The Tribune - Spectrum


, February 24, 2002
'Art and Soul

Picasso: Again and forever

I paint the way some people write their autobiography. The paintings, finished or not, are the pages of my journal, and as such they are valid. The future will choose the pages it prefers.

— Pablo Picasso

Man in a Straw Hat by Pablo Picasso, 1971.
Man in a Straw Hat by Pablo Picasso, 1971.

THE big Picasso exhibition was here in Delhi, and now it is gone. But, fortunately, I was able to catch what was virtually the tail end of it some days ago. There it was in the galleries of the National Museum — why it was not shown at the National Gallery of Modern Art, where it properly belonged, is another story — fairly big spaces filled with works that by now one knows only too well. In a sense, seeing the exhibition was some kind of a return to these works, for one had seen many of them earlier, in the flesh in museums and collections abroad, or in print. But, then, one always returns to Picasso. For he was more than an icon of an entire century; he was one of its shapers.

‘Metamorphoses’, brought to India through the efforts principally of the French Embassy here, is how the show was named, and it did show, exactly as the title promised, the extraordinary changes, those lightning turns, in Picasso’s work over a long period of time: the Blue and the Pink Periods; the Negro Period; Cubist work; the Crystal Period; the return to classicism; work between the wars; the later, immeasurably mature, phases. There were the oils, and the prints, of course; but also, brought in thoughtfully, were those few but famous sculptures that he fashioned from time to time — the Goat, the Bicycle Seat and Handle, the Trowel placed upon a Head — and some ceramics that he so loved to make at one time in his life. But there was no confusion in the presentation, no haphazard putting of works together. It all followed a clear logic, not necessarily or alone of chronology, but of style, and of evolution.

A female naturalist
February 10, 2002
Miniatures in another vein
January 13, 2002
Magic in the shadows
December 30, 2001
Remembering a painter of birds
December 16, 2001
The mysteries of silk
December 2, 2001
The Night of the Museums
November 18, 2001
Arts in the time of crisis
November 4, 2001
The Nizams and their jewels
October 21, 2001
Reviving a languishing craft
October 7, 2001
Buddhism in Australia
September 23, 2001
Excavating the City of David
August 26, 2001
The threshold of renunciation
August 12, 2001
The Mountain Goddess of Japan
July 29, 2001
The arts of heraldry
July 15, 2001

In the introductory gallery, so to speak, was a photo-documentation of Picasso’s life, and it was wonderful to see his age come alive through these fading, sepia images. Some of the photographs are now a part of the Picasso legend itself — the tautly wound young man just arrived in Paris from Spain, the pensive figure seated in the midst of unfinished works looming over him from their easels, the dutiful husband carrying an enormous sunshade over the lovely Francois Gilot, the clowning party-goer — but there were so many others, collected so painstakingly and presented with a flair here. Among the characters from his enormous circle one recognised were some of the ‘usual suspects’: art dealers and collectors like Kahnweiler, Ambroise Vollard, Max Jacob, Wilhelm Uhde; poets and writers like Aragon and Apolinnaire and Andre Gide; those beautiful and/or high-strung women he surrounded himself with, like Olga Khoklova, Dora Maar, Genevieve, Francois Gilot. But there were so many others who peopled his life, and whom one did not know a great deal about. It all brought a life together, giving one an entrée into the artistic life that one was to see in the galleries that followed. Along the walls in the galleries were displayed information panels that were very precisely worded, truly informative, giving the viewer who had the time to read them, real points of entry into the work that was all around. One saw a great deal, but there was also the opportunity to learn much.

What I did not like about the show was the bare, somewhat cold, look of the galleries: at places one felt as if one was walking through a hospital ward. I also had reservations about the manner in which the labels were placed: the paintings along the walls were rightly distanced from the viewer by a railing placed about two feet from the wall, but the labels became, because of this, very hard to read, for they remained on the wall, set very close to the works themselves. But all this is sheer carping, perhaps. What was so refreshing — to balance all this, in some way — was the visitor-ship to the show. I was there early on a Sunday morning, and there were a number of people around: mostly young, and eager. And some of the sights one saw were quite wonderful — wonderful, because one comes upon them so rarely in our museums here —: people standing in front of information panels and reading them with great care; young pairs moving slowly from work to work, as if aware of the fact that what they were seeing were things of moment; parents bending to talk softly to their children, explaining, interpreting perhaps. I do not think it was merely the fame of the artist that was bringing these responses out: they could sense that what they were seeing was something majestic and elemental, the work of a man in whose belly a strange fire kept burning till the very end.

What else can I say about the show? To review it in a few words would be impossible; certainly pointless, because it would, by the very nature of it, be perfunctory. In the space left, therefore, perhaps I should simply share with the reader the fact that the show succeeded in sending me back to reading some more about the life of the man. The first book I picked up was Francois Gilot’s moving and delightful Life with Picasso. In that I found the passage in which Picasso speaks about his work in general, and from which the epigraph cited above is taken. To complete it, this is what he said:

"The future will choose the pages it prefers. It’s not up to me to make the choice. I have the impression that time is speeding on past me more and more rapidly. I’m like a river that rolls on, dragging with it the trees that grow too close to its banks and dead calves one might have thrown into it or any kind of microbes that develop in it. I carry all that along with me and go on. … I have less and less time, and yet I have more and more to say, and what I have to say is, increasingly, something about what goes on in the movement of my thought. I’ve reached the moment, you see, when the movement of my thought interests me more than the thought itself…."