is now free to paint anything he chooses. There are scarcely any forbidden subjects, and today everybody is prepared to admit that a painting of some fruit can be as important as a painting of a hero dying. The Impressionists did as much as anybody to win this previously unheard-of freedom for the artist.

Yet, by the next generation, painters began to abandon the subject altogether, and paint abstract pictures. Today the majority of pictures painted are abstract.

Is there a connexion between these two developments? Has art gone abstract because the artist is embarrassed by his freedom? Is it that, because he is free to paint anything, he doesn’t know what to paint? Apologists for abstract art often talk of it as the art of maximum freedom. But could this be the freedom of the desert island?

It would take too long to answer these questions properly. I believe there is a connexion. Many things have encouraged the development of abstract art. Among them has been the artists’ wish to avoid the difficulties of finding subjects when all subjects are equally possible.

I raise the matter now because I want to draw attention to the fact that the painter’s choice of a subject is a far more complicated question than it would at first seem. A subject does not start with what is put in front of the easel or with something which the painter happens to remember. A subject starts with the painter deciding he would like to paint such-and-such because for some reason or other he finds it meaningful. A subject begins when the artist selects something for special mention. (What makes it special or meaningful may seem to the artist to be purely visual – its colours or its form.) When the subject has been selected, the function of the painting itself is to communicate and justify the significance of that selection.

It is often said today that subject matter is unimportant. But this is only a reaction against the excessively literary and moralistic interpretation of subject matter in the nineteenth century. In truth the subject is literally the beginning and end of a painting. The painting begins with a selection (I will paint this and not everything else in the world); it is finished when that selection is justified (now you can see all that I saw and felt in this and how it is more than merely itself).

Thus, for a painting to succeed it is essential that the painter and his public can agree about what is significant. The subject may have a personal meaning for the painter or individual spectator; but there must also be the possibility of their agreement on its general meaning. It is at this point that the culture of the society and period in question precedes the artist and his art. Renaissance art would have meant nothing to the Aztecs – and vice versa. (If, to some extent, a few intellectuals can appreciate them both today it is because their culture is an historical one: its inspiration is history and therefore it can include within itself, in principle if not in every particular, all known developments to date.)

When a culture is secure and certain of its values, it presents its artists with subjects. The general agreement about what is significant is so well established that the significance of a particular subject accrues and becomes traditional. This is true, for instance, of reeds and water in China, of the nude body during the Renaissance, of the animal head in Africa. Furthermore, in such cultures the artist is unlikely to be a free agent: he will be employed for the sake of particular subjects, and the problem, as we have just described it, will not occur to him.

When a culture is in a state of disintegration or transition the freedom of the artist increases – but the question of subject matter becomes problematic for him: he, himself, has to choose for society. This was at the basis of all the increasing crises in European art during the nineteenth century. It is too often forgotten how many of the art scandals of that time were provoked by the choice of subject (Géricault, Courbet, Daumier, Degas, Lautrec, Van Gogh, etc.).

By the end of the nineteenth century there were, roughly speaking, two ways in which the painter could meet this challenge of deciding what to paint and so choosing for society. Either he identified himself with the people and so allowed their lives to dictate his subjects to him; or he had to find his subjects within himself as painter. By people I mean everybody except the bourgeoisie. Many painters did of course work for the bourgeoisie according to their copy-book of approved subjects, but all of them, filling the Salon and the Royal Academy year after year, are now forgotten, buried under the hypocrisy of those they served too sincerely.

Those who identified themselves with the people (Van Gogh, or Gauguin in the South Seas) found new subjects and renewed, in the light of the lives of those for whom they saw, old subjects. A landscape by Van Gogh has a totally different meaning (and reason for being selected) from a landscape by Poussin.

Those who found their subjects within themselves as painters (Seurat or Cézanne) strove to make their method of seeing the new subject of their pictures. In so far as they succeeded in doing this, as we saw in the case of Cézanne, they changed the whole relationship between art and nature, and made it possible for every spectator to identify himself with the vision of the painter.

Those who took the first solution were mostly driven on by the terrible pressures of loneliness. Because they wanted to ‘belong’ they became socially conscious. Having become socially conscious, they wanted to change society. It is in this sense only that one can say that they were political, and that they chose their subjects by the standards of a future society.

Those who took the second solution were more reconciled to being isolated. Their devotion was to the logic of their vocation. Their aim was not to submit their imagination to the demands of the lives of others, but on the contrary to use their imagination to gain an ever-increasing control of their art. They chose their recurring subject – which was their method of seeing – to create the standards of a future art.

No artist will fit neatly into either of these categories. I am deliberately being diagrammatic so as to shed some light on a very complex problem. The important artists of this century can also be approximately divided into the same two categories: those whose method of seeing transcends their subjects: Braque, Matisse, Dufy, de Staël, etc., and those whose choice of subject insists upon the existence of another (tragic or glorious) way of life, distinct from that of the bourgeoisie: Rouault, Léger, Chagall, Permeke, etc.

To which does Picasso belong? He has answered for himself:

I see for the others. That is to say I put down on the canvas the sudden visions which force themselves on me. I don’t know beforehand what I shall put on the canvas, even less can I decide what colours to use. Whilst I’m working I’m not aware of what I’m painting on the canvas. Each time I begin a picture, I have the feeling of throwing myself into space. I never know whether I’ll land on my feet. It’s only later that I begin to assess the effect of what I’ve done.

Picasso has to submit to a vision rather than dominate it. Penrose, discussing the accounts of people who have watched Picasso at work, makes a similar point: ‘The line becomes visible in the exact place where it is required with such certainty that it is as though he were communing with a presence already there.’ Like a spiritualist medium, Picasso submits to what wants to be said. And this is the measure of his dependence on some inspiration outside himself. He needs to identify himself with others.

In fact this is exactly what one would expect. The closer art is to magic, the less economically developed the social system that has nurtured it, the more likely it is that the artist will feel himself a spokesman, a seer for others. The artist who finds his subject within his own activity as an artist, did not exist before the end of the nineteenth century, and Cézanne is probably the prototype.

To understand something of the power for an artist of his self-identification with others, consider for a moment the case of the Negro poet Aimé Césaire. Césaire was born in Martinique in 1913. He studied at the École Normale in Paris. In 1939 he published extracts from his long and great poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. But it was not until 1947 that the poem was published as a whole. In 1950 Picasso illustrated what was by then his fourth book of poems, called Corps perdu.

74 Picasso. Illustration to Aimé Césaire’s Corps perdu. 1950

Cesaire is an extremely sophisticated poet. His use of the French language can be compared with Rimbaud’s. But the theme of his poetry is urgent and political: the theme of the struggle of all Negro peoples everywhere for equal rights – economically, politically, and culturally. He has been a Deputy in the National Assembly in Paris, and the mayor of Fort-de-France, capital of Martinique.

In his poems he uses magic as a metaphor. He metaphorically turns himself into a magician so that he may speak for and to the Negro world at the deepest level of its experience and memories. But because he is not alone, there is no nostalgia in this ‘regression’, and certainly no idealization of the ‘noble savage’. He claims humanity for his own people and accuses of savagery – without any nobility at all – those who exploit and repress them.

A true Copernican revolution must be imposed here [Africa], so much is rooted in Europe, and in all parties, in all spheres, from the extreme right to the extreme left, the habit of doing for us, the habit of thinking for us, in short the habit of contesting that right to initiative which is in essence the right to personality.

For Césaire there is no essential contrast (and for this reason no possibility of idealization) between the primitive and the highly developed. What lies between them is prevention and greed. Otherwise the progression from the simple to the complex would be as natural as in these lines:

               The wheel is the most beautiful discovery of man and the only one

               there is the sun which turns

               there is the earth which turns

               there is your face which turns upon the axle of your throat when you cry.…

Or, expressed more directly:

They demand of us: ‘Choose … choose between loyalty and with it backwardness, or progress and rupture.’ Our reply is that things are not so simple, that there isn’t an alternative. That life (I say life and not abstract thought) does not know and does not accept this alternative. Or rather that if this alternative presents itself, it is life that will take care of its transcendence.

Like Picasso, Césaire reaches across history. Like Picasso he would have confounded everybody before the twentieth century, because it would have seemed impossible then for a man to be in two ‘times’ at once: in the heart of Africa and at the centre of European literature. But, unlike Picasso’s, Césaire’s ‘reach’ is being constantly confirmed by events. He is part of a force that is changing the world before our eyes; whereas Picasso has become a law unto himself.

Here in the Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, Césaire imagines how it will be when he returns home:

I would find once more the secret of great speech and of great burning. I would say storm. I would say river. I would say tornado. I would say leaf, I would say tree. I would be soaked by each rain, moistened by every dew. As frenetic blood rolls upon the slow current of the eye, so I would roll words like maddened horses like new children like !clotted milk like curfew like traces of a temple like precious stones far enough away to daunt all miners. Who could not understand me would no more understand the roaring of the tiger.

