Commentary Magazine

Picasso's Motif

Pablo Picasso’s influence has completely overleapt its artistic boundaries, implanting itself, often unseen, deeply within the souls of people everywhere. Just as the average citified Westerner, even if he has never read a page of Freud or Einstein, has yet been affected in one way or another by their respective models of the human psyche and the universe, so does he carry into the corners of his preconception certain basic intuitions about the human form, and about human life in general, which derive directly from Picasso, or indirectly from his influence upon countless lesser artists.

We may not be accustomed to thinking of painters as exercising such a profound effect on their cultures, if only because their artifacts, so small and so few, lack the impact of literature or film or music, art forms that can be mass-produced, that require more than a moment to be taken in, and that can dwell in many peoples’ minds at the same time. But the explosion of inexpensive art books and publications, the proliferation of museums, and the perfection of the techniques of photography have made it difficult entirely to escape the influence of a great visual artist. The paintings of Picasso have been reproduced in thousands upon thousands of postcards, and have been parodied in advertisements and editorial cartoons. In the 60’s and early 70’s, when posters were the rage, Picasso’s irenic depictions of flowers and children, as well as his antiwar stance and his apparent endorsement of libidinal freedom, made him a popular choice in college dormitories everywhere.

Such is the pervasiveness of Picasso’s influence that we will probably need another hundred years at least before it will become possible definitively to assess and interpret his achievement. Because new discoveries are constantly being made, the returns are not all in; and because he was so prolific and protean an artist, so complex and at times so exasperating a man, few scholars are soon likely to possess the industry or the honesty to contemplate his enormous output with the requisite critical distance. Questions concerning the exact nature of his achievement, constantly present throughout a career that spanned in itself, without intermission, a full three-quarters of a century, have most recently been raised anew with the opening of the Picasso Museum in Paris and with the extraordinary discovery of almost 170 notebooks overflowing with drawings from the last seventy years of his life.1

The Picasso Museum houses what is probably the single greatest collection of the master’s works, and its interest is enhanced by the fact that it was assembled by Picasso himself, and given to the state by his heirs in lieu of inheritance taxes. Even though the collection is slightly weaker in some areas than in others, it contains a staggering number of great paintings, and is especially rich in later works. It thus serves as an excellent review of the artist’s overall career, and the setting, slightly drab despite the furniture by Diego Giacometti that was created specifically for the museum, is nevertheless congenial to viewing the assembled works (if the visitor can get there when it is not too crowded).

As for the countless thousands of drawings contained in the notebooks, these greatly enhance our understanding of each step of Picasso’s career, sometimes recording, from day to day, the evolution of a simple idea into a shape that we easily recognize as a famous masterpiece. But the interest of these drawings is more than merely art-historical; hundreds of them are among the best things Picasso ever did. It was once conservatively estimated that in his career Picasso created over 10,000 works of art, which would make him, in addition to much else, perhaps the most prolific artist of all time. (So prolific that his works tend to sell less well at auction than the works of many lesser artists, simply because the market is quite flooded and any serious collector who wants a Picasso can have one without too much trouble.) But just when it began to seem possible to come to terms with that vastness, the sketchbooks have appeared, and a sense of oceanic wealth has overtaken all calculation.

In these drawings is found abundant confirmation of everything most prized in the work of Pablo Picasso. There is the steady sureness of his creativity, characterized by an unerring instinct for what makes artistic sense. There is the conjoined aptitude for the general and the specific, for the telling and flawlessly rendered detail no less than for the overall originality of conception. Colors are either bold in their contrasts or exceedingly subtle in their moody interaction. And together with this effortless mastery of his materials, Picasso shows himself able over and over again to start anew, bringing forth a variety of unprecedented and generally unrepeatable forms and artistic ideas. Although there are surely recurring themes in the art of Picasso, as in the art of everyone else, few if any artists have been as consistently and restlessly innovative; in many of these drawings, and in so much else that Picasso did, we have the sense of a huge achievement allied to a yet larger potential.

The greatness that these drawings confirm has been more or less beyond question since the second decade of the century, and it is likely to remain so. But Picasso has been admired for a variety of reasons, and in varying degrees of intensity or consistency. Today it is understandably the case that, after two generations of adulation, he is in the process of being soberly reexamined, with the likelihood that he will be found rather less monumental than he once seemed. Any output as massive and varied as Picasso’s necessarily reflects huge fluctuations in quality, and also harbors a sufficient number of themes and meanings for everyone to find something to endorse and dozens of things to reprove. But within this variation, there nevertheless do exist certain elements which guided Picasso from early in his career, and which permit us to speak of a general continuity. This continuity, spiritual or intellectual rather than formal, consists above all in the one theme to which Picasso was forever returning through a kind of unerring instinct, a motif which in part he invented and which in part he merely enunciated better than anyone else before or after him: the motif of savagery.



