Picasso and Cubism

Gabriel Josipovici

  • Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective edited by William Rubin
    Thames and Hudson, 464 pp, £10.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 500 23310 1
  • Picasso: His Life and Work by Roland Penrose
    Granada, 517 pp, £9.99, May 1981, ISBN 0 7139 1420 3
  • Portrait of Picasso by Roland Penrose
    Thames and Hudson, 128 pp, £3.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 500 27226 3
  • Viva Picasso: A Centennial Celebration, 1881-1981 by Donald Duncan
    Allen Lane, 152 pp, £12.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 7139 1420 3
  • Picasso: The Cubist Years, 1907-1916 by Pierre Daix and Joan Rosselet
    Thames and Hudson, 376 pp, £60.00, October 1979, ISBN 0 500 09134 X
  • Picasso’s Guernica: The Labyrinth of Vision by Frank Russell
    Thames and Hudson, 334 pp, £12.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 500 23298 9

Le Mystère Picasso is how Clouzot entitled his famous film, in which the artist was seen at work before our eyes, and for most of its eight decades our century has been vainly trying to decipher that mystery. To talk about Picasso is to talk about the culture of our time, not just because his work has played such an important part in it, but because in the reactions to it we can discern nearly all the myths and clichés of the age. Picasso has been the butt of every anti-Modernist joke in a way Cézanne, for instance, never was, and he has also been our most celebrated artist. The paradox is only superficial, for both attitudes show little interest in the actual work of the hand.

He owed his fame to a number of factors which have little to do with art: to his longevity; to his habit of changing mistresses every ten years or so; to the fact that he was the first major artist whose rise to a position of importance coincided with a revolution in the dissemination of reproductions; above all, perhaps, to his photogenic qualities. The squat, powerful figure, feet planted firmly in the sand, bare torso gleaming, bright eyes piercing the viewer: in the last twenty years of his long life it was that image rather than any of the things he had made which immediately sprang to mind when Picasso’s name was mentioned. This is understandable: with Picasso around, there was always the feeling that perhaps, somewhere, the secret of immortality did exist – and perhaps we could share in his godlike status. The blurb to Donald Douglas Duncan’s book of photographs – a selection from his previous books brought out, like Penrose’s slightly similar Portrait of Picasso, to coincide with the centenary – catches the tone exactly: ‘Through these extraordinary photographs, introduced in duotone and full colour, and the delightfully candid text, we can feel the vitality of this great man, watch while he creates a masterpiece, and sense the emotional depth of a genius whose work affected the entire course of modern art.’ All this for only £12.95. It’s better than a holiday in Tahiti.

No wonder younger artists wanted to get him off their backs, or that discerning critics felt that Picasso the Genius was even more of a hindrance to a true appreciation of the art of our time than Picasso the Charlatan. But the curious fact is that when Michael Ayrton in the Fifties or John Berger in the Sixties tried to react to the generally unctuous tone of what passed for Picasso criticism, they produced essays which rebounded more on themselves than on Picasso, though these are among the finest writers on art of the past half-century.

The old fox refused to be caught. Though he obviously loved to be photographed, he was not in the least concerned with his own image. Françoise Gilot said she couldn’t go on living with a monument, but that may have been sour grapes. No doubt he was passionately concerned with himself, but he was even more concerned with the things he made. And not with those he had made, but with whatever he happened to be working on at the time. He kept the ‘Demoiselles d’ Avignon’ in his studio for twenty years, hardly ever took part in group shows when it might have advanced his career, and never evinced any desire to sell himself to the public.

He belonged more to the generation of Monet and Cézanne than to that of Pollock or Warhol. He never wrote about art, and although he spoke about it without inhibition, his comments are always reactions to immediate situations, not pondered statements or manifestos, like those of Klee or Kandinsky. He was perfectly happy to contradict himself, and his remarks were often trite. Yet they could also on occasion be incisive and profound, as when he said to Hélène Parmelin: ‘Freedom, one must be very careful with that. In painting as in everything else. Whatever you do, you find yourself once more in chains. And there you have it, chains.’ He then went on to tell Jarry’s story of the anarchist soldiers on parade who, told to face right, immediately all face left. Sabartès asked why the sight of sea urchins interested him:

Had I seen them only in my imagination I might not have noticed them; even if they had been in front of me. The sense of sight enjoys being surprised. If you pretend to see what is in front of you you are distracted by the idea in your mind ... It’s the same law which governs humour. Only the unexpected sally makes you laugh.

