If you had something to say to Picasso, what would it be? While you ponder over this, Pooja Savansukha shares Husain and Dodiya’s reactions to Picasso’s works
Over Spring break this April, I travelled to Barcelona with my family to visit the ongoing exhibition at the Museu Picasso, Post-Picasso: Contemporary Reactions. I was enthusiastic to see the show as I had taken a college course about it last year with Professor Michael FitzGerald, a Picasso scholar and the curator of this exhibition, and I must admit that my high expectations from the visit were definitely surpassed. Although the exhibition does not feature a single piece by Picasso himself, one can gain a unique insight into his career through the collection of works by renowned contemporary artists from around the world who have engaged with his art. In my visit, my own Indian background drew me towards works by M.F. Husain and Atul Dodiya that I had the opportunity to see from the context of South Asian art, and with specific regard to Picasso.
You don’t need an introduction to Picasso- but if you do, he is arguably one of the most influential figures in 20th century art. His works were pivotal in the initial development of Cubism and modern art. His artistic explorations were not only reflective of his personal and political life in Spain and France, but also set the ground for future art movements. A striking feature of his career is the number of artistic phases that he has been through. These phases also guide the structure of the exhibition. Each work in the exhibition respondsto either a particular work such as the “Guernica” and “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” or a phase in Picasso’s life such as his Blue and Rose periods, Cubist period, and Surrealist period. Viewers get a sense of how every artist in their own style has engaged with a similar type of work by Picasso, reiterating his transnational influence.
Professor FitzGerald often suggested to us in class that while Picasso greatly influenced art during his own time, contemporary artists tend to engage with him as an equal. Witnessing this trend in the exhibition was definitely one of the highlights of my visit. Husain and Dodiya both addressed issues particular to India and their immediate context, while simultaneously engaging with Picasso.
The first work I encountered was Maqbool Fida Husain’s 1971 painting, ‘Ganga Jamuna’ that was a part of his Mahabharata series. It was one of the art works starting a dialogue with Picasso’s famous ‘Guernica.’ ‘Guernica’ depicts the explosion in the city of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War and is noted for its portrayal of the destruction of innocent people and animals such as horses and bulls. Picasso’s monochromatic palette allows viewers to focus on the forms and figures painted in his synthetic Cubist style.
Husain’s ‘Ganga-Jamuna’ that also featured at his debut on the global platform at the Sao Paolo Biennial in 1971, depicts the Indian war epic, the Mahabharata, as a Hindu mythological parallel to Guernica, portraying a scene as Picasso would have. Interestingly as Picasso was also invited to present his work at the Sao Paolo Biennial, Husain consciously undertook the challenge of emulating his style in this painting. In an interview at the time of the Biennial, he claimed, “only Picasso could do it [the Mahabharata] justice; he’d not done it. Let me try.” While retaining his own palette and theme, Husain presents a visual that in focusing on the forms of its subjects, particularly the horse, engages with Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ by attempting to assume the position of its Hindu counterpart. A painting that I may have otherwise appreciated just for its typically Husain-like fascination with Hindu mythology and depiction of horses, now also reveals another unique facet of his style, an engagement with Picasso.
Atul Dodiya’s ‘Land’s End’ and ‘Lamentation’ are also exhibited amongst other paintings engaging with Guernica. In ‘Land’s End,’ which is a part of Dodiya’s shutter series, he appropriates a portion of Picasso’s ‘Dora Meyer’ as well as Guernica onto the shutter, and paints a sculpture by Ravinder Reddy that is seen behind the shutter. The combination of the Indian and Western references confused viewers who were unable to link the two. Though this is typical of Dodiya, it makes his works more interactive. This is what he achieves by engaging with Picasso.
‘Lamentation’ responds to the growing violence in India (particularly Mumbai), that goes against Mahatma Gandhi’s peaceful philosophies that the post-colonial nation was founded upon. His painting references Gandhi with his back to the viewer on one side, and juxtaposes a Cubist Picasso-styled painting with a little girl on the other. Around these elements, Dodiya also portrays lamenting angels in the style that Giotto used in his 1305-1306 fresco ‘Mourning the Death of Christ’. The painting references Hindu mythology, Christian mythology, Indian history (reference to Gandhi), contemporary India (in light of wars, crimes and Mumbai riots), artists Picasso and Giotto, as well as his own personal life (the girl depicted represents his daughter). By responding to violence, this painting is already engaging with ‘Guernica,’ and additionally, the rendering of the girl in Picasso’s style goes a step further to place Dodiya into his lineage. While one could otherwise simply accept Dodiya’s appropriations of Picasso’s as just another one of his Western references, looking specifically from the standpoint of Guernica, as the show points out, one can sense a greater dialogue between Dodiya and Picasso.
While Guernica played a significant role in Dodiya’s correspondence with Picasso’s work, he has also responded to Picasso’s Surrealist phase. Atul Dodiya’s ‘Sour Grapes’ also featured in the exhibition depicts an image of Hindu Lord Vishnu, in a typically illustrative calendar style, along with other deities worshipping in the background. Dodiya appropriates Picasso’s Portrait of Jaume Sabartés (1939) – to represent himself as Lord Brahma, the Hindu creator of the universe. While Dodiya’s appropriation of Picasso’s Surrealist portrait makes the work converse with Picasso’s Surrealist works, the humour invoked also adds to his dialogue with Picasso.
Something distinctly common to both Husain and Dodiya in their works at the exhibition is their reference to Hindu mythology or Indian motifs. Despite a similarity in their content based on the Indian background of the two artists, they have extremely unique approaches to engaging with Picasso. I was able to see them as being entirely unique to one another even if they were the two Indian artists represented at an exhibition featuring International artists.
In addition, I enjoyed all the different parallels that I was able to draw between contemporary artists from around the world, and Picasso, himself. Given Picasso’s influence on modern art, many might make the convenient assumption that this exhibition depicts his unsurprising influence on contemporary art. It is the representation of artists who bring themselves to the level of Picasso, engaging with him, making fun of him, or assuming his position that makes this exhibition so much more interesting. It is safe to say that although Picasso’s career ended in the late 20th century, his legacy still lives on, in a unique and fascinating manner. In addition to Dodiya and Husain, the exhibition also features works by Ibrahim el-Salahi from Sudan, Bedri Baykam from Turkey, Rineke Djikstra from the Netherlands, Chéri Samba from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Vik Muniz from Brazil, George Condo and Jean-Michel Basquiat from the USA.
If you find yourself in Barcelona, or are looking for a reason to travel to this wonderful city, I would strongly urge you to consider visiting this exhibition for a fresh perspective on Picasso’s contemporary influence. The exhibit will run until 29th June.