The forty-six plates that comprise the “Sculptor’s Studio” prints of the Suite Vollard provide insight into Picasso’s thoughts about the relationship between art and life, as well as the very nature of making art. Comprising the largest subtext within the suite, these images set the overall tone for the series as a whole. Noted Picasso scholar Brigitte Baer neatly summarizes the artist’s concerns: “[In the ‘Sculptor’s Studio’ prints], he was to question his relationship to sculpture (his principle interest at the time), his relationship to the model, to the woman who is a kind of doppelgänger of the model, and also the relationship of both the woman and model to his work and to him” (Picasso the Engraver: Selections from the Musée Picasso, Paris The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1997, 12).
The classical referents within the imagery—the sculptor’s muscular body and curly mane resemble a number of Greco-Roman sculptures and portrait busts, and the model is likewise reminiscent of ancient sculptures of nymphs and goddesses—lend a sense of timelessness to the etchings, as well as the problems they pose. They lounge in his light-filled and tranquil studio, often adorned with headpieces or garlands of foliage. The artwork is displayed on Greek columns and is also frequently decorated with greenery. The style of these line etchings is clean, elegant, and linear.
The scenes depicted explore the role of artist, model, and art in a variety of juxtapositions. In a majority of the plates the sculptor is at rest, contemplating his work. Other times he is actively forming a figure. The nubile model is either at work herself, contentedly passive, or perplexed. In a handful of plates, the distinction between model and artwork is unclear. In many such images, Picasso seems to be exploring the relationship between two-dimensional and three-dimensional artwork, simultaneously depicting the model in both formats, sometimes accompanied by a live model. Because the image is an etching, all three formats are, of course, illusions, and this fact alone is an interesting philosophical proposition that invites questions regarding the nature of representation.
The style represented in the sculptures themselves varies widely, from straightforward classical naturalism to highly modern and abstracted forms. Picasso himself noted this as he examined the “Sculptor’s Studio” prints with Françoise Gilot later in life. Discussing the artist depicted in the etchings, he said "he's not sure of which way he wants to work. Of course if you note all the different shapes, sizes, and colors of models he works from, you can understand his confusion. He doesn't know what he wants. No wonder his style is so ambiguous. It's like God's. God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat. He has no real style. He just keeps on trying other things. The same with this sculptor” (Françoise Gilot with Carleton Lake, Life with Picasso (Virago Press, 1990 [reprint of 1964 McGraw-Hill edition], 50). This story is in keeping with an article Picasso wrote earlier in his career in which he stated “there is no past or future in art. Whenever I have had something to say, I have said it in the manner in which I felt it ought to be said. Different motives inevitably require different modes of expression. This does not imply either evolution or progress, but an adaptation of an idea one wants to express and the means to express that idea” (“Picasso Speaks,” The Arts, May 1923). Both statements reinforce the notion that the sculptor in these etchings is an alter-ego for Picasso himself, but perhaps more importantly, for artists throughout history and their struggle to create meaningful and original works of art.
Another important undercurrent in the series is the relationship between love and art. Picasso was struggling at the time with the fact that his mistress and model, Marie-Thérèse Walter—about whom he was intensely passionate on a personal and artistic level—seemed to have no understanding of his work. Surely it must have seemed puzzling that a woman whose physical beauty could inspire him so deeply should have no mental or spiritual interest in his art. Several of the plates reflect this duality. In many, the sculptor seems to be more enthralled with his creation than the flesh-and-blood model that is in the studio with him. As noted by many scholars over the years, this subcurrent evokes the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which the sculptor (Pygmalion) falls in love with his own creation (Galatea) and she subsequently comes to life. In Picasso’s case, it seemed to work the other way.
Stylistically, the prints are a further development of the clean linear etchings that Picasso created in two previous book projects: Les Métamorphoses d’Ovide (1932) and Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu (1931). Likewise, Picasso was working on illustrations for Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (1934) during the same period, which are similar in style and theme. Picasso created the “Sculptor’s Studio” prints over a span of approximately one year, from spring 1933 to spring 1934, and the subject was of such interest to Picasso that he occasionally created several etchings in one day.
The “Sculptor’s Studio” prints continue to fascinate and engage Picasso’s followers. The breadth and depth of the images and the complex philosophical questions Picasso poses within remain unparalleled in Modern and Contemporary art, and establish them among the masterworks of the Twentieth Century.