Speaking to a 132-year old Artist

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.

Post-Picasso: Contemporary Reactions, curated by Michael FitzGerald at the Museu Picasso Source: http://www.bcn.cat/museupicasso/en/exhibitions/current.html

Post-Picasso: Contemporary Reactions, curated by Michael FitzGerald at the Museu Picasso
Source: http://www.bcn.cat/museupicasso/en/exhibitions/current.html

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.

A humourous piece by Banksy displayed at the entrance of the exhibition  Source: www.artnews.net

A humourous piece by Banksy displayed at the entrance of the exhibition
Source: http://www.artnews.net

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.

Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937)   Source: http://http://en.wikipedia.org/

Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937)
Source: en.wikipedia.org

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.

MF Husain’s ‘Ganga Jamuna’ (1971)  Source: Peabody Essex Museum Website

MF Husain’s ‘Ganga Jamuna’ (1971)
Source: Peabody Essex Museum Website

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.

Atul Dodiya’s ‘Lands End’ Source: http://www.vadehraart.com/exhibition/viewDetails/8/24

Atul Dodiya’s ‘Lands End’
Source: http://www.vadehraart.com/exhibition/viewDetails/8/24

‘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.

Atul Dodiya’s ‘Sour Grapes’ Source: http://www.bcn.cat/museupicasso/en/exhibitions/current.html

Atul Dodiya’s ‘Sour Grapes’
Source: http://www.bcn.cat/museupicasso/en/exhibitions/current.html

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.


Picasso’s Legacy to Indian Art

Kanika Pruthi of Saffronart on the occasion of Picasso’s 40th death anniversary reflects on the artist’s legacy to the world, foremost among them the female nude.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Pablo Picasso. Image Credit: http://www.moma.org/explore/conservation/demoiselles/

New York:  For Picasso aficionados June 2013 presents Picasso: Nudity Set Free, an exhibition of 120 of the artist’s works, hosted in Picasso’s Cannes villa now renamed Pavilion de Flore. Curated by his grand-daughter Marina Picasso, who has furnished the exhibition with 90 works from her own collection, the show brings to fore the artist’s preoccupation with the nude. His redefinition of the female nude is one of his greatest legacy- its influence permeating borders, artistic practices and most importantly time.

Picasso’s seminal work Les Demoiselles d ‘Avignon painted in 1907, not only challenged the long existing traditions of depicting the female nude, but also thrust forth an alternative way of looking that is jarring  and negates most aspects of the then existing parameters that defined the female body. His re-imagined nude instigated a new way of looking, one that prompted artists to follow a similar process of questioning and reimagining. This seismic wave of redressal surely reached the Indian shores, even if decades later. The works of George Keyt, M.F. Husain and Tyeb Mehta provide testament to Picasso’s legacy and his influence, in varying degrees, on the practice of these three artists.

The turn of the 20th century ushered a period of concerted artistic efforts to revisualize the female nude in a new light, shunning the former idioms that seemed increasingly restrictive or obsolete. The historical nude, its ideality, was closely related to the envisioned form imagined by its male creators. Their projection was infused with their sexual longings, fears and desires. Edgar Degas dismissed the earlier notions and replaced it with his contorted bodies displaying their hardness and ugliness, in which lay their beauty. Picasso followed suit and went on to create what is deemed one of the first modernist female nude- shattering the earlier conventions with a brute force.  His Les Demoiselles d ‘Avignon celebrated the female body through flattened perspective and grotesque distortions. His secular treatment of the body freed it from its long held idealized stature. As pointed by art historians, it is interesting to note that Picasso was a lover of beauty and women, nonetheless his female nudes could not escape his critical eye which deconstructed everything it saw- animate and inanimate.

Picasso’s contribution to the nude is not just restricted to his own creations. His influence on those around him and those after him is a subject worthy of deep investigation. On the Indian Subcontinent this legacy manifested in the early paintings of George Keyt, whose works were often exhibited alongside Picasso and Braque in galleries around the world during his lifetime. Keyt was clearly influenced by cubist practice, but his application of the cubist principle was distinctly his own. The impact of Indian artistic traditions co-exist in a manner that does not compromise either of the two influences.

In M.F. Husain’s works the cubist strand evolved in a new way. His commitment to innovation resulted in an adaptation of the cubist principles in a less-direct and more discreet way. His de-construction of the nude with its rough edges and aggressive texture presented a form that challenged the ideal notion of the Indian female nude, just as Picasso’s nudes has done in their time.

