A quiet gem of an exhibition

Picasso’s Vollard Suite, a collection of 100 etchings commissioned and named after the Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard, is on show in the department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.

This complete set was recently donated to the Museum and its timely exhibition alongside the Picasso and Modern British Artists at the Tate Gallery give added insight into a particular period of Picasso’s life. The whole suite of etchings was completed between 1930 and 1937 and given in exchange for a Renoir and a Cezanne from Vollard’s extensive collection of these artists’ works.

There is not an overriding theme to these works but rather a number of themes that reflect Picasso’s life and interests during the 1930s. After a trip to Rome Picasso became interested in Classical art, and a Neo Classical thread runs through the suite. The Tate Gallery Show has some magnificent paintings of Marie Therese Walter, Picasso’s lover during the 1930s, and it is she that appears in most of the prints in the Vollard suite, from the first page as a seated nude to the later aquatint of the little girl leading the Blind Minotaur.

Minotaur caressing a sleeping woman

The theme of the ‘Sculptor in his Studio’ is noted for its classical tranquillity and the linear etchings owe a lot to the example of Ingres and possibly Matisse who did similar line drawings and prints. Marie Therese appears as the sculptor’s model, posing, reclining or admiring the portrait busts that he has created.

A classical repose pervades the scene with Picasso depicted as a bearded sculptor. At times he is also Pygmalion a sculptor of classical legend who falls in love with his statue whom Venus then brings to life. However these idyllic scenes are soon replaced by the ‘Battle of Love’ a number of plates of erotic coupling and the appearance of Picasso’s alter ego the Minotaur, half man half bull of Greek legend.

Satyr and woman


There is now more aggression and urgency in the prints, the change of atmosphere being due to Picasso’s personal life becoming more difficult and the change in the political situation in his homeland of Spain. The later prints show Marie Therese leading the Blind Minotaur while holding a light and a similar image was to appear in the major etching ‘Minotauromachy’ on view at the Tate Gallery.

The bombing of the town of Guernica inspired the anti war statement that is ‘Guernica” and the studies for the painting include the etchings of the screaming woman. In these images Picasso’s next mistress, Dora Maar, replaces Marie Therese.

Young girl leading a blind minotaur

When Vollard was accidentally killed in 1937, this held up the publishing of the prints till the 1950s and it is only now that the British Museum has managed to obtain a complete set admirably displayed in its galleries and open free of charge to visitors.
The British Museum houses the National Collection of Western Prints and Drawings. There are 3 million items from 1400 to the present day and members of the public and students wishing to inspect any work in the collection can do so by request and on presentation of identification such as a Driving Licence or passport. OCA students on the drawing course might find this resource beneficial.

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8 comments for “A quiet gem of an exhibition

  1. Stephanie
    24 May 2012 at 3:19 pm

    I find these compelling. I had no idea Picasso made etchings – such rich work.

  2. Stephanie
    24 May 2012 at 3:20 pm

    I like your articles and the images you select Jim – who are you at OCA?

    • Stephanie
      25 May 2012 at 8:32 pm

      I meant are you a tutor and assessor, and in which subject etc. I clicked on your name because I thought it might lead to something about you but it takes me to other items you’ve written.

      • Jim Cowan
        26 May 2012 at 10:52 pm

        Hello Stephanie, I’m pleased you like the articles. I’ve been a tutor with the OCA since 1988 and at times have been their assessment coordinator and also course leader in Fine art. At the moment I am a tutor and assessor ,do some of the study days and enjoy writing the blogs for We are OCA mainly on Fine art

        • Stephanie
          28 May 2012 at 12:16 am

          Thanks mystery man – and I now your surname also 🙂
          Were you by any chance one of the tutors who came to the Hockney exhibition?

  3. Jennifer Wallace
    25 May 2012 at 10:03 am

    I took my time going round this because I’m actually doing a printmaking course at the moment. And I was glad I did. One hundred prints is a lot to take in – and then there are all the other things as well as the Vollard Suite prints!

  4. Olivia Irvine
    30 May 2012 at 9:54 am

    Lovely work. Picasso really was a master printmaker- he invented sugar lift, did he not? The image of the Screaming Woman is amazing.

  5. Steve Cussons
    12 June 2012 at 10:26 pm

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I spent a very happy day visiting and sketching in this exhibition and then going around the BM pretending I was Picasso and cross hatching like a Spaniard! I learnt a lot about line and hatching. I loved the prints but the theme of sexual domination is like a smack in the face.

    In the next gallery is an exhibition of contemporary Chinese ink paintings, also very interestig and a total contrast.

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