On Tuesday morning, I had the pleasure of spending an hour or two at the National Gallery in Ottawa, looking at the exhibit of the Picasso etchings known as the Vollard Suite. (Ambroise Vollard was an art dealer who commissioned the work in the 1930s in exchange for paintings by Cezanne and Renoir.) Critics are quick to say that the images follow no true narrative sequence. They do explore a relationship — between an artist and his model, between a lover and the beloved — and they reveal something of the artist’s obsessions with beauty and its variants. Some of the individual etchings are beautiful, some are troubling (there are scenes of sexual violence and brutality involving minotaurs and satyrs), some are mythic in their manipulation of space and time. Some reveal anxiety and fear — a girl leading a blind minotaur through a dark night. In 2016, it would easy to dismiss many of the images as predatory or exploitive but that would be unfortunate. The draftsmanship alone is worth the price of admission and if the viewer is unsettled, maybe that’s not a bad thing. “The Vollard Suite functions as a visual diary of the artist’s creative thinking and preoccupations during a pivotal moment in his career,” wrote the director of Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art in 2013 and that strikes me as about right.
A visual diary — for the artist, yes, but I wonder what it was for the model. In some of the prints, she looks aloof, in others bemused. A sculptor with a wreath of leaves gazing at her with both sexual interest and professional detachment: not a situation one finds oneself in on a daily basis. Or ever.
But as I looked at the exhibition, I was taken back to 1977 when I met a painter who spent the next few years obsessively drawing and painting me. When Picasso met Marie-Thérèse Walter, she was 17 and he was 45, married to Olga Khoklova, a Russian ballerina. When I met my painter, I was 22 and he was in his 60s, also married to a ballerina. It was a complicated relationship, not easily defined. I wrote about it in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees in the chapter “Arbutus menziesii: Makeup Secrets of the Byzantine Madonnas”:
More than thirty years ago, I removed my clothes for an artist, each layer — the baggy sweater, jeans, cotton underpants, lace bra — flung to the ground in careless abandon of a self I hoped I could transcend, on canvas if not in fact. What he wanted from me wasn’t physical exactly. It was what men often hope to find in a woman’s presence that makes itself known in her body. Before that, and afterwards, there were others who found this in me though I was puzzled by their conviction that I had something they needed…Time provides such clarity and from this great distance I wish I’d been more easy with the role in which I’d been cast. It troubled me then because I thought I was at fault, that I wasn’t worthy of the relationships my friends were entering into. Now I can honestly say it was a privilege to (however briefly) occupy the imagination of a man who caressed my skin with brushes of hogs hair and sable, and who filled a small book with my image.”
At one point, I sat on a bench looking for a long time at a minotaur leaning over the body of a sleeping girl. The composition of this particular etching (June 18, 1933) is extraordinary. And in it is both tenderness and danger. Yet the girl sleeps sweetly, both aware and unaware. It’s not just about male power. It’s about complicity too, though I am uncomfortable writing that. But I’m trying to honestly parse my own feelings as I looked at the work and part of that process is remembering how to felt to be the one who was lying on a flowered cloth while someone used line and shadow to fix something in time. It wasn’t about submission or coercion. There was exchange of sorts. (Remember the Yeats lines, from “Leda and the Swan”: Did she put on his knowledge with his power/Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?) I remember the painter taking me to a small gallery where a dealer had several of the prints from the Vollard Suite available for sale. He wanted to buy one for me. I wouldn’t allow him to. I thought of that on Tuesday, trying to recall which prints we’d looked at. I wish I could remember. I could see his attraction to them. (I was too young to see how derivative his own work was.) But I got out some of his drawings just now (he gave my husband a folio of them as a gift) and looked at them again, with the tangle of Tuesday’s emotions in mind. That painter is long dead and I am a grandmother but when I look at this one, for instance, I am also that girl who had a moment of light. (And the satyr was as comical as he was dangerous.)