PRINT September 1966

Picasso as Surrealist

AFTER THE FIRST WORLD WAR, strange rumblings from that subterranean portion of the mind which Freud had called the id began to be felt throughout Western art and letters; and soon, an official commitment to the charting of these irrational regions was made in André Breton’s first Surrealist Manifesto of 1924. Like a seismograph, Picasso’s own art of the twenties quickly registered these disquieting tremors. If the great years of Cubism had concentrated on the creation of a pictorial language as radically new and relevant to our century as the invention of one-point perspective had been to the Renaissance, the ensuing years turned to an exploration of human experience that had been largely suppressed by these consuming intellectual and esthetic endeavors. Already in 1907, the Demoiselles d’Avignon had exploded a volcano of savage forces that were, how ever, to be quickly restrained under the cerebral controls of early Cubism. Again in 1925, a new group of maenads—the Three Dancers—recklessly burst into a bacchanalian realm of terror and frenzy that was to reverberate more loudly throughout the next decade.

One of the first major statements of this frightening new domain—one that might be called Psychoanalytical Cubism—is the Seated Woman of 1926–27, which uses a Cubist vocabulary as if seen through a distorting mirror. Jigsaw-puzzle compactness; dramatic intersections of stylized light and shadow; ambiguous elisions of ironed-out planes—all these by now familiar Cubist devices are suddenly directed toward the creation of a monster whose distortions no longer seem the byproduct, but rather the very goal, of the Cubist’s freedom to rearrange the human form within the warped network of planes that describes a wall with a red decorative moulding and the diagonal weave of a chairback, a woman in a black-striped dress is transformed into an image of ritual horror that recalls both the unsettling power of African Negro masks and the iconic stare and intensity of the Romanesque frescoes of Picasso’s native Spain. Anatomy is wildly re-invented. One hand becomes a stump that echoes the wriggling lines of print in an open book; the other, a no less subhuman claw. Breasts and face are reduced to magical nodes of nipples, eyes, nostrils, ears and mouth that cut far below the decorous environment of a domestic interior that shelters a reading woman. Indeed, these inanimate trappings of civilization—chairs, clothing, books, walls—become more and more ironically opposed to the humanoid beings that move among them. As if on the psychiatrist’s couch, these creatures seem to be divested of censoring will and intellect so that we may uncover, if we dare, hidden realms of desire and sexuality, fear and sadism.

Typically for his virile biography, Picasso generally practices these pictorial psychoanalyses on women, who may be metamorphosed alternately into mysterious receptacles of tender and voluptuous procreative power or bestial creatures that, like female mantises, savagely await their sexual prey. In both cases, however, the descent from the human to the subhuman, from the conscious to the subconscious, dominates Picasso’s imagery of the late twenties and thirties, as it does that of the more orthodox Surrealists.

Some of these women are of an almost unbearable ugliness and brutality. In a head of 1928, Picasso lowers the human race to the very bottom of the evolutionary ladder, disclosing an amoeboid creature which parallels the squirming, unicellular organisms that pulsate throughout Miró’s equally elemental world of Surrealist biology. The mouth, crudely contracted as if with tooth like stitching, provides the most primitive of orifices; two unclosing eyes add another basic biological function; and six bristles of hair might almost be antennae seen through a microscope.

Elsewhere, this biomorphic vocabulary, whose undulant, protoplasmic shapes are so foreign to the cerebral geometries of early Cubism, can change to a spiky aggressiveness, as of some carapaced reptile. Occasionally the fracturings of Cubism could produce a whimsically grotesque face, but in the late twenties, these sharp planes and acute angles become truly menacing. In one figure of 1929, which brilliantly asserts the Spanish color scheme of red, yellow, and black so recurrent in Picasso’s and Miró’s work, the breasts and nose are as pointed as arm or and the tongue becomes a barb that darts across a mirror frame from behind a row of subhuman teeth. Two creatures of the same prehistoric race are found in Heads, also of 1929. All the more disarming because of the prim striped dresses and tidy beaded collars, these scarecrows, with tongues like sword tips and skin like a shield, confront each other in a mirrorlike colloquy whose impact is at once comical and hideous. And in Woman in an Armchair of 1929, this most Spanish equation for the grotesque is maintained. If one is amused by the leisurely abandon of this white-frocked monster who relaxes in an armchair upholstered with purple and yellow stripes, one is no less horrified by her anatomy. A pinpointed head with beady eyes and insectlike mouth; fatty, sunburned limbs and breasts that burst from a tightly corseted robe—these transform her into an ancestor of the less equivocal horror of de Kooning’s women of the early fifties.