Rise, phantoms, chemical-blue from a forest of hunted beasts of twisted machines of jujube-tree of rotten flesh of a basket of oysters of eyes of a lacework of lashes cut from the lovely sisal of a human skin I would have words huge enough to contain you all and you too stretched earth drunken earth
earth great sex raised at the sun
earth great delirium of God
earth risen wild from the sea’s locker with a bunch of cecrops in your mouth
earth whose surfing face I must compare to the mad and virgin forests that I would wish to wear as countenance before the undeciphering eyes of men.
one mouthful of your milk-spurt would let me discover always at the distance of a mirage an earth – a thousand times more native, golden with a sun no prism has sampled – a fraternal earth where all is free, my earth.

When Césaire arrives back in Martinique, he is disappointed. He finds an apathetic, demoralized, trivial colony:

Now I have come.

Once more this limping life before me, no not this life, this death, this death without sense or piety, this death where greatness pitifully fails, this death which limps from pettiness to pettiness; little greeds heaped on top of the conquistador; little flunkeys heaped on top of the great savage; little souls shovelled on top of the three-souled Caribbean.

Later he recovers from his disappointment, and pledges himself to his people, since it is only by such identification that the magic can be wrought, the magic of a ‘fraternal earth’.

               And here at the end of the small hours is my virile prayer

               that I may hear neither laughter nor crying, my eyes

               upon this city which I prophesy as beautiful.

               Give me the sorcerer’s savage faith

               give my hands the power to mould

               give my soul the temper of the sword,

               I will stand firm. Make of my head a prow

               and of myself make neither a father,

               nor a brother, nor a son,

               but the father, but the brother, but the son,

               nor make of me a husband, but the lover of this unique people.

I quote Césaire at such length because today it is hard for most Western European intellectuals to imagine the devotion which an artist may feel for his ‘unique people’. This devotion is the result of mutual dependence. The people need a spokesman – the fact that Césaire is a French Deputy is almost as important as his being a poet; the artist needs the clamour and hopes of those whom he represents.

For Picasso there has been no such ‘unique people’. He has exiled himself from Spain. He has seldom left France, and in France he has lived like an emperor in his own private court. Such facts would not necessarily count if he could still have identified himself in imagination with a ‘unique people’. But the unique people have been reduced to a unique person, who only half exists by virtue of his contrast with everybody else: the noble savage.

We must now return to the consequences of Picasso’s isolation as they have affected his art. He has not lacked appreciation. Nor has he lacked creativity. What he has lacked are subjects.

When it comes to it, there are very few subjects. Everybody repeats them. Venus and Cupid becomes the Virgin and Child, then a Mother and Child, but it’s always the same subject. To invent a new subject must be wonderful. Take Van Gogh. His potatoes – such an everyday thing. To have painted that – or his old boots! That was really something.

In this statement – it was part of a conversation with his old dealer Kahnweiler in 1955 – Picasso unwittingly reveals his difficulty. No other statement tells us so much about the fundamental problem of his art. Only in the crudest sense is a Venus and Cupid the same subject as a Virgin and Child. One might as well say that all landscapes from the early Italians to Monet are the same subject. The meaning of a Venus and Cupid, the significance of all that has been selected to be included in the picture, is totally different from that of a Virgin and Child, even when the latter is secular and has lost its religious conviction. The two subjects depend on an utterly different agreement being imagined between painter and spectator.

75 Piero di Cosimo. The Immaculate Conception

76 Piero di Cosimo. The Finding of Vulcan on Lemnos

Compare these two paintings by Piero di Cosimo (1462-1521?), and in particular the central figure. In so far as she is the same woman with the same face, one could say that she is the same subject – no matter whether real or imaginary. Yet to say this is to limit the whole concept of the subject to the relationship between the painter and the painted image. It ignores what the painter is trying to say, and it dismisses the effect of the painting. The subject, instead of bringing into being or affirming an agreement between the painter and the spectator, is now reduced to a mere description of what the painter’s hand is cataloguing. Such a view of what constitutes the subject of a work of art suggests a man so used to working alone that he has forgotten the possibility of agreement with anybody else. One is again reminded of the loneliness of a lunatic who, at the same time, is sane enough to know that it is useless to explain.

Certainly Van Gogh painted new subjects. But they were not ‘inventions’. They were what he naturally found as a result of his self-identification with others. All new subjects have been introduced into painting in the same way. Bellini’s nudes, Breughel’s villages, Hogarth’s prisons, Goya’s tortures, Géricault’s madhouse, Courbet’s labourers – all have been the result of the artist identifying himself with those who had previously been ignored or dismissed. One can even go so far as to say that, in the last analysis, all their subjects are given to artists. Very few, such as he has been able to accept, have been given to Picasso. And this is his complaint.

When Picasso has found his subjects, he has produced a number of masterpieces. When he has not, he has produced paintings which eventually will be seen to be absurd. They are already absurd, but nobody has had the courage to say so for fear of encouraging the philistines for whom all art, because it is not a flattering looking-glass, is absurd.

Let me give some examples of when he has failed to find (or be given) his proper subject.

77 Picasso. The Race. 1922

The Race was painted in Picasso’s so-called Classic period. (Many artists went ‘classic’ at this time as if to forget the barbarism of the eight million dead of the war.) It was also the time, as we have seen, when Picasso was ‘impersonating’ various styles. There is to some extent a consciously absurd element in this painting. Yet where is the absurdity? Surely it lies in the fact that two such monumental giantesses are running so wildly, with such abandon. If, with their massive, formalized, marmoreal limbs, they are to be credible at all, they must be statuesque. By making them run like hares Picasso disconcertingly destroys their very raison d’étre. The same thing happens stylistically: the figures are drawn with a kind of ponderous simplified logic of classical light-and-shade; yet the perspective which makes the nearest hand smallest and the farthest hand largest upturns that same logic and makes it absurd. There is also a similar reversal in emotional terms. Such figures are a caricature of all that is imperturbable, calm and timeless. Then suddenly they are set fleeing with an urgency that amounts to panic.

Perhaps this was precisely Picasso’s intention, but I doubt it. He was impersonating; he was also interested in the Surrealists and their cult of the irrational; he probably wanted to make a picture that looked odd and was disturbing. But what he has achieved is a painting that cancels itself. It is true that at first it communicates a kind of shockbut this shock, by its very nature, precludes its communicating anything else. It is like seeing a candle blow itself out.

Because we know how directly and unintellectually Picasso works, it seems very unlikely that this was his real aim. And it seems far more likely that, having these monumental giantesses in his head (he had been painting them for two years), he tried to say something with them which they weren’t capable of ‘containing’. And thus his purpose or the compulsion of his feelings destroyed his subject because it was the wrong one.

In the 1927 Figure, it seems that the subject (a nude woman) has been so destroyed that it is no longer identifiable. Yet if one goes on looking, one finds the clues – the tiny pin-head at the top, the arm going up to it, the breast and nipple displaced towards the bottom right, the mouth of the vagina, like a cut, almost in the centre of the picture. Although superficially the picture may look like a Cubist collage, there is no interest here in structure or the dimensions of time and space; it is obsessionally, impatiently sexual. But its sexuality is without a subject. It is as though this picture were crying out for a Leda and the Swan, or a Nymph and Shepherd, or a Venus, to be given a form. But there is nobody to call that form into being, nobody to name it and separate it from Picasso by believing in it. What Picasso is expressing here becomes absurd because there is nothing to resist him: neither the subject, nor his awareness of reality as understood by others. Without such resistance the whole of Shakespeare’s Lear would be no more than a death-rattle.

78 Picasso. Figure. 1927

The Woman in an Arm-chair is less distorted. Nobody can fail to see that this represents a woman. People may pretend to themselves that they can’t disentangle the figure, because it constitutes such a violent attack on their sense of propriety; but recognizing the attack, they also recognize the figure. Nevertheless, the painting is as absurd as the last one, and the subject has again been destroyed – although in a different way. The motive of the painting is no longer straightforwardly sexual, but far more bitterly and desperately emotional. It is for this reason that the physical displacements of the body are far less extreme, but the overall effect more violent. There is no Venus behind this picture; rather one of the Seven Deadly Sins, feared, resented, and yet undismissible. It is absurd because, removed from the medieval context of Heaven and Hell, the violence of the emotion conveyed and yet not explained and not related to anything else, destroys our belief in the subject. It is perfectly possible to believe that Picasso felt like that, but we cannot share this feeling with him because it cannot be understood or evaluated on the evidence of what he shows us. We have no way of telling whether it is noble anger or petulance. All we can recognize is that he is disturbed. What disturbed him we do not know – because he has not been able to find the subject to contain his emotion.

