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Picasso & Poetry


by Pablo Picasso, introduction by John Russell, poems translated by Alan S. Trueblood
Braziller, 169 pp., $50.00

Although Picasso enjoyed his excursions into the theater, and in particular his collaborations with the Diaghilev ballet, for the most part he disliked working to order and shunned commissions of all kinds. He did, nevertheless, illustrate some fifty books and was peripherally involved in the production of twice as many again, contributing frontispieces (often in the form of a portrait sketch of the author), dust jackets, vignettes, and so forth. Even in cases where his images figure prominently, most of them bear no relation to the text and were simply selected from existing material that seemed not inappropriate; such was the prestige of his name that authors and publishers were happy to settle for what was offered to them.

In approximately twenty cases, however, the illustrations do relate to, or at least parallel, the texts even if they weren’t especially created for the purpose. At least six of these achieve the status of livres d’artiste, works of art or precious objects in their own right. And his Góngora, which came out in 1948, was possibly the one closest to his heart. Braziller has now reissued it in an approximate facsimile (approximate in that although the scale and format of the original are retained, the superb quality of the paper, which was especially manufactured for the original, could not be duplicated for economic reasons and inevitably there is a certain loss of tonal subtlety). Góngora was to affect the future development of Picasso’s art in a way that his other literary collaborations did not. In 1905 Apollinaire was already stressing Picasso’s heritage from the Spanish seventeenth-century baroque. But it was in old age that it informed his art most fully and poignantly, and the work on Góngora must have helped to set the stage for the extraordinary visual pageant—and much of the late work can only be described in terms of theater—that was still to come.

The question of Picasso’s relationship to literature is fascinating and complex. During his formative years as a painter he had been attracted to art that had a literary flavor: to the Pre-Raphaelites, Munch, Lautrec, and the lithographer Steinlen. Impressionism and anything else that smacked of peinture pure he eschewed. Throughout his life he preferred the company of writers, particularly poets, to that of other painters and sculptors. His own literary output was considerable and has never received the attention it deserves.1 From the mid-1930s onward he produced poetry and semi-automatic, stream-of-consciousness texts in both Spanish and French; one of the last and most significant of these, El Entierro del Conde de Orgaz, pays tribute, in its title at least, to Góngora’s contemporary and friend El Greco. Picasso also produced two plays and The Dream and Lie of Franco (1937), a unique fusion of words and visual imagery (based on the popular Spanish aleluyas, or strip cartoons) and perhaps the most effective artistic political broadsheet of this century.

And yet several people who knew Picasso well claimed that he read very little. Jaime Sabartés, his friend from his student days who later became for long periods his secretary and companion, and who probably over the years saw more of Picasso than any other person, went so far as to state that he had never seen Picasso with a book in his hands. His library was selective and quirky, including French and Spanish classics, the Série noire, and works by Swift. It also contained some valuable first editions, among them a volume of Góngora’s Obras published in Lisbon in 1667; these may well have been brought as propitiatory offerings by those fortunate enough to visit the Minotaur in his lair. All his friends were united, however, in agreeing that he was remarkably well-informed on literature both past and present. He talked about his own work in relation to Molière and Shakespeare. He could quote from Kierkegaard and Heraclitus and Valéry, and he could hold his own in conversations about recent developments in the thought of Lévi-Strauss and Barthes. Potential mistresses were urged to read Sade, although at least one of them was advised to make simultaneous incursions into St. John of the Cross. A sexually voracious man, he claimed to have been deeply moved and influenced by Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata.

Opinions on how he acquired his literary knowledge varied. His Surrealist friends claimed he had X-ray eyes and could devour the contents of a book by looking at its cover. Some who were close to him said that he read in bed late at night. I myself suspect he didn’t open many of the books he talked about and that he absorbed information through listening to the conversation of his writer friends and other intellectuals. Once, after an eloquent analysis of Bergson in relationship to his own Portrait of Kahnweiler, he admitted to never having read him and to have picked it all up from his sitter.

Picasso’s name was first linked to Góngora’s in 1901 on the occasion of his first Paris one-man show when the critic Florent Fels commented on his ability to absorb everything into his art including popular imagery and, somewhat obscurely, what Fels calls “Gongorism, that other form of slang.” But Picasso would have been aware of Góngora’s since childhood if only because after Góngora death his name had become synonymous throughout Spanish society with everything that was dark and difficult and unfathomable; Spanish peasants are reputed to have referred to particularly overcast and menacing days as “Góngoras.” After centuries of neglect, in 1898, Góngora’s poetry began to be revived, succeeding and in certain respects paralleling the rehabilitation of El Greco, whose art was to affect Picasso’s own so deeply. The revival reached a climax in 1927, when the tercentenary of Góngora’s death produced a spate of learned articles and tributes, including many by the Spanish “poets of 1927”: Lorca, Alberti, Diego, and Guillén. The Góngora revival was followed in France; and indeed it was a Frenchman, R. Foulché-Delbosc, who in 1900 was largely responsible for sorting out the canon of his work according to date and authenticity.

