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International Socialism, Autumn 1988


John Berger

Defending Picasso’s late work


From International Socialism 2 : 40, Autumn 1988, pp. 111–117.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The last period of Picasso’s life as a painter was dominated by the theme of sexuality. Of the two hundred works shown in the Tate exhibition this summer, three-quarters show women or couples observed or imagined as sexual beings. Looking at this last period of Pablo Picasso, I think of some lines written by the great Irish poet, W.B. Yeats, in his old age:

You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attention upon my old age;
They were not such a plague when I was young
What else have I to spur me into song?

Yet, why does such an obsession so suit the medium of painting? Why does painting make it so eloquent?

Before attempting to answer, let us clear the ground a little. Freudian analysis, whatever else it may offer in other circumstances, is of no great help here, because it is concerned primarily with symbolism and the unconscious. Whereas the question I’m asking addresses the immediately physical and the evidently conscious.

Nor, I think, do philosophers of the obscene – like the eminent Bataille – help a great deal because, again but in a different way, they tend to be too literary and psychological for the question. We have to think quite simply, about pigment and the look of bodies.

The first images ever painted displayed the bodies of animals. Since then, most paintings in the world have showed bodies of one kind or another. This is not to belittle landscape or other later genres; nor is it to establish a hierarchy. Yet if one remembers that the first, the basic purpose of painting is to conjure up the presence of something which is not there, it is not surprising that what is usually conjured up are bodies. It is their presence which we need in our collective or individual solitude to console, strengthen, encourage or inspire us. Paintings keep our eyes company. Any company usually involves bodies.

Let us now – at the risk of colossal simplification – consider the other arts. Narrative stories involve action: they have a beginning and end in time. Poetry addresses the heart, the wound, the dead – everything which has its being within the realm of our inter-subjectivities. Music is about what is behind the given: the wordless, the invisible, the unconstrained. Theatre re-enacts the past. Painting is about the physical, the palpable and the immediate (the insurmountable problem facing abstract art was to overcome this). The art closest to painting is Dance. Both derive from the body, both evoke the body, both in the first sense of the word are physical. The important difference is that Dance, like Narration and Theatre, has a beginning and end and so exists in time; whereas painting is instantaneous. (Sculpture, because it is more obviously static than painting, often lacks colour and is usually without a frame and therefore less intimate, is in a category by itself which demands another essay.)

Painting, then, offers palpable, instantaneous, unswerving, continuous, physical presence. It is the most immediately sensuous of the arts. Body to body. One of them being the spectator’s. This is not to say that the aim of every painting is sensuous; the aim of many paintings has been ascetic. Messages deriving from the sensuous change from century to century, according to ideology. Equally, the role of gender changes. For example, paintings can present women as a passive sex object, an active sexual partner, as somebody to be feared, as a goddess, as a loved human being. Yet, however the art of painting is used, its use begins with a deep sensuous charge which is then transmitted in one direction or another. Think of a painted skull, a painted lily, a carpet, a red curtain, a corpse – and in every case, whatever the conclusion may be, the beginning (if the painting is alive) is a sensuous shock.

The intimate relation (the interface) between painting and physical desire, which one has to extricate from the churches and the museums, the academies and the law-courts, has little to do with the special mimetic texture of oil paint, as I discuss it in my book Ways of Seeing. The relation begins with the act of painting, not with the medium. The interface can be there too in fresco painting or watercolour. It is not the illusionist tangibility of the painted bodies which counts, but their visual signals, which have such an astounding complicity with those of real bodies.

Perhaps now we can understand a little better what Picasso did during the last twenty years of his life, what he was driven to do, and what – as one might expect of him – nobody had quite done before.

He was becoming an old man, he was as proud as ever, he loved women as much as he ever had and he faced the absurdity of his own relative impotence. One of the oldest jokes in the world became his pain and his obsession – as well as a challenge to his great pride. At the same time he was living in an uncommon isolation from the world: an isolation, as I point out in my book, which he had not altogether chosen himself, but which was the consequence of his monstrous fame. The solitude of this isolation gave him no relief from his obsession; on the contrary it pushed him further and further away from any alternative interest or concern. He was condemned to a single-mindedness without escape, to a kind of mania, which took the form of a monologue. A monologue addressed to the practice of painting, and to all the dead painters of the past whom he admired or loved or was jealous of. The monologue was about sex. Its mood changed from work to work but not its subject.

The last paintings of Rembrandt – and particularly the self-portraits – are proverbial for their questioning of everything the artist had done or painted before. Everything is seen in another light. Titian, who lived to be almost as old as Picasso, painted towards the end of his life the Flaying of Marsyas and The Pietà in Venice: two extraordinary last paintings in which the paint as flesh turns cold. For both Rembrandt and Titian the contrast between their late works and their earlier work is very marked. Yet also there is a continuity, whose basis it is difficult to define briefly. A continuity of pictorial language, of cultural reference, of religion, and of the role of art in social life. This continuity qualified and reconciled – to some degree – the despair of the old painters; the desolation they felt became a sad wisdom or an entreaty.

