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Picasso’s moment of clarity

Marie Therese Walter and Maya

The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews.

-W.H. Auden

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When I was visiting the L.A. County Museum of Art a year ago, I came across the final print from Picasso’s Vollard Suite in Fantasies and Fairy Tales, a small, beautifully curated selection of graphic work by various artists from around the early 20th century. It immediately changed my emotional response to Picasso as a visual artist. It struck me as fine in a way so much of his work isn’t—there was a subservient care for the image itself that seems largely absent from so much of Picasso’s work. Usually, he forces his images to work, creating an image that feels kinetic and improvisational, without many pains taken for any other quality. I’d seen reproductions of the print, but never before actually noticed the self-effacing craftsmanship that went into the dreamy light that illuminates his figures in the Vollard print. By establishing that diffuse stage lighting, from below the players, with the light source hidden off to the left at ground level, he bathes the last moments before the Minotaur’s violent death with an inviting, tranquil peace (if you interpret the print as his version of the myth of Theseus). I wasn’t familiar with this narrative at the time, but simply responded to how brilliantly Picasso achieved something here that seemed visually distinct from his most familiar and famous work. The scene was intimate, intensely personal, full of emotion and tenderness, conveyed with masterful, loving craftsmanship. These formal qualities of the image and the print, a combination of aquatint, drypoint and engraving, left me wanting to know more. That one glimpse of the Minotaur prompted me, once I got back home, to order Picasso Prints: The Vollard Suite, and to keep returning to it through the rest of 2019, off and on studying what Picasso had done in it, leading me to conclude that these prints may have been his most original and personal (those two adjectives are mutually dependent) contribution to Western art. Much of the suite may not rank as his finest work on technical grounds, nor his most beautiful, nor his best on many different levels, but they are what I would save of everything he did, if I had to pick one achievement of his to take to a desert isle. I suspect no one else in the history of art has done what Picasso did here: it’s almost as if he is undercutting and cancelling everything he’s accomplishing as he achieves it, fusing the act of creation and destruction and creating images of great beauty in the process. All of this was in the service of the brief stirrings of a moral self-doubt he managed to suppress in himself once he’d painted Guernica, which served as a sort of footnote to this series of prints.

 

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The Vollard Suite isn’t what I like most from Picasso, which have to be his portraits of various lovers, wives and children, and the often beautifully lit paintings of massive, neoclassical women. Some of his abstracted figures are powerful, but most of his work as he was inventing Cubism with Braque seems monotonous in retrospect. What makes the Vollard Suite unique is also what makes it ahistorical, though the series is clearly of its time: modern in the sense of being thoroughly anchored in surrealism, with a glance or two back toward Cubism. It’s also postmodern in its many self-referential subversions of its own beauty. Yet it’s mostly neoclassical in spirit, tone and ambition—to an almost reactionary degree—though his masterful lines morph into something rich and strange before he’s finished. These prints hint at a yearning for innocence through the intensity of their plea for lucidity, for an impossible way out of the blind passions that invest them with life. They yearn for goodness and wisdom, and even offer the glimpse of an ambiguous spiritual harbor, which remains just out of reach.

Almost none of these characteristics can be found elsewhere in Picasso’s work, and his public persona never hinted at any trace of brooding in his personality. In his life, he comes across as the picture of health and strength, a happy, self-absorbed, sunny Mediterranean hedonist. Mostly, throughout his career, Picasso revels in the ease of his talent, his incredible facility with line, his priapic energy and inventiveness, his cleverness in seeing and seizing an emerging market for certain kinds of work, and his ability to promote himself as a sort of cross between sexual conqueror and family man, violator of taboos, both moral and artistic, while also coming across as a paterfamilias who loved letting kids run rampant in his chaotic studio. The Vollard Suite depicts some aspects of this multiple persona. It showcases Picasso’s incredible gifts as a draftsman, his Jedi-like ability to create a world of beauty with a few gestures. But ultimately the suite builds to a new self-awareness, a doubt that verges on despair. The work as a whole is, among everything else, a self-portrait, and what he sees in the mirror of his art is beautiful and monstrous, and this self-awareness only intensifies the work’s power and beauty. That’s the paradox that locks him inside this maze of images as he creates it. It’s Picasso’s most inexhaustible work, partly because it asks what his art is and shows the toll it takes. He asks whether it amounts to anything but a pointless, meaningless will to power, and he comes up empty. His dread is that all of his art, and maybe all art, amounts to nothing more than self-aggrandizing grotesquerie or beauty. This is what drives the work toward its enigmatic, penultimate print, Minotauromachy and its sister, Guernica. 

Normally, I wouldn’t be drawn to any of this. The Vollard Suite is full of meaning, and visual art isn’t doing what it’s best equipped to do when it’s generating meaning. Painting does its greatest work immediately and perceptually, sensorily, bypassing ideas and concepts. This series of prints is full of ideas. Picasso wants you to see how, as he continues making these prints throughout the 1930s, he is attempting to stand back from his own work to see the spiritual price he pays for the ability to make it.

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In his famous painting of Raphael, Ingres gives all the power to the Renaissance painter’s mistress, who gazes at the viewer almost with a wink of pride and pleasure. She rules the studio. She has brought the famous Renaissance painter to heel through the image he is painting of her: she enraptures Raphael by proxy. This is a painting about her, not Raphael, and he has submitted to her beauty far more thoroughly than she has submitted to his gaze. She subjugates him by doing nothing but being there in his presence. She remains serenely inviolate, on top. He isn’t looking at her. He is more interested in looking at his painting of her than of having sex with his readily available consort. Vasari’s legend was that Raphael killed himself with lust: depleted and exhausted from his erotic devotions, he died young. Ingres depicts him as less interested in his love than in how she could enable him to paint. Either way, his passion wore him out, dying at the age of 37.

The need for sex as a catalyst for art is the central subject of The Vollard Suite. Many images in the suite are about the centrality of the human gaze in sex and visual art. In a similar way, the Ingres painting shows how the craving to see what one can create can govern an individual, regardless of the consequences. Picasso was obsessed with Ingres, and that neoclassicist’s La Fornarina serves as a key to The Vollard Suite, as Stephen Coppel notes in his commentary. In that painting, La Fornarina is as much in control of everything around her as are the women in Fragonard’s The Progress of Love at The Frick. Women pick men, not the other way around. Proust’s description of how Odette seduces Charles Swann in the first volume of his great novel shows how she gradually and patiently addicts him to her cleverness over time, having chosen him long before he mistakenly thinks he is choosing this her. She transforms his Platonic interest in her—a woman who isn’t his type and doesn’t strike him as terribly attractive—into a sexual obsession that destroys his authenticity as a person and prevents him from finding himself as an art critic. One can read the same scenario into the Ingres painting, except the outcome is the reverse: Raphael becomes himself, achieves his maturity as an artist because of his mistress—she doesn’t destroy him, she creates him. Picasso had to have been thinking of this painting by Ingres throughout his creation of The Vollard Suite. It’s a great blueprint for what’s happening throughout the suite: though in the foreground you can see Picasso’s sense of self-doubt and skepticism over his own erotic exploitation of women for his art, he’s clear-eyed enough to recognize that what he seeks in his lovers is actually beyond his ability to appropriate it. (As it always is in Proust.) Marie-Therese represents more than sex here. She is Picasso’s La Fornarina, but also his Beatrice, even though she can’t light the way for him to escape the claustrophobia of his own compulsions.

At the basest level, what women represent in The Vollard Suite ought to be catnip to Donald Kuspit, who leans heavily on Freudian in his criticism. The Vollard Suite gets to the heart of his insistence that art be about embodiment, acceptance of the body and its drives. His critique of DuChamp is that the cerebral theorist loathed his body and its needs and thus hated art. Kuspit doesn’t address how much Picasso’s example could serve as a lesson to confirm his own insistence on how art needs to embrace bodily life. Picasso ought to be the artistic hero for a Freudian: everything for Picasso originates in sex. In an excoriating essay on Picasso, published last April, Donald Kuspit brilliantly skewers Picasso as a sort of vampire, bleeding the life out of everything of quality in the past—taking the Old Masters and pushing them through the meat grinder of his fragmentary art, debasing what was of the greatest value in the Western tradition and subjecting it to his post-modern mockery. It’s all classically Oedipal, in his view, killing his artistic fathers, one by one. It’s a deliciously contrarian critique of the greatest of all the celebrity artists, and it’s full of truth. Kuspit writes: “He took on Courbet, Delacroix, Goya, Manet, Delacroix, Rembrandt, and perhaps most famously Velazquez’s Las Meninas. They were his antagonists, and he boldly attacked them with violent rage, triumphing over them by destroying their works.” He continues: “His great art, born of his compulsion to work and fuck, is fueled by great self-doubt, informed by cynical recognition that greater art existed—and, more broadly, that art had already happened, and in a sense was over.” Later in the essay, Picasso expands to cosmic proportions, becoming for Kuspit not only a sort of Gnostic demiurge but also a Catholic Grand Inquisitor. To sum it up, he’s primordially bad, as man and artist, even though he’s the perfect exemplification of Freud’s psychology. He’s acting out Freud’s whole psychosexual drama. It’s unclear why a strictly Freudian critic would find anything missing here.

