One of the most well-known collections of the renowned Spanish artist Pablo Picasso is on exhibition in Delhi. The hundred pieces of ‘Vollard Suite’, known as among his best in printmaking effort, have been brought to the national capital by the Spanish Cultural Centre.
While Picasso is immediately associated with painting famous works, the 20th century artist also experimented prolifically with different techniques and mediums to produce an assorted profile of art.
The set that is on display contains the prints of Picasso’s etchings that were executed by first making incisions in metal plates, filling them with ink and then publishing on Montval paper. Vollard Suite was commissioned by a French art dealer Ambroise Vollard and was created in the period 1930-37. The art dealer, who was initially sceptical of Picasso’s avant guard ideas and techniques, could not resist the charm or opportunity in his publishing activity and agreed to fund the project.
The Suite is divided into five broad categories: The Sculptor’s Studio, The Battle of Love, The Minotaur and The Blind Minotaur, Rembrandt and the portraits of Vollard.
The first, the Sculptor’s Studio has the largest number of sheets at 46, all of which were executed in the year 1933. The etchings depict scenes in an artist’s studio with a female model as the central subject. The model happened to be his love interest of those days -Marie Thérèse. Picasso was nearly 50 when he had met the 17-year-old for the first time in 1927. He was so enamoured by his mistress that he soon separated from his wife Khokhova. It is probably the reason why the prints show a completely besotted artist with a passive looking woman.
The sculptor is sometimes shown as a keen observer while at other times as a participant, when he holds the young and beautiful woman. He also sometimes comes across as a strange satyr who seems to be bending over the lady. Flowers are repeatedly shown in these pictures, very often in a vase or in the hair.
The five sheets of the Battle of Love executed in 1933 are marked by eroticism and raw sensuality. Though love scenes are often painted by artists, rarely is the subject of rape depicted. Picasso has attempted to explicitly explore the theme of sexual violence. The models are drawn from Greek mythology of Eros’ world. The characters of Apollo, the man, and Thanatos, who stands for death or deathly drive, depict instincts in man that are negative and self-destructive. Interestingly enough, the woman is never looking terrified but serene, maintaining her dignity, while the male is shown to be animal-like - distorted and ferocious - when assaulting, thus dishonourable.
The Minotaur and The Blind Minotaur also derive their characters from Greek mythology. In the fifteen engravings, an uncanny creature with a human body and bull’s head is used to symbolize the times of political uncertainty. The Blind Minotaur (created in 1934), whose life is all encompassing darkness and is uncertainly led towards an unknown destination, is a classic metaphor for shadowy times in Europe and the rise of totalitarianism. For the artist personally, it was a reflection of his morbid thoughts, helplessness and his desire to be led by a young girl with a dove representing innocence.
The four sheets of Rembrandt are very interesting. Though, at first glance, they come across as mere squiggles, actually they bring out the pictures of Rembrandt, showing how thoroughly Picasso had observed the artist and how familiar he was with the Dutch painter’s techniques. Picasso, who created these etchings in 1931, experimented with both varnishes and inks to create darker tones especially to create the head.
The final three sheets of portraits of Ambroise Vollard were done in 1937. Picasso begins the first with soft strokes nearly giving the look of a water painting. The second is harder while the third, which is also the final, is filled with intense etching, thus appears dense.
All the eccentric creations of Picasso throw up a more profound meaning when seen in light of the painter’s own life. His fast failing marriage, his affair with Marie Thérèse, the emotions when he encounters her, the recognition of his own confusion, his acknowledgement of animal instincts in man, recognition of his own failings, the desire to find a direction, and finally his distancing himself from his work and its subject.
The duration in which Picasso completed Vollard Suite coincides with the entire period of his association with Marie Thérèse. As he reached the conclusion of his seminal work in printmaking, the artist also slowly began to lose interest in his mistress, and was now stepping into a new affair, this time with Dora Maar. Notably, Vollard Suite was put together just before Picasso embarked on producing his masterpiece Guernica.
The etchings often do come across as bizarre to a layman’s eye, but if one looks at them intently, one can see a nearly brutal yet beautiful rhythm in all plates. His lines are firm and throw up images from what may appear to be arbitrary sketches. And while the collection may look terrifically eclectic, the tone and tenor in the entire suite has an underlying unity and harmony.
Vollard Suite, in one sense, depicts the complexity of any human life, where each episode may seem very different, but is held together firmly by a fundamental and continuing meaning.
(Picasso’s Vollard Suite is on display till January 10, 11:30 am-7:30 pm at Instituto Cervantes, Hanuman Road, Delhi on all days except Mondays)