Picasso and Tragedy

T.J. Clark

There is a moment towards the end of King Lear – many readers and playgoers have found it almost unbearable – when the mad king enters, holding his daughter’s corpse in his arms. ‘Lend me a looking glass,’ Lear says, ‘If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,/Why then she lives.’ Two of his subjects respond, with questions that go on resonating down the centuries:

Kent: Is this the promised end?

Edgar: Or image of that horror?

Silent protestors in Calcutta in 2007.
Silent protestors in Calcutta in 2007.

Shakespeare’s first audience would have understood ‘the promised end’ to mean Doomsday – the end of the world – and ‘image’ to mean exact likeness. Edgar is asking if the scene of madness and murder in front of him is as close a rendering as he will ever be given, before the fact, of the Triumph of Death to come.

These are questions that viewers have often put, perhaps even with Kent’s and Edgar’s bewildered anguish, to Picasso’s Guernica; and the evidence suggests that they continue to be asked of the painting, in spite of the world’s enormous changes, by those three or four generations who have lived since the mural’s unveiling eighty years ago. For some reason – no doubt for many reasons, some of them accidental or external to the work itself – Picasso’s painting has become an essential, or anyway recurring, point of reference for human beings in fear for their lives. Guernica has become our culture’s Tragic Scene. And for once the phrase ‘our culture’ seems defensible – not just Western shorthand. There are photographs by the hundred of versions of Guernica – placards on sticks, elaborate facsimiles, tapestries, banners, burlesques, strip cartoons, wheat-paste posters, street puppet shows – being carried in anger or agony over the past thirty years in Ramallah, Oaxaca, Calgary, London, Kurdistan, Madrid, Cape Town, Belfast, Calcutta; outside US air bases, in marches against the Iraq invasion, in struggles of all kinds against state repression, as a rallying point for los Indignados, and – still, always, everywhere, indispensably – an answer to the lie of ‘collateral damage’.

But why? Why Guernica? How does the picture answer to our culture’s need for a new epitome of death – and life in the face of it? The questions are not rhetorical: it could, after all, have been otherwise. Guernica might have proved a failure, or a worthy but soon forgotten success. It was made by an artist who was well aware, the record shows, that in taking on the commission he was straying into territory – the public, the political, the large-scale, the heroic and compassionate – that very little in his previous work seemed to have prepared him for. When Josep Lluís Sert and other delegates of the Spanish Republic came in early 1937 to ask Picasso to do the mural, he told them he wasn’t certain that he could produce a picture of the kind they wanted. And he was right to have doubts. Was there anything in his previous art on which he could draw in order to speak publicly, grandly, to a scene of civil war? It is true that since the mid-1920s his painting had centred on fear and horror as recurrent facts of life. Violence, once he had tackled it head on in the Three Dancers of 1925, became a preoccupation. So did monstrosity, vengefulness, pitiful or resplendent deformity – life in extremis. But none of these things need have added up to, or even moved in the direction of, a tragic attitude. Treating them did not necessarily prepare an artist to confront the Tragic Scene: the moment in human existence, that is, when death and vulnerability are recognised as such by an individual or a group, but late; and the plunge into undefended mortality that follows excites not just horror in those who look on, but pity and terror.

In the ten years preceding Guernica Picasso had been, to put it baldly, the artist of monstrosity. His paintings had set forth a view of the human as constantly haunted, and maybe defined, by a monstrous, captivating otherness – most markedly, perhaps, in the Punch and Judy show of sex. ‘Au fond, il n’y a que l’amour,’ he said. This was as close, I reckon, as Picasso ever came to a philosophy of life, and by ‘love’ he certainly meant primarily the sexual kind, the carnal, the whole pantomime of desire. In his art monstrosity was capable of attaining to beauty, or monumentality, or a kind of strange pathos. But do any of these inflections lead to Guernica? Are not the monstrous and the tragic two separate things? To paint Guernica, in other words, wasn’t Picasso obliged to change key as an artist and sing a tune he’d never before tried; and more than that, to suppress in himself the fascination with horror that had shaped so much of his previous work? (The belonging together of ecstasy and antipathy, or fixation and bewilderment – elation, absurdity, self-loss, panic, disbelief – is basic to Picasso’s understanding of sex, and therefore of human life au fond. And the very word ‘fascination’ speaks to the normality of the intertwining: its Latin root, fascinus, means simply ‘erect penis’.) But isn’t Guernica great precisely to the extent that it manages, for once, to show us women (and animals) in pain and fear without eliciting that stunned, half-repelled, half-attracted ‘fascination’?

Many have thought so. But the story is more complicated. I doubt that an artist of Picasso’s sort ever raises his or her account of humanity to a higher power simply by purging, or repressing, what had been dangerous or horrible in an earlier vision. There must be a way from monstrosity to tragedy. The one must be capable of being folded into the other, lending it aspects of the previous vision’s power.

Aristotle, in the first account of tragedy to have come down to us, is already wondering about the difference between tragedy and monstrosity. ‘Tragedy,’ he says in a famous passage, ‘is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain grandeur; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play … producing pity and terror in the audience, and thereby cleansing the audience of these emotions.’ The word bequeathed to us by the last sentence is katharsis, whose roots seem to lie in medicine or rituals of purgation. Why the experience of pity and terror in the theatre is cathartic Aristotle never explains – he seems to take it as self-evident. Some have questioned Aristotle’s confidence, others (like Brecht) have disapproved of the cleansing. Is pity an emotion we want to be purged of? Are we right to call it an ‘emotion’ in the first place? But let me put these questions aside – they take us towards insoluble mysteries – and return to the question of the monstrous. Aristotle knows full well that horror and disproportion are intrinsic to tragedy’s appeal. But he makes a distinction between the appearance of the dreadful on stage and its unfolding in an action – its progress towards a moment of recognition. Tragedy, he admits, is partly a matter of theatrical effect: the circular stage, the dancing and wailing chorus, the backdrop of the ‘scene’. He calls this physicality ‘spectacle’ and is conscious of its power:

Pity and terror may be aroused by means of spectacle; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way … For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what is taking place … To produce this effect by mere spectacle is a less artistic method … Those who employ the means of spectacle end up creating a sense not of the Terrible but only the Monstrous, and are strangers to the true purpose of tragedy.

The terrible and the monstrous – these do seem repeated terms of Picasso’s art after 1925. And spectacle, as Aristotle understood it, is certainly Picasso’s god. But in Guernica didn’t he find a way to make appearance truly terrible, therefore pitiful and unforgivable – a permanent denunciation of any praxis, any set of human reasons, which aims or claims to make what actually happens (in war from the air) make sense?

Perhaps. Guernica’s users have often thought as much. But again, the question is how.

‘The Three Dancers’ (1925)
‘The Three Dancers’ (1925)


It might help to treat the two concepts involved in the idea of a great downfall becoming visible, comprehensible, even restorative, one by one. First, ‘scene,’ second, ‘tragic’ – that is, first the question of space and containment, and second that of terror and catharsis.

What marks Guernica off from most other murals of its giant size is the fact that it registers so powerfully as a single scene. Certainly it is patched together out of fragments, episodes, spotlit silhouettes. Part of its agony is disconnectedness – the isolation that terror is meant to enforce. But this disconnectedness is drawn together into a unity: Guernica does not unwind like a scroll or fold out like a strip cartoon (for all its nods to both idioms); it is not a procession of separate icons; it is a picture – a distinct shape of space – whose coherence is felt immediately by the viewer for all its strangeness.

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