Regardless, one passage from this essay alone demonstrates Kuspit’s brilliance, summarizing the predicament for an artist now, where the only real answer to an infinite multiplicity of opportunities is to focus on individuation. The challenge is to create work governed by genuine love, excavated in solitude through years of discipline (though I don’t think Kuspit would use the world love, since Freud has no room for it in his biology):

Picasso epitomizes the paradoxical situation of modern art: on the one hand, a sense of infinite possibilities, of optimistic openness—a sense that “anything goes”; on the other hand, a sense of déjà vu, the depressing realization that everything has been done before, that all a modern artist can do is exploit and riff off some art of the past, improvise his or her individuality out of its remains. In other words, modern art is oddly regressive however progressive it claims to be, for it is grounded in pre-modern art. Neo-classical Picasso cursorily copies it, Cubist Picasso nihilistically tears it apart, Surrealist Picasso perversely distorts it, but without it there is no “modern” Picasso. His art is a kind of malicious, sarcastic commentary on traditional art based on an encyclopedic knowledge of it. He consumed it with a defensive rapidity; destroying it he became creative, ingeniously raping it he became a cynical genius.

It sums up visual art’s predicament. Yet I keep coming back to what’s implicit in the passionate craftsmanship of The Vollard Suite and how it almost leads Picasso toward a way to transcend himself and his situation. What enables Picasso to do work of genuine quality in these prints is that he is bound by the commission, the job at hand. He is serving someone and something other than himself. This submission to external requirements finds expression in the great care he invests in his marks, the exquisite neoclassical line of the early and middle prints, then the frenetic, almost psychotic intensity of the Surrealist imagery. The quality of attention to the image, the work itself, is incredible and it’s that intensity of attention that opens the door to what make this series of prints the work where Picasso most fully realizes himself as an individual artist. Yet despite the quality of his craft, all along he knows the work is ending up as little more than a meditation about his transformation of a particular kind of irresponsible erotic love into art. He is brutally honest about himself in these prints and his self-doubt here gives the work an uncompromising humility, qualities completely alien to the rest of his work.

The Vollard Suite shows how this great, modernist revolutionary found his most heartfelt home as an artist in Neoclassicism of all things: it was his bulwark (no pun intended) against the chaos of his own impulses and appetites. (As it was for many artists after the horror of the First World War.) It’s there in some of the earliest work and resurfaces again and again over the decades. The figures in his Blue and Rose Periods draw much of their evocative beauty from their masterful fidelity to the outline of natural human form, and a draftsmanship that often edged toward caricature was confident and nuanced and full of feeling. Kuspit sees only post-modern destruction of previous art in Picasso’s assimilation of someone like Ingres, but here Ingres is someone he imitates out of genuine respect, love and admiration. Here, the only artist he intends to destroy is himself.

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In 2012 British Museum Press published Picasso Prints, The Vollard Suite edited by Stephen Coppel. It offers a way to walk through the entire suite, in rough chronological order, with some slight shuffling to present the prints in a sequence of “movements” as it were: the earliest collection of prints leading to the central themes: Battle of Love (euphemism for rape), Rembrandt, The Sculptor’s Studio, The Minotaur, and The Blind Minotaur (followed by the postscript of the final three tribute portraits of Ambroise Vollard, the art dealer who commissioned the work.

The images begin with female nudes that have the simplicity of forms on Attic pottery, images of repose and tranquillity. They are beautiful in their minimal, almost cartoonish line, like the work of a precocious child. They point back to the Blue and Rose periods. The line drawings in the suite, in general, echo not only pencil portraits Ingres did, but also the masterful drawings Matisse was doing at roughly the same time. The proportions and monumentality of these women sometimes bring to mind Maillol or Henry Moore or even Braque’s Canephora. Among these simple outlines of female nudes, he interjects figures more densely inscribed and then suddenly, in Man Uncovering a Woman, a menacing male intruder, looming over a sleeping woman. In a striking way, the interloper prefigures Francis Bacon’s taut, twisted males, decades later. The man breaks into the scene, frozen in the pose of voyeur, threatening to do more than just loom. A few etchings later, the ninth depicts a reworking of the same scene, entitled Rape. The suite shuttles back and forth between alternate visions of this world where people gaze at each other or at figures turned into objects. The gazing male is creative or dangerous, while the female serves as audience, victim, idol, or passive inspiration—completely objectified. Two prints later, with lines that seem to be the track of a palsied hand, he sketches three women and a flute-player in a swirling composition, like a quick notebook study for one of William Blake’s whirlwinds. The viewer begins to ask, where is this going?

What began as a yearning, static, neo-classical homage to the human figure has morphed into something unpredictable, unstable, hallucinatory, drawing from multiple influences and periods of art history. In the process, Picasso attempts to face and depict the moral and spiritual ambiguity of what he’s doing in his life and art.

In the Picasso Prints sorting, the twelfth and thirteenth etchings are two of the most fascinating and resonant, hinting at the phantasmagoria to come. The twelfth offers a simple, amazingly individualized line drawing of a young man, arms open as if for a hug, as he gazes reflectively at the figure of an old man smoking a pipe, drawn in intricate, almost psychedelic curlicues, rows and rows of them, his beard a dense nest of dreadlocks. The title is Two Catalan Drinkers, but the image could also be interpreted as the moment when a young artist slowly withdraws his hands after having made the last modification to a sculpture of an aged man assembled out of what could have been twisted shavings from a metal lathe. Across from him, Picasso opposes the relaxed, confident and life-like young sculptor gazing at this solidified phantom, maybe a premonition of the younger man’s future self, half a century hence, a beret still atop his head. It appears to be a confrontation between an actual person facing the materialization of his inner apprehensions. It’s a realization of the governing dynamic throughout the series: the act of looking and of being observed, the merging of subject and object, and the act of creating what is observed. In this case the creator and creation, subject and object, could easily be identical.

The closed system of this creativity, the way it shuts out the larger world, the way in which everything in the series seems to become a projection of the mind and desires of its creator—as if all of Picasso’s art is solipsistic self-portraiture—becomes a trap, a labyrinth. In the last of these prints, the richest of the series, Picasso asks how to escape this trap. Everything finds its apotheosis in the figure of the Minotaur, its violence, appetite, imprisonment, and ultimately its doom. The way the old man is drawn, the almost compulsive density of its lines, recurs in the way Picasso draws the winged bull in the next etching—a precursor of the Minotaur, as well as his rendering of Rembrandt further on. (Rembrandt is presented almost as a harmless besotted voyeur—confirming Donald Kuspit’s thesis about Picasso’s destructive mockery of the past, in this case turning Rembrandt into a clown.) In a similar way, the winged, griffin-like bull in the thirteenth print stands in powerless obedience on a freak show stage for an audience of four young women, awed, apprehensive, but also amused. This hybrid of a Minotaur has become an entertainment, a carnival exhibit, a new exotic car on a showroom floor. Like Rembrandt, who will appear a few prints later, he has dizzy little spirals for eyes. At this point, he is the captured object for the female gaze, a marvel, an attraction, part woman himself, part beast, part bird. He is the vassal, the man in love. He is their amusement, their prize. We aren’t even a fifth of the way into The Vollard Suite and already Picasso has drawn the viewer into his Surrealist alternate reality where the marauding Minotaur becomes a feeble, lost captive in his own predatory arena. (An arena where the women end up safely beyond his power.)

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The experience of refining one’s skill as a painter is one of increasing submission. This is a truth Picasso exemplifies only in his best work. It’s a paradox of mastery in that it puts the painter utterly at the mercy of what has to be done, what the painting requires, not what the painter wants. The task is the master and the greatest painter is merely equal to its demands. On rare occasions the job’s requirements and the painter’s desires perfectly merge and the ability to do what’s required feels like power. In Picasso’s case, more often than not, he gives the impression of being determined to impose his desires on his medium and force the emergences of an equally domineering image that demands the viewer’s assent, over which Picasso exerts arbitrary control, in service to nothing but his impulses. It isn’t hard to take that sentence and replace some nouns and have a good description of his relationship with women: women went from goddess to doormat after a certain period of time. Guernica has much of this quality, and its dismayed reception when it was unveiled in the town of Guernica reveals how much Picasso disdained those who accepted his status as a major artist and commissioned his work. Yet his neoclassical figures are an exception, along with much of his early work, and in some of the portraits of his wives and lovers, where he submits to the requirements of craft and precision and is clearly serving something other his desire to paint. This is what he does in The Vollard Suite.

Anyone who leafs through the Coppel publication will be struck by how, occasionally, it shows Picasso’s bridling at the requirement of his commission. Some of the prints are images he might have destroyed if he hadn’t had to fill out the collection to deliver the agreed-upon one hundred prints. Heads and Figures Entangled is a sheet of studies pulled from a cracked plate. Cracked or whole, he didn’t care and included it as as the 18th print. Female Bullfighter III appears to have so frustrated the artist that he scratched three thick vertical lines through it to cancel it. No matter. In it went. The hubris of his disrespect for the set’s integrity reveals his ambivalence about himself and his role as celebrity painter. It’s as if he wants to show himself up as a fraud, knowing that his reputation makes him invulnerable. The quality of what he does hardly matters now. Picasso claimed that everything he did was the visual equivalent of an autobiographical notebook and thus worthy of interest. Even his worst work should be hung or published beside his best. In this case, the inclusion of the inferior or flawed or incomplete work actually serves to highlight the quality of the rest. A canceled and awkward sketch appears side-by-side with a vertiginous and densely drawn dream of a sleeping or unconscious woman sandwiched between a marauding bull and a frantic horse—one of the most powerful and carefully crafted dreams in the entire collection. If nothing else, the inferior work on the adjacent page amplifies this one’s magnificence.

One would rarely think of Picasso as personally or artistically careful as he is in drawings like this. The history of his erotic life shows how much he served his impulses, regardless of the consequences, going from one woman to the next as soon as his current relationship constrained him. A pregnancy was often the signal that it was time to move on. An early mistress, known as Madeleine, had an abortion, as a result of her affair with Picasso, but was soon abandoned. Another mistress he allegedly kidnapped: she escaped and then returned to him later, apparently won over by the audacity of his crime. When Olga Khokhlova, his wife at the time he was creating The Vollard Suite, became pregnant, his marriage began to dissolve, at which point he seduced and began his affair with Marie Therese—keeping her as his mistress. And, inevitably, his recurrent seven year itch destroyed his idyll with Marie Therese around the time she became pregnant by him—at which point Olga left him and refused to give him a divorce. It’s hard to think of his love life as anything but an epic catastrophe, in moral or simply logistical terms. Marie Therese, probably the most vulnerable of all his lovers, continued to raise their child, with Picasso’s assistance and continued devotion–years after they parted ways–and she committed suicide in the 1970s, but only after Picasso died. He continued to love her and care for her and his daughter even when he was living with his later wives.

All of this emotional waywardness has been obsessively documented, but The Vollard Suite offers evidence that these years almost exclusively devoted to Marie-Therese were qualitatively different from any other period of Picasso’s life. She awakened in him the stirrings of a moral consciousness and possibly a sense of spiritual yearning otherwise completely alien to his personality and character. She seemed to open a small window of spiritual opportunity for Picasso, which he recognized and then rejected. She was his moment of clarity, but he declined to act on it.

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After the early images, the suite shifts gear briefly, just before the violence appears, moving into a shadowy, reverent chiaroscuro in a brief sequence of two prints that show a male figure in adoring attendance beside a sleeping woman. These two hint at the only real faith Picasso had: it was this recurring worship for one woman after another for as long as he could regard her as an idol, a goddess, someone whose beauty transformed all of his perceptions, renewing him and his appetite for life. In these two prints–a male observer, a boy slightly reminiscent of Picasso’s images of Pierrot, and a centaur reaching for a nude woman asleep in her chamber–he shows the tentative, dazzled spirit of someone who is entirely dependent on a woman’s beauty to find his bearings in the world.

For Picasso, being in love, and the sex it entailed, was his addiction and his only faith. He was observant enough to have already become familiar with both the creative and destructive sides of this quest. In these gentle, glowing images of worship he offers the viewer a moment to see the benevolent side of his passion. Then, immediately—in the sequence provided by Coppel’s book—he coldcocks you with one image of rape after another. The human figures look as if they are chiseled from stone, assembled out of granite shards, devoid of warmth, like the ghostly stone molds of people who were fossilized in the eruption of Pompeii. The images are as stark and honest as anything Picasso ever created, and they are testimony not simply to the rough sex he may have favored, but to his deep ambivalence about himself and his life. This is where The Vollard Suite distinguishes itself from nearly everything else Picasso created: in the intense self-doubt that begins a third of the way into the suite and becomes more and more explicit as it moves toward its conclusion.

His idiosyncratic drawings of a clownish Rembrandt follow this bleak glimpse of Picasso’s use of force to get what he wants—as if to suggest all he can see through the haze of his own erotic reverie is an old artist reduced to voyeuristic impotence, another glimpse of his own future. These projections of himself onto Rembrandt echo the paradox at the heart of The Vollard Suite—it shows a man helplessly aware of his own lostness clinging to the hope that the artwork this awareness generates might redeem him. Picasso has to keep losing his way in order find himself as an artist. This set of etchings and aquatints, and the labor he put into them over seven years, should be considered Picasso’s most original work, in that it’s doing something, in its recursiveness—the way in which it assert and cancels itself out at one and the same time—that few artists have ever felt the need to attempt. Picasso was self-aware, throughout this work, in an unsparing way, giving the suite what is virtually a unique place in Western art. (Picasso knew he was a pretender, a trickster, a predator. It isn’t hard to argue that Picasso merely slipstreamed behind Braque in the invention of Cubism, Braque being the artist who most wanted to become Cezanne. But the self-awareness in The Vollard Suite is moral. It’s as much about Picasso’s personal life as it is about his art.)

If you think of Melville’s essay on the whiteness of the whale, Picasso in these years is a bit like Ahab catching sight of the whale, finding absolute fulfillment of his purpose—creating art of multi-faceted complexity, realizing himself as an artist more fully than he would before or after. But as he does so, he sees that it’s about nothing but sex. As such, he’s an illustration of Freud’s theories, since Freud reduces human nature to an elaborite charade staged around sexual desire, or a sublimation of that urge into other activities. What else is Picasso demonstrating here? To recognize this, as Picasso was doing, had to have been equivalent to Nietzsche’s realization that the world was nothing but the will to power, blind, senseless, meaningless, with no purpose other than the amplification of itself.  Sex and power (creative and personal) are virtually indistinguishable in these prints. Picasso recognizes the senselessness of the whole endeavor, the almost non-human compulsion at the heart of it—and yet he won’t stop, even as he recognizes that his work (along with the suggestions that maybe human motivation itself), is as destructive as it is creative.

His monumental paintings, Demoiselles d’Avignon and Guernica can be, and usually are, touted as historic achievements, pinnacles of invention, and the high points of Picasso’s seminal role in the modern era. But in comparison with the Vollard prints, they are relatively easy to interpret and seem like desperate bids for attention. By contrast, the prints are far more dense with craftsmanship and meaning. Guernica, in formal terms, feels like a falling away, a strident denunciation, a decline from the imaginative intensity and paradoxical ambiguities, the scrupulous craft and restraint that lift these prints into a dimension completely different from so much of Picasso’s work. Guernica is a spectacular indictment of technological warfare and human suffering. It wins its place in history by pimping, for political credit, the supple and elusive personal mythology that emerges from The Vollard Suite.

The lovely and appalling nightmare of the Vollard prints make Guernica’s political outrage look simplistically shrill, a collapse into a politically correct scream against an atrocity everyone already condemns. No one would disagree with it. It’s a sure win. It’s the safest image Picasso ever made, even if its sponsors disliked it. In Guernica, the accusation points outward at fascism, but The Vollard Suite aims its indictment at itself. The prints calls into question all human motivation and the nature of erotic love as the taproot of human creativity. Picasso brings you right up to the verge of showing you how easily it all implodes into a sort of cheesiness—from within.

