Chez la Pythie-Harpye. Homme au Masque de Minotaure et Femme au Masque de Sculpteur
Chez la Pythie-Harpye. Homme au Masque de Minotaure et Femme au Masque de Sculpteur (Bloch 227)

1934 (November 19, Paris)

Aquatint and etching printed on Montval laid paper with Montgolfier watermark
From the Suite Vollard (S.V. 24), edition of 50
Signed by the artist in pencil, lower right
Inscribed "386" in pencil, lower left; "227, 326, 19568"  in pencil, verso upper left
Printed by Lacourière, 1939
Published by Vollard, 1939
Image: 9 3/4 x 13 5/8 inches
Sheet: 15 1/4 x 19 3/4 inches
Framed: 23 x 26 1/8 inches
(Bloch 227) (Baer 441.B.c)
 

Though based in Greek mythology, this image is more surreal than narrative. Picasso created this etching in late 1934, along with a number of similarly complex and dark compositions from the Suite Vollard, including plate 26 (Garçon pensif veillant une Dormeuse à la Lumière d'une Chandelle, Bloch 226), plate 27 (Faune dévoilant une Dormeuse, Bloch 230), and the “Blind Minotaur” images, plates 94 through 97 (Bloch 222, 223, 224 and 225). At right is a figure resembling a Sphinx or perhaps the Oracle of Delphi (a.k.a. the Pythia), perched on a column. To her left is a man with generalized Greek features, offering a glass of wine to the mythical creature. On the other side of the composition stand a masked man and woman. Noted Picasso scholar Brigitte Baer offers her own analysis of this image in Picasso the Printmaker: Graphics from the Marina Picasso Collection (Dallas Museum of Art, 1983, 92-3) in terms of Greek mythology interwoven with Picasso’s personal life and the issues that may have been preoccupying his thoughts at the time, but this is a mysterious and complex composition that offers multiple interpretations. Overall, it is dreamlike in manner that is similar to many images by Picasso’s Surrealist contemporaries; though he was not intimately connected with the movement, he was close with many of its leaders and incorporated some of their ideas into his work of the 1920s and ‘30s.

 

In terms of technique, this etching is a milestone in Picasso’s printmaking—one of handful of initial forays into the use of aquatint, which he would master with the assistance of master printer Roger Lacourière. To create the image he first painted the figures on the plate using varnish, which blocks the subsequent action of the acid on the plate, thus leaving these areas white. In order for a tone to print the plate must be evenly dusted with rosin powder that is baked onto the plate; this was done either before or after Picasso painted the varnish. The minute spots of adhered rosin also resist the acid, creating a cavernous and pocked surface that will later hold ink. Before etching, Picasso also went in with a needle and scratched out a few fine lines within the figures, thus exposing the metal to the plate. As noted by Baer in Picasso the Engraver: Selections from the Musée Picasso, Paris (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1997, 73) Picasso painted the acid on the plate in order to etch it rather than dipping it in a bath of acid. The result is a subtly mottled background instead of an even tone.

 

As discussed by the scholar Lisa Florman in Myth and Metamorphosis: Picasso’s Classical Prints of the 1930s (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2000, 88-9), Picasso may have had Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos of 1799 in mind when he began work on the Suite Vollard, which she argues is Picasso’s own contribution to the tradition of the capriccio. If so, this plate can be seen as a reference to plate 19 of Goya’s suite, Todos caerán (All will Fall), which has been interpreted as an admonition against lust for women and its potential pitfalls—a message that certainly would have rung true for Picasso at a time that he was grappling with the news that his young mistress was pregnant. The bird-woman at the upper right of Goya’s image closely resembles the mythical Sphinx figure that Picasso references here. Florman also notes that Picasso’s choice of aquatint indicates an homage to Goya as well, as the elder artist remained the undisputed master of the technique.

The current impression is one of fifty deluxe impressions with large margins printed on Montval laid paper watermarked “Papeterie Montgolfier à Montval,” outside of the edition of 260 (there was also a small edition of three on vellum). It was printed by Roger Lacourière in late 1938 or early 1939. The untimely death of Ambroise Vollard in the summer of 1939 delayed their commerce until 1948 when the prints were acquired by dealer Henri Petiet through the Vollard estate.