A Suite Semester

My time with Picasso’s Vollard Suite

Within a year of arriving on campus, the Colby College Museum of Art’s edition of Pablo Picasso’s Vollard Suite has contributed immensely to the academic opportunities offered by the College. A remarkable gift from Peter and Paula Lunder, the series of one hundred etchings served as the focus of a seminar offered last fall by Véronique Plesch, professor of art. In this post, seminar participant Nora Hill ’18 reflects on the campus-wide interdisciplinary nature of the class and the ways in which this singular acquisition changed her understanding of art history.

Participants in the seminar AR471

My interaction with Picasso’s Vollard Suite actually began in February of 2016, shortly after the Colby College Museum of Art announced its acquisition of a complete edition of the suite. These one hundred etchings, created between 1930 and 1937, span one of the most interesting periods of Picasso’s career and life. While he worked on them, sometimes slowly and sometimes in furious bursts of activity, he befriended the Surrealists, had two passionate affairs, was left by his wife, and painted his famous Guernica in response to the horrors of his native Spain’s bloody civil war. The prints reflect the turmoil and creativity of these years, depicting scenes of love, rape, bullfights, the artist at work, figures from classical mythology, and portraits of the man who commissioned them and whose name the collection now bears, Parisian dealer Ambroise Vollard. Vollard was famous for the artists’ books he edited, in which he combined famous texts with illustrations by well-known artists, and it’s possible that was his intention for these prints. If that was the case, however, it was never realized; Vollard died less than two years after the suite was completed.

A year ago, I knew none of that. I had never heard of the suite and had no particular affinity for Picasso. But Professor Véronique Plesch decided that she would teach a course on it, and, as her research assistant, I was drawn into the world of Picasso and Vollard with her. We spent the spring 2016 semester preparing for the course; I spent countless hours in Bixler Library thumbing through books and articles to assemble a bibliography that would establish the context of the Vollard Suite, while Professor Plesch reached out across campus to establish the connections that would make this course a truly hands-on experience.

As an art history major and museum intern, I’m well aware of how frequently Colby classes make use of the resources the Museum has to offer and work together in interdisciplinary ways. But the seminar Professor Plesch created around the Vollard Suite engaged more fully with all the resources of the Art Department and the Museum than any other I have taken. Our classroom extended far beyond the small seminar room in Bixler, which was barely large enough for five students and one professor. We visited Professor Scott Reed’s printmaking studio to learn about the processes Picasso used in the suite, and made our own drypoint etchings before venturing down into the Museum with Professor Reed to examine Picasso’s etchings up close. Lunder Curator for Whistler Studies Justin McCann talked with us about his choices in curating the exhibition of a portion of the prints that was on view this semester, and the curatorial and conservation challenges of displaying the suite. The Museum’s former associate director (now vice president of programs and operations at Waterville Creates!), Patricia King, met with us to discuss the legal and copyright issues surrounding our use of the images on the website we created to virtually display the suite—a website that would not have been possible without the guidance of Mark Wardecker and Ellen Freeman, who taught us the basics of HTML coding and website design. Andrew Gelfand, Anne Lunder Leland curatorial fellow, and Shalini Le Gall, curator for academic programs, offered their insight on writing catalog entries and image labels, concise and surprisingly difficult forms of writing that were new to most of us. We spent many hours in the Museum, examining not only the prints from the suite that were on view, but also the works that inspired Picasso.

A phrase that Andrew Gelfand used when he spoke to us about writing catalog entries struck me: he described it as “guided close looking.” It’s the perfect phrase to describe all of the work we did in AR471—in creating the website, in writing papers, in presenting our research. I learned how to look closely and how to help others look—for details, technique and style, visual connections to other works of art, and evidence of philosophical and symbolic influences.

Pablo Picasso, Model Leaning on a Painting (Modèle accoudé sur un tableau), 1933. Etching. The Lunder Collection, 2016.018

Over the course of the semester, I found countless details and connections that I had initially overlooked in Model Leaning on a Painting, the print on which my research focused. These discoveries ranged from the male genitalia of the seemingly female figure in the painting at the center of the print to the connection between the small vase of flowers and a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This print had initially appeared to me as a simple snapshot of the artist’s studio, but I learned to see it as a reflection of Picasso’s complicated relationships with the women in his life and an expression of his own power as an artist.

My most important discoveries came from observing and understanding the ways in which my fellow students, professors, and Museum staff looked at the same work, an interdisciplinary engagement that stretched across the campus. One of the most fascinating moments of the semester was watching a piece choreographed by a group of Colby dance students from Professor of Dance Annie Kloppenberg’s Collaborative Company in response to La Suite Vollard. On a purely academic level, it was interesting to note the visual references to the suite they used in their dance. Beyond that, however, their performance was quite emotionally intense: they addressed Picasso’s complex relationships with the women in his life, the objectification of the female body in his art, and the themes of rape and violence that appear in the suite. This work was powerful and deeply moving, and it pushed me to think about the suite in a different way, reminding me to pay attention to how it made me feel, the visceral reactions that sometimes get lost as we analyze works of art in academic and technical terms.

In this course I learned a great deal about Picasso’s life and work, his connections to other great artists of his time and those who came before him, the methods and materials of printmaking, the skills of designing a website, the art of writing a catalog entry, and a wide range of theoretical and methodological approaches to art historical research. But AR471 also was a class about different ways to think about art and artists: over the course of the semester, I watched printmakers, curators, art historians, art history students, dancers, and museum visitors engage with the same work in remarkably different and enlightening ways, and a great deal of intellectual growth came from this campus-wide investment in producing and sharing knowledge.