79 Picasso. Woman in an Arm-chair. 1929

In Girls with a Toy Boat the problem is different. It isn’t now a question of Picasso being driven by a feeling or emotion which he cannot house in a subject; here he gives himself up to his own ingenuity, and the absurdity arises because he appears to ignore the emotive power of the forms with which he is playing. He is planning a new (and momentary) human anatomy, as schoolboys plan rockets or perpetual-motion machines. His method of drawing is very precise and three-dimensional, so that it would be quite easy to construct one of these figures out of wood or paper. This tangibility increases the absurdity. Such ‘real’ breasts, buttocks, and stomachs attached to such machines are bound to make us laugh in order to release the tension of the emotion provoked by the sexually charged parts and then belied by all the rest. A similar inconsistency is implied by the action. If they are children playing with a boat, why have they women’s bodies? If they are women, why the toy boat? It may seem naïve to ask such a logical question of a painting in which a head can peer over the horizon as though over the edge of a table. Of course Picasso was joking, trying to shock, playing at contradictions. But this was because he didn’t know what else to do. And the comparatively untransformed sexual parts, so inconsistent with the rest, are an indication of this indecision. Within three months of painting this picture, he was painting Guernica; it is worth comparing these figures with one of the figures there.

80 Picasso. Girls with a Toy Boat. 1937

81 Picasso. Guernica (detail). 1937

Every part of the body of the woman in Guernica contributes to the same end; her hands, her trailing leg, her twisted buttocks, her sharp nipples, her craning head – all bear witness to what at this moment is her single ability: the ability to suffer pain. The contrast between the two paintings is extraordinary. Yet in many ways the figures are similar, and without the exercise of paintings like Girls with a Toy Boat Picasso would never have painted Guernica in the way he did. The difference is one of single-mindedness. Yet to be single-minded you have to know what you want. And for Picasso to know what he wants, he has first to find his subject.

82 Picasso. Nude Dressing her Hair. 1940

Picasso painted the 1940 nude immediately after the defeat of France, whilst the German troops were occupying Royan, on the Atlantic coast, where he had fled. It is an anguished painting, and if one knows of the circumstances in which it was painted, it becomes an understandable picture. But it remains absurd, even if horrifically absurd. To see why this is so, let us again make a comparison with a successful painting. Both pictures are the result of the same experience – the experience of defeat, occupation, and a terrible vision of evil, which was in no sense metaphysical, but there in the streets in its jackboots and with its swastika.

83 Picasso. Nude with a Musician. 1942

This second picture, painted two years later, is no more explicit about the general experience from which it derives, but it is self-contained and consistent. The experience has found a subject. The subject, baldly described in words, may seem unremarkable: a woman on a bed and another woman sitting on a chair, holding a mandolin which she is not playing. Yet in the relationship between these two women and the furniture and the room that closes in around them, without a window or a door, there is all the claustrophobia of the curfew and a city without freedom. It is like making love in a cell where there is never any daylight. It is as though the sex of the woman on the bed and the music of the mandolin had been deprived of all their resonance, because such resonance requires a minimum freedom within which to vibrate. The real subject is not simply the two women, but the state of being confined in this room. In Picasso’s mind, as he painted it, there must have been an image of such a room, an image of curfew, to which he could refer and through which he could express his emotion.

The Nude Dressing her Hair squats in an even more celllike room. But because there is no consistency between the parts (just as was the case with the Toy Boat) we are unable to accept the scene as a self-contained whole. None of the parts refers to each other: instead, each, separately, refers to us, and we then refer it back to Picasso. A normal mouth forms part of a slashed, displaced face. The underneath of a foot, seen as by a chiropodist, joins on to a butcher’s bone which ends in a stone stomach. It is true that the figure as a whole does pose one question: Is this a woman or a trussed fowl? And from that question we can deduce bestial indignities. But the question remains, as it were, rhetorical. We do not believe in the woman being a trussed fowl, we believe only in Picasso wanting to make her look like that. In the end we are left face to face with what seems to be Picasso’s wilfulness. And it seems thus because he has not been able to express himself, because he has not been able to include his emotion in his subject but only impose his emotion upon it.

Some may see the difference between these two paintings as principally one of style. In the Nude with a Musician there is stylistic consistency. The way an eye is rendered is compatible with the way a hand, a foot, or hair is rendered. All are equidistant from (photographic) appearances. In the other painting there is deliberate stylistic inconsistency. Yet the true difference is more profound than this. We can imaginatively enter the first picture and as we proceed, moving from one part to another, we gather emotion. In front of the Nude Dressing her Hair, we never get beyond the violence that each part does to the next. No emotion develops because it is short-circuited by shock. And that is exactly what happened when Picasso was painting it; he short-circuited his own emotion, because he could find no circuit for it through a subject. A woman’s body by itself cannot be made to express all the horrors of fascism. But Picasso clung to this subject because, at that moment of fear and crisis, it was the only one of which he felt certain. It is the earliest subject in art, and modern Europe had failed to give him any other.

All that we have noticed about inconsistencies in the Nude Dressing her Hair applies equally to First Steps. Again this painting does no more than confront us with the evidence of Picasso’s apparent wilfulness. But this time with far less reason, for the emotional charge is much smaller. It is not now a cri de cœur which tragically fails to achieve art, but mannerism.

84 Picasso. First Steps. 1943

The experience is Picasso’s experience of his own way of painting. It is like an actor being fascinated by the sound of his own voice or the look of his own actions. Self-consciousness is necessary for all artists, but this is the vanity of self-consciousness. It is a form of narcissism: it is the beginning of Picasso impersonating himself. When we look at the Nude Dressing her Hair we are at least made to feel shock. Here we only become aware of the way in which the picture is painted – and this can be called clever or perverse according to taste.

It would be petty to draw attention to such a failure if it was incidental. What artist has not sometimes been vain or self-indulgent? But later, after 1945, a great deal of Picasso’s work became mannered. And at the root-cause of this mannerism there is still the same problem: the lack of subjects – so that the artist’s own art becomes his subject.

85 Picasso. Portrait of Mrs H. P. 1952

The Portrait of Mrs H. P. is a typical later example. The style is different, but not the degree of mannerism. So much is happening in terms of painting – the hair like a maelstrom, the legs and the hand painted fast and furiously, the face with its strange, abrupt hieroglyphs of expression – but what does it all add up to? What does it tell us about the sitter except that she has long hair? What is all the drama about? Unhappily, it is about being painted by Picasso. And that is the extremity of mannerism, the extremity of a genius who has nothing to which to apply himself.

To show how much a dramatically painted portrait can say, let me quote, without comment, a portrait by Van Gogh.

86 Van Gogh. Portrait of the Chief Superintendent of the Asylum at Saint-Remy. 1889

On the evidence of seven paintings I have tried to show you how, from about 1920 onwards, Picasso has sometimes failed to find subjects with which to express himself, and how, when this happens, he virtually destroys the nominal subject he has taken, and so makes the whole painting absurd. There are other paintings in which this has happened. There are even more in which it has partially happened. There are also paintings in which he has found his subject.

It would be as stupid to deny the originality of Picasso’s failures as to pretend that this originality transforms them into masterpieces. Picasso is unique but, since he is a man and not a god, it is our responsibility to judge the value of this uniqueness.

It is not my intention to draw up a definitive list of Picasso’s failures as opposed to his masterpieces. What I hope I have shown is the relevance of asking a particular question about Picasso. The question, I believe, leads to a standard by which all his work can usefully be judged.

Apart from the Cubist years, nearly all Picasso’s most successful paintings belong to the period from 1931 to 1942 or 43. During this decade he at one moment – in 1935 – gave up painting altogether. It was a time of great inner stress. But it was also the period when he most successfully found his subjects. These subjects were related to two profound personal experiences: a passionate love affair, and the triumph of fascism first in Spain and then in Europe.

In the countless books about Picasso no secret is ever made of his many love affairs; indeed they have become part of the legend. Only one affair is passed over quickly – and that is the one to which I now refer. It is typical of the lack of realism which surrounds Picasso’s reputation that this should be the case. There is no need to pry into his private life – even though this is so often and tastelessly described by his friends; but one fact has to be noted, because it is so directly related to his art. On the evidence of his paintings, his sculpture, and hundreds of drawings in sketchbooks, the sexually most important affair of his life was with Marie-Thérèse Walter whom he first met in 1931. He has painted and drawn no other woman in the same way, and no other woman half as many times. It may be that she became a kind of symbol for him, and that in time the idea of her meant more to him than she herself. It may be that in the full sense of the word he was more devoted to other women. I do not know. But there is not the slightest doubt that for eight years he was haunted by her – if one can use a word normally applied to spirits to refer to somebody whose body was so alive for him.

87 Picasso. Nude on a Black Couch. 1932

88 Picasso. The Mirror. 1932

89 Picasso. Woman in a Red Armchair. 1932

Today, among the five hundred or more of his own past paintings which Picasso owns, over fifty are of Marie-Thérèse. No other person dominates his collection a quarter as much. When he paints her, her subject is always able to withstand the pressure of his way of painting. This is because he is single-minded about her, and can see her as the most direct manifestation of his own feelings. He paints her like a Venus, but a Venus such as nobody else has ever painted.

