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The painter who was Picasso

Picasso's influence on 20th Century art extended the boundaries of painting, says UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA after viewing `Metamorphoses 1900-1972: Works from the French Collections', an exhibition of the maestro's works.


"Violin", Autumn 1912.

PICASSO described himself as a poet who had gone wrong: and indeed, he wielded words like blades. Here is what he had to say about the direction that his life took, "When I was a child, my mother said to me, become a soldier you'll be a general. If you become a monk you'll end up as the Pope. Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso."

But, of course, one exclaims, marvelling at the matter-of-factness of the statement. For, born in Spain to a painting teacher, Picasso went on to extend the boundaries of painting, and to teach the world new ways of seeing and representing. Becoming Picasso meant blazing a whole new path — many, many paths — for the feel, shape and colour of art in the 20th Century.

Being Picasso meant seeing the world — a nude, a goat, guitar — in a whole new way, and representing it in new ways. And, as they say, Cubism — after Picasso — the world never looked the same again.

I am building, not tearing down.

"Metamorphoses 1900-1972: Works from the French Collections", an exhibition that was first on display at the National Museum in New Delhi and then at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, is a panoramic sweep across some eight decades of the prolific career of Pablo Picasso. The exhibition takes us all the way from his melancholy, early turn-of-century Blue Period paintings, full of brooding contemplation, through the brilliant and violently grisaille of the 1955 "Cat and Cock", to the grey and black of "The Musician" (Mougins, 1972), a hat-wearing guitar-player (a recurring figure in Picasso) a little before his death in 1973.

What is red? There are thousand reds.

The major part of the exhibition, containing some 120 works in all, is sourced from the Musee Picasso in Paris, which was set up with artworks donated by the Picasso family. There is also a section consisting of photographs, with pictures that show the temperamental artist in many moods; now in the midst of life, and yet towering alone; surrounded by bright faces, and yet looking far beyond any of the others. The exhibition has been jointly curated by Saryu Doshi, Honorary Director of the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai and Marie-Laure Bernadac, Chief Curator of the Musee National Picasso in Paris.

To me there is no past or future in art.

Bernadiac, in his introductory essay, quotes Picasso on the enduring nature of art. And Picasso looked deeply at the tradition into which he was entering: from the great Spanish masters. EI Greco and Velasquez, to the contemporary French experimentalists. In 1920, T.S. Eliot, another path breaking creative genius of the time, wrote, in his seminal essay, "Tradition and the Indiivdual Talent:": "The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself: wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living."

All I have ever made was made for the present.

From realism to Cubism, Picasso discovered and worked in practically every style. He gazed with curiosity at the world around him, taking in the primitivism of the Dowanier Rousseau, the wild and emotional hues of the Fauvists, the angles of Iberian sculpture. "Portrait of a Man" dates back to the winter of 1902-03, when Picasso was moving between Paris and Barcelona, part of the melancholy Blue period that began with the suicide of his friend Casagemas over a betrayal by a woman. The 1905 drawing "Nude with Crossed Legs", with simple lines for the body and classical elegance in the face, comes from the Rose Period. The pinks and neutral beiges of the Rose Period can be seen also in the 1905 "Nude Youth", stocky and pink, which is more stylised. This was the time also when the circus clowns, saltimbanques and harlequins began to appear on his canvases, with their own smiling kinds of loneliness. And then, soon, it is the spring of 1906, and the colours and rendering of "Loaves of Bread" (Bottle and Fruit) soon after the 1907 Cezanne retrospective. Suddenly, Cubism had happened: three-dimensional forms were reduced to large stretches of shape and colour, with Picasso and Braque working so closely in this marriage of minds that Picasso called the other artist his wife. "The things Picasso and I said to each other during these years," Braque would exclaim. "It was like being two mountaineers roped together."

But for all the fragmenting and reassembling of Cubism, nature — the world outside — remained a constant source of wonder and sustenance, to be plundered recklessly. "And what did I paint, coming fresh from the work on Guernica? Flowers and fruit — never anything else," Picasso remarked in a long, reflective interview with Carlton Lake, the Paris art critic of the Christian Science Monitor (July 1957, The Atlantic). And, even in his last years, he was painting musicians, guitars, bullfighters — and the riotous, colourful spectacle of life.

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