Suite Vollard (A Study of Picasso’s Eroticism)

by Carlo Rey Lacsamana

The Western language of eroticism is inadequate to interpret the images of Picasso’s Suite Vollard. If there is anything erotic in its appearance lies in the artist’s use of various media (drypoint, aquatint, etc.) and the unmistakable technique in portraying the subjects. But the etchings present themselves today with a challenging schism between classicism and post-modernity, between erotic pleasure and love, between surface and depth, between watching and longing. To look at and think of eroticism exclusively through the Western context narrows our view and understanding of these images. Deconstructing the homogenous view of eroticism might raise new questions in art discourse and more importantly it may challenge our accepted notions of sexuality and democratize the consumerist character of the body in our society.

Picasso intimately assimilates classically derived subjects to redefine and represent the experience of sexual love in the turbulent period of modernity. Sexual love in the age-old tradition is the unequal relationship between man and woman: possessor and possessed.

A male spectator looks at the “minotaur” and becomes aware of his sexual desire, lust, animality, his utter  possessive power. Picasso confers through the minotaur “the patriarchal world view,” which according to the feminist and physicist Vandana Shiva “sees man as the measure of all value, with no space for diversity, only for hierarchy. Woman, being different, is treated as unequal and inferior.” Thus a complete absence of mutual love: an utter injustice between sexes.

Suit Vollard is perhaps most representative of Picasso’s concept of eroticism. In no other works of Picasso can one find the dilemma of sexual love and the deficiency of Western theories on erotic art more problematic.

Eroticism has always been used to justify patriarchal claims and maintains control over the unevenness of sexual relationship. Man the consumer, woman an object of consumption. This formidable concept which is a byproduct of the colonial mentality is today nourished by market values and explicated and disseminated by social media imagery.

Art critics refer to the “minotaur” (man-beast – an adaptation of the Cretan myth) as the artist’s alter-ego or the representation of the sexual rituals and needs of the (European) male. There is partial truth in this. However the link goes further. The eventual blindness of the man-beast is telling. It provides a door to another view.

Blindness manifests the limits, the fruitlessness, the artificiality of the one-dimensional hierarchical relationship between the sexes. This blindness welcomes another element which has always been discounted from the erotic calculus and is worthy of closer attention.

Longing.

Longing that is shaped around I and Thou. The radical need for one another.

A man is never man without the other.

The inclusion of longing as an intrinsic element in eroticism challenges the conventional concept of erotic art; it indicts the narrowness of lust (the possessive power) as the totalizing aspect of eroticism.

One has the sense of the way in which longing, the search for otherness, the transcendence of man’s animality through love comes into play. That physical pleasure should lead to love and love to physical pleasure. In the Pygmalion etchings, the king who falls in love with his sculpture Galatea, even the images of group orgy possess the same condition as that of the blind minotaur: attempting to overcome the boundaries of physicality and grope towards something higher than the tangibility of bodies. Anyone, a dog even, afflicted with blindness carries within an inexplicable longing to see. 

The minotaur on top of a woman (minotaure caressant une dormeuse, Opus B.201). In a period where human bodies are commodities to be displayed, stared at, consumed, what is valued in our culture is the ephemerality of pleasure: the flesh that is not capable of stepping beyond its bounds and is only concern of the satisfaction of its hunger and not the value of the process or contact that intimacy creates. The corporate image, through the rapacious social media outlets, of sexual love aims at this selfishness. The false representation that (gender, material, economic) inequality enlarges one’s being.

Suite Vollard is a critical contemporary examination of this representation. Blindness humbles the minotaur. He feels his incompleteness; his guilt; his violence towards the other and towards himself; his aloneness; his death: for it is death not to see the necessity of love. He uncovers the reclining woman, stretches his hand towards her body passively surrendered to the bed as a kind of invitation or bait, he falls on his knee. Blindness will take him to another place and time. And now, he will see for the first time. 

What most art critics fail to see is that eroticism is not always the answer to the blank space between sex and love. There is longing: the knowing contact between two searching bodies. The images of group orgy display the blank space—the inadequacy of eroticism to turn into love. There the intercourse falls short. All intimacy becomes a blind act. But some images remain proof for a longing. In most of the etchings almost all characters (minotaur, Pygmalion, the maidens, even the bust of a sculpture) are in the state of watching. Eyes directed toward a certain space. The eyes watch to the possible worth of the other, searching for something higher than the tangibility of the bodies. The body becoming a searching look watches, touches the other body to transcend the bestiality of the act, to reach for the unuttered element of love-making that is longing.

Between what needs me,
and my needing you,
starry air, and a trembling tree.
A thickness of windflowers lifts
a whole year, with hidden groaning.
Take joy from
the fresh landscape
of my wound,
break out the reeds,
and the delicate streams,
and taste the blood, spilt,
on thighs of sweetness.
But quick!
So that joined together, and one,
time will find us ruined,
with bitten souls,
and mouths bruised with love.

– Sonnet of the Wreath of Roses, Federico Garcia Lorca

Author’s Bio:

Carlo Rey Lacsamana is a Filipino writer, poet, and artist born and raised in Manila, Philippines. Since 2005, he has been living and working in the Tuscan town of Lucca, Italy. He regularly contributes to journals in the Philippines, writing politics, culture, and art. His works have appeared in Esquire Magazine, The Citron Review, Defunkt Magazine, Rabble Review (Canada), Amsterdam Quarterly, Lumpen Journal (London), The Wild World (Berlin), Literary Shanghai and in other numerous magazines. His short story Toulouse has been recorded as a podcast story in the narrative podcast Pillow Talking (Australia). 

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