When it came to marketing himself, art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) was a pro. He had a knack for scouting out young artists with rockstar potential and he wasn’t afraid to ask for favors later on. Vollard gave Pablo Picasso his very first gallery show in 1901. By 1930, Picasso was world-famous and Vollard enlisted him for a special commission. In exchange for paintings by Renoir and Cezanne, Picasso would create a series of 100 etchings ending with three portraits of Vollard.
What better way to immortalize yourself? Picasso completed the Vollard Suite over the next seven years, and it would become one of his most famous print suites. The first etchings in the series are in the neoclassical style and show a sculptor in the studio with his beautiful muse. As World War II set in, Picasso turned to darker subject matter culled from Greek mythology. A friendly minotaur appears, but soon grows agitated and violent. By the end of the series the minotaur has lost his vision and wanders aimlessly.
At Matthews Gallery we have the 24th print from the series, titled “Masked Characters and Bird Woman“. In our research on the print, we’ve discovered some pretty weird facts about the Vollard Suite. Five things you (almost surely) didn’t know:
1. Armed Art Critics Attack!
Spanish paramilitary group Guerrilleros de Cristo Rey on the march
Aside from Steve Wynn 0r Olga Dogaru, Picasso’s most violent critics might just be fascist paramilitary group Guerrilleros de Cristo Rey. Picasso finished the Vollard Suite in 1937, but Vollard’s untimely death in 1939 and World War II prevented the prints from going on the market until the 1950s. In the 1970s, the series starred in a short-lived exhibition in Madrid. In protest of Picasso’s political views on the Spanish Civil War the Guerrilleros stormed the show, tore down the prints and burned them with acid. Ouch.
2. Death by Foot
Image from Honore de Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece
Sometimes, art kills. Scholars have tied the Vollard Suite to Honore de Balzac’s short story “The Unknown Masterpiece.” The tragic tale chronicles an artist’s frustration at his inability to capture a model’s supreme beauty on canvas. He manages to paint her foot, but soon gives up and commits suicide in despair. Picasso explores similar themes in his etchings. His lover Marie-Therese Walter appears throughout the series, at first as his adoring model and then as a girlish guide to the blind minotaur. The artist has lost his power to capture his model in his art, and now she nimbly leads him toward death.
3. Sweet Art
Sugar lift aquatint from the Vollard Suite
It seems Picasso had a sweet tooth. The ever innovative artist experimented with new printmaking techniques for the Vollard commission, including dry point and aquatinting. The latter method allows the artist to create varying tones on the print using particles of rosin and an acid. Sugar lift aquatinting is a sweet variation. A layer of sugar syrup is applied to parts of the print and then burned off with acid to create dark fields on a white ground (see the dark patches in the image above).
4. Clairvoyant Pablo
Picasso possessed many artistic talents, but was he also a fortune-teller? One of the Vollard prints shows a model who is a doppelgänger for Picasso’s lover Francoise Gilot, though it prefigures their relationship by over ten years. Third eye or not, the artist noted Gilot’s resemblance to his archetypal female figures when he met her. It made quite the flattering pick-up line.
The Vollard Suite in Curitiba, Brazil
In more recent news, the world’s first rotating building is named after the Vollard Suite. The futuristic residential complex in Brazil opened in 2001 with an exhibition of Picasso’s prints. Its design resembles a Greek pillar, a reference to Picasso’s neoclassical style in the suite (check out the bird lady’s perch in our print). The skyscraper’s $400,000 apartments turn 360 degrees every hour. It might sound dizzying, but something tells us the extravagant artist would approve.