Inspired etching

Published : Jan 29, 2010 00:00 IST

Blind Minotaur guided through the night by a girl, 1934.-

Blind Minotaur guided through the night by a girl, 1934.-

PABLO RUIZ PICASSO (1881-1973) was the most charismatic artist in 20th century Western art. Both his art and his life had colour and grandeur. Controversy dogged him until the end; not that he cared. He came at a time when psychoanalysis was beginning to take hold and the theories of Sigmund Freud were attracting notice. Picasso, with his solid grounding in classical art, was like a powerful young bull surging with energy. He proved his credentials with highly evocative works during his Blue Period (1901-1904) and Rose Period (1904-5). By 1907, along with Georges Braque, he had discovered, in Paris, Cubism, derived from the late painterly experiments of Paul Cezanne and first suggested in the works of Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger.

In 1907, Picasso painted The Young Ladies of Avignon, his first Cubist masterpiece. Ambrose Vollard, a visionary art dealer and a Creole by origin, who had championed the cause of Renoir, Cezanne and Van Gogh earlier, was the first to recognise the enormous artistic potential in the young Picasso. Between 1930 and 1937 Picasso did a hundred Intaglio prints on commission for Vollard. These prints, though embracing different themes, came to be collectively known as the Vollard Suite. An exhibition of the complete set of Vollard prints is on at the Instituto Cervantes in New Delhi until January 24; it began on November 12, 2009.

The graphics in the collection reveal, above all, Picassos constant preoccupation with his own overwhelming sexuality and its link with his seemingly ceaseless creativity. These prints also reveal his overall technical mastery and effortless control over line, an area where he had but two peers amongst his contemporaries Henri Matisse and Paul Klee. His relationship with women was always fraught: they felt used at the end of it, as if their lives were meant to coincide with his current artistic explorations.

Though each woman inspired Picassos art, their position in his life was inevitably a subservient one. Be it Fernande Oliver; Olga Kokhlova, a former ballerina with Serge Diaglievs Ballet Russe and the mother of his son Paulo; Marie-Therese Walters, whom he met outside Galeries Lafayette and who gave him a daughter, Maya; Dora Maar, an accomplished photographer who meticulously documented the painting of Guernica, the iconic anti-war painting done in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War; the aspiring painter Francoise Gillot, who gave him a son, Claude, and a daughter, Paloma; Genevieve Laporte; and Jacqueline Rocque. He was perhaps trying subconsciously to understand, through the various and varied graphics in the Vollard Suite, his own relationship with women who inspired his creativity.

When Picasso began the Vollard Suite Intaglios he was very much in love and lust in equal proportion with the young, classically beautiful Marie-Therese Walters. He was Pygmalion to her Galatea. Like Pygmalion, the Cypriot sculptor-king of myth and legend who fell in love with his own sculpture of an exquisitely beautiful woman, Galatea, Picasso too expressed through his paintings and graphics his passion for the impressionable Marie-Therese, whose soul he may have captured in his work. His depiction of her is robust, carnal and, not surprisingly, tender. He perhaps created in other peoples minds, particularly his contemporaries and admirers, the image of a protean young bull, and the pulsating energy in his work confirmed the impression.

Viewers of the graphics will find him battling it out with himself, with native animal grace, his role in a relationship that, to all appearances, is unequal. On second or third viewing one notices an extra-artistic dimension to them. His young models innocence is her strength and it fuels his creativity with boundless generosity.

Is Marie-Therese then Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos of Crete, who according to Greek myth coupled with a white bull after being tricked by Poseidon, the sea-god, to give birth to Minotaur, who has the head of a bull and the body of a man? Is Picasso the untamable Minotaur? The model in these hundred graphics, that is, Marie-Therese, is always leading the way. The artist, for all his creativity, is wrestling with his muse both literally and metaphorically in order to tame her. This comes through most poignantly in one print where Minotaur overpowers Pasiphae as she lies naked and passive, taking his storming of her. How different, qualitatively, was his relationship with Marie-Therese from that with Dora?

Dora Maar, a Yugoslavian photographer, met Picasso in 1935, the year Maya, his daughter by Marie-Therese, was born. Motherhood may well have transformed his muse from a lover holding great promise to a woman who in actual physical terms had fulfilled that promise. He possibly could have welcomed the birth of the baby in the abstract but in concrete terms his creativity lay in his art. This observation is not as far-fetched as it seems: There is a work of the blind bull looking forlorn up at the stars and his muse, on frame left, looking suitably enigmatic. Was this a sign of parting with Marie-Therese? To be sure, there are other ways of looking at this image, including a political one. Picasso was said to be a politically aware being. The spectre of Nazism was looming large over Europe. Civil war in Spain was about to occur. In 1937, when the last three compositions in the Vollard Suite were executed, he also did the monumental Guernica for the Spanish Republican pavilion during the Paris Expo that year.

