48 Yrs After His Death, Picasso’s Still Papa of Indian Art Scene

Pablo Picasso’s death anniversary comes as an opportunity to mull over his glorious art.

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Pablo Picasso.
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(This article was first published on 25 October 2015. It has been republished from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of Pablo Picasso’s death anniversary.)

If he had been blessed with some magic elixir, Pablo Picasso would have been 139 years old by now. Come to think of it, birth and death anniversaries are an incentive – call it pretext if you like – to mull over great artists and thinkers who have in some vital way, affected our lives. Think of glorious art, and Picasso comes alive right before your eyes.

Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

His archive of photographs often catch him casting a playfully arrogant gaze at the camera. Indeed, the most memorable ones see him in a striped Breton tee shirt traditionally designed for French sailors. In addition, there are uncharacteristically severe images, like the portrait on critic John Berger’s definitive book on the Spanish artist, The Success and Failure of Picasso.

Failure? Art, viewed from the prism of political ideology, can be judgmental. Berger’s perspective of course has some valid points. Artistically, though, Picasso has survived the test of time and is arguably the greatest icon of art ever.

Prolific, both in output and themes, he invites appreciative comments in practically every creative sphere. For instance, when I asked the master filmmaker Shyam Benegal about his take on the artist, he responded,

Picasso wasn’t confined to one domain. Besides his artworks, sculpture, ceramics and prints, he would design backdrops for theatre. His artistry was limitless.

Which brings me to the abiding relevance of Picasso in the Indian context. Of course, countless theses have been advanced on his influence on modernism in Indian art. That FN Souza derived considerable leads from the legendary artist is incontestable.

Picasso’s Femme au Chapeau and Souza’s Untitled (Head of Picasso).
Picasso’s Femme au Chapeau and Souza’s Untitled (Head of Picasso).
(Photo Courtesy: saffronart.blog)

The similarity between Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avingnon and Souza’s Young Ladies in Belsize Park has been correctly cited as fool-proof evidence. Moreover, in the vein of Picasso, Souza employed unusually vivid colours, geometrical compositions and exaggerated facial features in his portraits.

Similar, not same: Les Demoiselles D’Avingnon by Picasso; and Young Ladies in Belsize Park by Francis Newton Souza
Similar, not same: Les Demoiselles D’Avingnon by Picasso; and Young Ladies in Belsize Park by Francis Newton Souza
(Photo Courtesy: saffronart.blog)

Ironically, though, Souza’s friend and for a phase, friend-turned-foe MF Husain, is called the Picasso of India. Or as the Guardian’s obit on Husain put it, “the barefoot Picasso of India.” Souza and Husain, both leading figures of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Movement initiated in 1947, were believed to have had a fall-out. Towards their latter years there was a reconciliation, largely one-sided. It was Husain who chose to be politically correct by sweeping their differences under the canvas, so to speak.

Great artists, like it or not, do have fall-outs with their contemporaries. Picasso and Salvador Dali couldn’t exactly be on the same page either. In their case, the hostility was sparked off by disagreements in form, style and the politics of their time, to the extent that Dali created a grotesque image of Picasso.

Salvador Dali’s portrait of Picasso.
Salvador Dali’s portrait of Picasso.
(Photo Courtesy: dalipaintings.com)

To return to Husain’s comparison with Picasso, was he chuffed with this or did it rile him? Fondly, his friends as well as his son Owais would call him the Picasso of India, and on occasion, the Andy Warhol of India. To that, the artist’s riposte was,

“Maybe they’re right. But I don’t imitate Picasso. My work arises from the Indian soil primarily and not from western sources.”

The painting, Husain, would point out for proof is Zameen, housed in Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art. In the same breath, Husain had no qualms in admitting that Bhopal, his representation of the gas tragedy, painted in 1990, was a conscious take on Picasso’s classic anti-war testament, Guernica.

48 Yrs After His Death, Picasso’s Still Papa of Indian Art Scene
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Great paintings can be seen through the eyes of another painter”, Husain said. “Rembrandt’s The Night Watch has always humbled me... So you can’t say that Picasso has been my sole influence per se. That would amount to being a copycat, wouldn’t it?”

So, could I get a categorical answer? Has Picasso influenced him or not?

MF Husain, in the course of marathon q-and-a sessions and sorties to the Tate Art Gallery in London, would express his increasing disenchantment with formal figurative art. Unlike Picasso’s art, he felt that these were prosaic and illustrative.

A pause, a ‘stop-badgering me look’ and then the answer, “I would say he has inspired countless artists, including myself. What I’ve taken from him most of all, is his instinct to paint the topical and if I may say so, his showmanship. But if you ask me about borrowing from his period of cubism or the Blue period, then I would say you’re talking through your hat. And if you care to study my work, I often omit facial features, I don’t distort them.” Point noted.

A detail from Pablo Picasso’s “Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil”, a portrait of his lover Jacqueline Roque painted in 1955, seen at Christie’s auction house in London. 
A detail from Pablo Picasso’s “Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil”, a portrait of his lover Jacqueline Roque painted in 1955, seen at Christie’s auction house in London. 
(Photo: Reuters)

For the Indian art lover, Picasso can be glimpsed essentially in museums abroad. Of them, the Picasso Museums in Barcelona and Paris, are a must-experience.

In India, there have been a few Picasso shows from 2002 to last year. These have been in Delhi at the NGMA and Vadhera’s art gallery. The Vollard Suite which displayed 100 prints by Picasso, once commissioned by art dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard, was held at the Cervantes Institute.

A Picasso artwork was sighted at Mukesh Ambani’s Antilla residence in Mumbai but neither the title nor its actual presence there was ever confirmed. Gallerists believe that quite a few Indian gazillionaires possess Picassos, adding that these are not necessarily of a high quality, and mainly comprise drawings, limited editions and etchings.

Another India-connect: circa1990, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory produced the film Surviving Picasso, scripted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, with Anthony Hopkins in the eponymous role. It looked at the private life of the struggling painter who complained that his house had been burgled of its linen. The burglars had ignored his paintings! Not one of Merchant-Ivory better films, at best it’s an oddity.

A still from the movie Surviving Picasso. 
A still from the movie Surviving Picasso. 
(Photo Courtesy: Warner Bros)

On his 135th birth anniversary, Picasso will elicit remembrances from every part of the world. In India, his legacy is a towering one, a world icon whose posters and prints are accessible from select museum boutiques. Posters of Vincent Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Picasso’s Don Quixote are staples on the walls of innumerable upper crust Indian homes.

Needless to emphasise, then, Picasso’s influence – to a major or minor degree – on Souza and Husain, will linger forever.

(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter)

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