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The Fallen Angel?

1.

Pablo Picasso’s reputation as a dominant figure in twentieth-century art is unparalleled, fed by an extraordinarily diverse body of criticism that began in his early youth and continues unabated today. Throughout the century his work has attracted numerous champions as well as critics. When he was undisputed leader of the avant-garde, everyone wanted him on their team, from modernists, neoclassicists, and Surrealists to Communists. More recently he has been both claimed as an anarchist hero (by Patricia Leighten in Re-Ordering the Universe1 ) and demonized by feminists and popular writers such as Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington (Picasso: Creator and Destroyer2 ), as well as in a movie, James Ivory’s Surviving Picasso (1996).

In her recent book The Picasso Papers, Rosalind Krauss has added a new variation to the legend: Picasso as the fallen angel. She regards his cubist collages—papiers collés—executed between 1912 and 1914 as the defining moment of a new system of meaningful signs, the crowning achievement of modernism; but she accuses him of turning his back on modernism after World War I in favor of “neoclassicism,” for her an uninspired, imitative art based upon “pastiche,” or borrowings from the past, which included such works as his drawings Sisley and His Wife, after Renoir (1919) and Sleeping Peasants (1919). She writes:

The period up to 1914 represents a triumphant development of the cubist logic, which with the advent of collage increasingly fashions a visual sign free to circulate within pictorial space, independent of any fixed referent, and thus wholly inconvertible: a signifier-as-token, indeed, in free play. This is the modernist, “true” Picasso. But the postwar period, so significantly announced by the Rosenberg exhibition [1919], is not only a return to the gold standard of visual naturalism. To the extent that this return via the imitation of a range of “classical” artists, from Poussin to Ingres to late Renoir, is conducted under the banner of pastiche, it has branded onto its very surface, as it were, the mark of its own fraudulence. Here is Picasso as counterfeiter, his act a blatant betrayal of the modernist project.

To account for Picasso’s alleged about-turn, Krauss, who has attacked the biographical approach to art,3 looks to developments in the psyche of the artist and argues, on the basis of Freudian theory, that “reaction formation,” in which “prohibited desires are turned into their opposite,” was responsible for his rejection of modernism. Her book is argued with great subtlety, but it is based on a number of false premises: it implies that there was a clear-cut break between Picasso’s cubist and classicizing work; it creates a false opposition between these approaches rather than appreciating their parallel development; and it alleges that Picasso’s artistic choices are to be explained by a psychological “structure of duplicity,” for which she offers no convincing evidence.

The years in which the fall of this Lucifer took place, between 1915 and 1919, have remained somewhat glossed over in the Picasso literature—including Krauss’s book—because they do not fit neatly into the division of the artist’s work into “periods.” Indeed, the works and events of the war years, in which Picasso continued to wrestle with fundamental artistic issues of representation, remained obscure until the publication of John Richardson’s A Life of Picasso, Volume II.4 Richardson’s careful, documented account of the artist’s personal and artistic activities during the war years has filled in a large gap in our knowledge of the man and the development of his art.

Our understanding of Picasso’s work has also been changed by the discovery that he took a great interest in photography. Picasso himself remained secretive during his lifetime about both his own activities as a photographer and the part that photography played in his art. Nonetheless, since 1994 Anne Baldassari’s work on photographic documentation in the Picasso Archives5 has compelled art historians to rethink the genesis of such central paintings in the history of modernism as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907 (The Museum of Modern Art, New York). It is clear that in this brothel scene and in the paintings and drawings that led up to and succeeded it, the series of photographs of half-naked Senegalese girls by Edmond Fortier that Picasso owned were as important to his conception as his references to tribal sculpture, the prostitute drawings of Constantin Guys, or the apocalyptic figures of El Greco.

Krauss is right to question some of the conclusions drawn by Baldassari about the use that Picasso made of his own photographs, especially the suggestion that Picasso’s collages themselves are indebted to the photograph’s automatic power to synthesize images. However, one cannot doubt the importance that photography had for Picasso. He was fascinated by its possibilities, although there is no reason to believe that he felt more threatened by them (as Krauss suggests) than he did by any other method of representation by previous artists that he encountered and wanted to absorb into his own practice. In 1909 he experimented with double exposures to consider the effect of multiple views in single compositions; later, in 1913, he photographed his own constructions and still-life setups in his studio.

Not only did these particular photographs serve as records of work in progress, but in some of them he actually made marks—indicating the intersection of angles, for instance—on the photographs themselves. These corresponded to objects and to the two-dimensional relationships of objects in the photographic prints. (See illustration on this page.) The same marks correspond to “signs” in cubist paintings and in the papiers collés, to which the title of Krauss’s book refers, that Picasso produced in the two or three years before the war.

The revolutionary nature of Picasso and Braque’s cubism and especially of the papiers collés—the collages incorporated pasted-on pieces of paper, including newsprint, wallpaper, and colored papers, and actual as well as imitated mechanical textures—lies in a new means of representation, in which the thing represented can be indicated, for example, by an aspect of its form, such as a curve (of a bottle or a face), the space it occupies (indicated by its shadow), or, in the specific case of collage, even the thing itself, such as a scrap of newspaper. That all of the component elements could also stand for something else—the same piece of newspaper could function as a label or even be cut in the shape of a glass—expanded the possibilities of representation.