It’s a pity that, with remarks like these before them, and with the mounting evidence of the painting, his staunchest supporters should have tried to account for the mystery of Picasso, as if that was not just one more idea in the mind. Penrose’s Picasso, first published in 1951 and now reprinted and brought up to date for the centenary, strikingly demonstrates the way even the best-intentioned critics have allowed the idea of Picasso to obscure their view of what was actually in front of them. Of course, as Meyer Schapiro once remarked, ‘to perceive the aims of the art of one’s own times and to judge them rightly is so unnatural as to constitute an act of genius,’[*] but Penrose was not writing in 1914 or even 1934, but in 1951. One might have expected better.

What we have here is part historical romance, part hagiography, strongly reminiscent of that child’s life of Raphael which made such an impression on the young Sartre. Here, for example, is Penrose’s description of Picasso and his father arriving in Barcelona in 1895: ‘The distinguished, middle-aged man, slightly stooping, had a look of disillusionment, a sad resignation, whereas the small heir to his fading talents walked erect, alert like a young lion cub watching all round and ready to seize any objective that might be captured by his intelligence and played with, tenderly or ruthlessly, according to his mood.’ Is a book which deals with biography in this way likely to illuminate the art? ‘Picasso,’ we are told, ‘is not frightened to approach the frontiers of madness, knowing that without taking this risk it is impossible to question the reality of what we see.’ The present tense suggests an intimacy with the artist which the author does not hesitate to impress upon us at every opportunity. But though Picasso may have allowed Penrose to enter his house, he has certainly not succeeded in making him enter the spirit of his art. For what risk is Penrose talking about here? Is he not simply peddling the fashionable image of the Romantic artist?

It is not just that Penrose does not write very well or think very clearly: it is that the principles of explanation on which he relies are totally at odds with what Picasso is up to. Here, for example, is his attempt to explain the distortions of the Blue Period figures.

In considering the act of perception, Picasso was always amazed at the discrepancy between seeing an object and knowing it. Its superficial appearance was to him absurdly inadequate. Seeing is not enough ... There are other faculties of the mind which must be brought into play if perception is to lead to an understanding. It is somewhere at the point of junction between sensual perception and the deeper regions of the mind that there is a metaphorical inner eye that sees and feels emotionally. Through this eye of the imagination it is possible to see, to understand and to love even without sight in the physical sense, and this inner seeing may be all the more intense when the windows on the outer world are closed.

This is pernicious because it gives the reader a vague sense of profundity, of true understanding, while actually blocking the way to understanding. It is just possible that Kandinsky or Gorky could be approached in this fashion – but Picasso? If ever anybody looked hard at what was in front of him it was Picasso (‘the sense of sight enjoys being surprised’). But Penrose is unrelenting in his attempt to perpetuate the myth of the Romantic genius filled with an inner vision which is at odds with the world. ‘He needed new and wider horizons,’ he tells us as he introduces the emergence of Cubism, ‘and these he found not through the tiresome and confused arguments of painters, but by confidence in his own imagination, nourished by his understanding of poetry and his love of the shapes it took before his eyes.’ ‘Nourished by poetry’ presumably seeks to elevate Picasso’s imagination above the tedious banalities of mere painting. I doubt if Ponge would have thanked him for the compliment.