By the second decade of this century critics in both France and Spain were comparing Góngora to Mallarmé because of the deliberate hermeticism of the work of both poets, and because of their extended and elaborate use of metaphor. In 1927 the critic Petriconi called Mallarmé “the Góngora of the nineteenth century”; and in 1922 Z. Milner, who was to do the French translations for Picasso’s Góngora, published an essay on Góngora and Mallarmé in L’Esprit nouveau. In retrospect the comparison is not particularly fruitful (and Mallarmé almost certainly knew nothing of Góngora’s work). For whereas Mallarmé’s avowed intention was to describe not the object but the psychological effect it produces, Góngora achieves his abstraction by substituting the attributes of people and things for the objects themselves (hence his habit of using adjectives as nouns), so that his images become simultaneously distanced and evanescent and yet intensely physical, at times voluptuous. But the comparisons must have helped French intellectuals to view Góngora from the perspective of the avant-garde. Góngora and Mallarmé, Kahnweiler once told me, were Juan Gris’s two great poetic obsessions.

Picasso’s own interest in Góngora was probably quickened through his contacts with Gris and their mutual friend Pierre Reverdy and the circle of writers publishing in his Nord-Sud, one of the liveliest and intellectually most challenging of the reviews which kept young French literature alive during the First World War. Contributors included the future Surrealists and the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro, a passionate “Gongorista.” Many of Huidobro’s poems were translated into French by Gris (some actually appear to have become collaborative efforts), and Gris’s comments and criticism of them in letters to Huidobro center on the use of metaphor; a recently published fragment of manuscript in Gris’s hand shows how in transcribing Huidobro’s Arc Voltaire he at one point crosses out the word “comme.” Reverdy had defined his own aesthetic in the first issue of Nord-Sud when he wrote, “Plus les rapports des deux réalités rapprochés seront lointains et justes, plus l’image sera forte—plus elle aura de puissance émotive et de réalité poétique.” In one of his most important critical texts, Self-Defense: Critique esthétique, published in 1919, Reverdy condemns the use of “comme“; metaphor, he suggests, is always more potent than simile.

The Surrealists in turn were to declare: “Nous avons supprimé le mot comme“; a tomato is no longer “like” a child’s balloon, rather a tomato is also a child’s balloon. It is hard to believe that they would not have venerated a poet whose use of metaphor remains unrivaled for its richness and complexity, and one whose work, moreover, so often has about it a dreamlike quality, an almost painful vividness that is also somehow remote and intangible. And yet the literature of and about Surrealism makes almost no mention of Góngora. The reason for this may be that very little Góngora existed in French translation, although the Fabula de Polifemo y Galatea (together with the Soledades, the most difficult and “Gongoristic,” and also in many respects the most surréalisant, of his works) had been translated into French (by Marius André) in 1920. One writer deeply involved with Surrealism did, however, proclaim allegiance to Góngora, and I believe that it was through him that Picasso came increasingly under the poet’s spell.

Robert Desnos had been the star of the Surrealists’ époque des sommeils (1922-1924), when his ability to put himself into a trancelike state anywhere and at any time compelled universal admiration and envy. Subsequently he was to drift away from orthodox Surrealism and into the orbit of Georges Bataille, who in the late Twenties appeared for a moment to offer an alternative to Breton’s vision of the movement which Bataille considered to be insufficiently “black.” Desnos himself was the most difficult of the poets to have been associated with Surrealism. His literary heroes besides Góngora were Villon and Nerval, who could, like the Spaniard, raise the language of popular culture to “an indescribable atmosphere, to an acute imagery,” a phrase which could well be used to describe Picasso’s Góngora illustrations. Desnos had been writing about Picasso since 1925. The two men subsequently became friends, and Desnos was to be an influence when Picasso began his literary experiments.

Although Picasso had done so much to invent Surrealism and was then in turn to be so deeply touched by it, his art during the 1920s and 1930s stands apart from orthodox Surrealism precisely because he refused to eliminate the word—or the concept—“like.” Magritte’s female torso surrounded by a head of hair is both face and body, and Miró can use a literal depiction of a fruit to represent a woman’s breast. But Picasso’s great sculpted heads of Marie-Thérése Walter are heads that are like phalluses, and the breasts of his Girl in front of a Mirror are breasts that are like apples. Picasso was undoubtedly more drawn to the Surrealist writers and to Surrealist literature than toward visual Surrealism, which he tended to view with a certain amount of distrust. And he was closest to true Surrealism in those of his writings where he makes use not so much of metaphor as of a kind of dense, coded system of linguistic allusions which recalls Góngora’s use of metaphor, although, as Breton was to remark, Picasso’s writing still takes its departure in immediate reality and not in the world of the dream.