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.

These Picassos are, in a sense, nearer to drawings on lavatory walls than to the great nudes of the past. (Again, I am aware of giving arguments to the philistines, but I can scarcely believe that it matters any more – and philistinism anyway can never be argued with.) They are nearer to graffiti because they are so single-mindedly about making love. But they differ most profoundly from most graffiti in that they are tender instead of aggressive. The crudity of the average wall-drawing is not simply the result of a lack of skill. Such drawings are nearly always a protest against deprivation: an expression of frustration. And within this frustration there is both desire and resentment. Thus the crudeness of the drawings is also a way of insulting the sex that has been denied. The Picassos, by contrast, praise the sex they have enjoyed. Here for everybody to recognize are William Blake’s ‘lineaments of satisfied desire’.

90 Picasso. Nude. 1933

It is no longer possible to say whether these ‘lineaments’ are an expression of Picasso’s pleasure in the woman’s body, or a description of her pleasure. The paintings, because they describe sensation, are highly subjective, but part of the very force of sex lies in the fact that its subjectivity is mutual. In these paintings Picasso is no more just himself: he is the two of them, and their shared subjectivity includes in some part or another the experience of all lovers.

In a sculpture of the same period this shared subjectivity becomes the underlying theme of the work.

91 Picasso. Head of Woman (bronze). 1931-2

Picasso made several variations of this head and it is the same head which appears in his etchings of the artist in his studio. It is identified with Marie-Thérèse, but is by no means a portrait. In the etchings it stands there in the studio like a silent oracle, looking at the sculptor and his model who are lovers.

92 Picasso. Sculptor and Model Resting. 1933

Its secret is a metaphor. It represents a face. Yet this face is reduced to two features: the nose, rounded and powerful, which thrusts forward and is simultaneously heavy and buoyant; and below it, the mouth, soft, open, and very deeply modelled. In terms of the density of their implied substance, the nose is like wood and the mouth like earth. These two features emerge from three rounded forms which have been formalized from the cheeks and the bun of hair at the back of the head. The scale of the work is what first offers a clue to the metaphor. It is very much larger than a head – one stands looking at it as at a figure, a torso. Then one sees. The nose and the mouth are metaphors for the male and female sexual organs; the rounded forms for buttocks and thighs. This face, or head, embodies the sexual experience of two lovers, its eyes engraved upon their legs. What image could better express the shared subjectivity which sex allows than the smile of such a face?

Picasso may have arrived at the metaphor unconsciously. But afterwards he deliberately played with the idea of transforming a head into sexually charged component parts. One can see the process at work in a sequence of drawings like this:

93 Picasso. Page of drawings. 1936

Perhaps the same reference also applies to some of the desperately bitter heads of the early forties. Like the Nude with a Musician (but less successfully) they too are paintings about a hateful impotence.

94 Picasso. Head of a Woman. 1943

It is as though – and here Picasso is like most of us – he can only fully see himself when he is reflected in a woman. And it is as though – and here he is rarer – it is almost only through the marvellous shared subjectivity of sex that he can allow himself to be known. The majority of his paintings are of women. There are surprisingly few men. A number of the women are portrayed as themselves. Others are idealizations. But most of them are composite creatures – themselves and he together. In a sense these paintings might be called self-portraits – not portraits of himself alone and untransformed, but self-portraits of the creature he and the woman became as they sensed one another. The relationship is always sexual but the preoccupations of the composite creature may not be. It is when this happens that the painting becomes absurd and destroys itself – as was the case with the Nude Dressing her Hair. Shared subjectivity can no longer exist except when the aim is sex. It becomes instead a form of megalomania.

Thus, on a psychological level, the problem is a similar one to that of finding a subject, of finding the apt vehicle for self-expression. Picasso finds himself in women – and the fact that he has otherwise been so isolated must have increased this need. Through himself, found in woman, he then tries to say things as an artist. Sometimes these things are unsayable because they are essentially outside the scope of the relationship. When they are about the essence of that relationship, when the shared subjectivity that Picasso needs is actually created by sex, then the results are purer and simpler and more expressive than any comparable works in the history of European art. Other works may be more subtle because they deal with the social complexities of sexual relations. Picasso abstracts sex from society – there is no hint in the bronze head or The Nude on a Black Couch of the role of a mistress, the happiness of marriage, or the attraction of les fleurs du mal. He returns sex to nature where it becomes complete in itself. This is not the whole truth but it is an aspect of the truth of which no other painter has had the means or courage or simplicity to remind us.

95 Picasso. Young Girl and Minotaur. 1934–5

96 Picasso. Guernica. 1937

On 26 April 1937 the Basque town of Guernica (population 10,000) was destroyed by German bombers flying for General Franco. Here is the report from The Times:

Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air-raiders. The bombardment of the open town far behind the lines occupied precisely three hours and a quarter, during which a powerful fleet of aeroplanes consisting of three German types, Junkers and Heinkel bombers and Heinkel fighters, did not cease unloading on the town bombs weighing from 1,000 lb. downwards.…The fighters meanwhile flew low from above the centre of the town to machine-gun those of the civilians who had taken refuge in the fields. The whole of Guernica was soon in flames except the historic Casa de Juntas.…

In less than a week Picasso began his painting. He had already been commissioned by the Spanish Republican Government to paint a mural for the Paris World Fair.

In June the painting was installed in the Spanish building there. It immediately provoked controversy. Many on the left criticized it for being obscure. The right attacked it in self-defence. But the painting quickly became legendary and has remained so. It is the most famous painting of the twentieth century. It is thought of as a continuous protest against the brutality of fascism in particular and modern war in general.

How true is this? How much applies to the actual painting, and how much is the result of what happened after it was painted?

Undoubtedly the significance of the painting has been increased (and perhaps even changed) by later developments. Picasso painted it urgently and quickly in response to a particular event. That event led to others – some of which nobody could foresee at the time. The German and Italian forces, who in 1937 ensured Franco’s victory, were within three years to have all Europe at their mercy. Guernica was the first town ever bombed in order to intimidate a civilian population: Hiroshima was bombed according to the same calculation.

Thus, Picasso’s personal protest at a comparatively small incident in his own country afterwards acquired a world-wide significance. For many millions of people now, the name of Guernica accuses all war criminals. Yet Guernica is not a painting about modern war in any objective sense of the term. Look at it beside David Siqueiros’s Echo of a Scream, also painted in 1937 and suggested, I suspect, by a picture of a child screaming in a Spanish Civil War news-reel.

97 Siqueiros. Echo of a Scream. 1937

In the Siqueiros we see the materials which make modern war possible, and the specific kind of desolation to which it leads. By contrast, the Picasso might be a protest against a massacre of the innocents at any time. Picasso himself has called the painting an allegory – but has not fully explained the symbols he has used. This is probably because they have too many meanings for him.

Three years earlier Picasso made an etching of Bull, Horse, and Female Matador, which, in imagery, is very similar to Guernica. But here the matador is Marie-Thérèse, and the meaning of the scene is wholly concentrated on the movable frontier between sexual urgency and violence, between compliance and victimization, pleasure and pain. That is not to suggest that it is complicated in anything but a sensuous way. It is the body, not the mind, that submits to a kind of death in sex, and an awareness, after love, of feminine vulnerability is the result of an instinctual impulse – an impulse which man shares with many animals.

98 Picasso. Bull, Horse, and Female Matador. 1934

When Picasso painted Guernica he used the private imagery which was already in his mind and which he had been applying to an apparently very different theme. But only apparently – or anyway, only superficially different. For Guernica is a painting about how Picasso imagines suffering; and just as when he is working on a painting or sculpture about making love the intensity of his sensations makes it impossible for him to distinguish between himself and his lover, just as his portraits of women are often self-portraits of himself found in them, so here in Guernica he is painting his own suffering as he daily hears the news from his own country.

99 Picasso. Crying Woman. 1937

The etching the Crying Woman (which is part of the whole cycle of works connected with Guernica) is no longer a directly sexual metaphor, but it is nevertheless the tragic complement to the giant bronze head. It is a face whose sensuality, whose ability to be enjoyed, has been blown to pieces, leaving only the debris of pain. It is not a moralist’s work but a lover’s. No moralist would see the pain so self-destructively. But for the lover, there is still a shared subjectivity. What has happened to this woman’s face is like a castration.

Guernica, then, is a profoundly subjective work – and it is from this that its power derives. Picasso did not try to imagine the actual event. There is no town, no aeroplanes, no explosion, no reference to the time of day, the year, the century, or the part of Spain where it happened. There are no enemies to accuse. There is no heroism. And yet the work is a protest – and one would know this even if one knew nothing of its history. Where is the protest then?

It is in what has happened to the bodies – to the hands, the soles of the feet, the horse’s tongue, the mother’s breasts, the eyes in the head. What has happened to them in being painted is the imaginative equivalent of what happened to them in sensation in the flesh. We are made to feel their pain with our eyes. And pain is the protest of the body.