As often happens when something new, important, yet profoundly mysterious enters the world of art, both artists and critics hurry to defend it without grasping its full implications, and once a particular line of defence has been taken, it is difficult to rid oneself of it, however little relation it bears to the facts. Thus, in the Fifties, the notion that the nouveau roman was chosiste. And thus with Cubism. Penrose writes: ‘Under the rigorous dissection of analytical Cubism objects had lost their momentary superficial appearance; they had been made to reveal their existence as entities plotted in time and space. The new sense of objects conceived in three or even four dimensions seen from many angles surpassed the narrow conventions which required the single viewpoint of Vitruvian perspective.’ What, one wonders, is a superficial appearance? Is it opposed to a profound appearance? And is the writer contrasting narrow conventions with broad or loose ones? Douglas Cooper, in similar vein, tells us that the concern of Cubism was ‘the solid, tangible reality of things’, while John Golding, in a standard work on the subject, defines it as ‘the fusion of various views of a figure or an object into one coherent whole’; and Marshall McLuhan sums up received opinion on the subject by saying that ‘Cubism, by giving the inside and outside, the top, bottom, back and front and the rest, in two dimensions, drops the illusion of perspective in favour of an instant sensory awareness of the whole.’

What is wrong with this view is that it confuses the picture with the objects depicted in the picture, a point well made by Leo Steinberg in an essay – published in 1972 in his book Other Criteria – which should finally have put paid to such notions.

Cubism sought neither a three-dimensional nor a ‘scientific’ grasp of depicted form. Whatever objects or portions of objects remained recognisable during its ‘Analytical’ phase (1909-12) were not faceted to demonstrate real structures, but the better to absorb the dismembered parts in the field. In the maturity of Cubism, human figures and implements, having crystallised into angular planes, began to break up; the facets disengaged, tipped and quivered into the thickening ground. The old hollow-space of narrative painting closed in. Pictorial space became a vibrating shallow of uncertain density.

After analysing the 1910 ‘Girl with Mandolin’, Steinberg concludes that ‘the depicted objects disintegrate beyond grasping ... The material elements of the painting become ever more palpable on the surface, the objects to which they allude ever more evanescent.’

There is no doubt that Steinberg is right. Cubism destroys the stable relation between background and foreground that had existed since the Renaissance; it does not seek to give us the object ‘as it really is’. Indeed, the disintegration of the object, always stopping short of complete disappearance, is the theme and subject-matter of Cubism, and what drives Picasso forward into more and more surprising regions with a logic from which he neither can nor wants to escape. It is the great merit of Daix and Rosselet’s monumental catalogue of the Cubist years that they manage to convey a sense of the possibilities facing Picasso at every stage, and thus to make us appreciate the choices he actually made.

Since the book appeared scholars have been sniping at the authors over matters of ascription and relative chronology. I am not competent to judge the merits of the case, but it seems to me that the 200-page introduction to the catalogue proper constitutes one of the most stimulating essays yet written about Picasso and about Cubism. The authors realise that the issues raised by Cubism include questions unthinkable to Penrose. What constitutes a work of art? Can one look at a single work and pronounce on it in isolation from the rest of the artist’s output, and, if not, does this mean we have to fall back on old-fashioned biographical criticism? ‘The picture hook is the ruination of painting,’ Picasso was to remark much later. ‘As soon as [a painting] is bought and hung on a wall ... the painting is done for.’ What does this mean? One of the things it means is that the relation between artist and work, and between viewer and work, which had dominated art since the Renaissance, can no longer be taken for granted, for it turns out to have been the result of the needs of a particular society. But if paintings are not to go on the walls of houses and museums to be looked at as objects of beauty, then what are they for? What is our relation to them?

The early years of the century witnessed a general crisis in Western art, a more particular crisis in French art, and a specific crisis in Picasso’s art. Between 1905 and 1907 he grows more and more dissatisfied with his own work, and this culminates in his blotting out of the portrait of Gertrude Stein and escaping to the Pyrenean village of Gosol. Daix and Rosselet manage to avoid seeing these years through the wrong end of the telescope: that is, backwards from the ‘Demoiselles d’ Avignon’. They convey what it was like to grope towards that work when it was not yet in existence. Though they stress the move away from Cézanne, they rightly insist that there was not ‘an isolated encounter with Cézanne, one single revelation of African art, but an interwoven series of dialogues’. And so, slowly and hesitantly, the great work came into being. But is it even finished? As with The Waste Land and A la Recherche, it gives the impression of being both utterly necessary and the product of a whole series of chances and barely recognised impulses. Perhaps these great works had to come out like that: once they were done one could see that that was how they had to be, but greater clarity in the process would perhaps have been too much for their makers to bear.

