Ambroise Vollard is one of those names known only to fine-art aficionados. He is a stern-looking man, a face immortalized by members of the famed Parisian art world of the late 19th and early 20th century, which yielded the likes of Renoir, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso.
In 1930, the dedicated merchant commissioned Pablo Picasso to create a series of 100 copperplate engravings, which the artist later named the Vollard Suite. The grouping first appeared in 1939 in two formats; the second, larger one was printed on Montval laid paper with "Picasso" or "Vollard" watermarks. These first 250 issues are mostly scattered throughout private and public art collections around the world.
The collection's thematic and technical diversity may have provoked its dispersion, but the Vollard Suite is still considered, arguably, the most important engraving series of the 20th century.
Spain-based Fundación Mapfre is one of the few entities that possess the Vollard Suite in its entirety, the way Picasso wanted it to be seen.
In collaboration with Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña and as part of its commitment to promote culture locally, Fundación Mapfre Puerto Rico has brought to the island this masterwork conceptualized by one of the world's most extraordinary artists.
For the occasion, the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico in Santurce is carrying out an educational program designed for the general public and running in conjunction with its exhibition of the Vollard Suite, which will be up through Aug. 21. Activities include story reading for children and families, guided tours and creative workshops on engravings for adults.
Just as it was conceived, the Vollard Suite exhibition isn't chronologically arranged, but rather placed according to Picasso's external and personal circumstances. In addition to three portraits of Vollard, there are 27 plates on miscellaneous themes, five dedicated to the battle of love, four on Rembrandt, 46 on the theme of the sculptor's studio, 11 on the Minotaur, and an additional four on the theme of the blind Minotaur.
In the engravings, the sculptor produces moon-like heads, with protuberances linking forehead and nose, which recall Cretan and Cycladic art, or the steatopygian (large-bottomed) Venus figurines of the Neolithic period.
The collection marks Picasso's return to a more classical aesthetic in which the core narrative is artistic contemplation, reflecting the creator's internal strife. Like a fated, modern-age Pygmalion, the sculptor is doomed to voyeurism toward his model and dissatisfaction when regarding his work.
He looks at the work thoughtfully, as if doubting its perfection. We get the impression the model is bored and oblivious to what is going through the artist's mind. Despite the close proximity of the portrayed figures, the emotional chasm between them is distinctly palpable, but there also is a certain latent eroticism, a hidden sensuality that would suggest they are resting after making love.
It is important to note that sculpture occupied an important place in Picasso's life during this period. Hence, the sculptor can be associated with Picasso, portrayed as a mature, bearded man. Occasionally, the sculptor becomes the Minotaur, and sometimes he is Rembrandt, but he is nearly always seen in relation to the young model—who is always Marie-Thérèse.
As the story goes, a very married Picasso met the young Marie-Thérèse while taking a stroll—a chance meeting that launched an eight-year affair, which of course ended when Picasso moved on to his next mistress.
There is almost too much to say about the Vollard Suite. It can be taken as a study of a modern artist facing impotence upon encountering a new kind of war and social upheaval; it also can be considered an overture that will later lead to Guernica (1937), Picasso's monumental mural-size painting depicting the tragedy of war, which brought the Spanish Civil War to the attention of the world.
Mostly it is another fine example of Picasso's mastery of counterpoints. In just one space, this time in Puerto Rico, a typical Picassian dialogue has been unleashed to reconcile chaos and order, violence and serenity: the Apollonian and Dionysian in us all.
As with all art, the Vollard Suite is what you see in it: and this time we are privy to what the creator sees, in our own way breathing life into the collection.