Under my byline

Picasso as storyteller

Posted in Art, Books by Rrishi on 30 January 2010


Just before the exhibition closed this weekend, I managed to go and view the Suite Vollard. That is a collection of 100 Pablo Picasso prints, mostly from the early 1930s, which made its sole India stop in Delhi this winter. The prints were commissioned by an influential Paris art dealer named Ambroise Vollard.

Encountering a work of art is like being offered a dish of some fancy cuisine. You circle it for a while, looking for something you recognise, for a way in, a way to assimilate it before you actually take your first bite. This may be something abstract, like a mood, emotion or idea evoked — anything that can go to work inside the viewer’s mind on behalf of artist and creation.

Not so these Picasso lithographs. Instead of dangling a clue or inspiring a mood, these fantastic little vignettes instantly bring you, fully formed, to language. It’s like being plugged into the Matrix: a world rushes in, familiar and complete.

And what language is this? It is the founding language of Western civilisation: Greco-Roman classicism. This language you already know. When Picasso shows the sculptor contemplating his model, with the sculpture itself incomplete by his side, you don’t need a caption. You may even recall Pygmalion, the mythical sculptor who rejected women, only to carve himself such a perfect woman in stone that he fell tragically in love with his own creation. (Or, think of My Fair Lady.) When the bearded sculptor morphs into a bull-headed man, you cannot but remember the Minotaur. And so on.

These stories are hard-wired into our minds. One way or another, through books, bedtime stories, music or film, they take up residence in our minds. They offer us patterns with which to interpret the world. Our own epics, like the Mahabharata, fulfill the same function. There are no new stories without the original stories.

Within and between these familiar tropes, Picasso works his magic. He reworks the basic sculptor and model theme time and time again, and each time his simple, deliberate lines offer a new perspective: the two characters and the finished work, the work-in-progress, the ideal work, the legend, the studio, the external world (seen through a window), the self-image of sculptor or model, all three contemplating each other… the permutations are endlessly rewarding. You look at the image, and you feel the ancient, powerful human urge to tell a story. It’s there on the tip of your tongue.

So it was no surprise to discover that Picasso illustrated a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses — the long poem by the Roman poet, containing the most famous classical myths, still popular after 2,000 years — in 1928, before embarking on the Suite Vollard. Or that he was deeply influenced by Honoré de Balzac’s 1831 short story “The Unknown Masterpiece”, in which a painter tries to capture life itself on canvas. (That, too, Picasso illustrated, in 1921, at Vollard’s request.)

To my mind the Suite Vollard, though not Picasso’s best-known work, sets the seal on his greatness. In his clean lines we can see the artist in conversation with himself, as a participant in his own work rather than sole creator, and we can also see all the way down to the roots of civilisation and the imagination, whether expressed in art or writing. Now, I can’t help but see Picasso as, apart from a major painter, also a very fine storyteller.


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