When Clement Greenberg expressed the opinion that “the significant painting of the present was almost by definition abstract (and by this he meant completely non-referential)”, any working artist who spends a good part of her time in art galleries and museums, and who has friends who are serious about their art, and who with her friends they make it a part of their job to know everything that is happening in the art world; when she hears something like that, even from an art god like Greenberg, of course she’s not going to listen.
TJ Clark is an art historian, an art critic, an interpreter of art, and a master story teller. He creates his stories by interpreting the meaning of individual works of art and finding a thread of meaning that links one work to another. The fifth chapter of his Picasso story (Picasso and Truth) is called “Monument”. It begins with him imaging a reader, a woman, trying to understand the story up to this point, to follow Clark’s thread from Cubism, and in particular Painter and Model (1927), to Guernica. She keeps returning to the moment in the lecture when the two paintings were placed side by side.
Picasso sensed that Painter and Model had brought cubism to an end. Clark tells us in his poetic style, it was an effort of mind by Picasso to reinvent the space of Cubism, “to turn its nearness to face us, and make the contact between proximity and picture plane explicit”. You get a sense here of a crinkling or folding of space. For Picasso the only space that he could latch onto was “Room-space”, an interior full of familiar things. This sometimes includes an effort to bring the outside into a familiar interior, enclosed within four walls. Turning and folding space is the way you make it fit.
Guernica’s space, on the other hand, is public. It is large! It shows us room-space, shelter and habitation, “bombed to smithereens”. It makes her think room-space is a thing of the past. If so, how can Painter and Model possibly lead to Guernica?
That’s the leadup to this chapter. Cubism is coming to an end and for the next three to four years Picasso is searching for a way out of room-space and into the outdoors. This leads him to try to establish his monsters next to the sea and under a sky. This means making monsters human, giving them a space where they can stand next to us. And this means making them into monuments.
These monuments are sculptures, Clark tells us, because “thinking a body in the outside world, for Picasso, involved imaging that body becoming a sculpture.”
Clark finds his way into Picasso’s head. He tells us Monument: Head of a Woman is slight. Picasso also sensed this and apprehensively showed it by the jauntiness of the blue sky, “a sign of space escaping him”. Clark tells us, “The monster in the open – the body as an improbable public fact – is a problem for Picasso.” Then in the same way you’d show support for a friend working through a life crises he adds, “I admire his courage in facing it”.
Clark tells us which paintings to lay next to each other so we can see Picasso’s development.
The years from 1927 to 1931 are intense and productive. But they see their share of failures. Often due to the persistent hold Cubism has on him. Standing Nude is fitted and slotted into a left over Cubist Frame; The Studio is Cubism put to death; Painter and Model (1928) is full of energy, but an energy that does not know when to stop.
But Picasso is slowly but surely making his way from the room to the outside. Figure (1927) is a brilliant, merciless distillation of monster-possibilities. Put it next to Monument: Head of a Woman, the two paintings are steps on the same difficult path.
“The point is simply that inside or out, and public and private, become matters for experiment in the run-up to 1930.”
Is it inside or out? Is it peering in a window at us, or are we on the outside looking in? Is it as big as a picture on the wall? And if it is outside, it may find its way back into the closed interior.
Even Momument: Head of a Woman isn’t once and for all a public figure. It could be hanging on the wall behind the table.
A woman is standing on the beach, facing us with the sea behind her. She is reaching over her head and with her right hand she is pulling her left arm. She’s stretching. Unselfconscious and confident she has no idea she’s a monster. She is Picasso’s Nude Standing by the Sea.
She is not beautiful like Ingres’s Venus. But our ideas of beauty are often phony, that’s why Picasso says, “There’s no such thing”. She looks like she’s made of rock, her legs echo the shape of Courbet’s Cliffs of Etretat. Clark tells us, “The fall of light, and the absolute worldliness of the blue – its true and wonderful lack of spirituality – keep everything in the here and now” and “The fabulous deadpan continuity of the blue as it appears in the body’s negative spaces, between the legs and in the emptiness made by the arm stretch – this lack of disruption, or even slight disconnect (where a broken-down “Cubist” ethic might have seemed to call for figure-ground conjuring tricks) – is a triumph of metaphysical tact. Picasso has placed her firmly in the outside world!
This JuJu figure looking back over its shoulder as if “sniffing the air for predators” was one of Picasso’s first attempts to put a solitary figure in an open space. But he lacked confidence, and when he revisited it the horizon was gone, and it appeared to have moved inside. Scale and space are a problem, and Picasso seems uncertain about what these things are.
Going from room-space to monument is not an easy problem to solve. This is not Picasso’s territory and monsters are not his forte. Picasso catches himself falling back into Cubism. Is this move into a different spatiality Picasso’s desire to look at the human from a new point-of-view? All he knows for sure is monsters and outsiderness go together. Cubism had a unity and wholeness that was transferable from one idea to the next. “This is what the paintings of the late 1920’s no longer believed in.”
“Put the skeleton Bather next to the great painting from the following year, Figures at the Seaside. I think the latter is comic and celebratory … and what it celebrates is sufficiently clear.” This then is a partial answer to the question: What do monsters signify? Monstrosity is sex.
Notes taken New York Review of Books article Recreating Picasso that are related to our text:
- Picasso derived the bizarre and interlocking forms of his painting Figures on the Seashore from an illustration of a pile of phallic ex-votos in the eighteenth-century text A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus.
- The legs of the Nude Standing by the Sea are a visual pun on the famous cliffs of Etretat, celebrated in the paintings of Monet and Courbet.
- Picasso’s art was always rooted in some concrete reality, no matter how unreal the imagery may seem; even his most hallucinatory pictures are representations of the people in his life and of his emotions for them. Picasso was leading a double life during this period. His marriage was not happy and he was having an affair with a young woman he met while walking through Paris. Many of his monstrous, surreal interior works, like Large Nude in a Red Armchair, represented his wife Olga.
Picasso’s life always seemed rich to me, but this review of his biographer and friend, John Richardson’s book left me thinking it was probably 100 times more interesting than I imagined. I will close with the following excerpt:
‘Two weeks after that celebrated affair, Picasso attended another legendary event, Tristan Tzara’s Evening of the Bearded Heart at the Théâtre Michel. The night began peaceably enough with music by Stravinsky, Georges Auric, and Darius Milhaud, but it soon degenerated into a violent brawl between the Dadaists and the Surrealists, and the police had to intervene. Picasso thoroughly enjoyed that evening.
When not working in his studio, Picasso had a nearly inexhaustible need for social and intellectual stimulus, and he fed off the energy, and sometimes the ideas, of friends and acquaintances. According to Coco Chanel, “Picasso did a great job of hoovering up anyone in his path.” Others used more violent metaphors. Friends of the painter, especially fellow artists, sometimes compared him to a vampire, cannibal, bandit, or thief. Nonetheless many were drawn to the painter not so much because of his fame but because of his extraordinary vitality. To be in his presence was to be filled with expectation that something important or magical still could happen. Hence Gerald Murphy, for example, said of one gathering in 1923, “[Gertrude Stein] and Picasso were phenomenal together, each stimulated the other to such an extent that everyone felt recharged witnessing it.” In 1929 Léonide Massine wrote to Étienne de Beaumont, “Picasso will help us…. I am full of enthusiasm…. We will take another direction—there are so many beautiful things to be done—discuss all of this with Picasso.”’
Andrew Butterfield, “Recreating Picasso” (Review of “A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years: 1917–1932”, by John Richardson, Knopf, 592 pp) The New York Review of Books, December 20, 2007. accessed April 2, 2018, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2007/12/20/recreating-picasso/