Picasso's Vollard Suite: Men, Women and Minotaurs

Yousuf Karsh, Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), 1954, printed 1987, gelatin silver print, 50.4 x 40.2 cm. NGC. Gift of the artist, Ottawa, 1989. © Yousuf Karsh / karsh.org

He turned over several more prints. They were filled with bearded and clean-shaven men, with minotaurs, centaurs, faunlike figures, and all kinds of women. Everyone was nude or nearly so and they seemed to be playing out a drama from Greek mythology.

— Françoise Gilot

So wrote Françoise Gilot, recalling the first time she saw Picasso’s series, The Vollard Suite. It was 1943, in occupied Paris, and she was soon to become the artist’s lover and muse.

The celebrated series is now the subject of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). Picasso: Man and Beast. The Vollard Suite of Prints presents the complete set of 100 etchings created by Picasso between 1930 and 1937 for the legendary Parisian art dealer and publisher, Ambroise Vollard. A masterpiece of printmaking rendered in a Neoclassical style, the series demonstrates how Picasso used a range of techniques and tools — including aquatint, drypoint, burin and scraper — to explore his obsessions with love, art and “the beast within,” in scenes that draw upon Classical art and mythology. 

Acquired by the Gallery in 1957, the suite is one of the jewels in the national collection. Only nine other museums possess complete sets. Most of the more than 300 suites printed by master printer Roger Lacourière in 1936–1937 were eventually broken up for sale as individual prints. 

Picasso: Man and Beast, organized by the Gallery’s Associate Curator of European Prints and Drawings, Sonia Del Re, offers visitors a rare opportunity to see the series in its entirety, just as it spilled from Picasso’s incomparable imagination.

Image retirée en raison de restrictions de droits d’auteur

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 (no. 7241). © Picasso Estate / SODRAC (2016)

Picasso illustrated a number of books for Vollard, including Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Honoré de Balzac’s Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu [The Unknown Masterpiece]. Unlike these other commissions, however, The Vollard Suite has no overriding literary source, nor even a linear narrative. Instead, it functions as something of a visual diary: each work is dated by the artist rather than titled, and each reflects his life, circumstances and preoccupations at the time. Although art historians have often arranged the works thematically, Del Re has chosen to organize them chronologically.

“The themes usually discussed in the literature were established by one art historian, Hans Bollinger,” said Del Re in an interview with NGC Magazine. “To me, it seemed interesting to see how Picasso went about producing the series during the seven years from 1930 to 1937, because it wasn’t meant as a well-thought-out group. It wasn’t planned as such. Presenting it chronologically demonstrates the different moods he might have been in at any given time.”

Similarly, descriptive titles have traditionally been assigned by art historians to the individual works, but Del Re has chosen to identify each image by its date. “I want visitors to make up their own minds about what Picasso is showing them,” she says. “It’s a very organic ensemble, and I wanted that to shine through.” 

Image retirée en raison de restrictions de droits d’auteur

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Two Sculptors, Two Models, and Sculpture, 20 March 1933, etching on Montval laid paper, 34.1 x 43.9 cm (plate: 19.5 x 26.7 cm). National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (no. 7180). © Picasso Estate / SODRAC (2016)

The prints share a unity of style and a common set of visual tropes, especially when it comes to references to Greek mythology and ancient art. Viewers may be surprised by the degree to which Picasso drew inspiration and techniques from the past. Several images set in an artist’s studio feature a cast of characters resembling classical Greek nudes, including bearded male artists and straight-nosed models of both sexes. Picasso’s clandestine lover at the time, Marie-Thèrese Walter, is the model for the female figure in many of the images — some of which borrow from Metamorphoses, in which the sculptor Pygmalion falls in love with a statue he has carved. Picasso’s instantly recognizable Cubist sculptures also make frequent appearances in the compositions.

Rendered with fine but confident lines on creamy paper, numerous images exude a kind of minimalist sensuality. Romantic love was a primary theme in Picasso’s life and art, and he dedicated much of The Vollard Suite to an exploration of the light and dark sides of human emotion. His hand becomes heavier as he moves into scenes depicting more aggressive, erotic impulses, especially through the figure of the Minotaur. In Greek mythology, the Minotaur was a violent creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man. For Picasso, he is also an alter-ego: fierce, virile, a seducer, but also — as seen in his images of the “blind minotaur”— sympathetic and vulnerable.

Image retirée en raison de restrictions de droits d’auteur

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Minotaur Defeated by Youth in Arena, 29 May 1933, etching on Montval laid paper, 33.8 x 44.6 cm (plate: 19.4 x 27 cm). National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (no. 7237). © Picasso Estate / SODRAC (2016)

In 1934, while working on The Vollard Suite, Picasso began to study Rembrandt, who was not only a great painter but also a master etcher. Four of the prints feature the Dutch artist’s recognizable head, with its round mustachioed face framed by curls. Others pay tribute to Rembrandt in their dramatic use of light and shadow. Three portraits of Vollard himself, towards the end of the exhibition, honour the man who launched Picasso’s career and that of his avant-garde contemporaries, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Matisse.

Also displayed in the space are excerpts from the film, The Mystery of Picasso, made in 1956 by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Capturing Picasso drawing on paper and on glass, the film bears witness to the artist’s remarkable creative process. “What’s fun about the film is that you briefly see Picasso moving around,” says Del Re. “And to have him here while you’re walking through the space has an interesting effect, because you feel like he’s present. I almost have goosebumps.”

Showcasing the artistic, emotional and intellectual preoccupations of an artist at the height of his powers, the delicate and thoughtful works in The Vollard Suite will be a revelation to visitors used to thinking of Picasso as the artist behind bold works such as Guernica and other Cubist masterpieces. And yes, sharing the exhibition space with mythological beasts, beautiful Grecian men and women and a giant of an artist is enough to give anyone goosebumps. 


Picasso: Man and Beast. The Vollard Suite of Prints is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until September 5, 2016. For more information please click here.

About the Author