Monday, August 8, 2011

"Portrait of a Woman Weeping"

             Picasso. Revisited. An exhibit at the De Young. Another exhibit at SFMOMA  features his work. Jerome Rothenberg & Pierre Joris have edited and translated his journals into poems. (Pablo Picasso: The Burial of the Count of Orgaz & other poems, Exact Change, 2004). I order the book, curious and wanting a new inspiration for my own work by the artist I have returned to again and again.  “Poetry Unhinged” Michel Leiris calls it in his Afterword, “closer to Dadaist nihilism than to surrealism”. Was that Picasso’s desire, to destroy meaning? We know how he broke from the past, but nihilism? I won’t continue without giving you a sample, and I’ll choose at random:
        the slender sojourn of the secret price of pain simmers on the
        low fire of memory where the onion plays the star it
        detaches itself from its lines having read and reread the past
        but at the crack of the riding-whip caught straight in the eyes (p.98)
“the secret price of pain simmers on the low fire of memory” is a wonderful image, but my brain, which looks for continuity, for meaning, for revelation or narrative, gives up, as though I have entered a dense labyrinth with no center, no way in - but there is always a hint of minotaur, for he wrote during the same period
    “If all the roads I have been down were marked on a map and joined
     up with a line, would it not represent a Minotaur?”  

                               (Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso, Paris
                                Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. P. 141)
Minotaur and His Wife
       The minotaur, half bull/half man, at the center of the labyrinth, the garden. What, I ask myself, if there was no censor, no conscious linear narrative, between oneself and the maze of images, feelings, and archetypes that make up what is usually hidden, would that explain the fecundity and astonishing flow of his imagery? Another random selection:
     entangled in the rainbow of their feather oxen plowing up the
     flames of crystal of the howling that perfumes the angles and
     the curves snared by the web of nails and begging help……..(P. 206)
The selection covers a page, and these pages were written daily - a kaleidoscope, a display of fireworks, or simply an inventory, or what comes in with the tide. Imagine a basin that is never empty, but the source is unknown.
      Years ago I concentrated on Picasso’s experience during the war years in order to understand the relationship between art and terror, which is so strong in the 20th century. The ‘macho’, the womanizer accused of sadism, of feelings of omnipotence, the toreador lover, and endless innovator experienced terror during the Spanish Civil and World War II, a terror he was ashamed of. Here is a selection from his journal:
        " and anguish...what horror what distress and what cold
    in the bones and what unpleasant odor ....wing.... ...desperate cry...
    girl dead of liquid [rains]...the dead fall drop by drop....
    clouds shit...horror and despair....wing[ed tank stuck in the blue sky...
    the nest of vipers...the desperate cries of birds...the infinite center of
    void on the skin torn off the house.... 

                          (Picasso and the War Years: 1937-1945, Ed Steven A. Nash, 
                          Thames and Hudson, 1998, P. 57))
The savagery of the war resulted in paintings of literal butchery:
Sheep's Skull
     The Spanish painter Zubaran painted racks of lamb, and the skull was a frequent subject of Spanish and medieval painting in general, as a symbol of vanity or the brevity of life. But Picasso’s skulls still had their meat on them. His overburdened psyche found release in art, and despite the Occupation, and the warnings and threats he received, he continued to paint what he felt.
     In 1942 the wartide was turning. America had entered the war, the allies had invaded North Africa, and the Nazis were facing defeat in Russia. Picasso began the drawing for Man with a Lamb, and you probably have seen the result, the bronze which currently is on exhibit at the De Young:

                Lamb of God? Good Shepherd? Abraham’s sacrifice? Picasso would only say “there's nothing religious about it at all. There's no symbolism in it" and that he just wanted "a human feeling, a feeling that has always existed." (Ibid, P. 112) The sculpture remained in his studio for the rest of the war, and if postwar visitors wanted a photo, Picasso posed next to the sculpture. I think this was a victory - over the panic-stricken, butchered imagery that had taken him over, and he took pride in this victory. He had overcome hell and returned to the simple humanity of everyday life.  “Dadaist nihilism”? I don’t think so. The urge to annihilate, in the man, in the world, was overcome.  
At least in that instance. In that world. At that time.  

Portrait of a Woman Weeping  

That ridiculous hat
her face made up 

in prisms of comic book color
those petrified animal eyes

The face of  Europe
breaking and weeping -

The woman    Dora Maar
the cruel brushstrokes of her lover
her crystalline surface   shattered
What man can watch a woman weeping
without seeing his own death?



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