In the late twenties and thirties, this fathoming of concealed, irrational forces is reflected, too, in Picasso’s attachment to the theme of the artist in his studio and, more particularly, the very act of translating nature into art. In Cubism, this interplay between the worlds of art and reality had also dominated Picasso’s new objectifications of the components of pictorial illusion and, even more, his witty shufflings of true and false in the collages; but these concerns pertained more to a domain of intellectual and formalist investigation. Now, the artistic process becomes something magical and incomprehensible, as if Picasso were trying to seek out the ritualistic mysteries associated with the dawn of art. Sometimes, these quiet and intense confrontations between artist and subject occur within the calm, arcadian environment of his Neoclassic style, as in the ravishing outline etchings of 1933, The Sculptor’s Studio. But elsewhere—in one of the last plates of this series (May 4, 1933) and in the 1934 etching; that balances a ferociously hirsute and leonine Rembrandt against a nude of classical tranquility—this relation between artist and model can become a bizarre dialectic between the ideal and the grotesque. Similarly, in the Harlequin of 1927, Picasso takes one of his favorite motifs, transforms it into a monster of gaping parrot eyes and sphincteral mouth ringed with teeth, and then, by setting it into a picture-within-a-picture and casting across it a magically luminous classical profile that is distortedly reflected in the flowing contours of the harlequin, evokes the mysteries of the artist’s ability to create both transcendent beauty and ugliness.

Although Picasso himself would disclaim his allegiance to orthodox Surrealism in anything but such composite furniture-figures as seen in some of the Dalíesque drawings of the summer, 1933, it might nevertheless be argued that his masterpieces of the early thirties are, in fact, the greatest triumph of the Surrealists’ efforts to create a pictorial style and imagery appropriate to the exploration of dreams, and to the uncovering of those profound biological roots that link man more firmly to irrational nature than to a technological civilization. To do this, Picasso invented a language of multiple metaphors far more evocative and poetic than the more literal-minded trompe-l’oeil double-images and fantastic figures of many of the Surrealists who attempted to unchain the subconscious. The capital year of this achievement was 1932, when Picasso was living in relative seclusion at the Château de Boisgeloup with a woman, Marie-Thérèse Walter, whose drowsy, bovine nature is constantly reflected in the work of the early thirties. Again and again, Picasso would seize various moods of repose in his painting, ranging from catnaps and daydreams to the most profound slumber, and would miraculously find visual equivalents to describe this progressive dissolution of consciousness.

In two works, the grey reverie of the sibylline Seated Woman of summer, 1932, moves further and further inward to unveil the erotic mysteries of deep sleep. With the Nude on a Black Couch of March 9, 1932 and Reclining Nude of July, 1932—two paintings that bracket chronologically the pictorial and poetic summit of these meditations, the Girl Before a Mirror—Picasso’s genius is at its height. The earlier work may be profitably compared with the Sleeping Peasants of 1919 in order to perceive the shift in Picasso’s art from the description of physical to psychological realities, for the position of the sleeping woman is almost identical in these two pictures. In the former, Picasso grasps the qualities of coarse, peasant torpor—a noonday siesta under a scorching sun that turns the giant figure in to a sodden, earth bound weight. In the 1932 image of sleep, the release occurs in a subconscious realm; for the body now seems deprived of material substance, while nevertheless retaining the rounded fullness of female fertility. This descent below consciousness is achieved by pictorial puns which may depend ultimately on the visual double-entendres of Cubism, but which exist here in an anti-intellectual realm of erotic magic that stands as one of the highpoints of Surrealist poetry. Thus, night, love, and pro creation are suggested by the hair, which also becomes a kind of seed that just touches an ovarian breast; by the green stem and white flower that grow from a hand relaxed in sleep; by the crescent-moon shape of a closed eye; or by the philodendrons that, newly nurtured by the orange-red heat of dawn just visible through the window, rise from the protective, uterine folds of black couch and lavender flesh.

The same voluptuous surrender to sleep may be seen in the later Reclining Nude. Here again, the body is steeped with shades of lavender and purple, nocturnal colors that, in the thirties, often convey for Picasso a growing intensity of sleep and inwardness that would vanish under the physical light of day. Slumbering on a green meadow alive with white flowers, the nude once more becomes a vessel of fertility in harmony with nature. In a characteristically Surrealist metaphor, her blonde hair can be read simultaneously as leaf, seed, and vulva; and the burgeoning plants that sprout in the background stem from human thighs that, like fresh tendrils, are outlined in green. Bones, joints, even fingers and toes are absorbed into this sensual convolution of swelling, germinal flesh. In such figures, Picasso offers among the most brilliant realizations of the Surrealist vocabulary of organic, throbbing shapes that animated so much sculpture and painting of the late twenties and thirties; witness Arp and Moore, Miró and Dalí.

With his customary refusal to relax into a single style or mood, Picasso, during the same productive summer of 1932, painted the Bather with a Ball, which abruptly contradicts not only the hushed stillness of these sleeping fertility goddesses but also their adherence to a language of immaterial flatness. The beach had been a recurrent setting in Picasso’s work, evoking in his earliest years a kind of social wasteland, to which his beggars and circus figures were exiled; in his Neoclassic mode, a pagan idyll of Mediterranean calm and freedom; and now, in his Surrealist years, a natural environment that permitted a maximum of animal liberty to the human species. Figures swimming and cavorting on the sand were a common theme in the twenties, but this playful mood could sometimes turn into a kind of grotesquerie familiar to the beach scenes of Miró and Dalí, where the water’s edge often becomes a metaphor of the fringe of consciousness. In this painting, a prosaic beachside activity—a bather chasing a beachball—is transformed into a monstrous spectacle that, like Miró’s Figure Throwing a Stone at a Bird, can be read as hilariously comic or terrifyingly ugly. To describe this ludicrous scene, Picasso has invented astonishing puns. The bather herself—all rounded buttocks, breasts, and limbs—is made of a grey, pneumatic substance, like the inflated rubber she pursues; whereas the beachball has lost a dimension and will thus always elude her clumsy, fingerless grasp. This spherical anatomy, at first just a parody of a summer commonplace, takes on a truly Surrealist flavor in the treatment of head and hair. Recalling the invertebrate, submarine beings of Miró, this lady, appropriately enough to the seaside atmosphere, is part squid—her face, a gummy bulb, her mouth, a vertical air vent; her hair, the sea-swept tentacles that jet-propel the creature sideways and forward in pursuit of its prey. And if formal considerations may be raised in so unsettling an image of humanity, it should be added that Picasso offers, too, a dazzling interplay of two and three dimensions, so that ultimately, as in a Cubist painting, this swollen figure is tautly compressed into a flattened seascape whose deepest plane, marked by the tiny French flag, appears simultaneously to be located on the picture surface. Similarly, the Plaster Bust and Compote of 1933 juggles the continuous flatness of the background and linear still life against the vigorous spatial implications of a cubic statue base and the writhing, pendulous curves of a weirdly animate plaster head.

In the mid-thirties, Picasso’s pictorial activity slackened somewhat, at least by comparison with his usual protean standards, and the works of these years often yield a cloistered silence that provides a quiet coda to the great introspective images of 1932. Two Girls Reading of 1934 and The Poet’s Attic of 1936 bear out this meditative mood, in which figures, in strangely illuminated rooms, contemplate books or slumber at a writing table. In the latter work, odd prophecies of Guernica may be seen, not only in the grisaille palette, with its bleak network of light and shadow, but in the overhead lamp and distorted interior perspective. It was, indeed, the ominous calm before the storm. When German planes bombed the Basque capital of Guernica late in the afternoon of Monday, April 26, 1937, Picasso had already protested the Spanish regime in his Dream and Lie of Franco, whose sadistic monsters and convulsive agonies were also reflected in the Spanish Civil War paintings of his compatriots Miró and Dalí. But this esoteric fantasy of words and images was swiftly converted to the public statement of Guernica, which recorded, like the flashbulb of a news photographer, the unspeakable realities of the mid twentieth century world. More than a century earlier, another Spanish artist, Goya, had likewise alternated between the blackest nightmares of a witches’ world and the blackest reportorial facts of a war-torn Spain. Thus, in Guernica and in the frenetic studies that precede and follow it, the most un believable of Picasso’s Surrealist inventions are instantly changed into the documentary truth of women’s faces hideously knotted with pain, savagely pierced with tears. That one can so quickly bridge the gap between these pathetic creatures, reduced to animal suffering, and the monsters of the Surrealist years is not only a testimony to the tragedy of our own century, but to Picasso’s relentless inquiry into the nature of modern man.

Robert Rosenblum



The essay above is reprinted from the exhibition catalog, Picasso and Man, The Art Gallery of Toronto, 1964. The works discussed are restricted to those included in the exhibition.