The codes in Picasso’s texts are occasionally impossible to break, just as it is sometimes impossible to fathom Góngora’s true meaning. But when in a Picasso poem bells and trees and planks of wood bleed, and when flowers moan and pots and pans take on animate qualities, we sense that they are standing in for something else. I believe that Góngora’s name should be placed high on the list of writers who shaped Picasso’s literary style and vision, a list which includes Saint Teresa, the saints John of the Apocalypse and of the Cross, Alfred Jarry (Picasso owned the original manuscript of Ubu cocu), Reverdy, and Desnos.

Góngora’s world is essentially Virgilian and melancholy; but nature for him is also rich and sumptuous and full of jewelled nuance. Picasso’s vision is apocalyptic, full of violence and pain and of brutality and blackness. But the texture of Picasso’s writing, matted, dense, and physical, wordy but also intensely visual and palpable, proclaims Góngora’s influence and heritage. Here is a passage from the Soledades in an admittedly slightly flat translation by Gerald Brenan:

[A pine tree] treading clumsily underfoot a stream which, like a trodden snake, spitting liquid pearl instead of venom, hides in its twists (which are not complete circles) flowers which the fertile breeze gave in exuberant birth to the variegated bosom of the garden, among whose stems it leaves behind the silver scales it had put on.

And here is a recently published entry which Picasso made in his journal on Christmas Day 1939, transcribed by Lydia Gasman:

ball of wax for the touch void of the sky’s night empty of caresses and laughter the house’s torn skin purrs its stench in a corner the coal dust folds the sheet the unhinged shutter on the window flees the eagle till you barely tell them apart.2

When, after the war, Picasso was approached by the publisher Colonna to collaborate on the first of a new series to be entitled Les Grands Peintres modernes et le livre, Góngora must have seemed an obvious choice, although it is unclear (to me at least) whether he was proposed by Colonna or by Picasso himself. Sabartés may have had a hand in the project; for more than ten years Picasso had been making portraits of him as a scholar dressed in the clothes of Góngora’s day, and the two men’s talk was often of things Spanish. His old friend Desnos was in touch with him at this time concerning his introduction to a book of Picasso’s recent paintings which came out in 1946. It might at first seem strange that Picasso didn’t elect to illustrate the Letrillas, the most accessible and catchy and lilting of Góngora’s works, which incorporated and commented on refrains from popular songs, and which would have reminded Picasso of a tradition of Spanish culture he enjoyed in his youth. The Fabula de Polifemo y Galatea, with its rich vein of eroticism, must also have been tempting; throughout his life, but particularly from the 1930s onward, Picasso was fascinated by ringing the changes on the theme of beauty and the beast.

Instead he chose to illustrate twenty of Góngora’s sonnets, in some respects the most nearly perfect of all Góngora’s works in their formalized inventiveness and in the precision of their rhyme schemes. They are the works that show the poet at his most traditional and urbane. Of the twenty sonnets eight are love poems, and Picasso’s work on them is an indirect tribute to Françoise Gilot and to a new phase of family life they were beginning together. The quality of splendor that characterizes all twenty, and the choice of the classical sonnet form itself, may also reflect a reaction to the austerities of life endured in wartime Paris.

Picasso set to work at the end of December 1946 or very early in 1947, and the project occupied him, off and on, for almost two years. Góngora is unique among the books illustrated by Picasso in that the poems were copied out in Picasso’s own handwriting. After being transferred to copper plates by the master printer Lacourière these were returned to Picasso for him to embellish the margins. Some of the borders comment on the texts, others are purely decorative; this was also the time of Picasso’s greatest involvement with the Madoura pottery in Vallauris, so that ornamental motifs flowed freely from his hand. The first sonnet, “The Poet: To An Excellent Foreign Painter Doing His Portrait,” which comments implicitly on the relationship between painting and poetry, is preceded by a portrait of Góngora, after El Greco. Before all the other nineteen sonnets are placed full-page illustrations of young women’s heads. Obviously these relate to the poetry only in a generalized way. But it is at the same time astonishing how the heads are characterized so that they catch the flavor of the poem that follows from each of them. The head preceding “On the Death of Henry IV” is the most regal; in front of “The Poet Reproaches the Sun for Obliging Him to Leave His Lady” we see a wedge of a profile, reminiscent of Gilot’s, vanishing behind a cloud of dark hair; the girl who introduces “To Lycius, On the Brevity of Life” is the most thoughtful and she holds a breviary, while the image that corresponds to “On the Death of Doña Guiomar de Sá” has the chiseled fragility of a medieval gisant The seventh sonnet, “On the Tomb of Dominico Greco, an Excellent Painter,” is the only one in which the text is left to speak entirely for itself without the use of remarques (marginal embellishments). The volume ends, resonantly, with “The Poet Decides to Sing of Tombs.”