Marie-Thereses great strength was her innocence. She was, so to say, clay in the hands of her great artist-lover. It is a matter of conjecture as to who moulded whom. Were Picassos instincts guided by the promise of a perpetual paradise on offer? He grabbed the opportunity with both hands. When he realised with his flinty Spanish pragmatism that his muse was just that, a muse, he made the most of it artistically and forgot about the more worldly aspect of his relationship with her, meaning the sadness and the pain. His art revealed not only his social and political struggles but most prominently his sexual quests. It was in this titanic struggle with his desires that he was able to create. The need for an interesting woman at a given point in time was, therefore, paramount. Had someone confronted him with the idea he would have laughed it off.

He was perhaps the first artist to use distortion in his depiction of the human figure, with tremendous poetic energy and to such variegated effect. This was because of his complete mastery of anatomical drawing, both human and animal, and his ability to put this knowledge to continuously surprising creative purpose. He was no romantic in the conventional sense but his work had romance. But it had the flavour of the romances sung by old Spanish peripatetic troubadours. In Sculptor and Kneeling Model, the drawing is in essence classical but with subtle distortion: the rendering is refreshingly carnal. The nude sculptor reclining on a bolster examines his kneeling model, also nude, whose face is rendered in black. A sculpted face of a Grecian man lies on the floor between them. The wit and a touch of pathos in the drawing is indeed affecting.

While it is true that Marie-Therese was the dominant muse in the creation of the body of work that came to be known as the Vollard Suite, it would be interesting to ponder whether expertly modulated classical drawing with the right degree of distortion, as a mode of expression, was suggested by her singular beauty that recalled ancient myths. Picasso, his enormous ego notwithstanding, no doubt regarded his lover as a precious gift, especially because he was more than twice her age. But true to form, her function as an inspiring model over a few years easily outweighed her own emotional needs. As was to be expected, the culmination of their relationship was the birth of their daughter. It is no doubt hazardous to surmise that regardless of its content, that is, the many themes that constitute it, the Vollard Suite is the chronicle of his journey with Marie-Therese over nearly a decade and also its culmination.

Were Picassos artistic inclinations at a given time also reflected in his choice of a particular type of woman who may have answered a certain primordial need? The 13 years he spent with Fernande Oliver from 1901 to 1914 can, in retrospect, be regarded as the formation of his person as well as his art. The sculpture portrait of her, reminiscent of one of Degas in spirit and technique, shows a strong, sturdy woman, a far cry from the utterly sensual one that Kees Van Dongen painted as La Belle Fernande. Picassos interest in Iberian and African sculpture can be seen in this portrait of Fernande.

His shift from the various phases of Cubism to a kind of classicism can be seen in his portraits of Olga in the early 1920s. Marie-Therese took him into a world of dreams, particularly in a series of colourful paintings. In the Vollard Suite, his artistic explorations with her, involuntarily perhaps, include the exploration of his relationship with her. What he said to that marvellous photographer Brassai, in a different context, about giving up at the same time smoking and making love, at age 70, and having to live with the desire for both, echoes his attitude in his relationship with women post-1950. But Marie-Therese was the culmination of all that was redolent of sexual love in his life and was ballast to his creative fires.

In the last 20-odd years of his life, while still blessed with considerable energy, his works substantiate the claim that he was aware that his days as a Minotaur were over. Some paintings and drawings from this phase, though interesting in themselves, have a poignant quality. There was no attempt on his part, at any time in his career, to be anyone but himself. He, more than any other artist in the 20th century, explored the many facets of Modernism. He was in his own way part of almost all the major artistic movements of his time, but he always left the unmistakable stamp of his personality on anything he touched.

Picassos commitment to the human figure and to the animal world the bull was a favourite was abiding: his treatment of these forms was usually memorable. His love, indeed craving, for the physical world places him in the continuum of the great artists from the past such as Eugene Delacroix, Francesco de Goya and Rembrandt. His penchant for distortion in all his works may have possibly been inspired by the Altar Pieces in old churches by the great Spaniard Velasquez, the photographic reproductions of which give them a distortion because they are well above eye level and have to be viewed with the head tilted upwards. Picassos natural gift for form may have benefited from an early study of Cezanne, whose work he admired greatly.

The Vollard Suite comprises the following: three portraits of Ambrose Vollard, who did Picassos first exhibition in Paris in 1901; four plates on Rembrandt; five plates known as The Battle of Love; 46 plates called The Sculptors Studio; 15 plates on the Minotaur theme; and 27 different compositions. They are all etched on copper plates. This body of graphics is unique for Picassos mastery of technique, and they are to 20th century Graphic Art what the stone lithographs of Honore Daumier and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec were to the previous century. However Picassos work differs in one aspect from that of his two illustrious predecessors: while Daumier and Lautrec were essentially exploring Parisian society and its mores in their time, Picasso, a product of a more liberal and also more brutal age he was 64 when the atom bombs were dropped over Nagasaki and Hiroshima used his personal life to possibly understand the world outside. The Vollard Suite indicates such an exercise.

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