Picasso's paintings are filled with the images of his wives and mistresses. One can even divide his work into phases corresponding to his affairs. How is the female body presented in his work?
Picasso's work, in many ways, paved the way towards pure abstraction. But one must keep in mind that, despite these tendencies, and despite the almost illegible, abstract quality of certain of his Analytical Cubist work, all his paintings are paintings of something. One can always pick out recognizable images in his work, however distorted they may be–guitars, bulls, newspapers, and, most of all, the female body.
It is not a coincidence that "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907), the painting that, more than any other, paved the way towards Cubism, is a picture of five prostitutes. As one can see looking at his preparatory sketches for the painting, the painting was conceived of as much less distorted when the male clients were part of the scene.
It was when Picasso eliminated the male figures, leaving only the demoiselles, that the distortion and the treatment of space in the painting became really radical and unsettling–so radical as to be an undisputed turning-point in the history of modern art.
Cubist distortion is not a neutral style applicable to any subject. To be sure, once Cubism was more completely formulated, Picasso occupied himself with painting many still-lifes, using a staid subject matter in order to better highlight the radical style. But the Cubist distortion, the rearranging of parts, which Picasso was eventually to apply to so many café tables and mandolins, was first created for, and always most vigorously applied to, the female figure. The very earliest Cubist works, after all, are of the female nude; besides "Les Demoiselles," of course, there is Braque's "Grand Nu" (1908).
The freedom to distort was founded in paintings of the female figure; afterwards, throughout Picasso's career, the female figure is consistently carved up and distorted more than the male figure, with few exceptions. He based his art more firmly on the female figure than any artist of his century, sometimes making it the subject of rapturous celebration, as in his paintings of Marie-Thérese, and sometimes making it a monster to be sliced and diced by his brushstrokes. In his work of the late twenties and early thirties, in particular, when his personal life was such a mess, Picasso obsessively painted the female nude as an object of fear and loathing. In a painting like his "Seated Bather" (1930), the woman on the beach becomes a kind of praying mantis (the insect that famously kills her mate during copulation), with a terrifying toothed vertical slit for a mouth. The distortion and deformation of the bather's body here seems a kind of defensive maneuver against her.
Picasso lived through some of the stormiest years of history. As an artist, what did he believe his political responsibilities to be?
The French artists of Picasso's time saw art and politics as a continuum; many, like Sartre, Camus, and Aragon, fought in the French resistance, and many became committed Communists, like Aragon, Breton, Éluard, and Picasso himself. Most felt that art and politics were of a piece; this is what Picasso expressed:
My membership of the Communist Party is a logical development from the rest of my life, from all of my work. I am proud to say that I have never considered painting as an art form of simple amusement or entertainment; using line and color, since these were my weapons, I have always tried to penetrate deeper and deeper into an understanding of the world so that this understanding might liberate us more each day; I have tried to say, in my own way, what I considered to be the most true, the most correct and the best and, naturally, this has always been the most beautiful; the greatest artists know this perfectly well. Yes, I am conscious of having always struggled through my painting to be a true revolutionary.
After all the historical tragedy of the twentieth century, most artists are now much more jaded than Picasso and his generation were about the possibility of changing the world through art. If there are any who seriously envision their work in these terms now, it is perhaps socially-conscious photojournalists, who hope to capture with their cameras scenes of war and poverty so wretched-looking that perhaps someone might, seeing the pictures, decide to do something about it.
The incredible idealism of Picasso's generation of artists is demonstrated well by the story of the relationship between the Surrealists and the Communist Party. The Surrealists wanted to liberate the world from middle-class values, from sexual taboos, from the captains of industry, from all possible limitations; they envisioned liberation as something between teenage rebellion and the state of mind we reach when we dream. The Communists also wanted to liberate, and they shared with the Surrealists many of the same enemies, chief among them the middle class. Thus, the Surrealists tried to align themselves with the Communists, thinking that their projects were really the same. In 1925, the Surrealist leader Breton announced that the Surrealists must join the Communists: "On the moral plane where we have decided to place ourselves, it seems as if a Lenin is absolutely unassailable." However, Lenin had died and Stalin had come to power the previous year and Stalin was by no means a liberator according to Surrealist ideas; instead, he was a repressive dictator and squashed artistic freedom in the Soviet Union. The French Communist Party likewise went Stalinist and, from the Stalinist perspective, the Surrealists were absolutely unfit to be political allies; they were a bunch of whimsy- headed, self-indulgent artists. From 1930 on, the French Communist Party completely rejected Surrealism; a Communist review from 1936 called Surrealism "a flirtation with the ideology of capitalism." The two groups were essentially incompatible.
