The exhibition “Picasso Prints—The Vollard Suite” at the British Museum is the result of an extraordinary act of generosity through which the complete suite of one hundred etchings that forms the Vollard Suite has been presented to the museum by Hamish Parker in memory of his father. It was a consequence of a conversation he had with the curator of prints and drawings, Stephen Coppell, during which Coppell mentioned in passing his dream for the museum to acquire what is undoubtedly Picasso’s greatest series of etchings. If ever there was a case for sharing the content of dreams, this must be it and, furthermore, if ever there was needed an argument for supporting the role of the specialist curator, this is surely evidence in plenty. The resulting exhibition is literally a dream come true.
Between 1930–1937 Picasso worked on this far-reaching series of prints for the publisher Ambroise Vollard, completing 40 etchings in the series in one six week period of intense work during 1933. The suite represents an outpouring of ideas, an almost demonic need by Picasso to visualize his furtive and often dangerous imagination.
In this exhibition and the accompanying catalogue, the British Museum shows itself at its best; the clear presentation of the prints, the precision of scholarship, the insightful text by Coppell, but also in the deft addition of specific works from the museum’s collection to further animate readings of the prints. Amongst these additions, an Etruscan mirror with a line drawing of a running Sun god sets up a dialogue with Picasso’s engraved line; the etching of the artist drawing the model by Rembrandt establishes how much Picasso learnt and was inspired by the old master; and a beautifully austere bust of the head of Hercules from the villa of the Emperor Hadrian is a wonderful counterpoint to the prints of the sculptor and model.
The Vollard Suite seen here complete is a rare treat. Coppell divides the suite into categories entitled the Battle of love, Rembrandt, the Sculpture’s Studio, the Minotaur, the Blind Minotaur and finally the three portraits of Vollard. What unifies these prints, over and beyond Picasso’s intense imagination, is the orchestration of the etching plate itself. The drawing in each print feels carved from the rectangle of the etching plate, in much the same way as a sculptor carves from a block. Figures are contorted, foreshortened, rearranged to fit within the frame creating an intensity of feeling and passion that is barely contained as his characters act out scenarios that range from the moments of exquisite tenderness and reflection through to unbridled brutality.
If the emotional range were all, it would be enough, but throughout Picasso also rewrites the technical manual on etching. Taking Rembrandt’s example of using the medium for direct engagement, Picasso’s prints revel in their inventiveness. It is as if there is no negative thought, every correction or change overrides what has come before and simply embraces it; what other artists would worry about as mistakes, he takes as springboards to a more precise reading. Within the series there are particular highs; Blind Minotaur Led by a Little Girl in the Night is an epic in every way barring its size. This print amongst others anticipates Guernica, made three years later, but here, through the craft of the ‘poor man’s mezzotint’ (simply burnishing a rich aquatint), Picasso creates a magical night scene where the diminutive figure of Marie-Thérèse leads the blind Minotaur against a dark sky as the boatman look on. In Two Catalan Drinkers he combines a portrait in the style of Rembrandt with one of a young man that seems drawn with a delicate single outline, a radical collision of styles that still serves to depict an intimate pathos. In the sugar-lift representation of the publisher, Portrait of Vollard II, Coppell notes the dour and wily character is captured in just a few deft brushworks,’ demonstrating how fluid intaglio can be.
I am reminded of the caption that advertised the film Jaws 2, “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water… Jaws 2.” Well the moment you think that Picasso is history, along comes an exhibition that reminds you that he is very much alive and a force that each subsequent generation has to negotiate. This is a seminal exhibition, unmissable and evidence of the power of dreams.