Cubist Portrait

I was always afraid of Cubism. It wasn’t an I-just-don’t-get-it-and-that-scares-me kind of fear, but an I-just-don’t-get-it-yet-I’m-sure-that-if-I-did-it-would-make-me-afraid kind. I was afraid of its ugliness, of its rawness. Afraid of its unsettling, destabilizing, mind-blowing potential. Afraid of knowing, afraid of not knowing. Perhaps, I was most afraid of changing the way I saw the world — from my simple, safe, fixed vantage point.

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The summer before my senior year of high school, I spent a month in India with my grandparents. Technically, I was there to volunteer at an educational center in the village of Yelahanka — what should have been a life-changing experience — but what I remember most about that month are the long, luxurious afternoons I spent on the porch with my grandfather. India in the summer is hot: stifling, like a piston pushing all the heat in the air up against your skin. But my grandmother has this strange theory that if you drink hot tea in the heat, it makes you cooler. So, Grandpa and I would sit outside — he in his wicker rocking chair, I in my white plastic chair — drinking hot tea in the heat.

Grandpa and I had never really talked much about anything before that summer: at most, we had shared five-minute conversations on the phone every few months, when he would ask if I was studying hard, and I would ask about his and Grandma’s health. But this time I took the heat, and the silence that first came with it, as an open invitation. I told Grandpa about little things that occurred to me: about how the electricity was always going out in Yelahanka, which drove me crazy; about the enormous blizzard during the Valentines’ Day Rose Sale my house had organized at school that year. Eventually, we landed on the recurring topic of religion.

It was natural, really, that it should come up. Three years earlier, I had completed a school project on Hinduism. My parents were very proud of the seeming depth of my curiosity and spirituality — I think they even sent Grandpa the project report. They must have forgotten that that same year, I wrote my first letter to God, pleading that he let me find the silver Tiffany bean earring that I had lost and loved so much. I never found that earring, and never believed in God the same way again.

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The month after my solo trip to India, I started taking an art history class at school. My world came alive with color and beauty, but as much as I loved art and was fascinated by Modernism, I hated Picasso and Braque’s “little cubes.” Those dreadful years from 1909-1914 seemed so bleak and devoid of life! I wasn’t ready. As I continued to study art history in college, pouring myself into Renoir’s blissful idealism, I avoided scary Cubism at all costs.

Perhaps by fate, I found myself last summer working as an intern for an exhibition of Picasso’s drawings, where I had no choice but to face my nemesis. Every day I read from Pepe Karmel’s Picasso and the Invention of Cubism, Anne Baldassari’s Cubist Picasso,Pierre Daix’s Picasso: The Cubist Years. Cubism — that “sum of deconstructions,” that “cornerstone of modernism,” that horrific beast of an idea — began to engulf me.

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Grandpa has silvery white hair, parted and oiled. His soft, wrinkly brown skin envelops his bony limbs. When he is happy, he always says, “Good show, good show,” and he grips your arm and squeezes it with such intensity that you want to scream in pain and joy.

Grandpa is wildly sarcastic, but also profoundly philosophical. He is full of truisms. He loves to tell the story of the boy (or is it when he was a boy?) who lied about being late to cricket practice by saying that his bicycle broke on the way there. Then, on his way home, the bicycle broke. Or that story of the tennis player, I can’t remember who, but the world’s greatest tennis player. When he lost Wimbledon one time, everyone was shocked and said, “Did you ask, ‘Why me?’” And he answered, “Every time I win, I don’t ask, ‘Why me?’”

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I read something last summer that finally made sense to me. It explained Cubism in the simplest of ways. Take a paper cup, for example, and think about how to represent it — not how it looks, but what it is. How can you represent the back, the front, the inside, the outside of the cup all at one time on a two dimensional surface? The only way is to tear it up into little pieces. That’s what Cubism does — it fractures a whole to represent its essence; it takes something apart to put it back together again. Unity and multiplicity — the whole cup and all its pieces — they are one and the same.

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My atheist cousin Vivek went to visit my grandfather that year a few months before I did. Vivek, now enrolled in an M.D./Ph.D. program, believes in Science, so my grandfather asked him about the eye. What makes the eye of a dead man and the eye of a living man different? If the organs are the same, what lets the living eye see? Vivek laughed and said that all the mysteries of the world, even the eye, could be explained by natural phenomena. Grandpa said that in Hinduism, God is nature. God isn’t a supreme being, God is being.

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Grandpa, I don’t understand reincarnation. It seems really weird, doesn’t it? Do you really think that we were animals in previous lives? Grandpa, why are there so many gods in Hinduism if they are all supposed to be different sides of the same, one God? Grandpa, why do people pray? Why do you pray? Grandpa?

Grandpa has answers for everything on the porch. He says to imagine a cup of water. The cup is like our body, and the water is like our soul. When we die, the water returns to one source, a river, and then when a new cup comes along, it too will be filled with water. But the water is the same no matter where in the river it comes from: it is all one, despite its fragmentation into bodies. People pray, he says, not to make wishes to a genie, but to achieve discipline and moderation, to distance themselves from their own bodies. Eventually, they aim to reach a state of enlightenment where they see themselves and all the little pieces of the world — all the water — as part of the same whole.

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I listened carefully, attentively to my grandfather’s words, without judgment but without endorsement. Maybe I didn’t really understand them then, or maybe I understood them but didn’t accept them. Maybe I wasn’t looking for answers about God at all.

It’s funny that after all the time I spent with Grandpa that summer, I still know so little about him. I know that he was in the army, and that he once got in this near-fatal accident. I know that he loves mangos and taking walks every day. But I don’t even know his whole name. Colonel B.V.S. Rao. I can’t tell you what the initials stand for. People say that Cubism resembles shards of glass — how can I find them all to put the mirror back together?

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A few weeks ago, I was in the galleries of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, staring at Picasso’s Guitarist, an iconic Analytic Cubist painting from 1910. The monochrome canvas no longer appears coldly impersonal to me, but alive with richly variegated tones of brown, inscribed with decisive black lines that become arcs, cones, triangles, and squares. The painting teeters on the verge of abstraction, and yet the fractured forms coalesce in space, giving way to a solid head, and then a body. Three short strokes at the center of the painting convey the strings of a guitar. The forms in their totality capture what it means to be a guitarist. But what strikes me most is that, despite the universality of the shapes, the painting remains a portrait. It reminds me of my grandfather.

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