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The Triumph of Dionysus?: Picasso's Complete Vollard Suite at the British Museum
Much has been made, in recent decades, of Picasso's perceived misogyny. His grotesque abstractions of the female body – the tragic implosion of his 1937 Femme en Pleurs, for example, which treads the boundary line between distortion and revelation – have all too often been read as evidence of an easy dichotomy: the relationship between the powerful, disengaged, and often disembodied (male) artist and the objectified female flesh he kneads like dough until it resembles the creations of his own consciousness. But in the British Museum's revelatory new display of Picasso's Vollard Suite, a series of one hundred etchings commissioned by avant-garde art dealer Ambroise Vollard between 1930 and 1936, we find a far more multifaceted examination of the politics of gender and creation than many of Picasso's critics would allege.
In the Suite's mythic, fantastical world, heavily influenced by the shapes and symbols of Greek art; women wear the masks of men; men transform into beasts; the clean lines of classical rationality give way to the tangled chaos of reality: manifest at once in the pubic hairs of a pliant model or in the matted mane of the priapic minotaur. In one plate, a typically fecund model – based, like many of the female figures in this collection, on Picasso's then-lover Marie-Therese Walter – is forced to contend with a marble pair of hips (and genitals) for the sculptor's attention; in another, it is the sculptor himself who is dwarfed by an artistic rival. No sooner have we become accustomed to a set of symbolic associations – clean lines delineate masculinity; shaded cross-hatching suggests the feminine form – than these associations are subverted or reversed: it is the minotaur who is now tangled in shadow, his slumbering lover neatly captured by a few simple strokes.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Young sculptor at work; plate 46 of the Vollard Suite.
23 March 1933. Etching. Presented by the Hamish Parker Charitable Trust in memory of Major Horace Parker.
©Succession Picasso/DACS 2011
If there is a dichotomy to be found in this extraordinary collection of etchings, it is not between “male” and “female” or even between “art” and “life” but rather between the “Dionysian” and the “Apollonian,” categories first articulated by Friedrich Nietzsche to describe the nature of Greek tragedy. The “Apollonian,” Nietzsche suggests – is the force governing the harmony we associate with Classical art, the force of order and illusion that shields our eyes from the savage, chaotic fecundity of existence. The “Dionysian,” by contrast, represents the unvarnished truth at the heart of existence: a “storm” that destroys all polarity and antitheses and reveals the primordial unity at the heart of earthly existence.
Picasso, certainly, was familiar with Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy – he explicitly references it in his 1937 Guernica – and the threatening, savage presence of the Dionysian remains a constant presence throughout the Suite: the illusory nature of the separation between male and female, between sculptor and sculpted, collapses: their violent sexual congress reveals their fundamental unity.
Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973), Nude bearded sculptor working on staute with model (Marie-Thérèse) posing; plate 59 of the Vollard Suite (VS 59).
31 March 1933. Etching.
©Succession Picasso/DACS 2011
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