Just as Picasso abstracts sex from society and returns it to nature, so here he abstracts pain and fear from history and returns them to a protesting nature. All the great prosecuting paintings of the past have appealed to a higher judge – either divine or human. Picasso appeals to nothing more elevated than our instinct for survival. Yet this appeal now confirms the most sophisticated assessment of the realities of the modern world, which the political leaders of both the East and the West have been obliged to accept.

The successful pictures that Picasso painted after Guernica act at the same level of experience: a level of intense physical subjectivity. There are the still-lifes of animal skulls and heads which he painted during the first years of the German occupation. These are really further studies of the agonized horse’s head in Guernica. They are tragedies of the flesh. The difference is that everything now is still and silent.

100 Picasso. Still-life with Bull’s Skull. 1942

The major work after Guernica is the Nude with a Musician which we have already examined. But now we can see how it is related to the nudes of Marie-Thérèse. It is all that they are not. It is their lament. The body of the woman on the bed is the loss of all their pleasure. No traditional contrast between youth and age is half so pointed because there the differences are objective – the breasts shrink, the back bends; here the contrast is subjective too. Once more it is impossible to distinguish between the joy-lessness of her body and his joylessness in her. What they both experience now is deprivation. It is a painting about the physical sensation of absence. Whether the absence is of freedom, of food, of passion, of hope, or of the other person, is not important – and for Picasso it may again have had so many meanings that he himself could not have explained it further.

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.

To have continued painting like this would have meant continuing to live as intensely and eventfully as during the last decade. At the age of sixty-two this was probably impossible. But anyway it was not something which could be willed or chosen. The affair with Marie-Thérese was over, and, although other women took her place, the same passions were not involved. The Spanish War was ended and nothing again was likely to possess Picasso like the news of that civil war in his own country had done. The Nazis were being beaten at Stalingrad: in a year Paris was to be liberated. Partly because of his age, partly because of the course of world events, it was no longer possible for Picasso to feel that the initiatives remained with him. He saw and imagined the experiences of others as being more intense and more significant than his own. He had to discount his own body – and with it, its subjects.

There were also positive reasons why Picasso may have wanted at this time to begin a new phase of his working life. Having lived through the occupation and so experienced political events at first hand, as he had not done since his youth in Spain, he was genuinely moved by political emotions. Most of his friends were in the Resistance, and he himself, although he took no part, nevertheless became a figure-head of the movement. When at last Europe was liberated, he felt – like millions of others – that he must assist the birth of a new world. And in 1944 he joined the French Communist Party.

This was a moment of truth which it had taken him fifty years to arrive at. It was the moment when Picasso acted and chose so as to come to terms with both the reality around him and his own genius.

Ever since Picasso first arrived in Western Europe he had been critical of what he saw. Except for the Cubist years, when he was under the influence of others, his criticisms were expressed by his repeatedly shown preference for the primitive. Like Rousseau, he opposed nature to society. Such a ‘revolutionary’ attitude, valid a hundred and fifty years ago, is now outdated. Revolutionary philosophy today is materialist, and the only revolutionaries really feared by capitalism are marxists. And so, by joining the Communist Party, Picasso for the first time made his revolutionary feelings effective in terms of modern reality.

Picasso’s genius is of a type that requires inspiration from other people. He is a spokesman or seer for others. He is in no sense the solitary modern investigator, for he hasn’t sufficient faith in reason or progress in art. Denied such inspiration by the milieux in which he moved after 1914, he often failed to find subjects to contain his emotions. At the same time he was forced to search within himself for an equivalent inspiration. To some extent he found it by idealizing his alter ego as a ‘noble savage’. During the thirties and early forties this ambiguous contract within himself allowed him to create some highly original masterpieces: paintings in which, with all his skill and sophistication as an artist, he acts as a spokesman for his own instinctual experiences. But this could not continue indefinitely, for it was too inverted. He needed inspiration from those to whom he could belong, rather than from what, inevitably, belonged to him. He needed what Aimé Césaire calls his ‘unique people’. By joining the Communist Party this is what he hoped to find. If he found it, his genius would be released as never before.

Explaining his decision, he spoke as follows:

Have not the Communists been the bravest in France, in the Soviet Union, and in my own Spain? How could I have hesitated? The fear to commit myself? But on the contrary I have never felt freer, never felt more complete. And then I have been so impatient to find a country again: I have always been an exile, now I am no longer one: whilst waiting for Spain to be able to welcome me back, the French Communist Party have opened their arms to me, and I have found there all whom I respect most, the greatest thinkers, the greatest poets, and all the faces of the Resistance fighters in Paris whom I saw and were so beautiful during those August days; again I am among my brothers.

‘I have never felt more complete.’ This may have been a rhetorical phrase, but I doubt it. Everything we have so far argued in this essay suggests that it was the truth.

It is hard to say for certain whether Picasso’s hopes were justified or not. Was he disappointed or was he betrayed? It is a question which communist intellectuals, and especially French ones, might well ask themselves. None do, for none see for what it is the waste of the last twenty years of Picasso’s working life.

On the face of it, it might seem unreasonable to hope that the mere act of joining a political party could resolve the contradictions of a lifetime. But it is reasonable to expect that a communist party is unlike any other. It is more than a political party. It is a school of philosophy, an army, an agent of the future; at its noblest it is a fraternity. Communist parties have helped to create artists – and, tragically, have also destroyed artists. They helped to create Mayakovsky, Eisenstein, Brecht, Éluard. Perhaps a communist party could have sustained Picasso. One should remember that his whole life experience had rendered him at that moment open to help. ‘I have found there all whom I respect most … again I am among my brothers.’

101 Picasso. Dove (poster)

Whatever might have been the result of the communists serving Picasso better, the thing which is quite certain is that they served him badly. He asked for bread (such as perhaps they could not have supplied), but without any doubt what they offered him was a stone.

As a result of Picasso’s joining the Communist Party and taking part in the peace movement, his fame spread even wider than before. His name was quoted in all the socialist countries. His poster of the peace dove was seen on millions of walls and expressed the hopes of all but a handful of the people of the world. The dove became a true symbol: not so much as a result of Picasso’s power as an artist (the drawing of the dove is evocative but superficial), but rather as a result of the power of the movement which Picasso was serving. It needed a symbol and it claimed Picasso’s drawing.

That this happened is something of which Picasso can be rightly proud. He contributed positively to the most important struggle of our time. He made further posters and drawings. He lent his name and reputation again and again to encourage others to protest against the threat of nuclear war. He was in a position to use his art as a means of influencing people politically, and, in so far as he was able, he chose to do this consciously and intelligently. I cannot believe that he was in any way mistaken or that he chose the wrong political path. But as an artist with all his powers he was nevertheless wasted.

In becoming a communist, Picasso hoped to come out of ‘exile’. In fact the communists treated him as everybody else had done. That is to say they separated the man from his work. They honoured the former and equivocated about the latter. He had communist friends – such as Éluard – who really admired his painting. I speak of the world Communist movement as a whole because Picasso was by now a world figure.

In Moscow his reputation as a great man was used for propaganda purposes – whilst his art was dismissed as decadent. His paintings were never shown. No book was published on his work – not even one setting out to prove the alleged decadence. Like the life story of the black sheep in a bourgeois family, his art became unmentionable. Remaining unmentionable, it acquired for some a false glamour. On no side was there any attempt at analysis.

Outside the Soviet Union it was little better. Because of Soviet insistence at that time on a universal cultural orthodoxy, Communist critics and artists in Western Europe who approved of Picasso’s work spent their energy trying to stretch the orthodox vocabulary to cover as many paintings as possible. It wasn’t, now, that his art was unmentionable but that it could only be mentioned in conventionalized terms. Gradually a disguise for Picasso was stitched together out of words. His spirit as an artist was celebrated in terms so basic and so ‘human’ that they could cause no offence to anybody, and these terms, these clichés became, instead of the paintings themselves, the currency of exchange on the subject of Picasso amongst the European communist left. Such clichés also precluded analysis or criticism.

Here is an example of the disguise being applied. Aragon is an extremely gifted writer. But here, in his role as cultural impresario of the left, his very quality of imagination rings false. Probably he convinced himself that everything was as fine and simple as he suggests, but at heart he must have known it was not so. He wanted to defend Picasso from the philistinism of Zhdanov in Moscow. Yet in defending him in this kind of way, he did Picasso no service.

