Suite Vollard: Finally, Picasso Up Close and Personal in Manila

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One would expect that a monumental exhibit such as that of Pablo Picasso's Philippine debut would be accompanied by years of preparation and much pomp and fanfare. After all, Picasso is one of the world’s most important visual artists of the 20th century, and the Philippines is a country starved of exhibitions of such proportions.

It is ironic, then, that the staging of the exhibit Suite Vollard—one of Picasso’s most important collections, preceding his world-famous Civil War piece, Guernica—took all of six weeks and happened purely by accident.



A serendipitous start

According to Chaco Molina, Executive Director of the Fundación Santiago, which co-organized the exhibit with insurance giant MAPFRE and the Metropolitan Museum of the Philippines, the exhibit that was supposed to be launched at the Met in November was a series of photographs by Spanish and Filipino photographers depicting Filipina women from the 19th century to the present. Entitled Mujeres Filipinas, the exhibit was composed of pieces to be collected from different photographers and subjects. However, several weeks before the exhibit was set to open in Manila, Fundación MAPFRE called Chaco to inform him that it was impossible to meet the deadline.


Mr. Jose Ricardo Molina, Director-Fundacion Santiago and Shirley Banquicho –Executive Director,European Affairs-DFA


“They realized that they couldn’t bring it (to the Philippines) on time because it wasn’t their collection,” Chaco recounts, “Then they asked us, ‘Would you settle for our own collection of a hundred prints of Picasso’?”

Of course, nobody just settles for a Picasso show—especially not when the MAPFRE collection is only one of the few in the world that actually has all 100 original prints of the Suite Vollard. Painstaking preparations were then made to arrange for permits for the pieces to leave Spain, for transport and insurance, and even for the exact Pantone of red to be painted on the exhibit walls.



Six weeks of emails, paperwork, and minute details later, Pablo Picasso finally arrives on Philippine shores.

“[This exhibit sends] a signal to the European community that the Philippines is ready for shows of such magnitude,” says Architect Gerry Torres, Director of the Met. “Imagine housing one hundred Picassos? That’s a feat in itself already.”


National Artists Mr. Abdulmari Imao and Napoleon Abueva(both in Barong) with Arch Gerry Torres-Met Museum Director.


Suite Vollard: Picasso’s “crowning achievement”

The Suite Vollard was called “the crowning achievement of Picasso’s graphic career” by Spanish art writer Leyre Bozal, who had written the accompanying text for the exhibit. The collection comprises 100 copper engravings made between 1930 and 1937, following a wide variety of themes as rape and violent renditions of love and passion; the Minotaur and other mythical creatures from Greco-Roman mythology; the Sculptor and his Model; other light themes such as bathers and nude women; and even portraits of the artist Rembrandt and of the art dealer after whom the collection was named, Ambrose Vollard.



Of these, it is the Minotaur and the Sculptor series that seem to be most telling of the artist's state of mind (and, most possibly, heart) as he underwent a period of creative flourish to complete all one hundred works. They also comprise 61 of the 100 prints, clearly setting the tone for what the viewer is about to experience upon seeing Suite Vollard.



During my conversation with Chaco and Arch. Gerry, I learned that the exhibit was supposed to be viewed first from the “Sculptor” series and should end with the “Minotaur” and “Rape” series. However, I apparently started the other way around, finding myself drawn to the darker, ominous, and disturbing images of a virile, dominating Minotaur caressing, unclothing, or sleeping beside an innocent-looking woman (or women). Although the images were not as graphic as, say, Juan Luna’s masterpiece Spoilarium had been, I found in them a kind of violence that seemed more sinister—offensive and repulsive even—perhaps because of the way the artworks seem to understate this violence through the lightness of its lines and the fluidity of its strokes.


Pablo Picasso
Minotauro moribundo, 30 mayo 1933
FUNDACION MAPFRE’s Collections
© Sucesión Pablo Picasso. VEGAP. Madrid, 2011


In some of the “Minotaur” pieces, for instance, the woman's (the victim's?) face is almost imperceptible, underscoring the dominance of the monstrous creature. Bozal writes that the Minotaur in Picasso's work symbolizes "the emotion, the passion, the conflicting feelings and even the violence that we all share deep within us--the animal part of the human being." Apparently, these darker themes in Picasso's work also coincide with the insidious creeping in of totalitarian regimes around the world of Picasso’s time; the latter pieces from the collection were made just as civil war erupted in Spain.