Already in the Gosol still-lives Picasso had been moving towards a merging of foreground and background; work on the ‘Demoiselles’ made him grasp more clearly what it was he was after: ‘By destroying the theoretical illusion of depth when he revised the “Demoiselles”, Picasso made space itself an integral part of the construction.’ And yet, as the authors point out, also taking the 1910 ‘Girl with Mandolin’ as their example, the presence of the woman still comes through very strongly, even though the closed form is shattered. Indeed, what affects us is precisely the tension between presence and dispersal, as though the sense of presence grew with the possibility of dispersal and destruction: a fact seized upon with great intensity by both Virginia Woolf and Francis Bacon, and explicitly seen by Walter Benjamin as the essence of the Modernist revolution, an insight which makes Benjamin, even today, Modernism’s most profound theorist.

Unlike Braque, Picasso always needed to violate his own too perfect finish. There was a frenzy in him to see how far he could go in the process of disintegration without the subject disappearing altogether. And so we move from analytic Cubism to the pasted-paper revolution and the free use of lettering. But the question is always, as it is in Tristram Shandy: what is the minimum requirement for the creation of conventional, illusionist space?

What Daix and Rosselet have to say about the period 1907-16 illuminates the entire oeuvre, for their fundamental principle is this: Picasso gave painting a renewed sense of its possibilities, and he did this not just through a succession of amazing masterpieces, but through the totality of his creative life. Mistakes, blind alleys – these are as important as the successes. Look at any moment in the Cubist years and you see only failure, destruction: look at the whole period and you see a miracle of invention and reconstruction.

Frank Russell’s study of ‘Guernica’ to some extent bears out this contention. We know so much about the background to the painting and the stages it went through that it was a good idea to study it in detail and in the way he does. I have never seen an art book designed quite like this one. Often there are as many as five or six fragments of the painting on the page, punctuating the text rather like the Chinese ideograms in the Cantos, reinforcing the argument as a lecturer would do by pointing to the relevant detail on the screen. Russell takes the work to pieces, treating it rather like a poem which is made up of innumerable individual words and phrases. The publishers have done him proud. By the end of the book we may have been taken over the same square foot of canvas fifteen or twenty times, as Russell examines it from different points of view. In the process a great deal about this disturbing painting is brought to light, not least Picasso’s persistent drive towards simplification and clarification, his desire to eschew emotionalism and the kind of political gesture which is often taken as ‘serious’ because it shouts very loudly that the baddies are bad and the victims innocent. Russell shows how the image of the bull, for example, which Picasso could so easily have made into the symbol of evil, and which undergoes an almost continuous metamorphosis in the course of the composition, eventually emerges as more baffled and helpless than ferocious, and how the classic nature of the composition reinforces this refusal to pass judgment. In the end, I felt that there was an element of overkill in Russell’s book. What might have been fascinating as a series of lectures tended to become slightly tedious as the ground is gone over yet again from a new perspective. Nevertheless, it is a balanced and careful study of one of the great paintings of the century, and should suffice to put paid to the arguments of purists who insist that Picasso did nothing good after his Cubist years.

‘Guernica’, with its countless preliminary sketches and echoes in earlier minotaur paintings, raises in different fashion the questions already posed by Daix and Rosselet. Though here we can still talk of sketches for a major composition, it is already becoming clear that there was a deep impulse at work in Picasso to create art in terms of series, of variations on a theme, rather than in terms of major single compositions. This impulse had obviously always been there, but it was only in his later years that he quite deliberately worked with rather than against it.

The need to work with variation form stems from the artist’s sense that the world will reveal itself not in one transcendental illumination but in the interplay of constant approximations. It thus fits in with Picasso’s humility and his insatiable desire for work, but we must try to realise how very much it went against the grain of artistic endeavour as it had been codified in the West since the Renaissance. Picasso was not alone in this. Stravinsky, too, from Petrushka on, developed a style based on repetition and variation, and Wallace Stevens quite consciously developed variation rather than sonata form, as Hockney sensed when he decided to make his own variations on Stevens’s variations on Picasso’s ‘Man with the Blue Guitar’.