Yet in all fairness he also shows the bliss. Midway, the suite becomes a long, graceful celebration of the happiness he must have enjoyed for several years with Marie Therese, making love and making art. In one print after another, Picasso displays his brilliant ability to create vivid images, full of life and personality with the most sparing use of line. In some cases, his talent for delineating the expressions in a face, the intelligence and emotion in a pair of eyes, with lines that must have taken less than a minute to lay down—it’s astonishing. He can create a uniquely individual face with a few marks of a stylus. I reacted to some of these prints the way David Hockney did when he gazed at Rembrandt’s quick sketch of a mother teaching her child to walk, almost magically accurate, in the way the Zen brevity of Asian ink drawings can convey the inner life of a bird or a plant with five or six strokes of ink on paper. Picasso’s line can turn a blank page into a world of erotic and artistic euphoria seemingly without effort—it’s the act of seeing reduced to the simplest terms. Though many see echoes of the Pygmalion myth in this large middle section devoted to happiness, I see it as just the opposite. Sculpture isn’t springing to life, but the other way around: Picasso’s project is to de-animate life into art, at the expense of life, like those human effigies from Pompeii.

These languorous figures dwell in the eye of a storm, with the series of rapes at the beginning and the dense, troubled visions of the Minotaur that arrive afterward. He first appears as a clueless, hirsute fellow bacchante, turning the beauty of those studio-bedrooms into a sketchy free-for-all. The Minotaur’s appearance hints that something is odd and ominous at the heart of this bliss. Horse and bulls appear, ghosts of the bullfight, harmlessly attending the after-orgy, as it were, but in their roles they remind the viewer of violence, death, the animal origins of human life. They serve as a harbinger of the final prints where the tragic figure of the Minotaur appears.

When Picasso shifts to his central subject, the Minotaur, the loveliness of the previous images degrades into reminders of the earlier rape scenes, the bullfight—the Minotaur is seen vanquished and dying with a weird audience of Marie Therese clones, looking down from their stadium seats on the wounded beast. In another print, a male figure hovers over a sleeping woman, but the dense nest of lines rendering his head looks like a storm cloud or some demonic materialization ready to occupy her head. This leads to the final set of prints, three studies for his image of the blinded Minotaur, and the print I saw at LACMA, in which he shows where his life and his work has led him, in 1935. As Coppel points out in the introduction to these last images, Marie Therese had become pregnant, Olga had left him, refusing the divorce, and he had been smitten with Dora Maar, knowing where his new infatuation will lead—away from the girl who had been his hope, his dream, and the center of his imaginative life for half a decade. Coppel quotes Picasso: “These were the worst days of my life.” Around all of this personal drama, Europe’s political divisions were coming to a boil, all of which imbued these final prints with foreboding and a sense of doom—but somehow Picasso found a way to make these darkest and most complex prints the most enchanted. This almost magical quality is what, for me, makes this moment, these final images, which represent a rapture of intense and careful craftsmanship, the pinnacle of Picasso’s career—the ecstasy has become misery, but the misery has become a supple, mysterious beauty through the alchemy of Picasso’s talent.

7

Minotauromachy is Picasso’s great work. Nothing else he did has its density and intricacy, both formally and in the way it assembles all of the personally-forged images he has been using throughout the suite into a tableau that shows the artist’s predicament and calls into question the nature of what he’s done. It’s impossible to believe that this didn’t originate as the final print of the commission, the one image toward which the entire narrative was building. And yet he held it back. He didn’t include it in the prints he delivered to Vollard and closed his story with the print I saw at LACMA, the blind Minotaur being led by Marie Therese, in her futile attempt to rescue him. Minotauromachy would have fit perfectly as the penultimate image before this doomed escape, but to place it in that position would have diminished the final print, which is the best of the existing set, and second only to Minotauromachy. It would have seemed visually anti-climactic to appear after this masterwork. To have reversed these two prints, so that the most accomplished appeared at the end, would have spoiled the story. They would be out of sequence.

To see how this is the case, it has to be clear that the Minotaur is about to be killed. In the myth, King Minos kept the monster imprisoned in a maze. Occasionally the king sent his navy to pillage Athens, until Athens offered a bribe: every nine years or so, the Athenian king would send Minos seven boys and seven girls to feed to the Minotaur in return for peace. Minos agreed. Prince Theseus volunteers to camouflage himself among the sacrificial youth in order to enter the labyrinth and kill the monster. With the help of Ariadne, on Crete, he uses her thread and the sword she gives him to kill the Minotaur and then find his way back out of the maze. As part of his bargain with her, he lets Ariadne escape from Crete along with him and the children, but he abandons her when she falls asleep on another island, en route back to Athens.

Picasso borrows from the myth to tell a slightly different story. In Minotauromachy, Theseus is on his way but there is still plenty of time to escape. You can see the sail of a boat barely visible on the ocean, at the horizon line between the horse’s tail and the Minotaur’s right leg. In Blind Minotaur Being Led by a Little Girl in the Night, Theseus, in sailor’s stripes, is stepping out of the boat, only a few feet away from his target. Picasso feels no need to show the Minotaur’s certain death: his fate is clear. Here, the stand-in for Ariadne is trying to help the Minotaur escape, not Theseus, even though it’s too late. So, I wonder if, instead of concluding his commission with the superior print and then need to leave out probably the loveliest, most lyrical image of all the ones he’d made, he reserved Minotauromachy as a stand-alone. It was completed only months after the last print in his narrative, and two years before the final three portraits of Vollard, which completed his commission. Along with Guernica, it is the crowning outcome of the years he put into this commission.

In Minotauromachy the density of lines testify to weeks of labor that went into realizing this print, in its final form, wonderfully described in detail by LACMA, with examples of the image in all of its seven developing stages. He ended up with a dramatic image that, in the context of everything that preceded it in The Vollard Suite, becomes a powerful and moving testimony to what is essentially Picasso’s anguish over himself and his art. Half-bull and half-man, he moves from the daylight toward a dark, cavernous space illuminated only by the candle that Marie Therese holds aloft. As he moves toward her, he leaves behind the familiar light and enters an enclosed darkness—what he has come to view as the arena of his creativity. In the distance, his executioner approaches, but there is more than enough time to flee.

Instead, the Minotaur holds out his hand, stiff-arming the light, not to extinguish the light but to defend himself from it. He’s being held at bay. Directly in front of him, between him and Marie Therese, a female toreador has merged with a horse, aiming her sword directly away from the Minotaur, toward Marie Therese. The half-naked woman is depicted as intensely desirable and vulnerable, amble breasts exposed, a step or two from being raped, not fending it off. In his own life, Dora Maar has come between Picasso, luring him with her beauty and talent, as an equal, keeping Picasso from reaching what the young girl promises him. What the child offers is clearly depicted: she can save him from his own nature. Her candle reveals the exit. 

Above her, two women and a dove preside like Renaissance cherubs, emblems of love, peace and happiness, and behind Marie Therese a figure who clearly looks like Jesus, but has been referred to as “the philosopher” ascends a ladder, ascending out of this tableau. He could be any mendicant who has renounced the world seeking wisdom—prophet, sannyasin, saint, Socrates—though the loin cloth and the beard and hair are clearly meant as a nod to Christianity. It’s hard to find any other evidence that Picasso ever gave a second thought to spirituality. The fact that this anomaly appears here testifies to his sense of personal extremity. But this personification of wisdom isn’t abandoning the scene: he gazes back down with benevolence and compassion, a look echoed in the face of Marie Therese. He pauses on his climb, waiting to be followed. But the Minotaur is defending himself from the light that is opening up a view of his ascent away from his own despair. The look on the face of this figure in the loin cloth, and the expression on the face of Marie Therese, are hard-won achievements of Picasso’s draftsmanship; with the tiniest of marks, he could convey an entire and whole human personality, a world of emotion and compassion. (El Greco has this same astonishing ability with paint, as did the early Rembrandt.) In all fairness, it’s the skill of a great cartoonist, but in Picasso’s work it becomes something altogether different. Minotauromachy establishes the truth of Picasso’s life: he has the opportunity, with Marie Therese, to break the addictive cycle of his sequential love affairs and devote himself to this young woman whose goodness and joy illuminated his world for five years, but it would come at a cost he wasn’t willing to pay.