In this exhibition … a man of 1950 has wanted to show his work, the seriousness of his work – even when it escapes them – to other men of 1950. And there is no doubt that those men, with their prejudices, their understandable demands, some of them with their deep-rooted need to hate or to snigger, others with their simple surprise and their respect-worthy bewilderment, there is no doubt that they will stop in front of this series of pictures where the black and the white, better than all the colours of day, make up the light of a room of which we shall never know more than the edge of a curtain, the slats of the blinds, the side of a mattress; and yet there they all are, the sceptic, the partisan, the bewildered one, the woman with her child on her arm, the soldier as yet a little unfamiliar with the arms he bears, the older man, the man with the ready laugh – there we are, all of us, we have come into the room with Picasso and hush! we hold our breath, our voices, our steps. In this room, a woman is watching a man asleep. The variations of a theme taken up a hundred times by the painter, here limited to a few drawings, converge towards a drawing where the woman – the one in the foreground – watches another woman, crouching like herself, as though she were looking at herself in a mirror.

At this point of our visit, which of us would raise his voice? Here we are, different yet alike, led as though by the hand into the very heart of the intimate life of men, face to face with a spectacle so beautiful that we must go back to the masters of colour, to the Venetian painters, in order to explain our astonishment to ourselves.

It was as though Picasso could do no wrong, because whatever he did was never examined. Because he was the most famous artist in the world and a communist, he was exempt. Exemption is very like exile. One faction called this exemption ‘decadence’: the other ‘eternal hope’. As we have seen, Picasso needed subjects. Yet what the communist movement offered him back was only the exhausted subject of himself. Picasso as Picasso as Picasso.

Could it have been otherwise? It is usually a waste of time to play historical ‘if onlys’. But in this case the alternative is perhaps relevant because similar mistakes are still being made. Official Soviet art policy is so dangerously wrong-headed not because it has enshrined within the Soviet Union a style of naturalism which originated with the bourgeois nouveaux riches of the nineteenth century (its only appeal is the desire for owning the subject) – this could right itself; the disastrous part is to believe that such a style is exclusively and universally the style of socialist art, for this allows provincial prejudice to oust reason and forces the very special limitations of Russian art history on art everywhere. It shrinks the whole vast subject, and with half an answer begs every question.

The French attitude to art would seem to be very different from the Russian. Yet today there is one characteristic in common: a provincial complacency. Because Paris was for so long the art centre of the world and because the art trade in Paris has grown until it is now one of the ‘industries’ of the city, it has become an accepted idea amongst nearly all French intellectuals, including communists, that art is the natural blessing of France. They are not so naïve as to believe that all good art is French, but they do believe that all good art finds its way to Paris and there receives its honours. The mood is reflected in the standards of contemporary art criticism. It is hard to believe that the language used is the same as that in which the philosophers write. It is a language of loose rhetoric and inaccurate recipes. André Malraux is a talented example. It is also reflected in the evident snobbery to be found in so much cultural discussion – the outstanding exceptions being not communists but, quite simply, the young. In France it is believed that there are no questions about art which have not already been fully answered there.

Thus Picasso found himself confined within the prejudices of his new comrades – in France in one way, and in the socialist countries in another. Endless debates were carried on about how art could serve the needs of the workers of the world, and with each debate the range of the argument became narrower, the diversity of the world more forgotten.

If this had not been so, if the cultural views of Moscow and Paris had been less nationalistic and less proud, some comrades might actually have analysed Picasso’s work – instead of only being concerned with disclaiming or claiming it. They would then have discovered in what manner he was exiled, and this could straightaway have suggested how his genius could be both saved and used.

Picasso should have left Europe, to which he has never properly belonged, in which he has always remained a vertical invader. The world communist movement with its internationalism and (at least at the rank-and-file level) its true fraternal sense of solidarity, was ideally suited to enable Picasso to travel on the terms he needed – that is to say as an artist, a seer, searching for his unique people in whose name he might speak.

He might have visited India, Indonesia, China, Mexico, or West Africa. Perhaps he would have gone no farther than the first place. I have no idea which country or continent he would have chosen. Nor am I suggesting that he would necessarily have settled outside Europe. I am suggesting that outside Europe he would have found his work. His unusual speed of assimilation, the complex cross-breeding of his own cultural heritage, the intense physical basis of his art, the debt of his most personal style to non-European traditions of painting and sculpture, his newly acquired political convictions, the very nature of his genius as we have examined it in this essay – all would have specially qualified him to become the artist of the emerging world, challenging the hegemony of Europe.

Unfortunately we cannot create even in our minds the Picassos that have not been painted. Picasso hates travelling. He has, for instance, only been to Italy once. He has never left Europe. But the opportunities were so wide, and at first Picasso’s enthusiasm for a new life, a new struggle, was also so great!

It could have been the first time in the history of art that an artist was commissioned according to the needs of his own genius. The paintings, by the simple fact of being painted, could have given substance to a thought, a hope of Aimé Césaire’s, which is fundamental to our time:

               …for it is not true that the work of man is finished

               that we have nothing to do in this world

               that we are the parasites of our world

               that all we must do is keep in step with the world

               no the work of man has only just begun

               and it remains for man to conquer all the restrictions standing so firm at the corners of his fervour

               no race has the monopoly of beauty, intelligence or strength

               there is room for all at the meeting place of conquest.…

Above all, these works, which do not exist, could have meant the triumph of a great artist’s late period – the full use of Picasso’s genius at the height of its power.

As it was, he became a national monument and produced trivia.

The mounting horror of the last fifteen years of Picasso’s life can be glimpsed between the lines of all those who, having visited the monument, write down their impressions for newspapers. All that they have to offer is gossip. Even a serious scholar like John Richardson is reduced to describing what Picasso wears and eats for breakfast. In the end one is forced to accept that there is nothing else to describe. Why then describe it? Because Picasso is a celebrity, floodlit with a lighting that from the spectator’s point of view makes everything significant. People, and even genuine friends of his, press near so that some of the light can fall on their faces too.

If you should wish to know of the horror of such a life in detail, I recommend the book Picasso Plain by Hélène Parmelin.1 Most of what it reveals is unintentional. The author is the communist wife of a communist painter and a close friend. The book is about Picasso’s life in the fifties. It is dedicated to the King of La Californie. La Californie was Picasso’s house in Cannes. Picasso is the King.

Picasso is the king. Everything and everybody revolves round him. His whim is law. No word of criticism is ever heard. There is a great deal of talk but very little serious discussion. Picasso behaves and is treated like a child who has to be protected. It is perfectly in order to like one picture better than another. But it is inconceivable that anybody should suggest that any painting is a total failure. There is no sense whatsoever of a struggle towards an aim: only a sense of Picasso struggling blindly within himself, and everybody else struggling to keep him amused and happy. Manners are informal but the degree of self-abnegation byzantine. Madame Parmelin tells a story that demonstrates this – almost incredibly. She was having a bath in a room off Picasso’s studio. Unexpectedly he returned with some visitors. She had no clothes with her and the only way out was through the studio. Rather than shout and ask for a towel she sat shivering for three quarters of an hour and caught influenza.

The horror of it all is that it is a life without reality. Picasso is only happy when working. Yet he has nothing of his own to work on. He takes up the themes of other painters’ pictures (Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger, Velazquez’s Las Meninas, Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe). He decorates pots and plates that other men make for him. He is reduced to playing like a child. He becomes again the child prodigy. The world has failed to liberate him from that state because it has failed to encourage him to develop.

Outside his studio it is no more real. In his house he is surrounded by acolytes and flatterers. Outside his house he is a benign god who brings luck to all those who are living in the same town or dining in the same restaurant. But who among them takes him seriously? As a communist? As a painter for them? He is liked, perhaps even loved, because he is a benefactor; he brings honour and prosperity; he gives away autographs and drawings and the chance of having spoken to him.

To fill the vacuum left by reality, it is necessary to invent. His life is full of fantasies and specially created dramas. I do not speak of his subjective life, but the daily life in his household. There are invented characters, invented rituals, invented turns of phrase. Nothing, as it were, remains standing on the floor. Everything is lifted up and made ‘truer than life’ by his devotees, so that he shall never feel lost in emptiness. One is reminded of the last days of some old vaudeville star: everything, creaking now, is still inventedas superlative. But there is one great difference: old vaudeville players go on performing till they drop. The tinsel is to keep them going, not to distract them.

So complete is the loss of reality and so frenetic are the efforts of all those around him to keep him feeling and being great that Picasso himself is no longer believed. A man who has trusted his own sensations as he has done knows the extent to which things have gone. He is desperate. The last thing he says in Parmelin’s book is: ‘You live a poet’s life and I a convict’s.’ But she, in her usual state of euphoria induced by believing that she is the great man’s confidante, thinks that this is just Picasso being Picasso.

At this point I may be accused of being too imaginative. I talk of pictures that Picasso might have painted in India. I describe to you Picasso’s inner state of mind without having met him and in the face of the evidence of those who write about him as friends. My justification is that what I have deduced is the result of trying to relate all the facts that can be publicly known about Picasso. So often important ones are hidden or ignored.

Painters, unlike a certain kind of poet, need time to develop and slowly uncover their genius. There is not, I think, a single example of a great painter – or sculptor – whose work has not gained in profundity and originality as he grew older. Bellini, Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto, Poussin, Rembrandt, Goya, Turner, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, Matisse, Braque, all produced some of their very-greatest works when they were over sixty-five. It is as though a lifetime is needed to master the medium, and only when that mastery has been achieved can an artist be simply himself, revealing the true nature of his imagination.

