PICASSO GETS BURNED: 5 strange facts about the Vollard Suite

Pablo Picasso- Personnages Masques et Femme Oiseau- Matthews Gallery blog

Pablo Picasso, Personnages Masques et Femme Oiseau, aquatint and etching

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! 

Guerrilleros de Cristo Rey tear down Picasso's Vollard Suite- Matthews Gallery Blog

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

Honore de Balzac's The Unknown Masterpiece inspired Picasso's Vollard Suite- Matthews Gallery Blog

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

Pablo Picasso used a sugar life aquatint technique in his Vollard Suite- Matthews Gallery Blog

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

Was Pablo Picasso psychic? - Matthews Gallery Blog

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.

5. Vollarchitecture

Vollard Suite in Brazil named after Picasso Print Series - Matthews Gallery

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.

Learn more about our Vollard print here, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for more news from Matthews Gallery!

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MANY LIVES: Early and late works by famous artists

Early and Late Works: Georgia O'Keeffe's "Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot)" (1908) and "Sky Above Clouds IV" (1965)

“When I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me—some of them more than sixty years ago—I wonder who that person is,” said Georgia O’Keeffe. “It is as if in my one life I have lived many lives.”

Look through O’Keeffe’s diverse body of work, and you’ll see just what she meant. “Untitled (Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot)” is a humble realist work she painted as an art student in her early 20s.  She completed the abstracted, ephemeral landscape “Sky Above Clouds IV”, which is over 20 feet long, when she was almost 80. When they’re side-by-side it’s hard to believe that one artist created both.

The same is true for works that bookend any great artist’s career. Constant evolution is perhaps the most important ingredient to genius, as you’ll see in the images below. While you browse the early and late works of four legendary artists, ponder their differences. Does youthful enthusiasm and bold experimentation move you, or do you prefer a sure hand and a fully realized aesthetic? Join the conversation in the comments section below, or on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

Early and Late Works: Paul Cezanne's "The Artist's Father, Reading 'L'Événement'" (1866) and "Gardanne" (1885-86)

Paul Cezanne painted “Artist’s Father, Reading ‘L’Événement'” when he was in his early 20s and still partially under the thumb of his disapproving parent. The paper his father is reading—a liberal publication that the old man wouldn’t have deigned to open—and the still life painting hanging in the background hint at the artist’s growing confidence in his chosen path. Flash forward to the radical perspectival experimentation of “Gardanne”, completed when Cezanne was in his late 40s. The multi-layered cityscape would later inspire Picasso and Braque in their development of Cubism.

Early and Late Works: Frida Kahlo's "The Accident" (1926) and "Still Life" (1951)

When Frida Kahlo was 19 years old she was in a trolley crash that left her in a full body cast. A year after the accident she created the pencil sketch on the left, drawing from the tradition of Mexican ex-voto paintings that blend text and images. A lifetime later, Kahlo was still suffering from chronic pain caused by the accident and drawing influences from folk art, but she’d discovered a subtler way to express her suffering. She painted “Still Life 1951” just three years before her death, when her body was giving out and she no longer favored self portraiture. The fleshy, congealing watermelon nestled among fresh fruits says it all. “I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return,” she wrote just before her death.

Early and Late Works: Pablo Picasso's "Les Saltimbanques" (1905) and "Untitled (From the 156 Suite, 16 mai 1971)"

“Les Saltimbanques” is a drypoint that Pablo Picasso created in his early 20s. The group of frolicking figures are characters from an opera-comique about a circus troupe. Countless artistic transformations later, Picasso etched out “Untitled (From the 156 Suite)“, an image that shows a tangle of prostitutes engaged in a very different acrobatic routine. Innocence is lost, but genius found.

Early and Late Works: Paul Gauguin's "La Seine au Pont de Grenelle" (   ) and "Mahana Atua (The Day of God)" (   )

Paul Gauguin was a 27-year-old family man working as a stockbroker and hanging out at the Impressionists’ favorite cafes when he painted “La Seine au Pont de Grenelle”. By his mid-40s, he’d abandoned his family and job and exiled himself to Tahiti, where he drew inspiration for woodblock print “Mahana Atua (The Day of God)“. The artist learned from one revolutionary movement and then struck off on his own to inspire several others, from Primitivism to Symbolism.

How many lives can one artist live? What do you like better, the earlier or later work? Connect with us on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest and sound off!

Top 10 Art Books of 2012, Part 1

Our favorite art books of 2012 span centuries and movements, and include names both new and familiar. Follow the adventures of Paul Cezanne, meet Vivian Maier and her many subjects, and discover the (real) secrets of Leonardo Da Vinci in our first five selections: 

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Cezanne: A Life, Alex Danchev- Critics called Paul Cezanne’s paintings unfinished, but the artist himself insisted they were “unresolved.” A biographer who wishes to capture the spirit of the revolutionary post-impressionist must play to the distinction. Danchev doesn’t try to solve the riddle of the man who diagnosed himself mad, who hid his wife and child from his family until he was 40, and who spent his final years in wild seclusion. With the aid of more than 100 images—including a series of self portraits—and excerpts from Cezanne’s favorite readings, the raconteur gives us a beautiful, perplexing glimpse through one of the most influential sets of eyes of the 19th century and beyond.

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Mark Rothko: The Decisive Decade: 1940-1950; Todd Herman, Christopher Rothko and David Anfam- Though Mark Rothko’s journey from the figurative to the abstract happened rather rapidly, The Decisive Decade presents it as a careful, scientific evolution. An early canvas showing a trio of figures begets a painting of three figures merged into one, which bears a fascinating resemblance to the horizontal planes of color for which Rothko gained renown. The full sweep is a tribute to the artist’s deliberate genius.

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Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows, Richard Cahan and Michael Williams- Amateur street photographer Vivian Maier’s now famous body of work was discovered before her death in 2009, when the contents of a storage locker she couldn’t pay for were auctioned off. It wasn’t until her obituary appeared in the Chicago Tribune that real estate agent John Maloof, who had purchased thousands of her negatives, discovered her identity. Cahan and Williams shine some light on the mysterious artist through interviews with Maier’s confidantes, but it’s the work itself, mostly captured on the streets of New York and Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, that bring her into full focus.

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Leonardo and the Last Supper, Ross King- Perhaps the most shocking secret of The Da Vinci Code is that, had Dan Brown done more digging, he wouldn’t have needed to rely so much on fiction. King introduces us to an aging, depressed Leonardo and the seemingly impossible project he took on at the Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie. There are many secrets to uncover, from the true identities of the Apostle models to the significance of the food Leonardo chose for the table. No symbologist needed.

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Lucian Freud Portraits, Sarah Howgate with Michael Auping and John Richardson- As ever, the severe portraits of Lucian Freud cast a captivating spell in this new collection. New to the game is a series of rare, revelatory interviews on everything from the artist’s process to his famous grandfather, conducted in the last years of his life.

Click here to browse our next five selections, and check out our Twitter and Facebook pages for more art musings.