The ‘Las Meninas’ series and especially the late erotic series known as ‘Suite 347’ (347 etchings executed at Mougins in eight months in 1968) seem to me to be among Picasso’s most profound and moving works. In the latter, form and content, theme and approach, play with and against each other in an extraordinary demonstration of the interconnection of wit and despair. Here Picasso explores at length what had always been his central insight: the irresolvable paradox of creation. At its simplest – and we are, in these late etchings, for all their flourishes, as much at the bedrock of art as we are in The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest – at its simplest, to paint is: not to live. In Picasso’s shorthand this means: not to make love. But to make nothing but love is to sink into boredom, cynicism and despair. To paint, on the other hand, is to come alive to a world of infinite possibility. Picasso does not make us aware of this, as, say, Morandi does, by the patient exploration of what is there, but rather by the feverish and witty exploration of the shortcomings of art. The ultimate shortcoming is that it seems to introduce us to a world free of time, yet the making of this world takes up time.

Time weighs heavily on Picasso, as it does on all Spanish artists. His sense of time passing was there from the start, as one aspect of the world into which we are all born. But age sharpened the feeling, as it did for Stevens. Yet if time is ultimately destructive, it is also ultimately beneficial, for it is time that allows the hand to move across the canvas, and to move again and erase or alter what has been done. Picasso’s insistence on process, his refusal of the notion of masterpiece, stems from his insight that to deny time is to deny what makes one most essentially human. And in the end it is his humanity which is the most striking thing about him. Not Humanity, but what it means to be a human being – everything it means to be a human being.

This was strikingly borne out by the last surprise Picasso had in store for us, the revelation of those works he had kept for himself and which he left to the French Government in lieu of death duties. Before being permanently housed in a Picasso museum in Paris they were exhibited at the Grand Palais, then in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and are now at the Hayward in London. Ideally, they should be seen along with the works by other artists which Picasso collected in the course of his life and which are now on permanent display at the Louvre. Thames and Hudson, in conjunction with the New York Museum of Modern Art, have brought out a splendid volume which is the catalogue of the show, Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective.

As I walked round the Grand Palais last year, I was filled with a sense of joy which I had not experienced for a long time. Every item in the exhibition, from the tiniest match-stick construction to the largest oil, gave one the sense of perfect realisation. Curiously, I had just been attending the splendid series of concerts given by the London Sinfonietta and the LSO to commemorate Stravinsky, and there too I had sensed just this kind of clarity, wit and humanity in even the tiniest work. What Stravinsky and Picasso had in common was a sense of the way an idea could be realised with the minimum of fuss, and the ability to see the skeleton of the form as an integral part of the meaning without ever descending into mere formalism. And what they both had was that brand of humanism which consists in seeing man realistically as only one part of the universe – but which, seeing him thus, gives him back his sense of potential. I realised, too, how many of the paintings and even sculptures dealt with two figures, and the tenderness of their relations to each other. Hockney, in a recent radio conversation with Edward Lucie-Smith, drew attention to the marvellous painting of the mother teaching her child to walk. In the distortions of the mother’s face one sees all the anxiety and love a mother has for her child as he begins, literally, to move away from her: in the equally distorted face of the child we see a different kind of anxiety – will he make it? will he fall? – along with a stubborn pride and determination. Yes, he will make it – the great human adventure is beginning once again. A universal subject, said Hockney, but how many painters apart from Picasso have tackled it? And he didn’t add what is perhaps the most surprising thing about this tender, domestic work: that it was done in 1943, the darkest year of the war.

The mystère Picasso is not a mystery for ever removed from us, or one to which we simply need the key in order to unlock it. It is there in the works: we need only open ourselves to them and explore. We will never pluck out the heart of the mystery, not because it has no heart or because that heart is perpetually hidden, but because the heart lies in the movement: the movement of the hand in each canvas and construction, the movement from work to work.

[*] ‘Fromentin as Critic’, Partisan Review, 1949. Schapiro’s essay on Picasso’s ‘Woman with a Fan’, reprinted in the second volume of his selected papers, Modern Art (Chatto, 1978), is probably the best short piece on Picasso.