The bull at play

Amusing Picasso drawings on show at the Vadehra Gallery are portraits of desire and longing

Until the end of this month, if you’ve got money to spare, you can go to the Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi and buy a drawing by Pablo Picasso. It doesn’t cost that much. Relatively.

In 2006, Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas, US, hotelier and one of the richest men in the world, put his elbow through Le Rêve (The Dream), the then 50-year-old Picasso’s portrait of his 22-year-old mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Wynn was on the verge of selling the painting when he damaged it with that flailing elbow. He completed the deal last year, parting with Le Rêve for $155 million (around 945.5 crore), apparently the highest price ever paid by an American collector for a work of art. With that in mind, what’s 8-15 lakh for some drawings?

The Vadehra gallery is currently showing 24 drawings, etchings and lithographs by Picasso and Salvador Dalí. But the exhibition is not just a way for wealthy people to pick up another brand, a Picasso sketch to go with their BMW and their Hermès. Even if you don’t, to borrow a line from film-maker Woody Allen, buy your art by the yard (to fill the big space on the wall and match the sofa), these offhand, incidental pieces by Picasso and Dalí offer insights into the more famous work and into the artists’ personalities.

Actually, it’s only the Picasso work that rewards sustained viewing. The three Dalí lithographs are incidental, if lovely. The connection made here between Dalí and Picasso is perhaps the earthy wit on display. This is most apparent in the 1974 Dalí print on display, Le Cercle Visceral du Cosmos. The cosmos is literally represented by viscera, guts, bile and waste. There is also in its shape a hint of the priapic, and the priapic is everywhere in Picasso’s sketches at the Vadehra. Take Tete d’Homme from 1972, a jaunty drawing in felt tip of a man whose beret and eyebrow are evidently phallic.

There is an echo (albeit faint) in the way the penis forms part of this sketch of the man’s head and the way the penis forms a portion of the model’s face in Le Rêve. Picasso’s affair (his amour fou) with Marie-Thérèse, which lasted from 1927-41, inspired richly erotic portraits and sculpture. He reached for the classical to describe his sexual longing. All of this is evident even in these drawings, in the pastoral settings and figures modelled on Greek statuary. The artist figure in these works is Pan, the horned (horny) god, the women in the pictures always naked, always nubile. Some of the drawings feature bulls and one ink drawing, from 1954, is titled Head of a Happy Faune (Pan’s Roman counterpart is, of course, Faunus). And, as if that wasn’t enough, a drawing from 1968 is titled Scene Pastorale, a paradisal rural idyll complete with flute player.

The preoccupation evident in these sketches, which run more or less the length of Picasso’s long career, is the relationship between the artist and his model. Inevitably, it’s a sexual one. The model, male or female, always young and beautiful, the proportions perfect, while the artist is older, watchful, even exploitative. A 1968 etching, for instance, is titled Vieux Peintre Avec une Adolescente, or old painter with young girl; another etching is titled Old Man With Nude. Marie-Thérèse was 17 when she met Picasso. And, as if to show he isn’t the only one, there is even a Picasso etching of the French artist Edgar Degas and a young woman.

Picasso’s wit rescues these drawings from the fetishizing of young women. He is no tragic Humbert Humbert or Gustave von Aschenbach figure, debasing himself over the vivid, vivifying beauty of the young. Picasso knows that middle-aged Pans are ridiculous, knows how to laugh at himself. Can the rich people who will buy these minor works take the master’s self-awareness as a cue to laugh at their own foibles, their own pretensions and, ultimately, their own ridiculousness?

The group show is on till 26 March, 11am-7pm (Sundays closed), at Vadehra Art Gallery, D-40, Defence Colony, New Delhi (24622545). The artworks are priced at 8-15 lakh for Pablo Picasso’s work and 50,000 onwards for Salvador Dalí’s work.

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