Until mid April, the Queensland Art Gallery hosts the National Gallery of Australia exhibition ‘Picasso: The Vollard Suite’, the themes and questions raised by the famous suite — to which the dynamics between artist and muse, and men and women, are central — can be further explored through selected sculptures from the QAGOMA Collection.
He spoke to her, he stroked her
Lightly to feel her living aura
Soft as down over her whiteness.
His fingers gripped her hard
To feel flesh yield under the pressure
That half wanted to bruise her
Into a proof of life, and half did not
Want to hurt or mar or least of all
Find her the solid ivory he had made her.1
The sculptor falls in love with his creation, wishing her to life with his touch, wanting to feel the softness of living flesh, rather than the hard materials he has worked to a semblance of the human form. He is enthralled by her perfection — perhaps as profoundly as he is impressed by his own talents and artistry. The potential of a sensual touch to animate, to bring a still subject to life: what greater power exists? Classical mythology — here, the story of Pygmalion — gives Picasso all he needs to reflect on his own life.
In the ‘Vollard Suite’, Picasso channels the energy of his relationship with his young muse, model and lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, into 100 images, 46 of which focus on the sculptor’s studio and are languid, sensual and playful. The distinctive features of Marie-Thérèse, who was 17 when she met the then 45-year-old artist, are scattered across the suite in images exploring intimacy, vulnerability, sexuality and violence. Works revealing darker drives and desires feature the mythical half-man, half-beast, the Minotaur. While Picasso’s own features are clearly recognisable in only one print, the ‘Vollard Suite’ as a whole is a kind of self-portrait, and includes many images of surprising honesty.
Until 15 April, Queensland audiences are able to explore this iconic group of works, on tour from the National Gallery of Australia, presented together with QAGOMA’s own blue-toned gouache of the same period, Femme au parasol couchée sur la plage (Woman with parasol on the beach) 1933. The woman we see reclining here is described in a series of curving forms. Her nose arches almost to her forehead — a feature repeated across the ‘Vollard Suite’, where Picasso often accentuates Marie-Thérèse’s prominent aquiline nose. We see a similar play of forms in Picasso’s sculptures of the period: some of these were reproduced in the first edition of the surrealist magazine, Minotaur, which is shown as part of this exhibition and is available electronically in the gallery space.
The creative process of making sculpture is essential to the ‘Vollard Suite’, as well as the relationship between men and women, both in art and in broader cultural histories. A selection of sculptures from our Collection further explores these themes, in the context of artistic tradition, and in terms of Picasso’s influence on later generations of artists. Italian artist Giacomo Ginotti’s nineteenth-century white marble Lucretia, for example, presents the idealised figure of a woman at a moment of absolute trauma. According to Roman legend, she was raped, and we see her poised to take her own life as a result. Also on display are classically influenced works by Australian artists — Daphne Mayo’s bronze Susannah 1942 (cast 1980) and Raynor Hoff’s delicate plaster The Kiss 1924. Later works include Joel Elenberg’s two bronzes titled Anna, both cast in 1979, which depict his wife.
Like Picasso, Elenberg finds beauty and drama in his partner’s profile. Contemporary artist Mike Parr’s Stepped wedge 1998 radically interrupts the space, its monumental wax and- graphite surface echoing the physicality of Picasso’s mark-marking and themes of the suite. A powerful presence, Parr’s work dramatises the rush of two lines converging on a distant vanishing point.
Picasso created the ‘Vollard Suite’ at a time of unrest and upheaval in Europe. Fascism was on the rise. Only months after he completed the final three prints — portraits of his patron and the commissioner of the suite, Ambroise Vollard — the artist painted Guernica 1937, using an evolution of this iconography to protest the bombing of civilians in his Spanish homeland. In it, we can recognise the distinctive profile of Marie-Thérèse Walter, together with the bull and the wounded horse. Vollard’s unexpected death in a car accident and the upheaval of World War Two delayed the release of the prints. When they were published in the 1950s, art historian Hans Bollinger gave the works descriptive titles and nominated seven groupings: ‘The Plates’, ‘The Battle of Love’, ‘Rembrandt’, ‘The Sculptor’s Studio’, ‘The Minotaur’, ‘The Blind Minotaur’ and ‘Portraits of Ambroise Vollard’.
We have opted to show the prints in these groups (which has now become a convention), rather than in chronological order. If we had, it would be clear that Picasso created the suite in bursts of activity. He often worked quickly, drawing directly onto the plate with his distinctive ease and beauty of line — this is particularly visible in the classically derived images of ‘The Sculptor’s Studio’, and also in the poignant Dying Minotaur print. Mortally wounded, the man–beast is watched over by the repeated face of Marie-Thérèse. Picasso shows his capacity as a printmaker by gouging into the metal surface of the plate to create Minotaur caressing a sleeping woman — a remarkable image of tenderness, bound to potential violence. Sometimes he returns to certain images, reworking the plates again and again. Among these are two of the five titled ‘rape’ by Bollinger. We can understand his reasoning as we make out the bearded figure of a man above a woman. But after the distance and yearning of other images in the suite, we might ask whether this image, with its muscular churning of limb and melded bodies, depicts one person overpowering another or a moment of shared abandon. How do we read any one image, as we seek to relate such complex inherited histories, the life of the artist, and our own experience?
Picasso’s ‘Vollard Suite’ offers a rich reflection on the artist’s intimate world in all its complexity. It questions the relationship between men and women, and the ideals and narratives of power and beauty as conveyed through art — subjects that animate public debate today.
1 Drawn from Ted Hughes’s ‘Pygmalion’, in Tales from Ovid, Faber and Faber, London, 1997. My thanks to my colleague David Burnett, Curator, International Art, for introducing me to this evocative translation.
Extract from ‘Picasso: the Vollard Suite’ published in the Gallery’s Artlines magazine, issue 1, 2018
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Geraldine Kirrihi Barlow is Curatorial Manager,International Art, QAGOMA
Feature image detail: Pablo Picasso’s Le repos du sculpteur devant un nu à la draperie (Reclining sculptor in front of draped nude) 1933