102 Delacroix. Les Femmes d’Alger. 1834

However favourably one judges Picasso’s work since 1945 it cannot be said to show any advance on what he created before. To me it represents a decline: a retreat, as I have tried to show, into an idealized and sentimental pantheism. But even if this judgement is mistaken, the extraordinary fact remains that the majority of Picasso’s important late works are variations on themes borrowed from other painters. However interesting they may be, they are no more than exercises in painting – such as one might expect a serious young man to carry out, but not an old man who has gained the freedom to be himself.

103 Picasso. Les Femmes d’Alger. 1955

104 Velazquez. Las Meninas. 1956

105 Picasso. Las Meninas. 1957

It is sometimes claimed that Picasso only takes Delacroix or Velazquez as a starting point. In formal terms this is true, for Picasso often reconstructs the whole picture. But in terms of content the original painting is even less than a starting point. Picasso empties it of its own content, and then is unable to find any of his own. It remains a technical exercise. If there is any fury or passion implied at all, it is that of the artist condemned to paint with nothing to say.

Notice in his variation on the Velazquez how extreme the distortions and displacements are. The dwarf, the dog, the painter are wrenched out of Velazquez’s hands – but for what reason, to express what? One has only to compare any of these figures with the Bullfight, painted twenty years before, to be reminded of how intensely Picasso once used distortions to communicate experience.

106 Picasso. Bullfight. 1934

The violence, it seems, is only to rob Velazquez: to honour him perhaps at the same time as robbing him; even – and again like a child – thus to ask for his protection. In his own painting Velazquez is so effortlessly himself, and in Picasso’s painting he is so overwhelmingly large, that he might be a father. It may be that as an old man Picasso here returns as a prodigal to give back the palette and brushes he had acquired too easily at the age of fourteen. Perhaps this last large painting of Picasso’s is a comprehensive admission of failure. Perhaps this is only a minute part of the truth, or none of it at all. But what is certain is that neither Picasso’s Las Meninas nor any of his late paintings are the mature work of an old painter, at last able to be himself. What is certain is that Picasso is a startling exception to the rule about old painters.

Why has nobody pointed this out? Why has nobody considered Picasso’s likely desperation? Apparently it is not only in his own household that nobody dares to mention the word failure. Apparently we need to believe in Picasso’s success more than he does himself.

Towards the end of 1953 Picasso began a series of drawings. At the end of two months there were 180 of them. Drawn with great intensity, they are autobiographical; they are about Picasso’s own fate.

When they were first exhibited and published, their general character was recognized. Besides praising the ‘exquisite use of line’, people talked of an ‘emotional disturbance’, etc. But then, in order not to understand what the drawings confessed, everyone pretended that their meaning was so complex and mysterious and personal that it would be impertinent to try to put it into words. Enough to declaim once more: Picasso! And after having admired the brilliance, to forget everything but his ‘greatness’. (The greatness that had ground him to a standstill.)

It is true of course that for Picasso each of the drawings must have had several levels of meaning and hundreds of stray associations. But it is equally true that the theme of the confession as a whole is quite unambiguous.

In nearly every drawing there is a young woman. Not necessarily the same one. Usually she is naked. Always she is desirable. Sometimes she is being painted. But when this happens, one scarcely feels that she is posing. She is there – just as she is there in the other drawings; her function is to be. She is nature and sex. She is life. And if that sounds a little ponderous, remember that it is for the same elemental reason that all drawing classes from the nude model in all art schools are called Life Classes.

Beside her Picasso is old, ugly, small, and – above all – absurd. She looks at him not unkindly, but with an effort – as though her concerns were so different from his that he is almost incredible to her.

He struts around like a vaudeville comedian. (The comparison I made a few pages back is one that has occurred to Picasso too.) She waits for him to stop.

107 Picasso. Nude and Old Clown. 21 December 1953

To hide himself and at the same time to mock himself he puts on a mask. The mask emphasizes that whereas all her pleasure in physical being and in sex is natural, his, because he is old, has become obscene. Next to the young woman is an old one. In another drawing the young and the old women sit side by side. Picasso is confessing his horror at the fact that the body ages and the imagination does not. When the whole energy of life has been found in the form of resilience of a body – how is it possible to endure the continuing need for that consoling energy when the form begins to collapse?

108 Picasso. Young Woman and Old Man with Mask. 23 December 1953

He begins to envy the monkey – the monkey who so early in Picasso’s work was a symbol of freedom. He envies it because the young woman plays with it. But, more profoundly, he envies it because, unselfconscious, it pursues its desires without any sense of absurdity: on the contrary, with a complete sense of absorption which then, despite the ugliness of its body, compels the young woman to delight in it.

109 Picasso. Young Woman and Monkey. 3 January 1954

He returns to the idea of the mask, this time seeking comfort from the conceit that it is his old age which is the mask: and that behind it he is as young as ever. A young Cupid holds the mask in front of him. It represents both the old man’s face and his genitals: a pun which Goya used in some of his etchings and which Picasso surely remembered, but also a lonely, nostalgic variation on the theme of that composite lover’s head whose sweet smile was once all sexual pleasure.

110 Picasso. Young Woman and Cupid with Mask. 5 January 1954

The Cupid, with the old man’s face and organ, courts her.

The race, the panting begins. Again the absurdity, the slavery of the situation haunts Picasso.

111 Picasso. Young Woman with Cupids. 5 January 1954

He draws a monkey, like a jockey, riding a horse. Then a woman, like Godiva, riding a toy horse. Later, in a world where everything is soiled, the monkey jerks himself up and down on a donkey’s back whilst a clown and a girl acrobat gaze as though sadly accepting as a truth such pointless slavery to sex.

112 Picasso. Girl, Clown, Donkey, and Monkey. 10 January 1954

To escape from the slavery Picasso thinks again of the pleasures. Summoning up the acrobats of his youth, he turns their ease into a metaphor of free enjoyment.

The memory of such happiness rides him on remorselessly.

113 Picasso. Old Clown and Couple. 10 January 1954

Now he grasps at that shared subjectivity which is unique to sex and to which he had dedicated so many paintings. By the logic of this sharing she will wear his mask – the old man’s crumpled one – and he will wear her mask, eye open and fringed with lashes. Here, if the picture could become reality (and metaphorically it could), is true happiness. The horror is that the monkey remains. He sits there behind them and looks away because such sentimental illusions are of no interest to him. They have no substance and no weight.

114 Picasso. Couple with Masks. 24 January 1954

On the next day, the 25th of January, 1954, Picasso, all his imagination now roused, dismisses the monkey and pursues the logic of his fantasy further. As the masks are swapped, they can also be transformed. He wears the mask of the young girl representing her almost as she is. She wears his mask, but instead of representing him as an obscene old man, it has become the mask of a virile young god. And so they play a charade (a charade that is played in many hotel bedrooms every night). Yet at the same time the prodigy in Picasso, the duende that possesses him, insists upon his telling the truth. He draws himself playing the charade so earnestly that he looks absurd. And he draws her kneeling indulgently so as to be on his level, playing as with a child to keep him happy.

115 Picasso. Old Man and Young Woman with Masks. 25 January 1954

116 Picasso. Girl, Clown, Mask, and Monkey. 25 January 1954

Finally, one of the last drawings of the series shows the vanity of any attempt at escape from the absurdity of the situation. The mask – a symbol now for all that imagination can construct and subjectivity enjoy – is shown to the triumphant monkey. The monkey gazes at it blankly. The mask is held by a sad clown, whose own face is made up as though it too were a mask. But the monkey sits on its haunches beside the legs of the young woman, ready at any moment to jump into her lap and there be welcome.

Thus far one might consider this series of drawings as a very poignant and bitter lament for lost youth, and a protest against the savage sexual deprivation of old age. I think often, as I look at them, of Yeats. (Somehow, in a way that I have not yet fully understood, many connexions suggest themselves between Picasso and Yeats: the paintings of the one frequently evoke the poems of the other.)

               ‘Because I am mad about women

               I am mad about the hills,’

               Said that wild old wicked man

               Who travels where God wills.

               ‘Not to die on the straw at home,

               Those hands to close these eyes,

               That is all I ask, my dear,

               From the old man in the skies.

Daybreak and a candle-end

               ‘Kind are all your words, my dear,

               Do not the rest withhold.

               Who can know the year, my dear,

               When an old man’s blood grows cold?

               I have what no young man can have

               Because he loves too much.

               Words I have that can pierce the heart,

               But what can he do but touch?’

Daybreak and a candle-end

But Picasso’s confession is even more comprehensive and more tragic. For, apart from the directly sexual theme, there is another, parallel to it, but with different implications. Throughout the whole series of drawings Picasso turns from one to the other, as though they were different aspects of the same reality. The second theme is that of the artist and his model.

