Picasso's sexy, violent, Vollard Suite is the art event of the year

May 9, 2012

British Museum's new collection of Picasso prints is worth getting excited about

Succession Picasso/DACS 2011

What you need to know
The exhibition shows the complete set of Pablo Picasso's etchings series, The Vollard Suite, which comprises 100 etchings produced by Picasso between 1930 and 1937. It was recently acquired by the museum and is being shown for the first time in a British public institution.

The prints were made during a period when Picasso was having an affair with a young model, Marie-Thérèse Walter. The images combine her features with themes and motifs from classical sculpture and mythology, including the Minotaur and Pygmalion myths. The etchings are displayed alongside examples of the type of classical sculpture and objects that Picasso was inspired by.

The Vollard Suite takes its name from Ambroise Vollard, an avant-garde Paris art dealer and print publisher who gave Picasso his first Paris exhibition in 1901. Runs until 2 September.

What the critics like
This is as rich and complex a visual experience as we are likely to see this year, says Richard Dorment in The Daily Telegraph. The emotional register of the prints constantly shifts "to reflect Picasso's erotic and artistic obsessions, marital vicissitudes, and the darkening political situation in Europe". And by showing the prints alongside the Greek and Roman vases, antique marbles, Ingres drawings and Rembrandt prints that inspired him, the museum shows us how Picasso was "immersed, heart and soul, in the history of art".

It's a thrilling show, says Ben Luke in The Evening Standard. Picasso's prints "teem with ideas and imagery" reflecting Picasso's flirtation with surrealism, his passion for his young mistress, his obsession with the classical world, and his rekindled prowess as a sculptor. The "vigorous and inventive" Vollard Suite ranks with almost anything he produced in the thirties.

This is truly one of the art events of the year, says Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. It "offers more inspiration, stimulation and sheer excitement than almost any other art I can think of". From phantasmagoric images of sex and violence, to lyrical scenes of lovers at peace, we see Picasso's mind at work. If every painting by Picasso were to vanish, "his genius would still be obvious from this work alone".

What they don't like
Critics have almost nothing negative to say about this exhibition, but Richard Dorment does have a word of rebuke for the government in the Telegraph. He points out that the Suite was purchased with funds provided by a single donor, Hamish Parker. Under the recent government proposal to cap charitable donations at 25 per cent of the donor's income, Dorment says, Parker could not have afforded to make this gift, and all of us would be the poorer.

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