As we moved through the Suite Vollard prints these past weeks, we confronted Vollard himself; a sculptor both youthful and ancient pondering the likeness of his sculpture and his model in his studio; a bull and a horse mid-battle in the ring; a faun-like creature born of poetry and reverence to an Old Master; and, of course, the Minotaurs. On these characters – those generated by events in the artist’s own life, figures which work out onto paper his innermost fantasies and feelings – Picasso wrote to his friend and subsequent cataloger, Christian Zervos,”Gradually their real presence faded away; they became for me pure fiction. They had disappeared, or, more precisely, had been transformed into problems of every kind. They were no longer characters for me but shapes and colors.” If admitting to abstraction seems out of character for Picasso, his next words redirect the course: “Please understand me: shapes and colors which nonetheless summarize notions, ideas of these characters, and preserve the vibrations of their lives.”*
One notion that the astute viewer finds summarized again and again throughout the Suite is the multivalency of Picasso’s relationship with Marie-Thérèse, the much-younger mistress he met in 1927. Marie-Thérèse is omnipresent throughout these prints; she is several of the ever-transfiguring “characters” that for Picasso, embody the vibration of life: she is a sculpture and a model, she is a torero thrashed by the bull, she is haunted in her sleep by lusting creatures, she is shrunken into a small girl. In only one image in the Suite Vollard do we see Marie-Thérèse, her “real presence,” rather than the fictional character(s) she plays in the Suite’s graphic story: Femme au fauteuil songeuse, la joue sur la main (B218). This peaceful image, engraved in March of 1934 in a Paris fraught with the tension between the political left and right, stands apart as the most Cubism-esque in the Suite – it calls to mind the same softly fractured atmosphere of Le Rêve(Zervos, Volume VII, # 364), painted two years earlier. In fact, when looking at the whole of the Suite, B218 is an immediate outlier; it is positioned as though a cut to the director’s real life in the middle of his film. One gets the sense that they are seeing exactly what Picasso saw as, one evening, he looked up from his printing plate to remember his steadfast companion across the room at the window, staring out with her chin gently cupped in her hand. Within the bountiful fiction of the Suite, B218 tells a simple, private truth.
Private: that’s the word for Marie-Thérèse’s presence in Picasso’s life, so contrary to her ubiquitous appearance in his work – or maybe so aligned, as she came to represent the internal world for the artist. Nine months after the creation of B218, Marie-Thérèse would tell Picasso that she was pregnant and in September of 1935, she would give birth to a baby girl called Maya, named for the little sister Picasso lost when he too was just a boy. Through a clamorous, very public separation with Olga, the tranquility of this privatized family was Picasso’s salvation. (“This evening I love you more than yesterday, less than I will love you tomorrow,” he wrote on March 23, 1936, “I love you I love you I love you I love you Marie-Thérèse.”)* Though this love was true and evident, Marie-Thérèse would never fill the vacancy of Picasso’s public companion. Throughout these same years, 1934-36, Picasso was brought into the circle of Parisian Surrealists by way of his friend the poet Paul Eluard. In this way, he met Dora Maar. As Picasso attributed his last prints to the Suite Vollard, there was a new woman, a new era on the brink. Marie-Thérèse would forever be in the picture, his inner-life, his shape and color, his mistress who never wanted to be his wife.
Though Picasso completed the final image for the Suite in 1937, it took the printer Roger Lacourière an additional two years to finish pulling each set. Shortly before publication was due, in July of 1939, news came from the countryside: Vollard, at 73, had not returned from an afternoon drive. The car had slipped on a wet road and somersaulted. He would never hold the completed edition of the Suite Vollard. Because of Vollard’s untimely death, and the Great War that followed, sets of the Suite did not enter the market until the early 1950s. But even then, only seventeen years later, they were already a time capsule, preserving an evolutionary moment in the imagination of one of the most transformative artists in art history.
We look forward to a new story next week, with turkey.
*Daix, Pierre. Picasso: Life and Art, Harper Collins (1987). (pp. 232, 239)