Art News & Views

Picasso Re-visited

by Nanak Ganguly

Metamorphoses 1900-1972.
Works from the French collections.
National Museum. New Delhi. December14, 2001 -January 31 2002.
NGMA. Mumbai. February 15, 2002- March 30, 2002.

Remembrance, inventory, retrospective, homage- what term should we attribute to this exhibition that took place under the aegis of the Cultural Exchange Programme between the Republic of India and the Republic of France; when we revisit nine years later. 

Paintings done between 1902-1972, Sculptures, Drawings, Engravings, Ceramics were put on display collected from different museums across France, for example Musee Picasso, Paris, Musee national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Musee Picasso, Antibes, Musee Arles, Musee des Beaux Arts, Lyon, Musee national de Ceramique, Vallauris, Musee d'art moderne, Saint Etienne and others. There were 43 paintings mainly done in oil on canvas including his Woman Reclining on a Blue Couch done in 1960, The Musician done in 1972, After Manet's Dejeuner sur l'herbe done in 1960, nine sculptures all done in bronze except Head of a Bull done with Bicycle seat and handlebars; Bronze in 1942, 37 drawings mostly done in India ink, crayons, gouache, wash, pastel stick, graphite stick, oil, charcoal on graph paper, cardboard and graph paper. There were 20 engravings mostly etchings, aquatints, burin and dry point and 11 ceramics. Picasso revived the old tradition of the Renaissance of the complete artist who could paint, sculpt, draw, engrave, and produce ceramics.

This not an attempt to dwell merely on the importance of the masterpieces of its holdings or its presence, its exceptional groupings and series at the site, the treasures of its viewings, or to speak of the program and activities of the concerned agencies planned around this grand exhibition nor to remind the future collaborations that were envisaged and talked about. The name Pablo Picasso (1881- 1973) reverberates beyond the confines of art or art history and places him one of the creative geniuses of Western civilization during the post enlightenment period. His achievement reveals a dizzying stamina and ingenuity continuous throughout the first three quarters of the last century. The astonishing versatility and sustained quality of is genius strain the conventions of critical examination. The son of a Spanish school teacher, trained in Barcelona, Picasso already gained a precocious fame in Paris between 1900 and 1906. The mastery with which he had spent in handling his favourite medium, paint, throughout his life became evident in the exuberant boldness of his culminating endeavour showing paradoxically that Picasso, who has persistently been condemned as the painter who destroyed painting, should be the greatest exponent through revolutionary means of the plastic and poetic qualities of art. Remembering the more formal achievements of early Cubism other influences appeared. One may recall that in the late autumn of 1913 Apollinare became editor of a monthly review, Les Soirees de Paris. In his first number he published four reproductions of cubist constructions made by Picasso. Their appearances made such disgust amongst its forty subscribers that all except one cancelled their subscriptions. The constructions were made out of the most unconventional and humble materials, built up to form bas- relief. The materials consisted mostly of wood, tin, wire, scraps, of cardboard, and paper, with or without patterns, images and colours. The theme in most cases centered around a guitar. None was made with much regard for permanence. They were fragile and very little remains of them today except their photographs.

One can find the traces of influence derived from Negro sculpture. African masks with traces of influence from Ivory Coast. With humour, cadence and passion he had created a language which should be called 'emotional Cubism, so decisively had he broken to pieces the emotional imagery to which we are accustomed, and recreated a new way of seeing. In relation to the great legacy left to us by Picasso there are still unfathomable greatness of the unknown. The crowds of visitors during the show including this scribe appeared to be under a spell, disquieted and yet saturated by the personality of a great genius, impregnated in spite of adversity with an overriding enjoyment of life and humanity. The essay aims to capture the essence and spirit of the great Guru of High modernism in this exhibition rather not center around a museum in a classical sense of the word but a place that will be close in spirit to those studio houses where Picasso's work and life mingled and combined.