117 Picasso. Painter and Model. 24 December 1953

The model is the same young woman – in so far as she too is sex, nature, life. And the painter, though sometimes he is depicted as old and sometimes young, sometimes thin and sometimes fat, is the same man in so far as he is absurd and helpless. The complaint is different. It is no longer that an old man’s desires are obscene and absurd despite himself: it is that to paint in front of such a young woman, to put marks on canvas and to peer at her proportions, instead of making love to her, is also absurd, and absurd in such a dry, pedantic way that it too becomes obscene.

118 Picasso. Painter and Model. 25 December 1953

Thus the role of the young woman remains very similar. Her youth, her beauty, her natural appetites, her tenderness and all that makes her desirable are there to mock all men who cannot or will not take her on her own terms: and those terms are both as perfect and as ruthless as nature. For her, old age is a debility and a hindrance, an act of imagination is a transitory game, art is an incomprehensible – at best harmless – way of passing the time. Her true companion is the monkey. Finally she chooses him instead of the man, or at least in proxy for the man who is eternally incapacitated.

119 Picasso. Woman, Apple, Monkey, Man. 26 January 1954

Perhaps the bitterest drawing of the whole series is that in which the monkey pretends to paint, and where, for the first time, the young woman, instead of looking indifferent whilst being painted, responds to him and smiles. The degree to which that response mocks us is shown by Picasso in the pun that he has drawn between her breast and his muzzle. Many have called this witty. It is witty, but it is a wit born out of much suffering.

120 Picasso. Woman and Monkey Painting. 10 January 1954

In his old man’s confession, Picasso confesses to despair. It is not the social despair of Goya; it is a despair confined and belonging to his own life. The drawings are like a retrospective exhibition of that life. The despair is to some extent qualified by the fact that he can express it. But it remains.

It is the despair of the idealized ‘noble savage’ who, alone, abstracted from history and insulated from any social reality, is forced back and back until finally he is left with all his imagination unaccounted for by the pure nature which he must worship. The monkey who was once his companion in freedom, a dumb critic of society by the side of a more articulate one, becomes in the end his rival and humiliator. His gifts become his absurdity. Nor is it that he simply considers his own work a failure. It is the very idea of art which is attacked – attacked by Nature, with which now as an old man, without a unique people and so without any true followers, he has been left utterly alone. He himself now believes in this attack and actually sides with Nature against art because civilization, as he has found it, has given him only one thing: acclaim.

The gifts of an imaginative artist are often the outriders of the gifts of his period. Frequently the new abilities and attitudes become recognizable in art and are given a name before their existence in life has been appreciated. This is why a love of art which accompanies a fear or rejection of life is so inadequate. It is also why ideally there should always be a road open to art even for those to whom the medium, the talent, the activity involved mean nothing. Art is the nearest to an oracle that our position as modern scientific men can allow us.

What happens to an artist’s gifts may well reveal, in a coded or cyphered way, what is happening to his contemporaries. The fate of Van Gogh was the partial fate of millions. Rembrandt’s constant sense of isolation represented a new intimation of loneliness experienced, at least momentarily, by hundreds in seventeenth-century Holland.

And so it is with Picasso. The waste of his genius, or the frustration of his gifts, should be a fact of great significance for us. Our debt to him and to his failures, if we understand them properly, should be enormous.

Picasso has remained a living example, and this involves far more than not dying. He has not stopped working. He has not lied. He has not allowed his personal desperation to destroy his vitality or his delight in energy. He has not become politically – and therefore humanly – cynical. He has never, in any field, become a renegade. We cannot write him off. He has achieved enough to show us what he might have achieved. Because he is undefeated, he remains a living reproach. But a reproach against what?

Picasso is the typical artist of the middle of the twentieth century because his is the success story par excellence. Other artists have courted success, adapted themselves to society, betrayed their beginnings. Picasso has done none of these things. He has invited success as little as Van Gogh invited failure. (Neither was averse to his fate, but this was the limit of their ‘invitations’.) Success has been Picasso’s destiny, and that is what makes him the typical artist of our time, as Van Gogh was of his.

There have been – and are – many fine contemporary artists who have not achieved success, or, as we say, the success they deserve. But nevertheless they are the exceptions – sometimes because, courageously and intelligently, they have wanted to be so.

Consider how in the last twenty years the rebels and iconoclasts of the years before have been honoured! Not to mention traditionalists like Bonnard and Matisse. Or consider the phenomenon from the consumers’ rather than the producers’ point of view. Art, and especially ‘experimental’ art, has now become a prestige symbol, taking the place, in the mythology of advertising, of limousine cars and ancestral homes. Art is now the proof of success.

It would be too far outside the scope of this essay to explain why this has happened or to discuss the accompanying bitter contrast between the fortunate and unfortunate among artists. In a competitive society rewards such as are now offered for art are bound to mean an immense and uneconomic number of underprivileged hoping against hope for their chance.

The fact remains that since the French Revolution art has never enjoyed among the bourgeoisie the privileged position it does today. Once the bourgeoisie had their own artists and treated them as professionals: like tutors or solicitors. During the second half of the nineteenth century there was also an art of revolt and its artists were neglected or condemned until they were dead and their works could be separated from their creators’ intentions and treated as impersonal commodities. But today the living artist, however iconoclastic, has the chance of being treated like a king; only, since he is a king who is treated rather than who treats, he is a king who has lost his throne.

All this is reflected in the way artists talk amongst themselves and judge one another. Success is simultaneously desired and feared. On one hand it promises the means to survive and go on working; on the other it threatens corruption. The most frequently heard criticism is that, since his success, X is repeating himself, is merely picture-making. But the problem is often seen too narrowly as one of personal integrity. With enough integrity, it is suggested, one should be able to steer an honest course between success and corruption. A few extremists react so violently that they actually believe in failure. Yet failure is always a waste.

The importance of Picasso’s example is that it shows us how this fundamental problem of our epoch is an historical and not a moral one. Because Picasso does not belong to Western Europe we can appreciate how unnatural his success has been to him. We can even imagine the kind of natural success which his genius needed.

Furthermore we can see very precisely how the success which he has suffered has harmed him. It would be quite wrong to say that Picasso has lost his personal integrity, that he has been corrupted; on the contrary, he has remained obstinately true to his original self. The harm done is that he has been prevented from developing. And this has happened because he has been deprived of contact with modern reality.

To be successful is to be assimilated into society, just as being a failure means being rejected. Picasso has been assimilated into European bourgeois society – and this society is now essentially unreal.

The unreality, although it affects and distorts manners, fashions, thoughts, is at base economic. The prosperity of capitalism today depends, through investment, on the raw materials and labour of the under-privileged countries. But they are far away and unseen – so that at home most people are protected from the contradictions of their own system: those very contradictions from which all development must come. One could well talk of a drugged society.

The degree of torpor is particularly startling in Britain which, not so long ago, was known as the ‘workshop of the world’; but with variations the same trend governs all capitalist countries. In the Financial Times in 1963 the twenty largest British monopolies were listed. Their total net profits were £414 million. Of this figure two-thirds came from enterprises involved in overseas exploitation (oil, tobacco, rubber, copper, etc.) whilst profits from heavy industry in Britain were no more than £18.7 million and from light industry only £43 million.

The ideological effects of such stagnation are so immediate and pronounced because of the stage of knowledge which we have now achieved. Once it was perfectly possible to live off the loot of the world, to ignore the fact, and still to make progress. Now it is impossible because the indivisibility of man and his interests and the unity of the world are essential points of departure in every field of thought and planning, from physics to art. That is why the average level of cultural and philosophic exchange in the West is so trivial. It is also why such progress as is being made is made in pure science, where the discipline of the method forces researchers to jettison, at least whilst working, the habitual prejudices of the society they find themselves in.

The young, those who are still anonymous in a society which imprisons with names and categories, sense the truth of all this, even if they do not explain it. They suspect that the rich are now neurotic and daily getting worse. They look round at the faces in an expensive street and know that they are ignoble. They laugh at the hollowness of formal, official ceremonies. They realize that their democratic choice exists only in theory. They call life the rat-race. They regret that they haven’t had time to find an alternative.

The example of Picasso is not only relevant to artists. It is because he is an artist that we can observe his experience more easily. His experience proves that success and honour, as offered by bourgeois society, should no longer tempt anyone. It is no longer a question of refusing on principle, but of refusing for the sake of self-preservation. The time when the bourgeoisie could offer true privileges has passed. What they offer now is not worth having.

The example of Picasso is also an example of a failure of revolutionary nerve – on his part in 1917, on the part of the French Communist Party in 1945. To sustain such nerve one must be convinced that there will be another kind of success: a success which will operate in a field connecting, for the first time ever, the most complex imaginative constructions of the human mind and the liberation of all those peoples of the world who until now have been forced to be simple, and of whom Picasso has always wished to be the representative.

1 Seeker & Warburg, 1963.

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