The final print in the narrative, the one Picasso actually included in the set, the one I saw at LACMA, depicts that price. In one sense it shows Picasso’s artistic dilemma: he needed to be passionately attended by a woman who captured his imagination in order to create his art. Marie Therese leads and he follows. But in another sense, to remain with her, he had to blind himself. Looking and desiring and making art become fused in The Vollard Suite: to see and make love to a new beautiful woman was the only way he could motivate himself to make art as a recapitulation of that seeing and making. To break the cycle was essentially to choose blindness, to give up art. He’d decided that to blind himself would be death—as it will be shortly, in the final print, with Theseus stepping ashore. He has a choice: to become a good man, but an ordinary one, giving up his addiction to love, being led by the hand toward a better life. He could choose peace with Marie Therese as a path out of this desperate cycle of need. Or he could seize the latest naked woman, already wielding her sword to defend him, from her reclining seat on the back of the horse in Minotauromachy, so that he could move on to paint once again. He couldn’t resist Dora Maar and this is easily understood: she was a knockout, intelligent and gifted, not to mention a fresh sexual partner. He could have chosen to resist her, even if the cost was having no motivation to make art anymore (his art might actually have blossomed as a result of his choice in ways he couldn’t have imagined.) He could have chosen to be a man with personal integrity. What’s extraordinary about The Vollard Suite is that it makes clear that he knew he was nothing of the sort. He longed to find another way, but in the end didn’t have the courage or strength to resist himself.

8

In a way The Vollard Suite confirms and then finds wanting the Freudian vision of human nature. Picasso ought to be the poster child for the argument that human nature is nothing but an elaboration of sexuality. In this suite and throughout his life, Picasso accepts his life, his art, his perceptions, his thinking, his hopes and dreams, are all governed by sex. Art is nothing but an extension of sexual desire: with Picasso it’s so overt and explicit that there’s no sublimation. He openly channels sex into paint, more or less. Wouldn’t Freud have celebrated this? If art, in Picasso, is nothing but “working and fucking” as Kuspit sees it, why is that a problem? Isn’t that all that art amounts to for Freud? There’s certainly a problem in Picasso’s dilemma, but hardly for a Freudian.

As the series progresses, Picasso’s vision turns from celebration into despair: he’s lost, and he knows it. Is this all there is? It’s an insight and a recoiling from the same insight that few in the 20th century—Camus maybe in the way he rejected theoretical extremes—ever reached. Picasso sees this new monistic vision of human nature as a trap, a prison. Much 20th century thought is conducted in similar reductionist prisons. Those who inaugurated the revolutions of the past century proposed equally simplistic theories of human life, reducing everything to one central principle.

In an essay published in 1978 in a Canadian journal of critical theory, Stan Spyros Draenos calls Freud an essentialist who replaces metaphysics with something that serves a similar role in its absence.

A single, radical insight founds the psychoanalytic perspective and remains its pole of orientation throughout . . . this single insight may be characterized as a redefinition of the essence of man. For psychoanalysis, that essence is desire . . . Reason becomes an instrument of psychical domination rather than the realization of a rationally-ordered harmony of the soul in Freud because it has lost its metaphysical sanction. Or, to put the matter another way, lacking metaphysical justification, reason loses all substantive content, all norm-giving force, and becomes merely the necessity-imposed regulative function of the ‘mental apparatus’—a means among means in the technique of living, while itself unable to determine the sense of living. Essentialism, the notion that a single principle or substance underlies all the manifestations of a particular entity, thereby making it be what it is, has its provenance in the heritage of metaphysics—a heritage which, cast adrift from its moorings . . . suffered shipwreck in the nineteenth century . . . Freud’s thought perpetuates essentialism in the aftermath of metaphysics by realizing the sense of essentialism in a radically altered setting.

What’s interesting about this examination of Freud’s attempt to replace metaphysics with biology is that it puts him in the same camp as the other two revolutionary, reductionist thinkers who became the architects for much of the intellectual and political upheaval of the past century: Marx and Nietzsche (who was the father of all the postmodernists who ascended in academia over the past fifty years). Freud turns human nature into a sexual phenomenon. Marx does the same with money: for him, human life is essentially economic. For Nietzsche power itself as the prime mover. Nietzsche is the most central thinker, because power is the goal for all of them, sexual power and economic power being just two versions of Nietzsche’s monism. 

All of them radically simplify human experience, seeing everything people do through the lens of sex, money or power—or rather power in its various guises. All of these architects of modern life deny the nuance and complexity of human experience, along with the notion that there is a reality in life beyond what’s visible in this fleeting stage we occupy—they all reject that there is any governing essence of Goodness or Truth, or some other extra-temporal source of wisdom and morality, untainted by the inability of human beings to live in accord with it, that shapes human nature. In his lectures on his predecessor, Heidegger pointed out the central contradiction in Nietzsche, that his will to power was a metaphysical principle, and became the final metaphysical theory at the end of metaphysics, the most nihilistic in a long line of nihilistic models for truth (in Heidegger’s view). The same might be said of Freud and Marx. They replace metaphysics with forces that diminish human nature to the role of puppet rather than agent. 

The irony is that they were obsessively rational themselves in their arguments to uproot reason as the essence of human nature, and they promote their theories as true, though the idea of truth itself is undermined by their theories. For them, truth is a fiction, a tool, rising up out of the will to power. If he were honest with himself, Freud would have said all of his insights were nothing but a sexually motivated invention and thus vulnerable to other views of human nature that might work more effectively to perpetuate sexual pleasure and the survival of the species. Marx the same: his theories were themselves the product of contingent economic and political ends in his own time, easily vulnerable to theories arising from different historical circumstances later on—since there is no absolute truth as a standard for saying one state of affairs is better than another. (Unless of course these thinkers were secretly depending on some universally accepted standard of justice or goodness or truth, which would then undermine their whole argument. Their problem is that, for persuasive reasoning to work, there has to be some foundational notion of truth that can’t be reasoned away. Reason has to have an unproven faith at least in its own foundations.) Reason is hardly enough to make manifest the whole of life—what life is—but without its assistance, there’s no way to understand anything.

In The Vollard Suite, Picasso depicts the claustrophobic nightmare in this rejection of transcendent wisdom, and reason as well. All of postmodernism, in the way it became a campaign of recognition and liberation for various oppressed groups reaches for this obviously admirable goal by rejecting any sort of universal truth. Truth becomes a mask worn by power. It is Nietzsche’s essentialist vision, subordinating human individuality and any notion of immutable goodness and truth to the needs of group identity, while equating group identity with the provisional, pragmatic seizure of economic and political power. The Vollard Suite plays all of this in the microcosm of Freud version of human nature, but similar claustrophobic dramas act themselves out in all the other spheres as well. This series of prints isn’t just Picasso’s almost involuntary critique of his love life and his art. It’s also a critique of the notion that humanity is about nothing but one fundamental drive or force—in Freud’s case, sexual conquest (or the repression and sublimation of the urge for it into art). Picasso shows the dehumanizing effect of any “essentialist” vision of human nature, even beyond the one that governed his own life. The only indication of wisdom and compassion in the series is climbing steadily out of the picture in his loin cloth—not completely gone, but unheeded and maybe unseen.

Leo Ragno

A sample of Leo Ragno’s portraiture, from Instagram

The hermit of Aix’s color

View of the Domaine Saint-Joseph, Metropolitan Museum of Art

I saw this painting almost exactly ten years ago at Cezanne and American Modernism at the Montclair Art Museum. After all these intervening years, I finally bought the catalog for the show. It’s a hardbound book once in the collection of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh Library, with the little envelope for the library loan card still glued just inside the cover. Purchased through a third party on Amazon, the book was finally a bargain. I bought it because seeing this show revealed so much about Cezanne’s influence on American painters and because this particular painting had such an impact on me when I was at the museum. I wanted to see the work in the show again after all this time.

