High-Step with a Bull

T.J. Clark

  • Picasso Prints: The Vollard Suite
    British Museum

The Vollard Suite is an entertainment. The hundred etchings Picasso produced between 1930 and 1937, which at some point became a set to be sold together, are – for want of a better word – courtly. In much the same way as Milton’s Comus, say, or Handel and Gay’s Acis and Galatea. The etchings are elegant, self-conscious, mostly light-hearted things, even when their subject matter is riotous or worse. In plate 56, for example, done on 30 March 1933, the elderly sculptor and his model, both naked and plumped up on pillows, gaze a bit vacantly at a marble the sculptor has been working on, in which two young dancers – bit players from a Bacchic sarcophagus – do the high-step with a bull. The animal is benevolent, not to say furry and fey; he holds up one foreleg daintily, so that the intersection of his cloven hoof with the sculptor’s nipple is entirely innocuous (like the model’s fingers in the old man’s chest hair); the bull and the woman he may be abducting are both tied up, not very convincingly, with strings of flowers; a curtain comes down on the performance as a gentle shower of rain. The model still has on her Bacchic garland, and the sculptor is dreaming of his days as a wild thing. (Picasso was 51 in 1933. Michel Leiris in his diary records a group of friends at the time gossiping about the decline in their hero’s sexual powers. The gossip sounds dreary, but Picasso was asking for it.)

Plate 56 of the Vollard Suite.
Plate 56 of the Vollard Suite.

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