Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre was occupied during World War II. Picasso supported Marie and Maya financially, but he never married Marie.
On 20th October 1977, four years after Picasso’s death, Marie-Thérèse committed suicide by hanging herself in the garage at Juan-les-Pins.
“Picasso prints: the Vollard Suite” illustrates the creative process Picasso did undergone during the years between 1930 and 1937 highlighting his obsessions for sex, ancient times and politics – that where at the core centre of his creation. Picasso gave no order to the plates nor did he assign any titles to them. Picasso kept the plates open-ended to allow connections to be freely made among them, yet certain thematic groupings can also be identified.
The principal subject of “Picasso prints: the Vollard Suite” is the ‘Sculptor’s Studio’ (46 etchings), which deals with Picasso’s engagement with classical sculpture. At this point he was making sculpture at his new home and studio, the Château de Boisgeloup outside Paris. The etchings of Marie-Thérèse represent a dialogue alternating between the artist and his creation and his model. Various scenarios are played out between the sculptor, the model and the created work. Among them is the classical myth of Pygmalion in which the sculptor becomes so enamoured of his creation that it comes to life at the artist’s touch. Classical linearity and repose within the studio also alternate with darker, violent forces. The latter are represented by scenes of brutal passion and by the Minotaur (15 etchings), the half-man, half-animal of classical myth, which became central to Picasso’s personal mythology. Picasso in a spirit of competitiveness tips his cap to his great predecessors, Rembrandt and Goya. The series concludes with three portraits of Vollard himself, made in 1937.
For the first time the etchings are displayed alongside examples of the type of classical sculpture and objects that Picasso was inspired by, as well as Rembrandt etchings, Goya prints and Ingres drawings from the Prints and Drawings collection of the British Museum are also displayed.
The Vollard Suite takes its name from Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939), the important Paris art dealer and print publisher, who organised the first Picasso exhibition in Paris (1901). In exchange for some works of Renoir and Cezanne, Picasso produced for Vollard a group of 100 etchings between 1930 and 1937. The mammoth task of printing some 310 sets, plus three further sets on vellum, was completed by the Paris printer Roger Lacourière in 1939. Vollard’s unexpected death in a car accident that year, followed by the outbreak of the Second World War, delayed the distribution of the Vollard Suite until the 1950s by the dealer Henri Petiet who had purchased most of the prints from the Vollard estate.
The set acquired by the British Museum comes directly from the heirs of Henri Petiet and so has an impeccable provenance, having never been shown in public before, and is in pristine condition.
In 2010 the British Museum owned seven plates of the series of which one of them was displayed at
a small private viewing for patrons and benefactors by Stephen Coppel, curator of the modern section of the British Museum, Prints and Drawings collection. The piece had a caption explaining the British Museum had taken thirty years to save that small amount, and that it hoped one day to own the complete series.
Three months later Coppel got an email from one of the guests, Hamish Parker, a City fund manager, saying he might be able to help in raising the money needed – around £900,000. Three months later Coppel got another email detailing the money was provided, leaving him positively surprised.
The series spanning over a period of years, therefore the contents frequently swing mirroring Picasso’s erotic and artistic obsessions, conjugal events, and the gloomy political situation in Europe. The earlier prints on the sexual realization Picasso had by his relationship with Marie-Thérèse. The recurrent figure of the Minotaur is Picasso himself, who during the years changes from an epicurean lover into a rapist and devourer of women, following the up and downs of his life.
A free admission exhibition, “Picasso prints: the Vollard Suite” is of great interest and fascination.
From 3rd May until 2nd September 2012.
At the British Museum, Bloomsbury, London.