Saturday, July 19, 2014

Did Modern Art Dealer and Collector Ambroise Vollard Make Picasso What He Was?

"He did not like people to watch him when he was painting... as soon as he noticed her... he packed up his things in a rage and away he went."
~Ambroise Vollard, on Cezanne

This spring I was asked if I might be interested in contributing a lecture to the Tweevenings series which the Tweed Museum of Art has been hosting since last autumn. The essence of Tweevenings is that a speaker makes a presentation on one of the works from their extensive collection. From the beginning I've tried to attend as many lectures as I was able (sometimes I have been out of town) and not a one has been a disappointment.

Ambroise Vollard
For me, attending the Tweevenings lectures has not been simply to acquire more facts and names and knowledge. Rather it remains part of my lifelong quest to understand questions like "What is art?" and "What is the role of art and artists in our culture?"

In addition to learning about the Tweed collection I have also met some and heard some interesting people.  In October, I discovered the work of Charles Biederman through a lecture by Bill Shipley. In February Ann Klefstad gave a talk called Double Vision which very directly discussed the faultlines over which our art understanding has trod, specifically the notion of "art for art's sake" often being pitted against functional art instead seeing them as siblings. In all cases I have gained new insights which brought new understandings, as well as a deeper appreciation for the Tweed as a community resource.

My talk in 18 days will revolve around the Pablo Picasso's illustrations for Honore Balzac's The Unknown Masterpiece, an 1832 story about three painters which went on to influence many future artists including Paul Cezanne and Pablo Picasso.

Researching the themes surrounding Picasso's drawings, which became a series of limited edition prints, has brought many rewards. One of these has been discovering the degree to which a single collector can have such extensive influence. It's a relatively small step to the conclusion that the Tweeds themselves have made an immeasurable contribution to our Northland which we often can take for granted. And in point of fact, these 13 Picasso etchings in the collection here were donated to the museum by the grandchildren of the late Alice Tweed Tuohy, an avid art collector along with her husband. Ms. Tuohy herself donated over 500 art works to UMD.

Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) must have had an astute sense of the times as he became integrated with the Paris art scene. Artists whose works he collected include Renoir, Gaugan, Cezanne and, famously, Picasso. The young Spaniard Picasso arrived in Paris in 1901. I can't say for sure when Vollard first noticed him, but in 1906 the collector purchased 27 canvases from the as yet undiscovered artist, which included all of his "Blue Period" works. Through 1911 Vollard made purchases twice annually from the young artist, a time transitional not only for Picasso but for modern art as a movement.

Their relationship last nearly forty years, during which time the artist did several paintings and drawings of the collector/art dealer, including an interest Cubist portrait of the Vollard. The patronage of Vollard and the Steins, Gertrude and Leo, kept Picasso financially solvent.

Because etchings were one of Vollard's passions, he leaned on Picasso to produce two series which may have been influential in elevating this craft to a fine art form. These were the illustrations for Balzac's Unknown Masterpiece and the 100 images known as the Vollard Suite, the last three being illustrations of Vollard himself.

Picasso ultimately became a household name far beyond the art circles where he established himself as a pioneer. Was this Vollard's doing? Unquestionably Vollard contributed to Picasso's succes. This might be one reason he was willing to "give back" by producing the Vollard Suite and the illustrations for Unknown Masterpiece. Then again, he may have simply relished the opportunity to explore new creative terrain, as he had with sculpture, theater, and ceramics.

Undoubtedly another factor in his success was his charm. To a public eager to embrace new ideas on the threshold of the Twentieth Century, he made for a good alternative to the somewhat feisty Cezanne or the ultra-sensitive Van Gogh. Picasso became an emblem of modernism, and went on to influence generations of artists in his wake.

By the time Ambroise Vollard died in a freak accident on the way to his chateau, he had collected more than 10,000 paintings and art objects. Had he not died when he did, he may have died a year or two later from a broken heart when the Nazis over-ran his homeland.

To learn more about this topic join us Tuesday, August 5, in the library of the Tweed Museum of Art, 6:30 p.m. ... Picasso, Storytelling and The Unknown Masterpiece.

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