Re-discovering Picasso in Ballarat
…and no small-talk with a stranger
Words and images: Anubha Sarkar
The intaglio print by Picasso depicted a strong, muscular man, overtaking and dominating the print’s entire frame. And within that man’s overbearing presence, the outlines of a woman, crushed beneath the man. But was she crushed or enraptured in pleasure, one couldn’t say. But my first impression on viewing the print was of intense aggression. And sure enough, when I saw the title of the print, it was ‘Le Viol’ or ‘Rape’.
This was at the Art Gallery of Ballarat, a city in Australia with just over 100,000 people.
It was years ago and continents away, when I was first introduced to Picasso. This was at an art appreciation course at the National Museum in Delhi. Since then, whenever I have had the opportunity to see his works in real, it would leave me in awe. But today, in far-off Victoria, I felt different.
This trip was meant to be a solo-getaway from my PhD course load, but clearly my brain hadn’t stopped whirring. In fact, since I was alone, I found I was able to think about things that mattered to me on a deeper, more personal level. Ballarat, with its history and heritage, was just the right environment to mull over my thoughts at my own tempo. And to add to this distraction-free holiday, I also happened to forget my phone charger at home — my attempts to save battery meant I had close to no virtual distractions.
As I stood there, looking at the print, I thought of how much has changed since the world witnessed the #metoo movement; how much comedienne-commentators like Hannah Gadsby informed their viewers to question the valorization an artist who is emblematic of misogyny and abuse of power.
I hadn’t realised the impact of her words till I found myself standing at the Vollard Suite of the gallery. The Vollard Suite consists of 100 intaglio prints made by Picasso between 1930 and 1937 in Paris. They were commissioned by Ambroise Vollard, and in mid-1950s, art historian Hans Bollinger arranged the prints under seven different themes; The Plates, Battle of Love (Rape), Rembrandt, The Sculptor’s Studio, The Minotaur, The Blind Minotaur and Portraits of Ambroise Vollard. A cursory glance of the prints reveals a reference to classicism, Greek mythology, the matador, male sexuality, ambition and obsession.
Almost as if she felt the red flags slowly go up in my head, the guide at the gallery made it a point to emphasise the socio-cultural context in which the prints were made. This, especially since at the time, despite being married, Picasso had started a relationship with a seventeen year old girl. The guide also urged us to question, and in some ways rethink, just like Hannah Gadsby does in her performance! When I say Gadsby’s name out loud, it caught the attention of another girl in my tour group who looked at me with bright eyes and remarked, ‘I know right?!’
Later over a quick tea, we — two perfect strangers — discussed gender, power, consent and art.
Anubha Sarkar is a PhD student, with a background in media and communication. She is based in Melbourne.