The National Gallery is awash in love, lust, rape and bestiality thanks to Pablo Picasso, the 20th century’s great, egotistical, womanizing artist.
For the first time since 1957, the gallery is exhibiting the complete set of 100 etchings and drypoints from Pablo Picasso’s Vollard Suite, his most celebrated series of prints exploring the relationship between an artist, his models and his work.
But really the prints are all about Picasso — as artist, as lover and as his alter-ego, the half-man half-bull Minotaur alternately loving and violating his mistress-du-jour, Marie-Therese Walter.
Many of the untitled prints in Picasso: Man and Beast; The Vollard Suite of Prints are simple line drawings. Those tend to be the tranquil ones showing neo-classical, nude figures straight out of ancient Greece or Rome. The figures include a bearded male artist (a stand-in for Picasso) and his demure female model (Marie-Therese, mainly). In many of the prints, the romantic twosome is staring, with great adoration, at a bust of Ms. Walter. The sculpture of Ms. Walter is done in Picasso’s trademark cubist style. Obviously, Picasso thinks Marie-Therese’s misshaped cubist head, with a forehead made to resemble a dangling penis, is the cat’s meow. In real life, by the way, Marie-Therese’s head was quite noble, resembling in no way male genitalia.
As you move through the exhibition, the scene shifts from the tranquil artist’s studio to more turbulent scenarios and more detailed drawings. In these ones, Picasso channels his inner monster and becomes the Minotaur. One minute, the randy beast is all lovey-dovey with whatever woman confronts him. In the next minute, he appears to have rape or murder on his mind.
The prints were commissioned, with no particular narrative or topic in mind, by Picasso’s Paris art dealer Ambroise Vollard in 1930. It was completed by 1939 but, because of the Second World War, it was not marketed until the 1950s. The National Gallery, in one of its canniest moves ever, purchased a complete set in 1957 — a set today that would run in the millions of dollars. Most of the more than 300 sets of the Vollard Suite created were broken up, with only a few complete sets remaining in the hands of art museums. And we have one of them.
Why, you may ask, did the National Gallery rummage around in its basement to pull out the Vollard Suite to exhibit now after more than half a century? It’s a question of money, or lack thereof. For the last few years the cash-strapped gallery has increasingly been turning to its own holdings for exhibitions because it lacks the funds to rent as many travelling (a.k.a. expensive) shows from Europe and the United States as it used to.
That shift has meant recent shows of the gallery’s wonderful collection of M.C. Escher’s brain-teasing prints, Marc Chagall’s mythical series of prints called Daphnis and Chloe and the donated Lanigan collection of Victorian prints. These shows have been great successes and should make us all proud of these many gems in the National Gallery collection. All of these shows were stickhandled by the gallery’s Sonia Del Re, associate curator of European, American, and Asian prints and drawings.
The exhibition of the Picasso prints runs from April 29 to September 5, which means the show will be on during the important summer months, when tourists swell the gallery’s attendance numbers. The very name of Picasso on a banner outside the gallery will inevitably attract the crowds. Posters promising love, lust, rape and bestiality also might be advisable.
Top image: Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Minotaur Kneeling over Sleeping Girl, 18 June 1933; Drypoint on Montval laid paper, 33.5 x 44.5 cm (plate: 29.6 x 36.6 cm); National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; © Picasso Estate / SODRAC (2015); Photo © NGC