Invitations to a Particular Philosophic View
What makes these paintings different is the degree of their direct sexuality. They refer without any ambiguity at all to the experience of making love to this woman. They describe sensations and, above all, the sensation of sexual comfort. Even when she is dressed or with her daughter (the daughter of Marie-Thérèse and Picasso was born in 1935) she is seen in the same way: soft as a cloud, easy, full of precise pleasures, and inexhaustible because alive and sentient. In literature the thrall which a particular woman’s body can have over a man has been described often. But words are abstract and can hide as much as they state. A visual image can reveal far more naturally the sweet mechanism of sex. One need only think of a drawing of a breast and then compare it to all the stray associations of the word, to see how this is so. At its most fundamental there aren’t any words for sex – only noises: yet there are shapes.
The old masters recognized this advantage of the visual. Most paintings have a far greater sexual content than is generally admitted. But when the subjects have been undisguisedly sexual, they have always in the past been placed in a social or moral perspective. All the great nudes imply a way of living. They are invitations to a particular philosophic view. They are comments on marriage, having mistresses, luxury, the golden age, or the joys of seduction. This is as true of a Giorgione as of a Renoir. The women lie there like conditional promises. The subjective experience of sex – the experience of the fulfilling of the promise – is ignored. (And ignored most pointedly of all in ‘pornographic’ pictures illustrating the sexual act.)
It is understandable that this should have been so in the past. There were stricter religious and social taboos. There was greater economic dependence of women and therefore a greater emphasis on the conventions of chastity and modesty. There was an established public role of art. A painting was painted for somebody else, so that ‘autobiographical’ painting was very rare; the subjective experience of sex can only be expressed autobiographically. There were also stylistic limitations.
The painter’s right to displace the parts – the right which Cubism won – is essential for creating a visual image that can correspond to sexual experience. Whatever the initial stimuli of appearances, sex itself defies them. It is both brighter and heavier than appearances, and finally it abandons both scale and identity. [John Berger on Picasso]
“It is sometimes presumed that those voyeurs represent Picasso in impotent decrepitude, but there seems to be no evidence for the notion. Indeed, the funniest, most sweetly sexy works of the artist’s career take up the theme of voyeurism. A special treat of the Montreal show is a suite of twenty-five marvellous etchings—made in the course of twelve days in 1968—that imagine the painter Raphael doing the deed with his model and mistress La Fornarina under the eyes of a male watcher, usually Pope Julius II. The sex is necessarily athletic, because it doesn’t occur to Raphael to let go of his brushes and palette for convenience’s sake. The Pope sometimes lurks but more often sits at ease on a throne or on a chamber pot. In some of the pictures, he seems disapproving. In others, he appears to be having a whale of a time. (If anyone in attendance is grumpy, it’s Raphael’s rival Michelangelo, who is occasionally shown hiding under the bed.) If the eighty-six-year-old Picasso was ruing his senescence at the time he did these etchings, he forgot it in the course of spinning hilarious fantasies with sensual panache. The series celebrates a delirious conflation of art and sex, of looking and doing—a higher mathematics of eroticism that consigns the usual physical measures of conjugal performance to the status of dull arithmetic.
Sex served Picasso as an indestructible substitute for the social agreements and systems of belief that had previously grounded art in the world. Not for him the utopian or Arcadian, progressive or quasi-religious programs of other modern artists; he scorned both abstraction and contemporary subject matter. Not that he made choices in these matters. His temperament was his destiny. (Despite his intentions for “Guernica,” that great painting fails as propaganda by dissolving a topical outrage into timeless myth. His later attempts to be a good Communist, with images of peace doves and the like, account for perhaps his only truly bad work.) As a result, his art can never become dated, let alone old-fashioned. A virtuosic modernizer in form, he was a skulking primitive in content—not only premodern but prehistorical, revelling in primal mud. Like the makers of the Lascaux petroglyphs, he was essentially a graphic artist. He was a swordsman of the thrusting line. His curves often ache to straighten, as if they were bent springs; and the caress of his paint-handling is no smoother than a cat’s tongue. No matter how attenuated the sexual charge of his work became, it guided his choices of mark and color. Is there something tedious about Picasso’s bullying machismo? There certainly is—when you aren’t looking at his art. When you do look, he’s got you by the scruff of your instinctual being.” [Peter Schjeldahl on Picasso]
“He could on occasion be cruel; bear in mind, however, that whatever you say about Picasso, the reverse is also apt to be true. In life, as in art, he could be one of the kindest and one of the unkindest people I have ever known. And then remember that whereas Dora was masochistic by nature, Marie-Thérèse was submissive, and throughout her relationship with Picasso she did what she was told. And because she was insanely in love with him, she was happy to do so. Her rival, Dora, was more sophisticated. She had lived previously with Georges Bataille, a great thinker and a disciple of the Marquis de Sade. Like most of the Surrealist women, she knew what she was in for. Remember too, that Man Ray, the greatest of Surrealist photographers, was a close friend of Picasso’s. I didn’t realize how close until a friend discovered that the painting that fetched $106 million last year [Nude, Green Leaves and Bust] was in fact based on a bondage photograph taken by Man Ray. In the catalogue of our Marie-Thérèse show, we’re placing the photograph and the painting side by side….
I think it’s way beyond that. Women were all important in his life because he was always apt to associate sex with art: the procreative act with the creative act. Hence the Artist and Model series in which he makes great play with the phallic brush the artist wields on his model as well as in paint on canvas in real life. As for the men in his work, most of them turn out to be self-portraits in one form or another. Time and again he appears as a painter—old or young, bearded or clean-shaven, art student or old master, Renaissance master or contemporary hack. He frequently envisages himself in the bullring as a picador or torero, as well as the bull. He even identifies with Christ. But he identifies above all with the Minotaur, this mythological creature who was half bull and half man, to whom maidens had to be sacrificed. However, Picasso’s Minotaur is not always a monster; on the contrary, he is a poignant creature, a victim like himself of misfortune and tragedy—blinded by fate and love for the little girl—Marie-Thérèse, of course—who leads him around.” [John Richardson on Picasso]