With Picasso this did not happen, perhaps because, for many reasons there was no such continuity. In art he himself had done much to destroy it. Not because he was an iconoclast, nor because he was impatient with the past, but because he hated the inherited half-truths of the cultured classes. He broke in the name of truth. But what he broke did not have the time before his death to be reintegrated into tradition. His copying, during the last period, of old masters like Velasquez, Poussin or Delacroix, was an attempt to find company, to re-establish a broken continuity. And they allowed him to join them. But they could not join him. And so he was alone – like the old always are. But he was unmitigatedly alone because he was cut off from the contemporary world as a historical person, and from a continuing pictorial tradition as a painter. Nothing spoke back to him, nothing constrained him, and so his obsession became a frenzy: the opposite of wisdom.

An old man’s frenzy about the beauty of what he can no longer do. A farce. A fury. And how does the frenzy express itself? (If he had not been able to draw or paint every day he would have gone mad or died – he needed the painter’s gesture to prove to himself he was still a living man.) The frenzy expresses itself by going directly back to the mysterious link between pigment and flesh and the signs they share. It is the frenzy of paint as a boundless erogenous zone. Yet the shared signs, instead of indicating mutual desire, now display the sexual mechanism. Crudely. With anger. With blasphemy. This is painting swearing at its own power and at its own mother. Painting insulating what it had once celebrated as sacred. Nobody before imagined how painting could be obscene about its own origin, as distinct from illustrating obscenities. Picasso discovered how it could be.

He who says sensuous – where the human body and the human imagination are concerned – is also saying sexual. And it is here that the practice of painting begins to become more mysterious.

Tintoretto: Woman with Bare Breasts (black/white)

Tintoretto, Woman with Bare Breasts
(picture in colour)

The visual plays an important part in the sexual life of many animals and insects. Colour, shape and visual gesture alert and attract the opposite sex. For human beings the visual role is even more important, because the signals address not only reflexes but also the imagination. (The visual may play a more important role in the sexuality of men than women, but this is difficult to assess because of the extent of sexist traditions in modern image-making).

The breast, the nipple, the pubis, the belly are natural optical foci of desire, and their natural pigmentation enhances their attractive power. If this is often not said simply enough – if it is left to the domaine of spontaneous graffiti on public walls – it is due to the weight of puritan moralising. The truth is we are all made like that. Other cultures in other times have underlined the magnetism and centrality of these parts with the use of cosmetics. Cosmetics which add more colour to the natural pigmentation of the body.

Given that painting is the appropriate art of the body, and given that the body, to perform its basic function of reproduction, uses visual signals and stimuli of sexual attraction, we begin to see why painting is never very far from the erogenous. Consider the Tintoretto of La Dama Que Descubre El Seno (Prado Museum). This image of a woman uncovering her breast so that it can be seen, is equally a representation of the gift, the talent of painting. At the simplest level, the painting (with all its art) is imitating nature (with all its cunning) in drawing attention to a nipple and its aureole. Two very different kinds of ‘pigmentation’ used for the same purpose.

Yet just as the nipple is only part of the body, so its disclosure is only part of the painting. The painting is also the women’s distant expression, the far-from-distant gesture of her hands, her diaphonous clothes, her pearls, her coiffure, her hair undone on the nape of her neck, the flesh coloured wall or curtain behind her, and, everywhere, the play between greens and pinks so beloved of the Venetians. With all these elements, the painted woman seduces us with the visible means of the living one. The two are accomplices in the same visual coqueterie. Tintoretto was so called because his father was a dyer of cloth. The son, although at one degree removed and hence within the realm of art, was, like every painter, a ‘colourer’ of bodies, of skin, of limbs.

Supposing we now put beside the Tintoretto the Giorgione painting of An Old Woman (Academia, Venice), painted about half a century earlier. The two paintings together show that the intimate and unique relation existing between pigment and flesh does not necessarily mean sexual provocation. On the contrary, the theme of the Giorgione is the loss of the power to provoke. Perhaps no words could ever register like this painting does the sadness of the flesh of the old woman whose right hand makes a similar but so different gesture. Why? Because the pigment has become that flesh? This is almost true but not quite. Rather, because the pigment has become the communication of that flesh, its lament.

Finally, let us add to the other two paintings, Titian’s Vanity of the World (Pinakothek, Munich) in which a woman has abandoned all her jewellery (except a wedding ring) and all adornment. The ‘fripperies’, which she has discarded as vanity, are reflected in the dark mirror she holds up. Yet, even here, in this least suitable of contexts, her painted head and shoulders cry out with desirability. And the pigment is the cry.

Such is the ancient mysterious contract between pigment and flesh. This contract permits the great Madonnas and Children to offer profound sensuous security and delight, just as it confers upon the great Pietàs the full weight of their mourning – the terrible weight of the hopeless desire that the flesh should live again. Paint belongs to the body. The stuff of colours possesses a sexual charge. When Manet paints Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe (a picture which Picasso copied many times during his last period) the flagrant paleness of the paint does not just imitate, but becomes the flagrant nakedness of the women on the grass. What the painting shows is the body shown.

How to judge these late works? It is too soon. Those who pretend that they are the summit of Picasso’s art are as absurd as the hagiographers around him have always been. Those who dismiss them as the repetitive rantings of an old man understand nothing about either love or the human plight.

Spaniards are proverbially proud of the way they can swear. They admire the ingenuity of their oaths and they know that swearing can be an attribute, even a proof, of dignity.

Nobody has ever sworn in paint before.

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