Sunday, March 1, 2009

Picasso and the Allure of Language at Yale

Picasso, Study of Feet, 1943, Oil on newspaper (CLICK ON IMAGE TO ENLARGE)
Picasso, annotated poem manuscript, December 24, 1935
Picasso was some kind of demonic, monstrous freak. No human being could be that creative and powerful -- and playful. It just isn't humanly possible. If you're not convinced check out this terrific show (at the Yale University Art Gallery until May 24th). 

  In some ways this show (astoundingly, all but two of the 79 works in the show are from Yale's own collection) is a retrospective because Picasso was involved with language his entire career. 

We've grown to expect breathtaking expressive range, inventiveness and mastery with Picasso retrospectives and this show is no different. There's a large, powerful 1906 drawing of a head of a woman (bought by Marcel Duchamp in 1927!) done in an archaic primitive style that led to Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. There are drawings done in the early 1930's made up entirely of 3" or 4" lines with dots on either end (where the hell did he get that idea)? They have Seated Woman, April 26, 1936, a good-sized painting with acidic colors that eerily resonate with each other. There's a series of lithographs done with his fiingerprints. And there's his large, famous First Steps, 1943, a painting of a mother sweetly guiding her baby's first steps. The whole painting seems to tilt and toddle like the baby. 

My favorite work in the show is a shockingly rough, 1943 study of feet done on a full page of newspaper. I'm a great fan of Picasso's later work. I know, I know, but I love the casual, raw quality of the later work. This would be worthy of any Neo-Expressionist of the 1980's. 

And then there's poetry! Most of Picasso's closest friends were poets (Stein and Apollinaire, of course, but also Max Jacob, Andre Salmon and later the Surrealist poets). He illustrated dozens of books (collaborations really), wrote two full plays and, from the mid-1930's until 1959, wrote hundreds of poems including a year, beginning in April, 1935, that he devoted himself solely to poetry. (BTW, when he resumed painting in April, 1936, he made almost a painting a day that month). 

I'm not qualified to judge poetry but Andre Breton admired Picasso's poetry and he and other Surrealist poets published it and wrote about it in a special 1935 edition of Cahiers d'art. Clive Bell and the French literature scholar, Peter Read also admired and discussed the work. Here's what the publisher, poet, translator, Jerome Rothenberg had to say in A Pre-Face to Picasso:
When Pierre Joris and I were compiling Poems for the Millennium we sensed that Picasso, if he wasn't fully a poet, was incredibly close to the neighboring poets of his time, and when he brought language into his cubist works, the wordscollaged from newspapers were there as something really to be read. What only appeared to us later was the body of work that emerged from 1935 on and that showed him to have been a poet in the fullest sense and possibly, as MichelLeiris points out, "an insatiable player with words ... [who, like] James Joyce ... in his Finnegans Wake, ... displayed an equal capacity to promote language as a real thing (one might say) . . . and to use it with as much dazzling liberty." 

  It was in early 1935, then, that Picasso (then fifty-four years old) began to write what we will present here as his poetry - a writing that continued, sometimes as a daily offering, until the summer of 1959. In the now standard Picasso myth, the onset of the poetry is said to have coincided with a devastating marital crisis (a financially risky divorce, to be more exact), because of which his output as a painter halted for the first time in his life. Writing - as a form of poetry using, largely, the medium of prose - became his alternative outlet. The flow of words begins abruptly ("privately" his biographer PatrickO'Brian tells us) on 18 april XXXV while in retreat at Boisgeloup . (He would lose the country place the next year in a legal settlement.) The pace is rapid, violent, pushing and twisting from one image to another, not bothering with punctuation, often defying syntax, expressive of a way of writing/languaging that he had never tried before:
if I should go outside the wolves would come to eat out of my hand just as my room would seem to be outside of me my other earnings would go off around the world smashed into smithereens
as one of us has tried to phrase it in translation. Yet if the poems begin with a sense of personal discomfort and malaise, there is a world beyond the personal that enters soon thereafter. For Picasso, like any poet of consequence, is a man fully into his time and into the terrors that his time presents. Read in that way, "the world smashed into smithereens" is a reflection also of the state of things between the two world wars - the first one still fresh in mind and the rumblings of the second starting up. That's the way the world goes at this time or any other, Picasso writes a little further on, not as the stricken husband or the discombobulated lover merely, but as a man, like the aforementioned Joyce, caught in the "nightmare of history" from which he tries repeatedly to waken. It is the time and place where poetry becomes - for him as for us - the only language that makes sense. That anyway is where we position Picasso and how we read him.
One of my favorite excerpts from: The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, & Other Poems by Pablo Picasso, translated by Pierre Joris, Jerome Rothenberg and Diane Rothenberg From Boisgeloup 18 april XXXV the world goes on and if it wasn’t for their own self interest none of them would leave his house without first taking it apart as well they can and this time it’s my turn that makes it worthwhile clobbering this worthwhile man who doesn’t strut his stuff day after day and if he hits the jackpot this time it’s not his to win but goes to those dumb boobs ahead of him and one more time he’ll end up in the small boat like you know and see ya later cuz today’s a holiday and they’ve cut out like they were looking one more time to yank the stick back from the man who made it so the chestnuts would be roasted ... --Translation from Spanish by Jerome Rosenberg
For a 41 page PDF sampler of Picasso's poems:


Jerome Rothenberg said...

I can't find an email address to which I can respond, so I'll take this means to thank you for what you say here and for the generous quotations from me and Pierre Joris. I have a further piece on my blog, "Poems and Poetics," that repeats some of the Pre-Face but with additions and with a different and maybe more ample context. The perinent URL is if you want to follow up on it.

With thanks again,
& warm best wishes,


Anonymous said...

I would love to know, is that painting of feet on newspaper by Picasso on permanent show at the Yale University Gallery? I wish to send something to wherever it hangs and ask how it has been preserved. Besides, I have painted a similar one of cows hooves also on newspaper, I love the poetry of that. I paint cows. Hope to hear from you!

Charles Kessler said...

Unfortunately, Pete, Yale has a large collection and a small space (although enlarged recently) so there's no telling if that painting will be on exhibit. Maybe email them via their website and ask when they plan to show it. Sometimes museums allow people to make an appointment to see work in storage. Try that.

I don't know how they preserved the newspaper, but I can advise you not to try it! said...

Well Charles, I did paint on newspaper! And more, I will do so for a whole year! On 300 or so Issues of the "Süddeutsche Zeitung"