Some of the major works were from Musee Picasso. In the autumn of 1979 the French Government was at last able to display the selection of paintings, constructions, drawings, collages, engravings, and ceramics that they had chosen from the works that had remained in Picasso's possession and which they could claim for the nation in lieu of estate duty. It must be mentioned here that his engravings are generally classified in three series namely The Vollard Series, Minotauromachy (or Minotaur Fight) and The 156 Engravings. The last series, produced by Picasso between the years 1970-72, was exhibited at the Louise Leiris gallery in Paris in January- February 1973 shortly before his death. The experience that we carry with ourselves is the timelessness of the Master's work since it allows us to have a new relationship with the great milestones of Picasso's oeuvre along with their surroundings and help experience the confrontation between his paintings and sculpture. The Master's experiments; the appearances, the renunciations, the abiding signs and themes are all too significant to all the painters of the present century. As we look back we are able to see as clearly as how Picasso's work ordinarily judged by his single masterpieces or in relations to his contemporaries was developed, nourished and continually restored from its own fundamental resources, from its own gestures and inspired successive generations not only artists, but also of writers, musicians, dramaturges and cultural theorists. They looked at Picasso's art and then moved away from it along very different paths carrying with them the bits of poetic explosion of his work. Starting from his early works, chronologically, the exhibition opened up various stages of the artist's oeuvre and concluded with last phase. According to Saryu Doshi,“The works have been specially selected to reflect the different materials- including found objects- that Picasso employed to express himself. It highlights his experiments and innovations, his conflicts and contradictions, his affirmations as well as his rejections. The exhibition thus presents a coherent account of Picasso's versatility and the sustained quality of his genius.”

The works collected from these major museums that we see tend to be organized according to receiving ideas. The exhibition attempted to do justice to his career that had shown his oeuvre not in terms of discrete and recognizable segments- the various periods but it's one long, continuous flow. It also became clear that the New Delhi's National Museum's temporary exhibition space for Pablo Picasso was inadequate, but contained the essential Picasso. Because his oeuvre, in its multiplicity of styles, range, and inventiveness, epitomizes twentieth century art as a whole. The National Museum had indeed given over virtually the entire first floor to this exhibition. Art Historian Saryu Doshi and Marie-Laure Berndac, Chief Curator, Musee National Picasso, Paris were appointed as curators.

Doshi was the Director of the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bombay chapter. A catalogue was brought out during this exhibition that contained essays by Marie-Laure Berndac, Saryu Doshi and Deepak Ananth with a foreword by the Director of the NGMA, Prof. Rajeev Lochan.

Why do we revisit this exhibition today that had taken place almost a decade back? Because the real importance is not only to challenge representation as a 'formidable tool of domination' but to contribute to a redefinition of realism, abstraction and cultural representation. A revisit of this exhibition also reveals that one of the important problems facing non-centrist (non-western) international culture in all parts of the world is the need to come to terms with essentialist thinking in order to create new concepts of true open-ended fields of cultural construction. The opportunity for many questions regarding the idea of “identity” and to what extent we stretch ourselves? The questions that come up is there a need to probe? For whom the programme is being done? In what circumstances? These are the questions whose answers provide us with the ingredients making for a politics of interpretation. What some critics refer to Picasso's art as Primitivism is what in fact Iberian and African in nature.

“That the impetus for such a formal breakthrough came from objects at the antipodes of Western representational regime, and that, more generally, the aesthetic appropriation of tribal art by the European avant-garde for the punctual solutions it seemed to offer in the resolution of formal problems is of course, a part of the colonial unconscious of modernism that goes by the name of primitivism, it seems appropriate, therefore, to(punctually) register this particular component of the high modernist enterprise lest the formal pyrotechnics for which the latter is justly celebrated makes it impossible to pierce the ideological smokescreen that it leaves in its wake.” writes Deepak Ananth in his catalogue essay. He adds “In practice, however, this general point needs to be nuanced according to the particular use to which the “primitive” is put.”

Any effort to characterize the present cultural movement in relation to such language is very likely to be quixotic at best. But that is an aspect of the present cultural movement and art discourse, in which the social and historical setting of critical activity, is a totality felt to benign that is free, apolitical, serious uncharacterizable as a whole and somehow outside history. It is important to emphasize the “consciousness” of the modern, but it is also important to distinguish our topsy-turvy situation in the false consciousness of the modern which within our situation. Lest we forget that our view of modern is really a very minority view.

How does one treat or look at the disparate genre that is produced. Treats, that is to say transforms, exchanges, trades negotiates, leaves nothing of the pre-established classifications intact and play all the meanings- gender, sexual, grammatical and visual. Now the novelty of these exciting and powerful artists in this show born precisely of this articulation which considers them together, and the triple practice conjugating questions of various orders, a treat to watch them work in this perspective gives a specific turn to the problematic in so far as it is indissociable from those beyond art. The images or the visual texts that mediate through our own experience we jealously guard and with skills we guard our symptoms. They are something we wish to give for they speak our desire. But the same desire may find other forms of representation and interrogates painterly values at the same time. The beauty and idea of these works hold us in extreme promises to challenge representation as a “formidable tool of domination” but to a redefinition of realism because its high time to realize we will no more be restricted by debased modernism and redefine the definition, of realism, abstraction and cultural representation.