Untitled, M.F. Husain

Untitled, M.F. Husain. Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/auctions/PostWork.aspx?l=4739

Tyeb Mehta took Picasso’s fundamental principles when treating the body to another level. His jagged lines and aggressive movement on the canvas bring to mind Picasso’s great anti-war paintings. Their works are imbued with angst and suffering in a manner that is very similar. They both seem to create meaning out of chaos.

You can find more information on the Picasso’s exhibition here.

Picasso Black and White at the Guggenheim closed last week

Guest blogger, Saranna Biel-Cohen shares a snippet on the recently concluded Picasso show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York

New York: Picasso Black and White at the Guggenheim Museum in New York closed last week. The show highlighted works from the artist’s prolific career in which he explored the use of black, white and grey tones during every phase of his oeuvre. The exhibition included paintings, sculptures and works on paper in which he consciously employs a monochromatic palette to enhance the formal structure of his compositions. He recalls the tonal tradition of Spanish masters such as Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Goya, while commenting on every day life, his lovers, the political and social upheavals that rocked Europe during his lifetime, and paintings by classical masters. The show was a refreshing look at his body of work and allowed viewers to understand the liberty Picasso felt using black and white. Although the exhibition is now over, the museum website still hosts a series of audio tours related to the show. These are mainly notes on specific works delivered by three commentators, the artist’s daughter, Maya Widmaier-Picasso, Carmen Giménez, Stephen and Nan Swid Curator of Twentieth-Century Art, Guggenheim Museum, and curator of Picasso Black and White and Pierre Daix, an art historian and close friend of the artist.

Enjoy some images from this exhibition here:

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Guest contributor Saranna Biel-Cohen lives and works in London. She holds a Master’s Degree in History of Art from University College London with a focus on Modern Indian Art.

The Drawings of Souza and Picasso – a Meeting of Two Artistic Giants

Guest blogger, Sabah Mathur reports on a recent lecture at the British Museum on the Drawings of Souza and Picasso

The British Museum, London

The British Museum, London

London: One of India’s foremost modern artist, Francis Newton Souza, has often been compared to the twentieth-century giant, Pablo Picasso.  A recent lecture held at the British Museum (BM), London, as part of the event, Asian Art in London, re-visited the similarities between Picasso and Souza. Sona Datta, curator of Ancient and Medieval South Asia at the BM, explored the relationship between the two artists by juxtaposing their drawings in order to demonstrate the impact of Picasso on Souza.

The talk began by setting the stage for understanding modernity in the Indian context. Being a colonial country, Indian artists were faced with an inherent paradox – a contradiction between the sense of alienation of the individual artist and the cultural cohesion expected of a nation engaged in an anti-colonial struggle. It is important to address what it meant to be both Indian and modern in the Post-independence period. The latter demanded an expression of the universal, while the former called attention to the local.

Tracing the growth of modernism from academic art as taught in the schools set up by the British in India, and the Bengal School to the Progressive Artists Group (PAG), of which Souza was a founding member, Datta discussed the role of the PAG as an important group of modern artists who together formed a brave new world. However, modern Indian art was often regarded as an attempt to play catch-up with European art. It was widely considered to be derivative.

Datta argued that art has always been informed by other cultures. For instance, direct influences were drawn from African and Oceanic art by Picasso, Persian art by Henri Matisse, and Polynesian art by Paul Gauguin. It is by now well established that art does not exist in isolation but always arises out of influences. It would be more fruitful to examine in what sense art is borrowed and how it is invested with meaning.

Souza rejected his art school teachings and educated himself through books, reproductions, and actual works of art to which he could find access. He wrote that he had to teach himself about Western art. Many of his paintings show strong influences of Old Masters such as Titian as well as modern artists, most notably Picasso. Souza’s bold colours, geometrical compositions, and distorted faces are evidence of the inspiration he received from the latter. Man with a Dribbling Nose shows Souza’s mature style with highly distorted features – eyes in the forehead, elongated nose, exaggerated mouth and teeth, and bulging veins. Such heads were a unique invention of Souza’s and they communicate emotions with brute force.

Like Picasso, Souza also conveyed messages about politics, society, sex, and religion through his art. Souza’s Six Gentlemen of Our Time is a triumph of his capacity to probe emotion through significant form. The heads depicted are of men who represent the terrifying post-war atomic civilisation. Datta stated that their structure resembles Synthetic Cubism as practiced by Picasso.

