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, says Gaurav Jain
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.