The one hundred etchings of the Suite Vollard were created by Pablo Picasso between 1930 and 1937, a seminal period in his career. The images function almost as entries in a diary, illustrating a galaxy of motifs and preoccupations, including the artist’s desire for his young mistress and muse Marie-Thérèse Walter, his fascination with the process of artistic creation and transformation, the battle of the sexes and the analogy of making art and making love.
The man who commissioned the project, Ambroise Vollard, was one of the most influential dealers during a momentous period in the history of European art. A large, brooding figure, impenetrable and vain, he was both loved and loathed by those with whom he dealt. A champion of new and overlooked artists he rescued Paul Cézanne from obscurity, was responsible for the first retrospective of Vincent van Gogh and was the first to show Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings.
Vollard’s greatest claim to fame may be the decision to give the nineteen-year-old Picasso his first show in 1901, beginning a relationship that lasted until Vollard’s death decades later. When it came to Picasso’s paintings Vollard’s support was somewhat sporadic, motivated largely by the interests of his wealthy clientele. But in terms of printmaking—Vollard was also a passionate publisher of illustrated books—their relationship became arguably more committed.
The late 1920s were years of profound change for Picasso, with interwoven developments in both his artistic and personal life. Many of the themes that were to find form in the Suite Vollard can be traced back to these turbulent years. By then Picasso had left the poverty of his early life in Paris far behind. He lived a respectable, bourgeois existence with his wife, the former ballerina Olga Khokhlova. While he enjoyed the material benefits of success, Picasso began to resent restrictions on his freedom and gradually his marriage deteriorated. It was dealt the coup de graçe by Picasso’s chance encounter with the seventeen year old Marie-Thérèse Walter in 1927.
The forty-five year-old artist’s opening gambit on meeting the young woman has entered Picasso lore. Struck by her Grecian pro?le and sensuous physique, Picasso reportedly approached her saying: “Mademoiselle, you have an interesting face. I would like to do a portrait of you. I feel we are going to do great things together...I am Picasso” (quoted in A Question of Identity, Michael Fitzgerald, in Picasso’s Marie-Thérèse, Acquavella Galeries, New York, 2008, pp. 11).
For much of the next decade her features and classical pro?le would dominate Picasso’s work, not least in the Suite Vollard, and she is ubiquitous in the largest coherent group in the series, known as the Sculptor’s Studio. These forty-six etchings, showing an artist and model working, relaxing or carousing in a studio, expand upon themes developed in two recent illustrated book projects; Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which includes the tale of a sculptor who falls in love with his creation, and Honoré de Balzac’s Le Chef d'Oeuvre Inconnu (commissioned and published by Vollard), which relates the tale of the doomed painter Frenhofer and his struggles to capture reality in paint. Ideas surrounding transformation and metamorphosis, the contrast between the created work and reality, particularly the impossibility of making any work of art so perfect it could compete with life itself, were of profound interest to Picasso and play a significant role in the Suite.
Another key element in Picasso’s oeuvre and personal mythology, the Minotaur, is present in no fewer than twenty-one scenes. For the Surrealists, the Minotaur represented the dark centre of man’s violent, irrational desires. While he also recognized the Minotaur as the monster within, Picasso identi?ed the creature more closely with the ?ghting bull of his native Spain, whose power, pride and ferocity he regarded as corresponding to his own virile persona.
Among the concluding works in the Suite is a sequence depicting a blind Minotaur: “...the chastened Minotaur, old, pathetic and blind, is led by a young girl with the features of Marie-Thérèse, who, in the ?rst plate, holds a bunch of ?owers, while in the other three she clutches a ?uttering white dove of peace. The ?gure of the Blind Minotaur was Picasso’s invention; it is an image that goes beyond the artist’s personal nightmare to evoke the wider political darkness threatening to engulf Europe with the rise of Fascism in Germany and Italy" (quoted in Picasso Prints - The Vollard Suite, Stephen Coppell, The British Museum Press, London, 2012, pp. 35).
Where or exactly when the idea first came from for a suite of this size and ambition is not known (perhaps unsurprisingly, given Vollard’s aversion to written contracts) although it is thought to have been connected to a trade between the two, with Vollard exchanging two paintings in return for etchings from Picasso.
An even greater mystery is that we have no clear idea what its final format was to have been. Vollard’s life was cut tragically short by a car crash in 1939, only weeks after the edition had been printed, and his plans for the Suite perished with him. Subsequent research has pieced together evidence that the etchings were to have been paired with two poems by André Suarès, Minotaure and Minos et Pasiphaë, and published as a book or album. Exactly how they might have been integrated with or divided between the two texts, is not recorded.
Roger Lacourière, the respected master printer, was given the job of printing the edition: 50 sets on large format paper and 260 sets on smaller sheets. Lacourière had developed a close working relationship with Picasso, providing technical advice and guidance. As the project progressed, one can see Picasso growing in sophistication as a printmaker, devising his own methods for combining etching and engraving techniques to magnify the expressive power of his images.
While Vollard’s death was perceived as a disaster for most of the two dozen artists and writers who had projects in progress with him, for a man with vision and daring it presented an enormous opportunity. Fortunately, a man with those qualities became part of the narrative.
Henri Marie Petiet was born into an aristocratic family in 1894. He was a precocious collector, with an interest in illustrated books and, by extension, fine prints. He soon became a presence in the auction rooms and by degrees began to trade as well as collect, eventually opening his own gallery. Petiet knew, as did everyone else, that Vollard’s house on the rue de Martignac was an Aladdin’s cave, packed with paintings, drawings, ceramics, sculptures and prints. Whilst Petiet was interested in many of the prints and livres d’artiste, for him the main prize was the entire edition of the series that was eventually to become known as the Suite Vollard. Intense negotiations with Vollard’s executors took place and, despite Paris being under Nazi occupation, a deal was eventually concluded.
While the acquisition was a coup, it came with two challenges; the first was that Petiet received only 97 of the plates. The three portraits of Vollard which conclude the series had been diverted (deliberately or accidentally) to a competitor, forcing Petiet to negotiate with a rival whenever he wanted to sell a complete set. The second challenge was the fact that Picasso had signed only fifteen impressions each of just ten works before Vollard died. It was clear to Petiet that he could increase the return on his investment if he could induce the artist to sign more of the edition. This he managed to do, but only sporadically, and at some cost—Picasso charged 100, then 200 francs, for each signature, in cash. Aware that Picasso might change his mind at any time, Petiet was careful to present sets of the large format, deluxe edition, to the artist first, followed by the regular edition and a selection of the most important individual subjects.
By 1969 Picasso had grown weary of this arrangement and had other pressing obligations. As Petiet had feared, the signing stopped. Although he must have kept meticulous records, there is no surviving account of the number of individual impressions or complete sets that were signed by the artist. Ultimately, many sets were broken up by subsequent owners, with the result that complete sets, particularly the edition with large margins, are very rare. To our knowledge the present lot will be only the third example of a signed, deluxe set to have appeared at auction in forty years.