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|Death and Picasso
by Donald Kuspit
|I suspect the subliminal point of "Picasso and the War Years, 1937-1945," the recent exhibition of the paintings and sculptures Picasso made during World War II, is to show that he could suffer and not just cause suffering, especially to women, as several biographies have made clear. If, as Picasso once said, all his art is autobiography, then I suppose the famous sculpture Man with a Lamb (ca. March 1943) is meant to suggest Picasso's compassion for all life, and the painting Monument to the Spanish Who Died for France (1945-47) is supposed to show a particular sympathy for his countrymen who died for the country he lived in -- more or less comfortably during the second world war, if François Gilot's Life with Picasso is any guide. So there's something untrustworthy -- or is it self-pitying? -- about the gray that pervades many of these works, and something unreliable about The Charnel House (1945-46), which together with some of the drawings for Guernica (1937) form the basic framework for the exhibition.
In fact, Guernica, ostensibly about the first blitzkrieg -- a kind of trial run for the bombing of civilians that later became de rigeur military strategy -- shows not a single instrument of modern technological warfare. Indeed, the only thing vaguely modern and technological in it is the light bulb. Instead, we see a rather triumphant bull running wild and wreaking havoc among women, a kind of allegory of Picasso's attitude.
Thus the many images of women, who when not weeping are often displaying their nakedness for the lustful edification of the artist. Of course some of Picasso's women just sit placidly, often scooped out by his famous gaze, or lacking any sign of independent personality. In fact, the exhibition sets up a contrast between the heads of women, mournful or distorted with grief -- certainly personal, rather than having to do with historical events -- and (mostly) animal death's-heads, which, I want to suggest, no doubt all too speculatively for some people, are symbols of Picasso's own death instinct, that is, his own aggression in the form of annihilation anxiety. But of course it was his girlfriends -- and there were some male friends as well, for example, Max Jacob -- who were annihilated.
Picasso did just fine, as the psychologically remarkable image, labeled simply Paris, 14 July 1942, based on a photograph, shows the great god Picasso receiving homage from his family, in a manner not unlike that of Joseph receiving his brothers. (Another scholar beat me to the interpretation.) It is another narcissistic allegory, in which Picasso proclaims his greatness -- here presumably for the good, although in other works the same Picasso-figure becomes a rather malevolent Minotaur, like the sacred bull in Guernica.
Death of course is the last sacrament, and Picasso seems to superstitiously regress to Catholicism in a number of works involving latent Christian imagery, sparked by an interest in (or competition with?) the central crucifixion panel of Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece (1510-15). The still lifes are also sacramental, and obliquely relate to Spanish paintings in which the first fruits of the harvest are given to God -- who both gives and takes life -- in a gesture of sacrifice, a ritual of primitive as well as Catholic religion. Bull's Skull, Fruit and Pitcher (Jan. 29, 1939) shows that even before the official start of the second world war, Picasso was acutely aware of the tension between the forces of life and death -- in himself as well as the world.
But after all the exhibition is about Picasso's art, not his psychology. Many art historians can't imagine that there is any connection between the two; art supposedly is an autonomous formal enterprise with a little iconography thrown in for crowd appeal. Here one has to admit that Picasso, as always, remains exceptional -- but not as exceptional as he was in the good old early days of Cubism.
Picasso is still less a painter -- there is little serious feel for matière -- than a brilliant juggler -- one might say ironist -- of space. But the images are more "relaxed" than those of High Cubism -- the figures and objects more accessible, that is, more conventionally recognizable, however bizarre (at times), and the tension between inorganic geometry and organic nature less taut and excruciating.
In High Cubism one is never certain whether Picasso is bringing out the geometry -- morphological consistency -- of nature or sticking a geometrical knife into it in order to murder and dissect it. In the later neo-Cubist works of the war years there seems to be more of a balance -- a judicious peace -- between the geometrical and natural, as though Picasso had finally decided to integrate them.
In any case, it is the complexity of space and intricacy of line that makes these pictures convincing, and keeps them from sentimentality. It is as though Picasso had to turn the child in First Steps (May 21, 1943) into a weird little creature -- and he certainly has caught the awkwardness of those steps -- to keep himself from showing his love for her.
This no doubt is to our artistic benefit, and it shows that Picasso is a sensitive observer of his surroundings. But it also shows a peculiar failure of intimacy, which is also the problem with High Cubism, where the failure is masked by a brilliantly astringent, punitive esthetic, which squeezes the juice out of life.
"Picasso and the War Years, 1937-1945" was jointly organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where it appeared at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Oct. 10, 1998-Jan. 3, 1999, and the Guggenheim Museum, Feb. 3-Apr. 26, 1999.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.