Issue Number: 115
Printmaker Norman Ackroyd RA salutes the British Museum’s show of Picasso’s Vollard Suite, the greatest print series of the 20th century
Picasso was over 50 when he embarked, under the patronage of the art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1867-1939) on what was to become one of the three greatest series in the history of etching. In my view Picasso’s Vollard Suite (1931-36) ranks alongside Rembrandt’s heads and self-portraits from the 1630s, and Goya’s Los Caprichos, of 1799, and all played their part in radically changing the direction of etching. With the Vollard Suite (1931-36) Picasso stretched the boundaries of the medium by using it in a revolutionary and painterly way.
Since the 1890s Vollard had been involved in publishing prints and books by artists such as Bonnard, Renoir, Pissarro, Rodin and Vuillard. In 1913 he had published Picasso’s early etchings of the saltimbanques, and had given him his first major Paris show in 1901, when he was just 20.
Picasso made etchings compulsively at various points in his career, including 350 in one summer at the age of 88. He became obsessed with etching because it’s one of the ultimate ways to draw – the printed line sits on the paper, elegant and understated. Etching is about what you don’t put in – it’s just the bones of things. It is like writing poetry – you can’t get a word wrong. For the Vollard Suite, Picasso worked with the master printer Roger Lacourière. The energy of the artist, combined with the consummate skill of the printer, allowed free expression, and speed of production. It also generated innovation.
Early etchings in the suite – addressing classical sculpture and the relationship between artist and model – are linear in execution. As the series progresses, the economy of pure line gives way to tonal effects that are achieved in a similar way to watercolour, using acid mixed with spit brushed onto an aquatinted plate – known as spit bite.
The Vollard Suite is as iconic as Goya’s Los Caprichos and The Disasters of War (1810-20) which really began to exploit aquatint to create a tonal effect. The influence of Rembrandt’s great series of self-portraits and their linear quality is clear, but with the last three works in the Vollard Suite, the portraits of Ambroise Vollard, Picasso uses spit bite to create a soft and highly painterly tonal effect that is completely new.
The sheer responsiveness of Lacourière to Picasso’s desires led to many new directions. By the time Vollard commissioned Picasso in 1936 to illustrate Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle – a print from this set is also in the show – Lacourière had further developed the process known as sugar lift so that Picasso could work directly on the copper plate with pen and wash. This technique was used in the final etchings of the Vollard Suite and was taken further in Histoire Naturelle allowing for a much greater variety and sensitivity of mark making.
In the early 1970s on a pilgrimage to this great print studio, I was lucky enough to meet Madame Lacourière. She described the energy that pervaded the workshops in the 1930s. She made the coffee and showed me how she used to make Picasso’s sugar-lift mixture every morning. In a saucer she mixed sugar, water, gum gamboge and saliva and stirred until it flowed both from a pen nib and a brush.
Ambroise Vollard died in 1939, having presided over a memorable decade in the development of etching. The British Museum’s recent acquisition of the complete Vollard Suite is a fundamental part of the jigsaw that is the history of etching. It is not to be missed.