CHICAGO — It’s on days like this that I wish I still lived in London. If you do, or you’re visiting between May and September, make sure the British Museum is on your to-do list: they have mounted a rare show devoted entirely to Picasso’s “Vollard” suite, a set of 100 etchings that Picasso made in the 1930s.
This is the first time that the suite has been shown in its entirety in a public museum in the UK, and as if that weren’t enough to entice you, the curators are matching Picasso’s etchings with prints from its collections by Goya and Rembrandt, who were major influences on Picasso’s printmaking, and also sculptures from the ancient world, of which the British Museum has plenty, and to which Picasso alludes over and over again in the Vollard suite.
I studied printmaking for a year with a German master printer whose studio was just a few blocks east of the British Museum. I mention this because I learned some of the techniques that Picasso used in these etchings, principally hard-ground etching and engraving for the first 80 prints, and then sugar-lift aquatint for the 15 “minotaur” etchings (in fact, my teacher worked briefly in the Paris printmaking studio of Aldo Crommelynk, who was Picasso’s last master printer). Hard-ground is mainly used for making an etching that looks like a line-drawing, and although that may sound simple, Picasso’s Vollard prints are notable for the speed and sureness of the drawing, which Picasso carried out immediately on the prepared plates without any prior work. With the aquatint technique, which enables the printmaker to produce tonal areas on a copper plate, Picasso reached new levels of expression: there is a variety of mark-making and a rich variation in tones which makes an obdurate material like copper produce a print as fluid and watery as a Japanese ink drawing.
Over the course of 100 prints, it’s clear that even Picasso’s inspiration goes up and down. Many of the prints are preoccupied by the theme of the artist in his studio, painting or sculpting his models, many of whom bear the features of Marie-Therese Walter, Picasso’s teenage mistress. Sometimes the studio is visited by naked, reclining figures who seem to have stepped out of a classical idyll, their brows circled by bay leaves. Then we see an artist sitting across the table from Rembrandt, and Picasso’s hand picks up speed, delineating the dead Dutch master in a furious whirlwind of squiggles and short stabbing lines. When the minotaur comes on the scene, we sense Picasso reaching the center of his interest: as the minotaur steals into a woman’s room and lifts the sheet so he can stare at her sleeping form, art becomes sex, sex becomes power, and the battle of the sexes becomes a metaphor for Picasso’s obsessive need to dominate the objects of his gaze.
Whether you’re familiar with the printmaking techniques or not, the show presents a great opportunity to see one of the summits of Picasso’s artistic achievement. If you get the chance to see it, don’t miss it.
Picasso Prints: The Vollard Suite continues at the British Museum (Great Russell Street, London) until September 2.