Pablo Picasso
Minotauro acariciando a una mujer dormida, 18 junio 1933
FUNDACION MAPFRE’s Collections
© Sucesión Pablo Picasso. VEGAP. Madrid, 2011


Meanwhile, a lighter (though still obsessive) side of Picasso is clearly evident in his series showing a Sculptor, his Model, and his Sculpture. The Sculptor, said to be a representation of Picasso himself, is rendered with neoclassical elements and was apparently inspired by his travels to Rome, Florence, and Naples. His Model, said to be the representation of his child-mistress, Marie Thérèse Walter, is often seen reclining, lying down, and, in other pieces, staring almost blankly at the viewer. The Sculpture, meanwhile, takes on various forms but is always depicted to be on the opposing pole of the model, dominating the Sculptor’s attention in its static, molded perfection. Accordng to Bozal, “We get the impression that the sculptor is obsessed with his work and that the model is bored. And despite the close physical proximity of the figures, the emotional chasm between them is distinctly palpable.”


Pablo Picasso
Mujer acodada, escultura de espaldas y cabeza barbuda, 3 mayo 1933
FUNDACION MAPFRE’s Collections
© Sucesión Pablo Picasso. VEGAP. Madrid, 2011



Pablo Picasso
Joven escultor trabajando, 25 marzo 1933
FUNDACION MAPFRE’s Collections
© Sucesión Pablo Picasso. VEGAP. Madrid, 2011


The revelation of Picasso’s genius

Beyond all of this, what is perhaps most telling of Picasso’s passion for his art is his mastery of technique. Known for pioneering the avant-garde movement known as cubism, Picasso also experimented with classicism and surrealism, and the neoclassicist style that he displayed in Suite Vollard was often referred to as the “return to order.” Suite Vollard also shows Picasso’s mastery of etching and printmaking, just as he had mastered drawing and painting.


Pablo Picasso
Retrato de Vollard II, ca. 1937
FUNDACION MAPFRE’s Collections
© Sucesión Pablo Picasso. VEGAP. Madrid, 2011


Arch. Torres of the Met explains how an etching is made: a copper plate is covered with an acid-resistant “ground” (a malleable, wax-like material), then the image is drawn (“incised” is technical term) with a fine point. Then plate is then dipped into acid, which then bites into the exposed metal and leaves the incised ground on the plate. The forms what can be considered a printing plate, which is then inked and pressed on paper to produce the resulting mirror-image prints. Therefore, Arch. Torres points out, “"the images are actually the reverse of how Picasso perceived them." It is upon appreciating the intricacy of this technique that we realize that it is no easy task to etch some of the more detailed works of the suite, such as those in the “Rembrandt” series.


Pablo Picasso
Rembrandt y mujer con velo, 31 enero 1934
FUNDACION MAPFRE’s Collections
© Sucesión Pablo Picasso. VEGAP. Madrid, 2011


Picasso was by all means an artistic genius, and he managed to reinvent himself throughout most of his nine-decade life (whether his peers or his critics approved of it or not). But amid all of his passions and obsessions, the artist also let slip his vulnerable side, as in the case of the “Blind Minotaur” series. Here, the scenes always depict a blind Minotaur being led by a little girl cradling a dove to her chest. Scholars, Bozal included, point to this series as an allegory for the darkness and despair that was enveloping Europe prior to the Spanish Civil War and World War II, and Picasso’s own search for light and peace, as well as his hope in and for the future.

“His humanity was on display there,” Arch. Gerry declares. “I think the mark of a great artist is the courage to put yourself out there—no matter what anyone thinks.”

Picasso was that rare blend of passionate artist and detached observer, ardent lover and distant (in some cases estranged) husband and father. His works demonstrated his mastery of detail and his quest for perfection, just as the back story of his life showed humanity’s frail and flawed nature. As the Philippines finally comes up close and personal with Picasso’s oeuvre, we also finally get to know the man who has captured the world’s imagination for generations—and maybe even see a bit of ourselves and our society in his works. There may be violence, there may be oppression, there may be despair. But there almost certainly will be light, hope, and beauty amid the darkness.



The Suite Vollard will be at the Galeriya Banko Sentral of the Metropolitan Museum of Manila until January 7, 2012. Museum entrance fee is P100 (Children above 3 years old, students, adults and foreign guest) and P80 (Senior citizen and person with disabilities). The museum is open Monday to Saturday, 9am to 6pm. Closed on Sundays, holidays and first Mondays of the month.


Images from the FUNDACION MAPFRE's Collections/Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Manila.

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