The works on display here overflowed the edge and confront our borders of geographical construct which is in closed walls of our mind. We ask where is the porosity of such limits, the uncertainty of sharing, and the fragility of resolutions. Between where at one's stake is reaching the limits, playing with them, establishing passages and concerns because what it does not only reveal but provides instead a wholly indigenous renewal of “self”. He attempts to set up a dialogue between our obsessions and private associations. His text can be read as an allegory of the artist's calling. To follow through the galleries in our National Museum was to live with him through the discoveries, the loves, the anxieties, the influences, the delights, and the triumphs of his long and intense life. For him life was not inseparable from art. The interchanges closely related between painting and sculpture, between colour and form, between reality and illusion, between humour and tragedy appeared with surprising agility- a proof of his extraordinary talent, intellect and the coherence of his thought interspersed with a continuous stream of idea, creativity and image. He consciously lived in his times and wishes to engage with historical events rather than withdrawn from them, the times are fraught with new as well as abiding traumas. He depicted them with extreme sensitivity.

Portrait of a Man done in Paris-Barcelona during the winter of 1902-3- the year he finally settled permanently in Paris. It was also the same time when Picasso made several trips between Paris and Barcelona. This man with a vacant gaze, hollow cheeks, and sad, wretched air is typical of the figures from blue period, thoroughly tinged with melancholy. In the catalogue published for the occasion, quotes Picasso” He was a kind of madman you'd see in the streets. Everyone in Barcelona knew him”.

“ I began to paint in blue when I thought about Casagemas”.

'Indeed, the blue period began shortly after the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas, who had moved to Paris and whose studio on Boulevard de Clichy Picasso had taken over.'

Nude youth (Paris, Autumn, 1906) and Head and Shoulders of a Woman (Study for Les Demoiselles d' Avignon, Paris, Spring 1908) were also taken on loan from Musee Picasso, Paris. In the summer of 1906, while on a vacation with his girlfriend Fernande Olivier in Gosol, a small village on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees he discarded the earlier sentimental and literary tone of the Blue Period. The emaciated faces, images of loneliness and distress turned into a world of beauty, balance and serenity. Picasso's discovery in the Louvre of Iberian statues dating from the fourth and fifth centuries of B.C.E., which opened his eyes to the primitive art from his own country, represented a turning point in his artistic career.

Portait of Lee Miller as an Arlesienne, Mougins, September 20, 1937 in collection of muse Picasso, Paris, on permanent loan to Reattu, Arles, France. This painting was done during his stay at the Vaste-Horizon hotel in the south of France in the summer of 1937 with Dora Maar. Lee miller was the beautiful wife of his friend biographer Roland Penrose. Turning the hotel room to an artist's studio, Picasso painted several versions of miller dressed as a woman from the town of Arles (an Arlesienne), was probably an allusion to a painting of an Arlesienne by Vincent van Gogh. Picasso's painting combines a composition structured around the lines and spirals of the bust with a light, colourful handling of the background, chair, and face. Picasso employed his usual symbols for eyes, ear, and mouth, the elliptical, codified signs that he developed in facial studies for Guernica. The catalogue note says “Here he gives Lee Miller a caustic, sarcastic expression, but his cruel vision of her is compensated by the visual liberty of the figure, the gay colours, and the humour of certain details”.

“It was inevitable that he would be attracted by the age old practice of pottery combining as it did earth and fire, sculpture and painting, form and colour. It also appealed to Picasso's Mediterranean culture, his taste for antiquity, and his new techniques, which reinvented as required. It was following a chance meeting in 1946 with Monsieur and Madame Ramie in Vallauris, who ran a ceramic workshop called Madoura, that Picasso took up the new medium. In 1948, he moved to Vallauris and continued to produce ceramics until 1955. Two methods of reproduction were used in the Madoura workshop. One involved printing, in which case the work was an original print buy Picasso, while the other was authentic replica, which was then bore the label edition Picasso”.

(Notes from the catalogue)




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