In 1912-1913, Picasso also developed similar ideas in three-dimensional constructions in which he made new objects by assembling pieces of cut metal, rope, wood, and artifacts such as spoons or tin cans and combining them with various painterly and/or sculptural techniques. As with the papiers collés, the actual objects and textures used in the constructions could function in a variety of ways. In the case of color, for instance, the association with the things that particular colors would normally describe became in some works secondary, if not unnecessary. An area of colored dots in a construction or a painting could refer to a plane of light which was divided into its chromatic components or, equally, to the mechanical tints used in printed illustration or to commercially produced wallpaper.

Picasso was continually investigating ways of dealing with the artistic problem of representation, and how different approaches could be combined in his art. In 1914 he took up the challenge of juxtaposing a traditional representational style—what has sometimes been called his Ingresque line—with the analytical approach to objects that is basic to cubism. In a series of drawings of a seated man which he began in the spring of 1914 and continued over the next eighteen months, we can recognize an artistic experiment in which Picasso made reference to different representational systems or sources. In addition to Ingres, he refers to Cézanne, whose paintings he had just seen exhibited in Paris. He evidently also drew on photographs he owned of seated or standing men taken by the Turkish photographers Abdullah Frères, which bear striking resemblance to certain of his drawings. One can even detect the presence of identifiable models, including the Basque painter Iturrino, who visited Picasso in the summer of 1914. All these drawings are ignored by Krauss. Yet they suggest that Picasso was probing the implications of bringing together different systems of representation, either by combining them or, as is the case with a series of drawings done in a 1915 sketchbook, by overlaying one naturalistic system with a different one, based upon geometric analysis. (See illustration on page 20.)

During the first years of the war Picasso remained in Paris and cubism continued to underlie the structure of his work. Among the paintings that preoccupied him was the large Harlequin (The Museum of Modern Art, New York), which was finished in Paris at the end of 1915. Both the bold construction of the Harlequin, in which the figure, objects, and space are handled as broad planes of color against a somber background, and its simplified palette represent a new departure in scale and mood from Picasso’s pre-war compositions. While this painting appears in surveys of his art, historians and biographers have usually emphasized its meaning as an expression of personal grief, since it was done at the time that Picasso’s mistress Eva Gouel was dying.6 But the main importance of this work surely lies not in the emotional situation in which it was painted but in the way in which it anticipates the scale and spatial considerations of some of Picasso’s “neoclassical” paintings of monumental nudes or the superb still life Table, Guitar, Bottle of 1919 (Smith College Museum of Art).

The other major wartime cubist painting, a huge Seated Man, which underwent a significant metamorphosis, commented upon by various witnesses while it was being painted in 1915 and 1916, has been until recently7 almost completely neglected in discussions of the artist’s work. (See illustration on page 21.) Krauss does not mention it. It is true that it has remained in private hands since it was first sold just after it was completed in late 1916, but Picasso himself singled it out as a work of importance in a series of photographs that he took of himself in front of the painting at various stages of its development. Although these black-and-white photographs have been reproduced, and the painting was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s great Picasso retrospective exhibition of 1981, the canvas has remained something of a mystery. The unraveling of the processes involved in this many-layered composition has much to reveal about the artist’s preoccupations during the war with different systems of representation and different influences. These include cubism as it had developed in the Harlequin, and also in his series of drawings and prints of a seated man, as well as in his other wartime work, particularly a group of large-scale still lifes and guitar players done in 1916. He also drew on some unexpected visual sources, including the cinema and photographic images of skyscrapers.

  1. 1

    Princeton University Press, 1989.

  2. 2

    Simon and Schuster, 1988.

  3. 3

    See, for example, Rosalind Krauss, “In the Name of Picasso,” October (Spring 1981), pp. 5-22; reprinted in Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (MIT Press, 1996).

  4. 4

    Random House, 1996. As Richardson’s collaborating author, I contributed to the planning and research for this biography.

  5. 5

    Baldassari first began publishing unknown photographs from the Picasso Archives in Picasso photographe (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux) in 1994, and the fullest selection is contained in Picasso and Photography: The Dark Mirror (Houston Museum of Fine Arts/Flammarion, 1997). She argues fervently for the importance of the photographic medium to Picasso, but her approach to the evidence is that of an archivist rather than an art historian. Much art historical investigation now needs to follow her groundbreaking study on the specific issues that these photographs and the many unpublished documents (some 15,000 in the Picasso Archives) raise for the analysis of Picasso’s working methods at every stage of his career. See also my review, “Picasso and Photography,” Burlington Magazine (June 1997), pp. 420-421.

  6. 6

    In her discussion of the relationship between Picasso and Eva, Krauss repeats an old mistake concerning Picasso’s alleged renaming of his dying mistress. Eve Gouel (the name that appears on her birth certificate) had called herself Marcelle Humbert before she met Picasso; all he did was to change her given name to its Spanish equivalent.

  7. 7

    See Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Vol. II, pp. 407-417.

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