Francis Newton Souza Six Gentlemen of Our Times

Francis Newton Souza, Six Gentlemen of Our Times, 1955
Image credit: WORDS & LINES , by Francis Newton Souza (First published in 1959)

A more direct inspiration can be seen in Souza’s Young Ladies in Belsize Park which is a reverberating echo of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Souza’s adaptation is essentially a brothel scene. He actually lived in this area of London and the nearby red light area afforded an interesting inspiration for this work. While Souza’s colours are much darker, the structure and thematic similarities to the original are clear.

Picasso & Souza Talk_1

Les Damoiselles D’Avignon by Pablo Picasso Young Ladies in Belsize Park by Franic Newton Souza

Datta pointed out that both Picasso and Souza had a tremendous fluidity of line. This is clearly visible in the following drawings. Both artists were excellent draughtsmen and were aware of the importance of line in their work. Souza said, “The outline is the scaffolding on which you hang your painting. It is the structure without which art cannot exist and becomes wishy washy. Cezanne is nothing but structure. Within the structure you add paint and paint and structure are one and the same. There is a totality about it.”

Souza's drawings

(Left) Two Women Seated by Picasso, 1970 and (Right) Souza’s Woman on a Sofa, 1962
Image credit: Francis Newton Souza Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art by Aziz Kurtha, Grantha Corporation, 2006

The distinctions and similarities between the two artists become clearer upon comparing Picasso’s Femme au Chapeau and Souza’s Untitled (Head of Picasso). The influence on Souza’s work is obvious, but in his work the facial features are more visible whereas in Picasso’s work they are tending towards the abstract.


Picasso’s Femme au Chapeau and Souza’s Untitled (Head of Picasso).
Image credit: http://www.vadehraart.com/exhibition/viewDetails/76/1843?pages=2

Souza was a dominant force in developing modern Indian art and created a new artistic grammar for India. He was also an inspirational figure during the 1950s in the London art scene. Picasso meanwhile, is widely acknowledged as the most influential twentieth-century artist who created Cubism along with Georges Braque during the early 1900s. Both artists were inspired by their predecessors but reworked the art of other masters to create their own idioms. Their results were original. For instance, although Souza was influenced by a number of Western artists he mixed his art with his knowledge of Indian styles and motifs.

Both Souza and Picasso were artistic geniuses in their own way and they believed in their work. Souza, like Picasso, stood outside the regular society in a way. Born in Portuguese occupied Goa into a Roman Catholic family, he struggled against adversity from the very beginning. His father died when he was just three months old and the following year, his sister aged two, also passed away. In 1929, when Souza was only four, his widowed mother, heaped with debt, fled with him to Bombay. There Souza contracted smallpox and was sent back to Goa to be looked after by his grandmother.

Souza was fascinated by stories of tortured saints told to him by his grandmother and the grandeur of the Church had a profound effect on him. He was influenced not by its dogmas, but its architecture and the splendour of its services. Souza developed a strong anti-clerical streak. His denunciation of the clergy with all its vestments of religiosity and an underlying manipulation of power was expressed in a number of works. A characteristic example of this is Souza’s Death of the Pope where the dead Pope is a skeleton of a man rather than a grandiose figure, and the priests with their ghoulish heads, stand before him. Datta pointed out that Souza’s Catholic guilt and tragedy left him feeling alienated as an individual and in a way this was like fodder for his creativity.

Deviating from the discussion about Souza and Picasso, a member of the audience also put forth an interesting question regarding Souza’s relationship with another master of modern Indian art, MF Husain. In response, it was pointed out that it was Souza who had recognised Husain’s genius during the 1940s and had brought him into the fold of the art world, selecting him to join the PAG. Later during the 1980s Husain invited Souza to open his retrospective held in India. Interestingly, Souza once said that he had taught Husain everything he knew!

This highly confident attitude was typical of Souza, a characteristic that he shared with Picasso. Each of these artists tore the rule book and produced art that was full of emotion. Although Souza does not have any direct descendants in the sense of artistic style, he certainly left a very powerful influence on many other Indian artists with his intense personal vision and eclectic body of work.

A trained lawyer, Sabah Mathur has a keen interest in South Asian art. She recently completed an MA in Fine & Decorative Art at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London. Her MA thesis was titled “Monochromes and Chemicals: Understanding Francis Newton Souza’s Avant-Garde Experiments with Black Paintings and Chemical Paintings”. She has worked with Saffronart as well as the Modern & Contemporary South Asian art department at Bonhams.

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