The almost iridescent quality of the variations in color from the hillsides down into the forest, the way in which each mark hummed vibrantly in harmony with every other mark in that field of paint, left me more in awe of Cezanne’s color than ever before. I’m struck more and more by how Cezanne’s greatness has, for me, so little to do with his enormous historical influence. It’s ironic to react that way to a show designed to confirm his enormous affect on later American painters. But it seems that his influence had less do with with his theories–in other words his position in history–and seems so much more a result of the unique, lyrical feeling his paint inspires. His color, his handling of oil  is almost always understated, and he seems to always find combinations of tone that make time itself visible–as Vermeer does in a different way. It derives from the intensity of his subdued passion for what he sees as he translates it into paint, which is hard to square, so to speak, with his famous dictum about interpreting nature geometrically, the advice that gave birth to Cubism. I wonder if his stress on seeing nature as sphere, cone and cylinder was merely an arbitrary way of imposing self-restraint to temper his passion for the colors of oil paint. He forced himself to think about form and volume rather than color and as a result his color became more subtle and unique. His actual achievement could have been almost as an incidental byproduct of the geometrical guidelines uppermost in his mind–even though color was what drove him to paint. Somehow, in the lower left hand corner, I see Gorky, of all people and I don’t mean the early paintings Gorky did which are hugely talented imitations of Cezanne. I mean his later paintings and his self portrait with his mother–the line and shapes and even a bit of the color. Cezanne is a marvel–and one can see why he could be classified as both an Impressionist and Post-Impressionist, though he was unlike everyone else in any category. He was perfectly himself.

Johannes Muller Franken

Les Indes Galantes, Johannes Muller Franken, at Louis K. Meisel Gallery

I saw this painting some years ago at an invitational group show at OK Harris, not long before the gallery closed, seemingly another little heartbreak in the cancer of real estate inflation in Manhattan driving out all sorts of businesses that operate on a human scale and replacing them with gentrified real estate and Google office space. I wonder how a simple corner bodega survives this slow, torturous cleansing by the tsunami of finance driving our metropolitan economies. That isn’t really why the gallery closed, but I’ve been wanting to rant about out-of-control inflation in big American cities. Many galleries have closed–or moved away like Arcadia, happily thriving in Pasadena now–because they can’t afford to stay open. In reality, its founder, Ivan Karp left instructions for how to wind down the operation when he died in 2012, and the managers of the gallery were simply following his dictates. He picked the name OK Harris because it sounded tough and American, like a riverboat gambler. Visiting on a whim five years ago, I saw one painting after another that startled me with its excellence, and this one left me gobsmacked at the raindrop-by-raindrop realism in mellow counterpoint with the scene’s romance and Maxfield Parrish color. Apparently, it’s still available at Meisel. How is that possible?

The Manifest Prize: The Cartographer

The Cartographer, mixed media, 39” x 132′ x 104″, 2019

I loved the artist statement (I can’t remember if I have ever those words in the past) for this installation that won Manifest’s coveted $5,000 Manifest One award and single-work exhibition. Here is the email announcement with Indiana artist Damon Mohl’s statement below. I like the sense of exhaustion and lostness in his vision, which seems appropriate as a viewpoint on Western culture. But I loved , his statement about the genesis of his creative work–which apply to the most compelling creative work in general.

Manifest’s projects are carefully crafted exhibitions of engaging works from around the world, judged and chosen by a dynamic jury of working artists, creative professionals, scholars, and educators. Once each year, we honor an exemplary artwork and test the extremes of our selection process in ONE: The Manifest Prize.

The nonprofit Manifest Creative Research Gallery is proud to be celebrating a decade offering this momentous award supporting artists making exceptional art. Now in its 10th year, one artwork has been chosen from a pool of nearly 900 works by 192 artists from 41 states and 12 countries to stand out as the best in one of the largest artist responses this project has ever received. Seventeen jurors from across the U.S. participated in this multi-stage selection process.

It should be noted that the winner and finalists*, 11 works, represent the top scoring 1% of the jury pool. The winner represents the top one-tenth of 1% of the jury pool.

We are proud to award this year’s $5000 Manifest Prize and corresponding ONE exhibit to Damon Mohl for his work, “The Cartographer” which will continue on view in Manifest’s Central Gallery through January 10th.

Of his work the artist states:

In 2018 I spent a month traveling the north and south islands of New Zealand. Leading up to the trip, I had completed numerous sketches for an experimental film. In truth, the many fragmented images never connected, and when I arrived I started filming without a clear sense of the project. Traveling in a camper van, I gradually woke up earlier each day and heard a cacophony of birds singing before dawn. One song, in particular, stood out because of its melodic, contemplative nature and haunting strangeness. I learned this was the song of the Bellbird, and for the rest of the trip, I set my alarm so I could make audio recordings of the Bellbird’s morning song. These recordings led me to a new idea, and I ended up creating an entirely different film.

I find it compelling the way an image or sound can lodge itself in the subconscious and open up an expansive idea. Creatively speaking, ideas that originate from a presumed understanding or with a specific goal are often prodded and forced into existence. Outcomes are narrow and predictable, even before they are developed. Everything is over before it even begins. The most exciting ideas arrive as mysteries. They create enigmas to be explored but never fully understood. Art is the language that embodies and evokes that which cannot be rationalized or explained with words and it is this revelatory journey that keeps me fascinated and dedicated to the process of creating. My work is firmly rooted in metaphorical narrative, but at the project’s origin, I relinquish as much control as possible. I often reach a place on sustained projects where I can no longer remember what propelled me forward in the first place. If the origin remains intact, it was strong enough to stand the test of time. If it fades, what came after was much more interesting to me.

The Cartographer was recently created for an exhibition of costumes, objects, and set pieces utilized in five different film projects over the past four years. Thematically, the film connected to this piece tells the story of a man whose mind is locked in an endless cycle, in which he repeatedly imagines himself on doomed 19th century expeditions. The voice-over narration provided on the nearby wall is also from the film.

Artist Biography:

Damon Mohl (b.1974) is a filmmaker and interdisciplinary artist. His work bridges drawing, painting, collage, and sculpture with digital technology to create experimental as well as narrative-based films and works of art. He received his BFA in drawing and painting from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and his MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder. With a focus on filmmaking, his graduate thesis film was nominated for a Student Academy Award in the experimental category. He exhibits his work nationally, and internationally his films have screened in over thirty countries. He is currently serving as an assistant professor of art at Wabash College in Indiana.

Peter Schjeldahl will be missed

Peter Schjeldahl, courtesy The New Yorker

I was delighted when Jim Mott sent me some excerpts from Peter Schjeldahl’s sayonara at The New Yorker, inaugurating his retirement. I spend so little time reading magazines now; I missed it. May he move on to write a book, if he survives his battle with cancer long enough. The prospects don’t sound good. He’s always been my favorite art critic. I didn’t realize he had a faith, but it sounds as if it didn’t emerge until he quit drinking. Maybe I am reading too much into a couple sentences. In this cultural climate, it’s a brave move, albeit a bit quieter than Kanye’s, to offer a shout out to Christianity, which now seems to be equated unfairly with deplorable politics. It feels as if we are living in the cultural Dark Ages. (It helps if you quote Simone Weil; that “cherry on top” is a nice touch.) His judgments have almost always struck me as unimpeachable and delivered with wry self-awareness, meaning humility. The humility grows here to the proportions I consider de rigueur for an artist, and especially a critic. I agree with nearly any self-skepticism: I don’t know much, and maybe someday, if I’m good, I’ll know nothing, along with Socrates. Danto often has a similar tone of implied disclaimer: Well, this is how it looks to me, I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. But Schjeldahl’s doubt is less philosophical and more personal, hence more engaging and intimate. His first paragraph below says precisely what I recognized a few months ago after my father’s death, when I came across the Google street view photograph of the house my wife and I lived in during the first few years of our son and daughter’s childhood–the photograph did everything a work of art ought to do, and it was simply the tiny artifact of some camera mounted on top of a car moving past the house in the most impersonal way possible. It was essentially a surveillance shot. But it contained more than my world from those years; it gave me a window into the entire world, emotionally, imaginatively, and in some other way I don’t have language to pin down. I had been punished into receptivity at that point, granted, but there you go. That’s how it works. Danto would smile at the fact that the Google street view shot was art for me right then and there–though it would contradict his argument about the need for meaning–but it’s exactly what Schjeldahl is getting at.

