The artist, his model, mythical bulls and a varying rape. The Vollard Suite’s arrival in India is a chance to see a very important Pablo Picasso collection
THE NICEST thing about a look of ardour is how it keeps you alert. Our keenest senses open up in its courtesy of silence. Pablo Picasso’s Vollard Suite, his famous series of 100 copper engravings produced in the 1930s, offers many opportunities to behold a creator’s gaze of adoration. Ambroise Vollard, who commissioned the series, was one of Picasso’s earliest collectors and organised the young artist’s first solo show in Paris. The Suite is now showing for the first time in India at New Delhi’s Instituto Cervantes, in collaboration with Spain’s MAPFRE Foundation. Nadia Arroyo, responsible for MAPFRE ’s travelling exhibits, says, “It’s a complete series, one of Picasso’s most important works and representative of all the topics he developed.” She adds, “Pablo remarked that in Indian art you can read different stories and history similar to the Suite. It’s not necessary to know the iconography of an individual artist, and so Indians should be well able to read the images of the Suite.”
It is Picasso’s willingness to be gauche in pursuit of his subject that distinguishes these prints from his more controlled and celebrated cubist figures. In Sculpture of a Young Man with a Goblet, how ready he is to be awkward. His lines for the figure’s torso, arms and thighs are so simple and unaffected they don’t need any cunning embellishment – the penis without shrift, the fingers vaguely there.
With the fine pressure needed to engrave upon metal, these objects are in some ways closer to sculpture than painting – the wrist feels more crucial than the fingers. Picasso uses multiple techniques like etching, wash, aquatint, sometimes a blend, even conjuring the face of that great 17th century etcher, Rembrandt, in some scenes. Each picture holds an enormous space hemmed by thin, convicted lines that follow his clear hand, his will. Witness how a squiggle suddenly transforms itself into a leaf, or how swift scribbles in a woman’s hair become attractive wreaths of flowers, or how a few clean lines produce, again and again, pearfaced women with extraordinary rumps of plump sag.
The triangle of the artist, his work and his model, often referred to as The Sculptor’s Studio, is the Suite’s central theme, where Picasso emerges as a modern Pygmalion (whose love for his statue brought it alive). The artist, entering his fifties and already world-famous, obsesses about his rapport with the conscious and inert lives in front of him – first he delights in the girl model, then his sculpted figure. Said Picasso, “A painting lives its life like a living being, experiencing the changes everyday life imposes. This is totally natural as a painting only lives when a person looks at it.” But here, mostly, the live female is propitiated to the side, while the artist gazes in fixed longing at his sculpture. In scenes like Sculptor and Model Admiring a Sculpted Head, both the artist and his model concentrate with esteem at the work before them. There is no irony in the moment, no wised-up moue.
Ever the isolated viewer, Picasso was still officially with his wife Olga even as he was busy portraying his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter in the Suite. Marie-Thérèse would soon be eclipsed as well with his meeting Dora Maar in 1936. With fascism and war all around him in 1937, Picasso finished these engravings the same year he painted Guernica. They testify to both his personal frays and the menace of Hitler’s frown expanding over Spain, then.
These inmost urges of destruction and delight were always linked to his Spanish appetite for the natural body, that special, easy eroticism. But his lifelong joy in the female form is disturbed elsewhere in the Suite. Its two other major themes of The Minotaur and The Battle of Love (or, Rape) reflect the bleak side of this heady ethic, where men and women suffocate each other even as they remain ambiguous about a tedious touch. In Rape VII, a man holds his face crooked in his palm, looking pensive or bored as he ferociously hulks over a woman. Rape IV is no better, where the woman convulses underneath as the man gazes quizzically into the distance, as if wondering if he left the bathroom geyser on. In Rape V, the man’s face is not sketched in while the woman’s seems to be somewhere between manic anguish and glee.
Watching such row upon row of images on the same theme — be it the Studio, Rape or the Minotaur — does something to you. Each variation fetches a newer idea and brings you deeper into the artist’s maddened realm. Suddenly, you realise the master has tutored you to see. That is the moment you yourself feel like stretching your hand out to touch.
Consider Minotaur Caressing a Sleeping Woman: the beast is bent over a woman sleeping with curled fingers, his body geometric with tension, his mouth open and spreading his breath around her, watching, waiting. But if you look closely, you’ll also see panic in the surprised beast’s eyes as he beholds the calm face underneath. While successfully seducing the 22-year-old virgin, Françoise Gilot, the 62-yearold Picasso explained the minotaur watching a sleeping woman: “He’s studying her, trying to read her thoughts, trying to decide whether she loves him because he’s a monster. It’s hard to say whether he wants to wake her or kill her.”
READJUSTING THE mirror of watcher/ watched might hold a key to the series. Picasso once told André Malraux that he had no need of style because his rage would become a prime style of the time. But along with the violence of his detached eye, what comes through even more strongly in the Vollard Suite is Picasso’s singleminded excitement, his vigour as a vaudeville performer. Whatever the personal situation or cultural idea, he’s never at a loss, never without energy, never insipid. He is a gay improviser, an instinctive enjoyer. His works hang in blank, white-walled spaces, their fury spent, and yet pirouette on. Crack a grin now – the clown is taking a bow.