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Ambroise Vollard: The man who discovered Picasso

(AFP) / 25 April 2012

The intense relationship between Spanish artist Pablo Picasso and Ambroise Vollard, one of the great art dealers of the 20th century, is at the heart of an exhibition on Venice’s Grand Canal.

Vollard — who championed many of the upcoming artists of his day including Cezanne, Van Gogh and Renoir — is credited with discovering and befriending the young Picasso and commissioning some of his most striking etchings.

The art dealer persuaded a reluctant Picasso to sketch “The Acrobats”, the “Vollard Suite” and illustrations for author Honore de Balzac’s “The Unknown Masterpiece” — now on show at the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti.

“It’s the first exhibition dedicated entirely to the collaboration between Pablo Picasso and Ambroise Vollard, which has strangely remained rather secret,” the show’s organiser, Claudia Beltramo Ceppi, told AFP.

Vollard was born in 1868 on the island of Reunion, a French colony in the Indian Ocean, and later studied law in Paris, where he hunted for art deals among stalls on the banks of the Seine before opening his own shop in 1893.

It was there in June 1901 that he hosted 19-year-old Picasso’s first Paris exhibition and cemented a friendship that would last for nearly 40 years.

In 1906, Vollard bought the entire collection of works done by Picasso in his “blue period” — monochromatic paintings in shades of blue and blue-green composed between 1901 and 1904 — for the grand sum of 2,000 French francs.

“It was the first important sum the young painter had received,” Ceppi said.

Vollard was renowned for his eccentricities and refusal to indulge wealthy collectors but had “great artistic sensibility” and a passion for etching.

“He set about convincing the biggest artists of his era of the importance of etching — considered for the first time in the modern era to be an important activity — and opened up the art form to the wider public,” she said.

In convincing Picasso to etch four series of works, Vollard helped establish him as “the new great genius of modern etching after Rembrandt and Goya.”

Highlights in the Venice exhibition are “The Frugal Repast” (1904), a magnificent and heartbreaking depiction of poverty, and “The Two Acrobats”, a pair of abandoned child vagabonds with drawn faces and weary expressions.

The “Vollard Suite”, which the dealer persuaded Picasso to etch, contains many references to the painter’s obsessions, including depictions of the part-man, part-beast Minotaur figure in striking erotic poses.

The prints were made during Picasso’s passionate affair with Marie-Therese Walter — who served as his muse, mistress and model and with whom he fathered a child — and her classical features are a recurrent presence in the series.

They contrast sharply with the Suite’s darker representations of brutal passion, which explore and indulge the artist’s irrepressible sexual desire — he had four children by three women but seduced mistresses late into his 80s.

There are five etches of “The Embrace” in the exhibition, four entitled “Rembrandt”, 46 of “The Sculpture’s Workshop”, 11 of “The Minotaur”, four of “The Blind Minotaur” and three emotional portraits of a stern-looking Vollard.

The pair remained friends up until Vollard’s death aged 73, when he was killed after a bronze sculpture hit him in the head in a car crash.

“Picasso and Vollard — the Genius and the Dealer” runs until July 8.


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