From Schjeldahl’s farewell, courtesy Jim’s email:

To limber your sensibility, stalk the aesthetic everywhere: cracks in a sidewalk, people’s ways of walking. The aesthetic isn’t bounded by art, which merely concentrates it for efficient consumption. If you can’t put a mental frame around, and relish, the accidental aspect of a street or a person, or really of anything, you will respond to art only sluggishly.
I like to say that contemporary art consists of all art works, five thousand years or five minutes old, that physically exist in the present. We look at them with contemporary eyes, the only kinds of eyes that there ever are.
I retain, but suspend, my personal taste to deal with the panoply of the art I see. I have a trick for doing justice to an uncongenial work: “What would I like about this if I liked it?” I may come around; I may not. Failing that, I wonder, What must the people who like this be like? Anthropology.
Simone Weil said that the transcendent meaning of Christianity is complete with Jesus’ death, sans the cherry on top that is the Resurrection. I think so.
“I believe in God” is a false statement for me because it is voiced by my ego, which is compulsively skeptical. But the rest of me tends otherwise. Staying on an “as if” basis with “God,” for short, hugely improves my life. I regret my lack of the church and its gift of community. My ego is too fat to squeeze through the door.
Disbelieving is toilsome. It can be a pleasure for adolescent brains with energy to spare, but hanging on to it later saps and rigidifies. After a Lutheran upbringing, I became an atheist at the onset of puberty. That wore off gradually and then, with sobriety, speedily.

Giotto and A la recherche du temps perdu

Envy, from Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes

To paint pictures is to live in a state of paradox. What I intend usually just points me in the direction of what I achieve, and by not achieving quite what I want, I sometimes succeed in ways I wouldn’t have imagined and may not even realize. Occasionally I invest paint with something far better than what I could have intended or predicted. In every success, there’s a bit of surprise, if not discovery. 

When you begin to realize how great paintings aren’t necessarily limited by whatever outcomes the painter desired, it dawns on you that this is how life itself works, almost invariably. All of your representations, all of your mental pictures of what matters in life fail to embody what it is you think those images represent. Try to picture anything—goodness for example—and whatever instance of goodness you imagine will fail to capture what it actually is. And, even if you lower your sights and accept the consolation prize of depicting what’s actually visible in life, even then, there’s shortfall. What you do picture to yourself as familiarly good will rarely resemble how living, new instances of goodness actually appear.

Early in Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust elaborates on a physical similarity between his cook’s pregnant kitchen-maid and one of Giotto’s figures of virtue and vice in his Paduan frescoes. It’s a little running joke between the novel’s protagonist and Swann, when he comes to visit and asks how things are going with Giotto’s Charity. As his focus shifts from the kitchen-maid to the painter, the way Proust elaborates on the Gothic painter, circling around his subject, reminds me of how Francis Bacon, in his essay on it, seems to turn the subject of Truth inside-out and then outside-in, until you are almost completely disoriented but left with a kind of Socratic doubt about your own callow assumption that you can actually know Truth. In the same way, you think you’ve understood Proust’s point and suddenly he seems to be saying just the opposite—this symbolizes X, but X is nowhere visible in the behavior depicted and yet the reality of X is embodied by it. Come again? It does make sense, but at first it feels like riding in circles on a Mobius strip. All the while he asks you to keep reconsidering what exactly is happening in Giotto’s paintings of virtue and vice—forcing you to go back and look at them. Which is both the first and last step in letting a painting do its work.

For years, I’ve considered Proust a purposely amoral novelist, someone so driven to see exactly what’s happening in human behavior and human consciousness, that he can’t stop to pass judgement on the behavior he depicts—not letting discriminations of good and evil constrain his phenomenology. Passing judgment on something gives you an excuse to ignore what you’re seeing. I’m beginning to think differently. In my third reading of this novel right now (first in college, second when the Kilmartin translation was published), I’ve delved only a hundred pages into the book, and it seems he was constantly thinking of goodness, interested in why his many of his characters found it so difficult to see and embody it. His ability to convey goodness was so fresh, so unsentimental, that it’s hard to realize what he’s doing as it happens on the page—in a way analogous to his consistent depiction of social and sexual relationships as detours that usually lead away from an authentic life. In a way similar to how I’m seeing this new dimension in Proust, this year I’ve become more and more interested in visual art that seems to be doing exactly the opposite of what I think painting and drawing should do when operating in its most innate way.  Painting that has always struck me as the most fully realized has no meaning. Any effort to extract meaning from it is, in a way, to look away from what’s actually happening in the work, the awareness it can generate, and nullify it by translating it into thought. (In the same way, the best passages of Bergotte’s writing have an impact on Proust’s narrator unrelated to their significance. In one of his book’s quietly amusing moments, Bloch advises him to read only poetry that means nothing.) What’s most powerful in a work of visual art has nothing to do with meaning: deconstructing it will get you places, but it won’t replace the looking and often gets in the way. 

Against all this, Giotto clearly intended his paintings to mean something—as did most of the great Renaissance painters, as well as scores of artists who came after them. His work signified what for Giotto were the most important things, forms of behavior that led toward and away from ultimate truth. Proust says that for a long time he (his avatar in the book) couldn’t see any evidence of Giotto’s strange genius in the reproductions of the Arena Chapel frescoes on his schoolroom wall. But as he got older he began to realize how profoundly accurate, in an allegorical way, were these images of Envy and Charity, along with the others. Aldous Huxley said that Piero’s painting, The Resurrection, was the greatest painting in the world, and it is wonderfully simple and powerful, but it seems conventional and almost predicable compared to Giotto’s visionary Envy. It’s shown as a serpent living, like an intestinal parasite, inside and outside a man’s head, slithering into the back of his skull and them emerging through his distended lips to curl back and gaze directly into his eyes, as if the cobra has charmed the man rather than the other way around. A wreath of red flames consume his feet, melting him from the ground up, like someone being burned at the stake—all of this, the blinding, the burning, with no trace of recognizably envious behavior in the figure. It’s quietly scathing, obscene, Dantesque. Giotto’s victim might as well be in a coma. To the young Proust, all of this looks about as impassioned as an illustrative plate from a Medieval manual for surgery—there is no sentiment, no familiar human emotion nor pathos in the faces, qualities which Giotto became so famous for being able to convey. This is what puzzled the young Proust: he couldn’t see any sign of the vices and virtues in the eyes, the social behavior, of the figures Giotto had painted. Where in all this is actual, envious behavior?

This is the point in Proust’s mini-essay on the painter that turns it into a nest of Chinese boxes. Open the first one and another one, this time locked, rests inside of it (and inside the smaller one, if you could pick the lock, you suspect you might find the larger one you just opened, as in a weird recursive dream.) Proust says Giotto’s figures are entirely allegorical, entirely symbolic, and yet the symbol disappears in images so physical, so strangely mundane, that you can hardly see what the image signifies in the situation it actually depicts. The symbol seems to disappear into the immediate physicality of what’s happening in the scenes. The reality made visible in these symbolic figures erases the inner emotional lives of the people themselves—they aren’t shown to be envious or charitable, but rather they are puppets of the vices and virtues, engaged in an entirely physical, specific, awkward and often bizarre pantomime. These people don’t experience the reality of what they embody. Charity stands on a hoard of worldly goods, as if to subdue it, and uses it to hike herself up a bit in order to hand her heart—her actual physical heart, seemingly with the stump of its aorta sticking out—to God. In its own way, this is actually a bit funny. It’s so matter of fact. Proust is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but his wit and humor constantly resurface throughout the novel and glow in this passage because of the ironies in Giotto’s originality.

. . . The powerfully built housewife who is portrayed in the Arena beneath the label ‘Caritas,’ and a reproduction of whose portrait hung upon the wall of my schoolroom at Combray, incarnates that virtue, for it seems impossible, that any thought of charity can ever have found expression in her vulgar and energetic face. By a fine stroke of the painter’s invention she is tumbling all the treasures of the earth at her feet, but exactly as if she were treading grapes in a wine-press to extract their juice, or, still more, as if she had climbed on a heap of sacks to raise herself higher; and she is holding out her flaming heart to God, or shall we say ‘handing’ it to Him, exactly as a cook might hand up a corkscrew through the skylight of her underground kitchen to some one who had called down to ask her for it from the ground level above.

And, contrary to Proust’s assertion, you have to give her credit for actually being so visibly charitable that she doesn’t even say, “I’m going to need that back very shortly” as she passes this workaday pump up to street level. If Giotto were a contemporary film-maker, the muscle in her hand would still be contracting. Giotto seems to be implying that if there is any Truth worth conveying, it isn’t conceptual, it isn’t disembodied, it doesn’t reside in the consciousness of those who serve it or who want to see a symbol manifest it—it isn’t something that can be reduced to thought—but is incarnated in human activities through time, just as these virtues show themselves in the strangest way, through the behavior of figures who don’t even feel the emotions one would expect of them and don’t seem to understand that they are icons of virtue or corruption. They aren’t even aware of what they embody—as, in a more literal sense, people aren’t entirely aware of the full reality of what they are doing as they do it. And this is suddenly where this passage gives the reader a glimpse of the crux of Proust’s entire project: the hope that art can offer a hint of the whole when all the human mind can grasp are the parts of life, of individual identify, of being itself.