Picasso, however–not Breton or any of the others more strictly identified with Surrealism–did manage to paint "Guernica" (1937), the most effective political art of the century. Effective artistically, at least–Franco, after all, did win, and "Guernica"'s success as a painting does not seem to have hindered him appreciably. He called "line and color" his "weapons"–unfortunately, they are pretty feeble when faced with tanks and bombers. But its artistic effectiveness is bound up with the political effectiveness that Picasso strove for. If Picasso had not believed, while painting "Guernica," that his painting might be able to help stop the atrocities and violence happening in Spain, then his work would have struck him as, in a way, frivolous; for, unless he could hope to help the victims of the bombing of Guernica by painting this canvas, how could he, with a clear conscience, take artistic inspiration from the event? Had he felt that what he was doing was frivolous or irrelevant, his painting would surely have been an artistic failure; its tone of high seriousness, its earnestness in the depiction of suffering, make it an artistic success.
"Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907) was partially inspired by African and Pacific art, particularly African masks. What was the role of "primitive" (non- European) art in Picasso's work?
Art historians classifying the phases of Picasso's work used to call the phase following the Blue and Rose Periods the "Negro Period". This label is no longer used; instead, people talk about Picasso's primitivist stage. Primitivism was a vein of thought prominent in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Europe. Some Europeans felt that their continent had become over-civilized–too complicated, all filled with factories and railroads, artificial manners and ridiculous fashions. They envisioned other peoples as uncivilized and primitive, something like simple children. Some Europeans felt that this meant that indigenous peoples should be pushed off their land to make way for Europeans; others felt that this meant that Europeans should try to join the "primitives," to try to get back to some golden age of peace and innocence in a hut. The French painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) embodied this latter attitude to the fullest. He actually moved to Tahiti in 1891, to try to join the "savages" there, who he hoped led a simpler, more natural, more beautiful life than could be found in France. His paintings of the Tahitians show the kind of tropical, primitive, nymph-inhabited paradise that he wanted to find.
Picasso's use of "primitive" art must be understood in this context of European primitivism. Picasso knew Gauguin's work; some of his friends at the Bateau- Lavoir introduced it to him, and he saw the Gauguin retrospective at the Salon d'Automne in 1906. Leading up to "Les Demoiselles," Picasso became interested in woodcarving in the summer of 1906, influenced by both ancient Spanish sculpture he had seen in the Louvre and by Gauguin's work in the medium. Even the choice of wood as a material shows a primitivist intent; European sculpture since the Renaissance had nearly all been in slick, highly finished bronze and marble. The medium of carved wood required a simplification of forms, because wood is difficult to shape into fine details. Then his experience in woodcarving led to changes in his painting; his portrait of Gertrude Stein, in which he so radically simplified her face that it became the image of a chiseled mask, perfectly opaque and yet expressive, marks a crucial shift in his painting.
Seeing the African and Oceanic collections in the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris was crucial to the development of "Les Demoiselles." The faces of the three women to the left were inspired by the prehistoric Spanish sculpture that had interested him in the summer of 1906; those of the two to the right were based on the masks that Picasso saw in the ethnographic museum. While no specific African or Pacific sources have been identified, Picasso was deeply impressed by what he saw in these collections, and they were to be one of his primary influences for the next several years. French imperialism in Africa and the Pacific was at its high point, and gunboats and trading steamers brought back ritual carvings and masks as curiosities. If one wanted to cast off the European tradition–which Picasso, like so many artists at this time, felt was stifling–perhaps the art of Africa could lead the way.
Primitivists saw Africa as the very least civilized place on earth–their heads, just like most Europeans', were full of stereotypes about cannibals with bones through their noses–and thus the ultimate antidote to Europe's over-civilization. In African art, Picasso saw that there was neither "truth to nature" nor "ideal beauty"– the ideals that European art had held up for so long and that seemed, by the turn of the century, so hopelessly dead. What he did see in African art was intense expressiveness, clarity of form, and an honest simplicity of technique. These were qualities Picasso wanted to take for European art–this was the art world's small-scale, bloodless imperialism. What he also took from African art was something that was not so much present in the African art that he saw as it was in his interpretation of it, which was formed by his view of Africa as the darkest, most savage continent. Picasso wanted this shocking savageness for his art; his brush-strokes in "Les Demoiselles" are hacking, impetuous, and violent. The result is that his painting looks a thousand times more violent that the African art he saw in the museum–and this violence cleared the way for the Cubist revolution.