John Russell’s elegant short introduction catches perfectly the spirit of the time in which this and other French livres d’artiste were executed and received. It is perhaps a pity that the publishers didn’t ask, say, the translator, Alan S. Trueblood, who is professor of Spanish and comparative literature at Brown University, to tell us something about the sonnets (they come in fact from all periods of Góngora’s working life) or that John Russell did not include a word about the unusual technical processes Picasso used: possibly they wanted to keep new textual matter to a minimum in order to recreate as closely as possible the appearance of the original edition.

The technique Picasso employed involved a lot of sugarlift aquatint, which Lacourière taught him. This was much used for commercial work in the nineteenth century, particularly for fashion prints, but had subsequently been little explored. Basically it differs from ordinary aquatint in that the artist works on the plate as he would on paper, in darks onto a light ground, rather than in lights onto the dark ground of the prepared plate, as is normal in other etching techniques. Sugar aquatint thus allows for direct painterly and brushy effects as well as for a particularly broad and bold use of line. Picasso’s use of the technique in this volume is absolutely direct, very quick and improvisatory: for example, the plates were not immersed in an acid bath, and the acid was simply dabbed on with swabs. With the grays being bitten into in this way some of the true blacks were achieved by painting onto the plate with brushes dipped in full-strength acid. Picasso also at times used his fingers to smear on the sugarlift solution, and he used sandpaper and muslin to achieve some of the halftone textural effects. Throughout he combined the sugarlift technique with direct, traditional dry-point etching.

Professor Trueblood has quite rightly not attempted to find an equivalent for Góngora’s rhyme schemes, but he has kept the fourteen-line sonnet form, as did Z. Milner in the original French edition. The translations are dignified and eloquent and score by virtue of their clarity, although one of the sonnets at least, “To Licitus, a Very Stupid and Very Rich Gentleman,” has defeated him. I must admit that it foxes me too, and maybe it also foxed Picasso—the young woman who introduces the poem has about her a distinctly quizzical look. If the translations lack some of the slightly sardonic, self-mocking quality of the originals and much of their underlying melancholy—to borrow a phrase of Picasso’s own, “the black light of the looking glass”—maybe these are particularly Spanish qualities and nuances that cannot be caught in English.

The fact that the poems are identical in length and format gives the book a beautiful, measured feeling. And having the texts well reproduced in Picasso’s own script lends them a sense of immediacy and provides us with insights into the workings of his mind. On several occasions he has skipped a line and then gone back and inserted it in haste and irritation. It is a source of endless fascination to observe the way in which he varies the rendition of individual letters according to the word which contains them and the configuration of other letters surrounding them. Some of the remarques look a little casual and the illustrations as a whole lack the linear perfection of the two works illustrated by Picasso in variants of his neoclassical style, Ovid’s Metamorphoses of 1931 and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, which appeared three years later. Góngora doesn’t have the extraordinary iconographic and stylistic variety of the illustrations to Balzac’s Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu (1931) but then neither does any other book illustrated by a single artist. The plates for Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, which appeared in 1942, employed a more complicated and sophisticated use of sugarlift aquatint and are technically superior.

Perhaps the most striking of all Picasso’s illustrated books is Reverdy’s Le Chant des morts, which Picasso was working on at the same time as Góngora, and in which he used a kind of invented pictorial script of his own to complement the poems reproduced in Reverdy’s own fine handwriting. But Góngora nevertheless ranks with these other masterpieces, and it has about it a quality which is all its own. It is—together with the earthy and bawdy illustrations of La Celestina published in 1971—the most Spanish of all Picasso’s books, not only for the very obvious reason that the poetry is by a Spanish genius and the greatest of all Spanish sonnet writers, but because the illustrations themselves have that quality of nobility tinged with sadness, of gallantry tempered with arrogance, which is so particular to the character and art of the Spanish people.

  1. 1

    Lydia Gasman’s valuable Ph.D. thesis submitted to Columbia in 1981, Mystery, Magic, and Love in Picasso, 1925-1938: Picasso and the Surrealist Poets, which deals extensively with Picasso’s writings, will be published by Yale University Press in 1986.

  2. 2

    Published in Poetry East (Spring-Summer, 1984).

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