Exhibitions New Look

By Lambirth, Andrew | The Spectator, July 14, 2012 | Go to article overview

Exhibitions New Look


Lambirth, Andrew, The Spectator


Picasso Prints: The Vollard Suite Room 90, British Museum, WC1, until 2 September Henry Moore: Large Late Forms Gagosian Gallery, 6-24 Britannia Street, WC1, until 18 August Another Picasso show, another Henry Moore? The experienced gallery-goer may wonder how a further exhibition of either master can be justified, but in fact both displays focus on very specific aspects of their creator's extensive careers, and offer new insights to even the most blase viewer. I am all in favour of looking anew at great art, provided fashionable curatorial theories are kept within sensible bounds.

Picasso is so protean a figure that it is refreshing to have an exhibition which devotes itself to one particular body of work:

in this case, the 100 etchings of the Vollard Suite. Henry Moore's monumental late sculptures are usually seen in a landscape setting: change their context and you stand to alter their meaning. Gagosian brings these works into an intensely urban, not to say industrial, space. Is the romance of the wild dispersed?

The Br it ish Museum has recent ly acquired a full set of the Vollard Suite - thanks to the generosity of Hamish Parker, a private and philanthropic individual - and is now the only public collection in the UK to own Picasso's extended masterpiece of etching. The hundred images were made between 1930 and 1937, the majority in 1933, and developed organically rather than in answer to a specific commission. Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) was one of the great art dealers of his day, who became a millionaire through speculating on Cezanne's paintings, was unafraid to invest in avant-garde art and gave Picasso his first Paris show in 1901. He was also an innovative publisher of livres d'artiste, and it seems that the Vollard Suite may have been intended as some kind of book or portfolio with texts, a project cut short by Vollard's death in a car crash.

There is no particular narrative to the prints, nor did Picasso arrange them in any special order, nor title them. He was a great printmaker, producing almost 2,500 prints over his lifetime, from lithographs to linocuts, but etchings were at the heart of his print achievement. In the Vollard Suite, Picasso was free to let his invention play with line, and to range over a number of subjects that interested him at a fundamental and emotional level. While making these etchings Picasso was infatuated with his young muse and model Marie-Therese Walter, and her features reappear again and again. She was also the subject of sculptures by Picasso, who thought of himself at this point as more of a sculptor than a painter. Vollard encouraged his sculpture, and the theme of 'The Sculptor's Studio', which forms so large a part of the Suite, is presumably a veiled tribute to the dealer. The linked themes of the artist and creation, and the artist and model, act as a kind of leitmotif throughout, investigating the joys and pitfalls of illusion as compared with reality.

The images work on many levels, not least in dialogue with Picasso's favourite Old Masters: Rembrandt, the great master of etching, and Ingres, the draughtsman he perhaps admired most. There are so many exquisite and noteworthy images among the hundred, I have no room even to list them.

Suffice it to say that the range of etched mark on offer here is predictably rich and varied, from unadorned but evocative outline to complex volumetric cross-hatching to the subtleties of aquatint. …

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