The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, June 4, 2000
'Art and Soul

Picasso in Lucerne
By B.N. Goswamy

Among the men who have best given proof of their life and of whom one cannot say that they have passed over the earth, without at once feeling that they remain upon it, Pablo Picasso numbers among the greatest. He renewed the connection between the object and the person who sees it and therefore thinks about it; he has given us anew, in the boldest, sublimest, way, the inseparable proofs of man’s existence and the world’s.

— Pierre Daix

LUCERNE, that picturesque old lake town that goes back some eight hundred years, is not a place that one goes to for seeing an exhibition of photographs of Picasso. It is one of the great tourist draws of Switzerland: Uniquely Swiss, with its seamless blend of the old and the new, preserving its past with zealous care, proud of what it has managed to cling on to despite the ravages that time inevitably wreaks, and of course located in inexpressibly beautiful surroundings. But, wandering along its old streets paved with cobbled stone — just a stone’s throw away, it seemed, from the gleaming new steel-and-glass Kongresshalle — I came upon, entirely unexpectedly, a full-fledged Picasso Museum.

Picasso, striking a dance posture in his studio in France Photo: David Douglas DuncanI am not unaware of Picasso, or of places where great collections of his work are housed, but this place I had never heard of, did not know anything about. There was a poster outside a quaint, 17th-century, three-storeyed stone-and-wood structure, the Am-Rhyn-Haus — along the river which flows through Lucerne before falling into the lake — which invited one to come in and see ‘the Picassos’ housed in it. This sounded tempting although, given the constraint of time, I might still not have gone in to see yet another group of Picassos. But what I found irresistible was the picture on the poster: It was a photograph of an ageing but vigorous Picasso, bare bodied and dressed down to his shorts, all by himself, striking a posture of dance on the stone floor of his studio in France, as if learning ballet. It was a beautifully taken picture, disarming and intense at the same time, capturing something of the great energy that flowed through that familiar frame. I was greatly drawn, and did eventually go in — despite the constraint of time, as I said — only to find, to my delight, something I might not have had the chance easily to see anywhere else: Some two hundred photographs of Picasso taken by just one photographer. It was a revealing world.

  The photographer, David Douglas Duncan, was an unlikely person to have come so close to Picasso as to be able to record him with any great intimacy. An American, born in Kansas City, he had spent years earlier as a war photographer, working for the Life magazine, ‘covering anywhere in the world where there was trouble’. But, somehow, from 1956 onwards, till Picasso’s death in 1973, Duncan came truly close to Picasso when he was living at Cannes, in the south of France, and took countless pictures of him: Alone, in company with Jacqueline, brooding, working, clowning, playing about with his goat, nibbling a fish down to its barest bones. There is something riveting about the pictures. For in them — all in black and white, conventionally lit in some ways — is captured something of the spirit, the deep humanity, of Picasso. One almost gets the feeling that one is able to come even closer to his art, having seen these photographs.

They are not — barring a very few — posed pictures, and what one sees in them is not the self-aware, seemingly arrogant, artist that many people perceived him as, but someone on peaceful terms with life, happy to be part of the world that he was born in. One senses that there are moments where he would rather be by himself, and not be seen or intruded upon, but these are thoughtful moments, natural to a man bristling with ideas, and yet ceaselessly working them out in his head. There is a remarkably simple, but specially moving, photograph that I can still recall with clarity: Of Picasso seated on a chair, in undress, viewed from the back, facing a canvas on which he has drawn, brush still in hand, only a single diagonal line. It is not a frozen moment that Duncan captures here, but one that is pregnant, resonating with a thousand possibilities. There was also a close-up of Picasso’s eyes: Intense and curious. But with that goes a story that Duncan tells with some relish in his notes. He took an enlargement of this picture to Picasso, hoping that he would sign it for him. But — as was often his wont — the artist refused. "Then, ignoring me completely, he tore a page from a sketchbook, found scissors, a stick of charcoal, and began to work." What he turned out was a drawing of an owl’s face, with holes where the eyes should have been. Holding it in front of his own face, he pronounced it as a ‘self-portrait’. This he then signed and handed over to the photographer with a dedication. As I said, an intensely human individual, at peace with life.

Returning favours

The photographs of Picasso were not the only objects that were on view in this Museum at Lucerne. There were a number of original Picassos: Paintings, lithographs, ceramics, an iron sculpture. And they had all been given to the city of Lucerne as a gift by the art-dealer Siegfried Rosengart and his family. Rosengart had fled Nazi-occupied territory, and had found in Lucerne a refuge. The Picassos he gifted to the town were an expression of his gratitude. The last of the gifts was a group of eight Picasso paintings — worth spectacular sums of money — which the Rosengart family gave to Lucerne when the city was celebrating its 800th year: One work for each hundred years! The city in turn converted the old 17th century house into a Picasso museum meant only to keep the Rosengart bequest in one place, together. I find these gestures noble. And moving.