John Berger on Picasso
I read John Berger’s book The Success and Failure of Picasso long ago, when I was a student, and am now re-reading it for a second time. I’m a different person now, and it’s like reading a new book for the first time. Here’s an extract from the beginning of the book which I found particularly interesting:
He gives himself up utterly to the present idea or moment. The past, the future, plans, cause and effect – all are abandoned. He submits himself totally to the experience at hand. All that he has done or achieved only counts in so far as it affects what he is at that moment of submission. This is the way in which – ideally at least – Picasso works. And it is very close indeed to the way in which the prodigy submits to the force that plays through him.
“Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting people have to understand. If only they would realize above all that an artist works of necessity, that he himself is only a trifling bit of the world, and that no more importance should be attached to him than to plenty of other things which please us in the world, though we can’t explain them. People who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.”
― Pablo Picasso
Such is the positive result of the mystery at the centre of which Picasso found himself as a child. By respecting this mystery he has become the most expressive artist of our time. But there was also a negative result – which may have had as much to do with his childhood success as with the mystery. Picasso denies the power of reason. He denies the causal connexion between searching and finding. He denies that there is such a thing as development in art. He hates all theories and explanations. It would be understandable if he ignored all these intellectual considerations when it came to respecting and responding to the mystery of his own powers. But he goes further than this. He hates reasoning in general and despises the interchange of ideas.
Berger then goes on to quote Picasso: “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies. If he only shows in his work that he has searched and re-searched for the way to put over lies, he would never accomplish anything.”
The similarities between these two paintings [Picasso’s Still-life with Chair-caning, 1912, and Fra Angelico’s The Vocation of St Nicholas, 1437] are the result of a similar sense of disovery, of newness, which affects the world seen and the artist’s view of himself. There is scarcely any distinction, because both seem so new, between what is personal and what is impersonal.
Such a sense of newness has nothing to do with the artist’s own originality. It has to do with the time in which he lives. More specifically it has to do with the possibilities suggested, with an awareness of promise – in art, life, science, philosophy, technology.
I have referred to Cubism as a revolution in art. It did far more than extend the language of art as, say, Impressionism did. And it was far more than a stylistic revolt against what had preceded it. Cubism changed the nature of the relationships between the painted image and reality, and by doing this it placed man in a position which he had never been in before.
Mankind always takes up only such problems as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, we will always find that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.
The preparations for the revolution of Cubism were begun in the nineteenth century by two artists: Courbet and Cézanne. The importance of Cézanne for the Cubists has been stressed so often that it has become a commonplace. As for Courbet, Apollinaire in Les Peintres Cubistes (which was the first full-length communiqué issued by the Cubists) says quite simply: ‘Courbet is the father of the new painters.’
Both Courbet and Cézanne changed the emphasis of the painter’s approach to nature: Courbet by his materialism, Cézanne by his dialectical view of the process of looking at nature.
Nature in a picture is no longer something laid out in front of the spectator for him to examine. It now includes him and the evidence of his senses and his constantly changing relationships to what he is seeing. Before Cézanne, every painting was to some extent like a view seen through a window. Courbet had tried to open the window and climb out. Cézanne broke the glass. The room became part of the landscape, the viewer part of the view.
This then was the revolutionary inheritance that the nineteenth century bequeathed to the twentieth: the materialism of Courbet and the dialectic of Cézanne. The task was to combine the two. Followed up separately, each would lead to a cul-de-sac. Courbet’s materialism would become mechanical; the force of gravity, which gave such dignity to his subjects, would become oppressive and literal. Cézanne’s dialectic would become more and more disembodied and its harmony would be obtained at the price of physical indifference.
Today both examples are followed up separately. Most painting in the world now is either banally and mechanically naturalistic or else abstract. But for a few years, from 1907 onwards, the two were combined. Despite the ignorance and philistinism of Moscow in its Stalinist and post-Stalinist pronouncements about painting, and despite the fact that none of the artists concerned were in any way marxists, it is both possible and logical to define Cubism during those years as the only example of dialectical materialism in painting.
The Cubists created a system by which they could reveal visually the interlocking of phenomena. And thus they created in art the possibility of revealing processes instead of static states of being. Cubism is an art entirely concerned with interaction: the interaction between different aspects: the interaction between structure and movement: the interaction between solids and the space around them: the interaction between the unambiguous signs made on the surface of the picture and the changing reality which they stand in for.
The view of himself as an artist – the artist as receptacle – incidentally confirms how Picasso fits again into Apollinaire’s first category. It also stresses the difference between his unified world of magic and the life around him in a class society:
“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web. That is why we must not discriminate between things. Where things are concerned there are no class distinctions.”
Picasso’s contribution to our culture through works like these is very considerable. He has made us aware of sensation as no other artist has done, and has extended the language of painting so that it may express this awareness. But such works depend for their significance on what they appear to undermine and destroy. Without Poussin, Picasso would not make sense. The distortions only count for us because, unlike children or animals, we can recognize and exactly measure them as such. Our awareness of physical sensation, as communicated by a work of art, is in fact dependent upon a very high level of self-consciousness. Picasso himself must have realized this creative dialectic: these works, apparently so free, are acts of homage to the European tradition of drawing. Every displacement is still startling. Each destruction is made for a specific creative purpose. One can feel the tension of the daring. Such work is like the boldest surgery.
‘When we cease to be children’, Brancusi said, ‘we are already dead.’ He brought with him the sense of moral superiority of a man from the past. Discussing the dedication necessary for an artist, he said: ‘Create like a god, rule like a king, and work like a slave.’ Brancusi, however, lived in the same way as he worked: simply, austerely, and – in terms of the demands of modern Paris or New York – somewhat helplessly. He either would not or could not cooperate except on his own terms – and they were the terms of a hermit who had chosen to live in the desert of modern life, faithful to an early vision of essentials.
By 1943 the second and last great period of Picasso’s life as an artist had ended. During that period he had painted some bad pictures but he had also painted some great ones. After 1943 he produced nothing comparable. Why could he not go on as before? Picasso’s great paintings from 1931 to 1943 were all, including Guernica – and that is where so many critics have been misled – autobiographical. They were confessions of highly personal and very immediate experiences. They embody no social imagination in the usual modern sense of the word. The first paintings were about sexual pleasure; the tragic paintings of Guernica and the war were about pain and were the obverse of the erotic paintings. All of them were concerned with expressing sensations. All of them exploited the freedom to displace parts – the freedom won by Cubism – to achieve their aim.
To find these subjects Picasso scarcely had to leave his own body. It is through the experience of his own body that he painted erotic pictures, and it is through his own physical imagination, heightened by sexual experience, that he painted the war pictures. (It is interesting to note that in the latter almost all the figures are women.) The choice of his successful subjects was limited to what was happening to him at a very basic level. At that level – a level which no European painter had ever before investigated so deeply – the special significance or meaning of a subject is biologically rather than culturally assured. At that level – if we have the courage to admit it – we are all one.
The Success and Failure of Picasso by John Berger: