The Vollard Suite of 100 prints and etchings by Pablo Picasso represents one of the artist’s finest achievements, ranking alongside his other great work, Guernica. But while Guernica portrays the artist’s response to the dreadful events of the Spanish Civil War, and a comment on the suffering of individuals caught up in such turbulent events, the Vollard Suite of prints offers a far more personal, intimate, and, at times, erotic portrait of the artist. Here we see the creative impulses and preoccupations that inspired and drove Picasso, set down, sometimes in just a few lines, on an etching plate.

A copy of this extraordinary body of work has now been acquired by the British Museum. This is the only complete set in the UK, comprising some 100 etchings produced by Picasso between 1930 and 1937, at a critical point in his career. Some are well-known, many are not, yet within their compass we can appreciate the very essence of Picasso’s genius and his personal mythology.

The Vollard Suite was commissioned by Ambroise Vollard, a canny avant-garde art dealer (who backed Cézanne in the 1890s, and who gave Picasso his first exhibition in 1901) with a passion for creating artists’ books. Picasso produced the suite of prints in exchange for some pictures, and the mammoth task of printing circa 310 sets was completed in 1939. The sets were not widely distributed until the 1950s, Vollard’s untimely death in a car crash and the outbreak of the Second World War delaying their publication.

The prints were made at a time when Picasso was involved in a passionate and torrid love affair with his model and muse Marie-Thérèse Walter – her classical features are a recurring presence in the prints. The prints follow no order, nor did Picasso assign titles to them, allowing free connections to be made between them. However, they do fall into certain clear groupings, the predominant theme being the ‘sculptor’s studio,’ in which Picasso’s interest in classical sculpture is most obvious. Various scenes between the artist, his model and the finished work are played out, including the myth of Pygmalion. These scenes are expressed with a sparing, yet highly expressive and often very tender use of line, familiar from Picasso’s paintings of this time, and earlier, and the etchings are displayed alongside objects and examples of the type of classical sculpture which inspired Picasso.

Another theme is the ‘Battle of Love’, in which the peace of the sculptor’s studio is disturbed by the violence of passion and lust, expressed through interlocking forms. These recall friezes of nymphs pursued by satyrs and nude battle scenes from classical art, which are etched in aggressive and agitated scratchy strokes, darkly ornate whorls, and swarming, frenetic black lines. In these prints, the figure of the Minotaur (whose myth was central to Picasso’s personal folklore) personifies the artist’s alter ego, the lover in a fantasy world of sex and violence. Later, the Minotaur reappears, now blind, the beast rendered impotent, and guided by innocent young girls, representing Picasso’s troubled personal life and the darkening political situation in Europe.

The Minotaur also appears in scenes of the bullfight, which are both surreal and ecstatic, and which appear almost as preparatory studies for the shocking brutality of Guernica.

At the end of the exhibition are portraits of Vollard himself, and throughout the display are etchings by Rembrandt, Goya and Ingres, all of whom influenced Picasso as both printmaker and artist.

This suite of 100 prints are not ‘working drawings’, used to inform larger art works, but significant, exciting and fascinating works in their own right, which go to the very heart of Picasso’s creative mind, and his personal life, delving into dark, unsettling places, and the innermost depths of his imagination.

Picasso Prints: The Vollard Suite, at British MuseumFran Wilson reviews Picasso Prints: The Vollard Suite at the British Museum.5