Broad canvas, narrow presentation

Published : Jan 19, 2002 00:00 IST

A significant exhibition of 122 works of Pablo Picasso comes to India.

A PABLO PICASSO exhibition of 122 works, ''Metamorphoses (1900-1972)'', which includes graphics, drawings, collages, assemblages and sculpture, is on at the National Museum in New Delhi.

Pablo Picasso is an artist who can be said to be extraordinarily global. Born on October 25, 1881, at Malaga in Spain, he was the son of Jose Ruiz Blasco, an art teacher, and Maria Picasso, of Arab descent. And characteristically, he turned his back on the true blue Iberian in him and chose his mother's name as a surname that he used in his art almost all through his life. Indeed, the one constant in his life was his sympathy for the underdog, a sympathy that flowered after the success of the October Revolution in Russia and the emergence of the Soviet Union as a major power, which status it retained until his death in 1973. In his art we see the grandeur that humanity acquired with the emergence of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR): the flowering of the welfare state, the liberation of the colonies, the defeat of world fascism and the advance towards a world of consensus and peace that evolved with its intervention in world history for 70 years. Indeed, his death in 1973 prevented him from witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resurgence of war in the European continent.

It is no accident that one of Picasso's most important works of the Blue period (1900-1904), a portrait of his friend and secretary, Jaime Sabarthes, who stood by him all his life and got him to exhibit his works for the first time in Barcelona; and "Acrobat on a Ball" (1903-04) which heralded his Pink period, are both in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The same way, his precursor to the period of analytical cubism, "The Three Young Ladies of Avignon" of 1907, is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His head of Harlequin, of about the same period, is in the National Gallery in Prague. And his most heartfelt work, the grandeur of which is not equalled by any of his other works, is his indictment of the fascist attack on the Basque village of Guernica - which he started painting on May Day, 1937. This work is at the Queen Sofia Centre of Art in Madrid in his native Spain. The same way, one finds works of his all over the world. So, when we see an exhibition of his works jointly organised by the National Gallery of Modern Art, (NGMA), New Delhi and the Embassy of France in India, we should not expect too much.

France has not been too kind to this artist and his family. Picasso's first French show of 1901 was criticised for its lack of originality and for borrowing from Toulouse-Lautrec (an echo of which is found in the notes passed on to the press in New Delhi). But the works of the Greek-born artist Domenikos Theotokopoulos (better known as El Greco) who was born around 1541 and died in 1614, constituted a far stronger influence on him. El Greco moved to Spain in 1577 after meeting Spanish humanists in Rome. The other influence is that of the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), whose horror of war (he pictured the savagery of the Napoleonic Wars with a modern outlook that can justly make him the precursor of European Modernism) was shared equally by Picasso. Indeed, to be truly global one has to have roots in the soil one has grown out of. And Picasso is one such.

True, he transplanted himself in France at the age of 19 and remained there until his death 73 years later, but his global quality was the way a young artist born before the death of Europe's greatest thinker of the millennium, Karl Marx, managed to follow the progress of the implementation of that vision (abandoning his "sentimental" approach in 1907) all his life. Indeed, both the Soviet Union and the artist recognised each other when the artist was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1950.

Picasso's relationship with France reflects many more ups and downs than his relationship with the Soviet Union. In 1911, he stayed away from the 'Cubist room' of the official Autumn Salon in Paris. This is not surprising as he was completely against the spirit of codification and pigeon-holing that France had been gifted with by its Encyclopaedists. And, of course, as a member of the French Communist Party from 1944, he did not subscribe either to France's capitulation to Hitler under Marshal Petain or to its imperialist wars in Algeria and Vietnam. In fact, as a participant in the Congress of Intellectuals for Peace at Wroclaw in Poland in 1948, he was definitely against them. So the number of works of Picasso from his most productive period that France has been able to acquire is far less than it could have. In fact, the majority of the works shown here that are not from private collections are from whatever the French state could grasp from his heirs after bitter litigation that lasted over five years.

To expect an exhibition largely drawn from such sources to provide deep insights into Picasso and his work would be ridiculous. In fact, the selection even distorts Picasso. As the artist Vivan Sundaram pointed out, and not at all disapprovingly, the exhibition portrays Picasso in a feminine light, able to show neither the macho side of his character nor the power of his imagery at its best. Still, this cannot be said to be a faithful rendering of his work as a whole. His most inspiring works, from "Acrobat on a Ball" to "Guernica", or "Old Guitarist" which later flowered into the guitar series, are not with the French. This is because the French establishment and Picasso did not see eye to eye for years.

But even what is there in France has not been sent. Take his "Woman in Blue" from the Museum of Modern Art. At least three works in the present exhibition have been here before, in the Birth of Modernism exhibition of 1989. And although the Picasso Museum had works like "Two Women Running on the Beach" (1922), "Portrait of Igor Stravinsky" (1920), the "Pipes of Pan" (1923) and even the powerful portrait of Marie-Therese with hands crossed (1954), have not been sent. It is evident that the French expect viewers to come to France to see the best they have, not only of Picasso, but also of the impressionists, David of Jacques-Louis and Eugene Delacroix, Leonardo Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa", the "Winged Victory of Samothrace" and so many other treasures. One only hopes that India, which is to send its treasured Gupta sculpture of the 4th to the 6th century in return, will exhibit the same good sense to send a curtain-raiser and let the French come here to see the best.

STILL there is a lot to see in what they have sent, including the "Nude Youth" of 1906, in pink tones, where the figure reminds one far more of our own representations of male figures (like the Jain Tirthankaras) than of the muscular Greek ideal he draws on in his Minotaur series. In the same way, his "Cat and Cock" of 1953, reminds one of traditional Kalighat prints. Also, in a number of his studies of women, the rounded bust reminds one not only of Gupta sculpture but also of the sculptures of the Chandels and Parmars of Central India. While the organisers of this exhibition go to great lengths to say that Picasso was not influenced by anything Indian, it is equally ridiculous to think that he had seen nothing of Indian art. Prodhosh Das Gupta notes Picasso's knowledge of Kalighat prints. At least one thing is certain: Krishna Riboud introduced Picasso to Chitpur prints and he admired them. Also, the interest with which he engaged young Indians like the artist Paritosh Sen and gallery owner Virendra Kumar, shows that he was not unconcerned about Indian art. After all, someone who had been drawn to African sculpture could not have remained totally blind to its Indian counterpart. It is a pity that the curators, Marie-Laure Bernadac, the curator of the Picasso Museum, and Saryu Doshi, honorary director of the NGMA Mumbai, paid scant attention to this, though they have managed to feminise Picasso.

In fact, it is Picasso's attitude to influences and his transparency in giving credit for them that was perhaps the greatest quality that allowed him to reach out to art-lovers globally. While he once said "I have a horror of copying myself','' he also stated: "If anyone shows me a collection of old drawings, for example, I don't hesitate to take what I like from them."

Some of this is visible in this exhibition. The studies for "The Young Ladies of Avignon" do give one the feeling of Cezanne's bathers. Then there is a 1960s work after Edouard Manet's "Meal on the Grass" and after Delacroix's "Women of Algiers" of 1954. But the desire to restrict everything to the French influences in the artist's work emasculates him beyond recognition. But still, anyone with eye to see and the patience to ignore stupidities like not allowing critics to take notes in the gallery (while souvenir pens are being sold inside), will realise that neither the French nor the NGMA have had the grace and generosity to present Picasso as he really was. But then, liquidators of estates seldom do so.

The exhibition will be open until January 31 at the National Museum. It can be viewed in Mumbai from February 15 to March 30 at the National Gallery of Modern Art.

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