Painting without space or form: such is the paradox towards which Picasso's genius is always tending. His painting can never be placed or fixed. There are certain parts of France and other countries in the world, which cannot be contemplated by an educated person without connecting them with the name of a painter, who has his roots in that region. But Picasso, the inhabitant of the desert, participates in our culture although not a single one of his works evokes a landscape or more precisely not a single landscape on earth ever evokes one of his works, for these represent no place and are of nowhere.
Some people have tried to see in this the influence of decorative Oriental art, and this is not surprising in a Spaniard, as was so ingeniously demonstrated by M. Eustache de Lorey. It may well be the case; but let us not fail to insist on the difference of aim and realization between an Oriental carpet and an abstract modern painting, which the artist intended not as a decorative fragment, but as a substantial object, a plastic and organic whole. Nevertheless, it may happen that certain places are vaguely suggested in the canvases of our Oriental. In the first period, when human solitude was realistically presented and shared by vagabonds, acrobats, and unhappy mothers, it was the phantom corner of some suburb.
Later it was the abstract table of the artist's studio, supporting the intellectual construction of a still-life. The studio window also occurs sometimes, the window which separates the still life from the living, that is to say the place where crowds and fellow beings abound, — just the reverse of solitude. Finally at another time it may be the seashore, — the only place an inhabitant of the desert could represent, since the desert itself cannot be depicted. The seashore with a line separating the sea from the land and another line for the horizon separating the sea from the sky, can be reduced to signs, short, severe signs almost equal to numerals.
However, there is one place, an essentially abstract place, an artificial place, not forming part of nature, where Picasso's extra-spatial art could come to life, and that is the theatre. Moreover the most remarkable theatrical manifestation of our epoch was bound to appeal to Picasso and to give him an opportunity of developing his gifts. Thus he became one of the most splendid designers for the Russian Ballets.
But even if Picasso had not met Serge Diaghilev, Eric Satie, Manuel de Falla, Jean Cocteau, even if he had not made the decorations for Parade, and the Three Cornered Hat, as he was afterwards to paint the curtain for Quatorze Juillet, something of the theatre was bound to appear in his work, because this is a comedy in the deepest sense of the word; in the sense of a representation or a dream specially concerted and ordered by the spirit for itself, in the course of which it parades the forms it is familiar with under certain masks... (But that is his secret and the secret of the theatre).
It is a comedy, neither divine nor human, but purely plastic. We have admitted that Picasso was a painter, nothing more than a painter and nothing less. Perhaps this hypothesis of a vast comedy will enable us to discover at last the unity of this genius, apparently so broken up, so incoherent, perhaps it may be the link, the common denominator of all the heterogenous aesthetics that he has adopted one after another. Perhaps these diverse forms are indeed the successive disguises of one and the same system of forms, of one painter if not of his only genius. Perhaps the monsters of Dinard are but an avatar of some inflated Venus and will begin to play the same scenes among themselves. The scenes and the parts remain the same ; only the costumes of the figures have changed. There is but one comedy.
However this may be, every time that something legible and recognizable appears in Picasso's work it smacks of the theatre. How often he gives us the impression that the place where the figures he has drawn move can be no other than the theatre ! True, we see no signs of the scenery, neither the boards nor the backcloth nor even the lighting. But the figures look so Greek, or so Italian ! We need not mention the immortal Harlequins, which reveal Picasso's obsession and symbolize his genius, nor the Three Masks and their replica the Three Musicians, the chromatic masterpiece of the Cubist Opera; but in turning over his innumerable works we continually recognize costumes, masquerades and attitudes that cannot be realized except on the stage. The same is true of the very rare landscapes to be found in his work, rare, exceptional, surprising landscapes, having all the flavour of a musical comedy scene. They are designed for those histrions, those mimes and shepherds, who haunt the brain of a manager with their enigmatic gestures, their draperies, their wide-brimmed hats and their somnambulistic sleep.
The East has rejected landscape as well as the human figure. Picasso, the solitary, ought to have refused to represent his fellow men as well as nature. But here again the dialectic game must be applied ; we must establish the exception and antithesis, by which Picasso surpasses the general law of his spirit.
In the first place we must point out that in this domain of portraiture, or more accurately the negation and decadence of portraiture, Picasso is no longer alone, since his attitude is shared by most of the artists of his day.
Modern art tends to neglect the human figure in general; this dehumanization has been pointed out before. I, for my part, see profound sociological reasons for it. This may not be the place to develop them, but they mark the essential disaccord, more or less obscure, more or less conscious, which exists between present-day society and those whose business it is to express it. Anyway the portrait, the avowed triumphant portrait, bereft of all the prestige of an art that accepts and concerts, has disappeared to-day, at least so far as Living Art is concerned ; and it is precisely not without reason that it survives only among the official and fashionable painters.
Picasso, both as a living artist and as Picasso, had thus a double reason not to represent the human figure. The exceptions — and these show him to be perhaps the best portrait painter of our time — are all the more significant. This exceptional group of portraits consists of a few paintings and a number of drawings. The models are the artist's family, his wife, his sons, or other artists, writers and art-lovers. Thus out of the whole of modern society, the portrait painter has only been able to obtain those faces to which he was drawn by affection or the community of intellectual interests.
In order to find a formula for a style so little suited to actuality, so inadequate and paradoxical, he has borrowed the style of the last artist who knew how to represent bourgeois with a grandeur worthy of those earlier artists who painted princes with so much ease : Jean Dominique Ingres.It would seem, indeed, that Ingres was the last portrait painter, who could endure the faces of his contemporaries and treated them with nobility. After him reconciliation became impossible. The sons of Ingres' models are merely the objects of Daumier's caricatures. Courbet was able to paint the portraits of Baudelaire and of Proudhon only; Manet that of Zola and Mallarmé. We may add those of Bruyaz and Theodore Duret, the few faithful friends of accursed art. Those artists who paint portraits occasionally have to cast their gaze on to a very reduced circle.
Thus Cézanne painted Vollard, a few friends, Mme Cézanne and peasants. But the last society, the last reign whose image is preserved to us in a gallery of portraits is the society and the reign of Monsieur Ingres. There we see the air of grandeur, the look of assurance for the last time and with supreme brilliance. We see the perfect agreement between the artist and his model, the appearance of eternity, given by the former to the costume of the latter, to his pose, his face, in fact everything that moves us in a Clouet, a Rubens, a Greco, a Titian and in so many others, including the very acceptable specialists of the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries.
As a portrait painter, Picasso has deliberately resolved to follow the example of Ingres, the last of his line. He has borrowed his pencil and brush in order to paint Mme Olga Picasso, Mme Gertrude Stein, Apollinaire and Paul Valéry. Ingres has been one of the enclosed spaces, which make up the multiplicity of his evasive genius, one of the caprices of Picasso, one of the ideal styles through the choice of which he has shown how imitation could often be the only way towards originality.
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