Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Few More Thoughts in Preparation for Tonight's Tweevenings Lecture at the Tweed: Picasso, Storytelling and The Unknown Masterpiece

Yesterday world leaders commemorated the 100th year anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Tonight I will be speaking at the Tweed Museum about the illustrations Pablo Picasso created for the 100th year anniversary of Honore de Balzac's The Unknown Masterpiece. Balzac's story about three painters whose paths serendipitously cross is a masterpiece of storytelling.

Ambroise Vollard, the editor of this commemorative edition of the book, commissioned Picasso to do the illustrations so as to help elevate perceptions about printmaking as an art form. Picasso, who arrived in Paris in 1901 at age 19, wasn't an arbitrary pick in this matter. His relationship to Vollard went all the way back to the beginning of his career. Vollard assembled the ambitious young Spanish painter's first Paris show. Vollard purchased 27 canvases, including everything from his Blue Period, in 1906. Vollard made purchases twice annually through the next five years, and introduced the young artist to others whom he could sell works to including Leo and Gertrude Stein.

Three decades later Picasso was a celebrated artist and major force. For this reason Vollard saw an opportunity to cash in some chips on his notion that reproducible work could be considered art.

As art collector Rob Leff pointed out in a Tweevenings lecture late last year there were others embracing this idea, one of them being Stanley W. Hayter, a British printmaker who moved to Paris and founded Atelier 17, one of the most influential art studios in the world. All this to say Vollard wasn't entirely unique in exploring the possibilities of these new paths for artists.

During this period when Picasso was commissioned to illustrate The Unknown Masterpiece he was already commissioned by Vollard to produce 100 etchings for a series that became known as The Vollard Suite. Picasso's innovative approach included efforts to make effects by using syrup and acid, for example. The last three pictures in this Suite are portraits of Vollard himself.

I'm reminded here of collector Steve Wynn's exhibit in the Wynn Casino in which the final piece is a Warhol screen print of Wynn.

Speaking of Wynn, his sale of Le Reve to hedge fun billionaire Steve Cohen shows just how valuable the Picasso name has become. Vollard was clearly a primary agent in creating that value. This is not to diminish Picasso's innovation, prolific productivity and other achievements.

Balzac proved to be one of the most influential authors of the first half of the nineteenth century. Picasso became one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. Four of the Picasso drawings for Balzac's book will be on display tonight. I'll attempt to make a case as to why these pictures are signiicant. Perhaps we'll see all 13 in this set again sometime before long.

 Meantime, art goes on all around you. Engage it.

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