The only paintings in which we will not find this motif are, significantly, the works of Picasso’s early teens when he was most stalwartly academic and when he was obediently following the commandments of others. In this case obedience was due to his father, an able teacher of painting in Barcelona who specialized in the anecdotal Realism of the later 19th century. Two works of Picasso’s early teens are prodigious examples, if not of any early genius, at least of the ability to conform to what was required of him. In The First Communion, a young girl dressed in resplendent whiteness kneels at a gleaming red altar, while her mother and father stand behind her, and a choirboy places blue and yellow flowers upon the altar. A similar mood is found in Science and Charity, in which a doctor, seated beside the patient’s bed, feels her pulse, while a nun, who holds the woman’s child in her arms, is trying to console her.

These paintings are in a sense the finest things Picasso’s father had ever done. They are colorful, accurate, and spiritually rubicund and reassuring. They are also breezily easy to attack, for they bespeak in no uncertain terms what Picasso would later consider the mindless complacency of the bourgeoisie, which in the next decade he would set about attacking.

The first intimations of Picasso’s future greatness appeared subsequent to his initial contact with Paris, which he would visit three times between 1900 and 1902, and where, two years later, he would settle permanently. Here he would discover Van Gogh and Lautrec, as well as the Nabis, the followers of Gauguin. The artistic climate in Paris in the last decade of the 19th century was one of turbulence, vast diversity, and constant change. These influences found in the twenty-year-old Picasso an avid disciple, who could instantly assimilate and flourish in any style that he took on. He painted comfortable interiors à la Vuillard, and he captured the ecstatic fanfare of Bastille Day in the manner of Bonnard.

These works, better than his earlier academic efforts, nevertheless resemble them in the reassurance that they give to the social status quo. Like everything else being produced in Paris at that time, they were the offspring of Impressionism. This movement had been revolutionary in its systematic readjustment of perception, as well as in its choice of subjects, but it was an art that reflected the new social realities of the time, not one that sought to change them. One has only to glance at Picasso’s beautiful painting, The Blue Room, which he did in 1901, clearly under the influence of Vuillard, to appreciate the evocative domesticity of the scene, in which a nude woman out of Degas is seen bathing in a cozy room featuring a bouquet of flowers and several small paintings on the walls.

But already by this time there was manifested in Picasso’s works something more troublesome, something nastier and more subversive. In the Picasso Museum is a portrait of Picasso’s dead friend Casagemas, who committed suicide after an unhappy love affair. His head, draped in eerie green shadow, is seen floating in a sea of sheets, while only his profile is rimmed in yellow by the light of the candle that burns perilously close to his nose. In the same year, in one of the earliest paintings of his Blue Period (1901-04), Picasso did a self-portrait in which his pallid, bearded face stares at us from out of his massive overcoat, the outline of which is shockingly extenuated by the icy blue air that surrounds it.

In general, the paintings of Picasso’s Blue Period, formally advanced and skillful, represent an adolescent malaise which he would subsequently outgrow. Here he focused upon the depressed portions of urban society, the outcasts and poets sipping their absinthe, the jugglers and children and young women penuriously eking out their existence, all depicted in a lugubrious and sub-aquatic blue. By contrast, the paintings of the next, Rose Period (1905-07) are set in a generally happier tone, with soft, mellow pinks and yellows and, for subjects, primarily children, acrobats, and horses.



But nothing in either of these two periods, or even in the more ghoulish post-Impressionist works that preceded them, really prepares us for the revelation of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907, one of the treasures of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This painting shows a brothel scene, but one so abstracted as to be scarcely recognizable for what it is, resembling rather a stall in a zoo. The five women depicted are rendered in blue and pink, together with the brown tonalities of the late Rose Period, and in severe, abstracted facets, rather than modeling. They gyrate menacingly across the canvas, while in the lower right-hand corner there crouches a figure whose face is conceived as an African mask.

With Les Demoiselles d’Avignon Picasso chose a path violently at variance with anything in the previous tradition of Western art. He was surely not the first to bring shrillness or perturbation to the art of painting—one finds it in Cosme Tura, El Greco, and Salvator Rosa in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries respectively, and more and more thereafter—but the perturbation of earlier paintings is a quality reflected in them, rather than something extending aggressively out of them. Starting with this painting, it was Pablo Picasso, more than any other single person, who provided artists with the formal vocabulary to represent the quintessentially modern “alternative” of the savage and the demonic. Even Picasso’s most fervid admirers of the time were shocked in a way that we can never be again, no matter how meticulous our historical intuition.

This work can also be credited with introducing African tribal imagery into the mainstream of Western art. Previously, when Western artists had borrowed from other traditions, they managed to neutralize those importations into purely ornamental addenda. One thinks of black Chinese laqueur fitting patly into Louis Quinze ormolu, of the arabesques of Gerôme, or the japonisme of Manet and Lautrec. These had always made playful backdrops for figures that implicitly obeyed the canons of Western art. Picasso, however, was the first conscientiously to absent himself from Western tradition, and, in part, to turn upon it—again in the interest of capturing the presumed essence of man which he found in the condition of the savage.



Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is significant for still another reason; it was an essential step in the evolution of Cubism. Indeed, the spiritual and formal disorderliness of this painting was systematized, as it were, in Cubism, which visually fractured the most elemental aspects of reality in a manner almost scientific. Of course, to paint in a Cubist mode did not necessarily mean to limit oneself to the motif of savagery, and indeed in Picasso’s work this motif soon subsided (though it would resurface quickly enough), giving way for a while to much tamer subjects like landscapes, still lifes, and portraits. In due course, in the Synthetic Cubism that began in 1912, he expanded his subjects to comprise scenes that implied action, and action that implied signification. These subjects also become somewhat more varied, as in the highly abstracted depictions of Harlequin, whose motley is seen against solid fields of turquoise and black, which give emphasis to his tiny pea-shaped head. Similarly, the two versions of The Three Musicians (1921), which are late works of Synthetic Cubism, represent a return to a more direct and personal style of communication.

With this rediscovery of the direct and the personal, Picasso would gradually find his way back to that doctrine which he first took up in 1907. By the early 1930’s, there had returned to Picasso’s work, and returned to stay, an atavism and savagery such as had not been seen since Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In the manner of Miró he produced flat biomorphic abstractions, or brought forth a profusion of unnamable creatures resting in a state of apparent nakedness at the edge of the sea, placed against a pale blue sky and a light sandy floor as in a dream full of hidden and disturbing metaphors. This was the period, too, of Picasso’s bullfighting scenes and depictions of the Minotaur. In an etching like the Female Bullfighter I, an aggressive sexuality is asserted in the bestial convergence of beast and frail human female, until it becomes impossible to distinguish one from the other. Minotauromachy depicts the mythical creature, with its bull’s head and body of a man, seeking guidance from a fragile young girl.

From this point on in Picasso’s career, savagery becomes thoroughly assimilated and habitual. It is also at this point in his life that Picasso’s name became a household word, associated for the most part not with the Cubist or classically inspired works of the previous twenty years but rather with these turbulent and gory depictions of encounters among men, and between the sexes, reduced to the unmediated and irrational aggressions of the lower orders of the animal kingdom.

It was this same Picasso who produced as well the highly political paintings of the late 30’s, 40’s, and early 50’s. These include most famously the Guernica (1937), in which is depicted the bombardment of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War by pro-Franco forces. The metallic grays, the bare light bulb in contention with a candle, the archaic residues of weeping Niobes and horses, force a shocking and abrupt conjunction of the oldest human passions with the most essentially modern technological expedients. When we speak of a typical Picasso, or for that matter when we think of a typical painting of this century, we are speaking of this painting more than of anything before it. It is here that we have, fully developed, the sense of the passionate, unqualified cruelty of the human condition.

Several years later the motif was amplified in the Charnel House, a lurid response to the revelation in 1945 of the atrocities that had taken place in the Nazi concentration camps. It is seen again in Massacre in Korea (1951), in which a serried phalanx of soldiers takes aim at a huddled group of mothers and children, raising their arms in despair and supplication. By this time Picasso, who had of course been sympathetic to the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War, was formally enlisted as a member of the French Communist party. He joined the party immediately after the liberation in 1944, and never left, not even after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 or after Khrushchev’s revelations at the 20th Party Congress of the crimes committed by Stalin—both occasions on which many French intellectuals broke with the party. Whatever his motives, first for joining and then for remaining in the most devotedly pro-Moscow of all West European Communist parties, it was for the party that Picasso created his world-famous images of doves and children.



There can be no question but that the art Picasso made in the last twenty-five years of his life was generally not as impressive as what had preceded it. The reasons that have been adduced for this are various: he has been accused of complacency, of losing touch with the latest trends in art, of surrendering to Communism, of selling out to the capitalists. But if the paintings of his last period are less prepossessing than what went before, they are only a little less so, and any one of a hundred of them would have made the name of a lesser artist. Their effortless virtuosity reveals a man who has domesticated, without destroying, his inner demons.

If the motifs of savagery and dislocation seem partially abated in these later works, it may be only because they have been more or less successfully assimilated, both by the painter and by us, his audience. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that these motifs, which Picasso, starting in 1907, lodged so firmly in the consciousness of the Western public, have in the intervening years gone from a revelation to a conviction and from a conviction to, at last, a commonplace, a view of the human condition to which even the most peaceable among us now gives tacit assent.

Whether it is a true view of the human condition is another question. The least we can say is that this notion, so common in almost every realm where serious art or music or literature is made, so dear to the culture of our time as to be perhaps its defining feature, is itself as much a creature of custom and self-delusion as were the earlier views of man which it has supplanted. For a painter truly to depict the nature of man, it would be necessary to combine Giotto and Raphael with the Guernica—although what that thing would look like we cannot pretend to say.

One element of the importance of Picasso lies in the fact that he revealed a side of human nature which had been systematically ignored by earlier artists. His greatness, as opposed to his importance, consists in the mastery with which he articulated this view—a view that nevertheless remains, for all its currency, one of radical eccentricity.




1 The notebooks, currently on a nationwide tour of the U.S., were on view at the Pace Gallery in New York last year, and at the Royal Academy in London. They have been published as The Sketchbooks of Picasso, edited by Arnold Glimcher and Mark Glimcher, Atlantic Monthly Press, 360 pp., $65.00.

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