La suite Vollard is, with Les Saltimbanques, the major landmark of Picasso's long and fertile printmaking career. Not only is it monumental in scope, with 100 etchings produced over seven years, it also acts as a fascinating insight into his inspiration and obsessions as the artist approached late middle age.
The suite is named after Ambroise Vollard (1867-1939), the dealer and publisher whose gallery on the rue Lafitte hosted many groundbreaking exhibitions of the period. It was Vollard who gave the twenty year-old Spaniard his first exhibition in Paris shortly after his arrival from Barcelona in 1901, and was the first to show his Blue Period paintings the following year.
La Suite Vollard was conceived as a suite in 1934, when Picasso asked to buy a Renoir and a Cézanne from Vollard's privat collection. Vollard offered instead to swap the paintings for a group of printing plates, with the rights to publish them. Vollard had already published Picasso's first series of prints, Les Saltimbanques (Bloch 1-15) in 1914-15, and, only three years before, their version of Balzac's Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu (B. 82-94) appeared in 1931 to critical acclaim. The deal was agreed, and in 1936 ninety-seven plates were handed over, to which Picasso added 3 portraits of Vollard early in 1937. The term 'suite' is therefore something of a misnomer. La Suite Vollard is more of a résumé, a selection made by the artist from seven years' work that he considered important, and which he also thought would appeal to Vollard.
The master printer Roger Lacourière, with whom Picasso developed a long and fruitful relationship, was responsible for the printing. The majority of the plates are line etchings (occasionally with drypoint), a technique in which Picasso was especially expert. However, on several plates Picasso used 'sugar-lift' aquatint, a variation of etching that Lacourirère taught him, which allowed him to paint his design directly on the plate. As with other printmaking disciplines, no sooner had Picasso learnt a technique than he mastered it. Nowhere is this seen to better effect than in the atmospheric chiaroscuro suffusing Faune dévoilant une femme (Bloch 230; SV 27).
The edition was printed on Montval paper made with specially designed 'Picasso' and 'Vollard' signature watermarks. The edition was 310, of which 260 sets (of which the present set is one) were on smaller format paper (approximately 13 3/8 x 17½ inches), and 50 sets on larger format paper (15¼ x 19¾ inches), plus three sets on vellum and one BAT (Bon à Tirer) set given to the printer. All of the prints were, of course, signed in the copperplate.
As fate would have it the project was derailed by Vollard's death in a car crash in 1939. His death, followed by the outbreak of the Second World War, meant that the completed edition was left stacked in Vollard's Paris apartment for several years. The prints were ultimately bought by Henri Petiet, another renowned print dealer, at some point between 1942 and 1945 for 10,000 francs, but apparently nothing was done with them until the mid 1950s. From then on Petiet would send batches of one hundred or two hundred at a time to Picasso for signing - sometimes complete sets, at other times groups of just the most important or saleable images. Picasso felt that his side of the bargain was completed when he handed over the plates nearly twenty years before, and stood to gain nothing for substantially increasing the value of the edition in this way, and he demanded payment for this additional service. There is no knowing how many were signed in this way - no records were kept - but when Picasso stopped supplying his signature in the late 1960s to begin work on the 347 Series many impressions remained unsigned.
Clearly this rather disorganised and piecemeal approach meant that comparatively few sets were ever assembled as intended. Petiet, Kahnweiler, Lecomte and other dealers who were involved saw nothing wrong in selling impressions piecemeal. Of the complete sets that were sold many must have been broken in the intervening fifty or so years. The BAT set was donated by Madame Lacourirère to the Musée Picasso in 1982 and Brigitte Baer believes that only one of the vellum sets remains intact. Only eight sets on Montval have appeared at auction since 1977.
The circumstances surrounding the compilation of La Suite Vollard - the fact that many were completed even before the project was envisaged, and that they were selected from over 160 prints completed between 1930 and 1936 - ensured that it contains not one but several interwoven themes. Stylistically the majority of the images reflect the neo-classical phase of Picasso's work that made its first appearance in his engraving Pierrot (B. 33) of 1918. Picasso had come into contact with ancient art a year earlier in Rome, and in the course of subsequent trips to Florence, Naples and Pompeii. This influence was to show itself in his prints and drawings throughout the 1920s and 1930s, notably in the Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu and Les Metamorphoses d'Ovide (B. 99-128), Lysistrata (B. 267-272) and the greater part of La Suite Vollard.
In 1931 Picasso bought the chateau Boisgeloup near Gisours, where he devoted himself primarily to sculpture. The theme of the 'Sculptor in his studio' is explored in 46 sheets, nearly half the entire suite. They were created in an intense period of activity - forty were created in less than two months from mid-March to early May 1933, with as many as four in one day. The setting is calm and archaic, with the resting sculptor a grave and bearded figure or head, contemplating the fruits of his labours. His model and muse is often draped elegantly alongside. The contrast of artist and model, the abstractor of reality facing reality itself, his mirror to Truth, was a theme that constantly recurred in Picasso's oeuvre.
The intimate model, or the model asleep, was a motif that occurred frequently at the time of Picasso's relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter. The decade 1927-1937 has been referred to as one long lyrical love poem to his young mistress and muse, whose youth, gaiety and laughter charmed him. He made extraordinary sculptures of her at Boisgeloup, and Femme nue assise, la Tête appuyé sur la Main (B. 218; SV 21) is almost a three-dimensional design drawing for one of these. Marie-Thérèse was the perfect choice as model for the Métamorphoses d'Ovide, and she is everywhere in La Suite Vollard - the wide, oval face, a Roman nose bridging straight from the forehead, and short, cropped hair.
Her appearance seemed to call forth one of Picasso's most powerful creations - the Minotaur, first seen in a painting in 1928. Half man, half beast, this mythological figure is clearly an alter ego, but his role in La Suite Vollard is deeply contradictory. He acts violently, raping and attacking his victim, but he is also tender (B. 201; SV 93), festive (B. 192; SV 85) and in his most helpless incarnation, blind. The four images of the blind Minotaur (B. 222-5; SV 94-7) prefigure Picasso's greatest print, La Minatauromachie (B. 288) created several months later, and the artist's most famous and largest painting Guernica with its symbolism of blind and instinctive cruelty. Just as Ariadne helped Theseus find his way by supplying him with thread, so Marie-Thérèse - as a femme enfant carrying doves or flowers - leads the blind and penitent Minotaur out of the labyrinth, signifying among other things Picasso's hope that his young mistress could lead him out of the wreckage of his personal life.
The relationship with Olga, his first wife, was at a low point in 1934-1935. Picasso was clearly worried about the effect Olga might have on his young lover. In a small drypoint he visualised his worst nightmare by appropriating Jacques-Louis David's Death of Marat, depicting Marie-Thérèse as Marat being stabbed by a vicious, snarling Olga. He re-used the plate for one of his blind Minotaur plates, and the scene appears inverted in the upper left of Minotaure aveugle guidé par une Fillette I (B. 222; SV 94). By 1936 the Minotaur had disappeared from Picasso's work.
Each plate from this important series displays Picasso's mastery of line and the medium of etching, and several have rightly been called masterpieces. Individually they are deeply rewarding works of art, but only seen together can the full breadth of the artist's genius be appreciated. Given the turbulent events surrounding its birth, and the subsequent fifty years during which many sets have been dispersed, this sale offers a rare chance to experience it as intended - complete.