This is where Proust’s reading of Giotto becomes thoroughly Proustian: the symbol disappears into the experience, the Truth merges with the behavior that upholds it, in such a way that these people can only live it, unaware. We all live in this darkness, this fragmented and warped ability to understand who we are and what we’re doing. This is Proust’s fundamental insight: that none of us can know ourselves in a complete way, at any given moment, except on rare occasions through spiritual insight or through art or, in Proust, a kind of spontaneous memory categorically different form the recollection we rely on to survive.

. . . That Charity devoid of Charity, that Envy who looked like nothing so much as a plate from some medieval book, illustrating the compression of the glotis or the uvula by a tumor of the tongue or by the introduction of the operator’s instrument, a Justice whose grayish and meanly regular features were identical with those which characterized the faces of certain pious, desiccated ladies of Combray whom I used to see at mass and many of whom had long been enrolled in the reserve forces of Injustice. <Again Proust’s quiet, subtle wit.> But in later years, I came to understand that the arresting strangeness, the special beauty of these frescoes derived from the great part played in them by symbolism, and the fact that this was represented not as a symbol (for the thought symbolized was nowhere expressed) but as a reality, actually felt or materially handled, added something more precise and more literal to the meaning of the work, something more concrete and more striking to the lesson it imparted. . . . and in the same way, again, are not the thoughts of the dying often turned towards the practical, painful, obscure, visceral aspect, towards that ‘seamy side” of death which is, as it happens, that side that death actually presents to them and forces them to feel, and which far more closely resembles a crushing burden, a difficulty in breathing, a destroying thirst, than the abstract idea to which we are accustomed to give the name of Death?

Having been at my father’s side this past summer when he died, I know that Proust understands the actual reality of death. He describes it perfectly. It is hard, punishing labor for the dying and everyone else nearby. What Giotto paints is a physical correlative to a spiritual state: the dizziness of Inconstancy depicted as a woman levitating off the ground and tipping backward in space, floating like a balloon, rootless and on the verge of whirling away in the breeze. (Proust’s appreciation for this symbolic power, for Giotto’s achievement, has little to do with what he was trying to achieve himself in his novel, which was anti-conceptual, anti-symbolic, almost entirely sensual and immediate, where the greatest glimpses of the truth he was chasing arose from seemingly random sensory experience. Which is, for me as well, where painting’s greatest power resides.) Instead, as Charity itself, a woman has physically excised her own heart and is handing it up to a cherub reaching down from the ceiling. In reality, it’s fairly simple to turn this into a bland concept: give your heart to something greater than yourself. In his matter-of-fact way Giotto depicts something almost bizarre with all the weight of ordinary human activity. What you see is awkward, unlovely effort, not the loving, caring gift-giving of some favored, saintly icon of compassion. What’s here seems more in the vicinity of a bizarre anatomical nightmare.

Proust concludes with a passage that proves his psychological novel was a profoundly moral effort and points toward the need for art as a way of glimpsing what’s actually there in human behavior and experience, hidden and inaccessible in the moment—but fleetingly manifest in the best art. The wisdom and moral depth of Proust’s sentences here, at the end of his passage on Giotto, are stunningly eloquent:

There must have been a strong element of reality in those Virtues and Vices of Padua, since they appeared to me to be as alive as the pregnant servant girl, while she herself seemed scarcely less allegorical than they. And quite possibly, this lack (or seeming lack) of participation by a person’s soul in virtue of which he or she is the agent has, apart from its aesthetic meaning, a reality which, if not strictly psychological, may at least be called physiognomical. Since then, whenever in the course of my life I have come across, in convents for instance, truly saintly embodiments of practical charity, they have generally had the cheerful, practical, brusque and unemotional air of a busy surgeon, the sort of face in which once can discern no commiseration, no tenderness at the sight of suffering humanity, no fear of hurting it, the impassive, unsympathetic, sublime face of true goodness.

 

 

The Feels

A year ago today, I drew this compass to illustrate the five feelings I wanted to cultivate in 2019.

The four points: joy, peace, prosperity, and grace. The heart-center: harmony.

I started to write the words onto the compass, but then I realized I wanted the image to be “evergreen.” I wanted to use it every year if I felt like it. To use five words…or just one.

For 2020, I have just one word. This time next year, I’ll let you know how it turns out! I have a feeling it will be good, if only because this year, I let my five desired feelings guide most everything I chose to do.

This was the first time I approached a year with feelings instead of goals…so much more fun and freeing! I’ve spent too long confusing what I want with what I want to feel.

What do you want to feel during the coming twelve months?

Here’s to all the feels!

And blessings as we navigate toward them,

Anna

Loose yet accurate

Mark Tennant, 20 x 16

Mark Tennant, 20 x 16. That’s all I know about this painting by an artist who has turned a bit of a corner in the past year or two–the simplicity of his execution has become extraordinary given how convincingly he puts one perfect tone alongside another. These chunks of color do exactly the job he asks them to do. In some cases he creates an almost expressionist surface that resolves, after a bit of viewing, into a bracingly convincing glimpse of women caught in a candid moment not intended for public consumption. No title, no medium nor indication of the support, though it’s almost certainly oil. He posts his work on Instagram and at his website, but it’s all untitled as far as I can tell. I did a post about an earlier painting of his not long ago, but couldn’t resist posting again, it’s so impressive. I found his scenes off-putting at first, murky and seemingly jaundiced visions of people lost in an eroticized world of youth and folly. Now I’m not bothered by lost-in-the-dark quality of his figures. The brushwork is so deft and accurate and minimal, as if he were the Fairfield Porter of cultural decline. At first, his work briefly brought to mind Eric Fischl and Richard Prince’s ironically prurient stuff, but this latest work feels more like early Richter. There’s a muted compassion in all of it, even though the scenes are illuminated unsparingly and the figures are mostly faceless. It all looks as if he has discovered troves of snapshots, Polaroids maybe and worked from them quickly–the way Martin Mull buys boxes of old, unwanted family shots at garage sales to use as sources. The bruised sexiness that runs throughout Tennant’s work is suppressed and seems almost accidental in many of the images–the young women are mostly unaware that there’s a guy with a camera eavesdropping on their misdemeanors, but in more than one of the paintings the women are hiding their faces. Many seem lit by flash photography, which adds to the tabloid feel that runs throughout, the awkwardness of bodies caught off balance or hunkered down in self-defense. He gets exactly how a single bright light source plays on objects in dim surroundings and his extremely abbreviated handling of paint captures the look and feel of an onlooker snapping a furtive high-contrast exposure of a compromised subject. The shot above could be from a cocktail party in the Hamptons or Connecticut, some partier with a Kodak Instamatic up on a balcony, gazing down at his bored fellow celebrants, the butler or caterer passing with his gleaming tray, with nothing to offer the idle women on the flagstone patio. The elegance and evening formality seem imported from America’s economic heyday, or else from last week in certain increasingly wealthy and isolated zip codes. Either way these privileged figures look as exposed and spiritually endangered as nearly everyone else Tennant captures unaware.

Inka Essenhigh

Flowers in Starlight, enamel on canvas, 24×24, 2018

The artist’s individual struggle, individuation as Jung would have put it, as it worked itself out in her own career: 

I wanted to paint what today looked like or felt like. But as I just grew older it didn’t seem as important to make paintings that were necessarily as contemporary as possible. I wanted to make paintings that I wanted to make. You don’t have a choice. You can try to make the work you think everybody likes, but that isn’t going to work. If I had never changed then possibly I would just be that person who made paintings that looked as if they were done in the 90s.

    –Inka Essenhigh

I didn’t want to be light and girly and trivial and I suddenly was and I loved it and it was all okay. And I had an immediate sense of relief. I could tell stories and I knew that I was on the right track for making something that was important to me. I could pursue what you might call “the inner world.” I could sit down and look for certain images I wanted to paint and they would look a certain way, they would feel a certain way. They could have that feeling of child-like wonder and I could bring it forward.

–Inka Essenhigh