Saturday 27 July 2019

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY VISITS ROUSAY (PART ONE)... island north of Mainland in Orkney. It's been nicknamed the Egypt of the North due to the huge number of neolithic sites in so small a place. At over a hundred and sixty, we didn't get to them all. But there's still too many to show in one go, so a second part to follow shortly. As ever, full set on 500px.

Saturday 20 July 2019


”All over France - torn and twisted railway-lines glistening in the sun, and golden sunlight on the yellowing leaves of uprooted trees, water gleaming at the bottom of bomb-craters, dead men turning green in the cornfields, their upturned bellies chanting paens to a cloudless sky. Have you forgotten so soon?”

”As Tempting As Suicide”

’Iron In the Soul’ (1949, also known as ’Troubled Sleep’) concludes Sartre’s Road To Freedom trilogy, following ’The Age of Reason’ and ‘The Reprieve’. (And as before, some VERY OLD PLOT SPOILERS crop up here.)

It’s set in the summer of 1940, after the fall of France. Which means that war hovered over the first book, casting everything in its shadow, riddled and infested the second without actually erupting - then is quite consciously withheld from the third. Like a storm which gathers only to pass, the much-heralded event never really arrives. Few of the main characters even witness combat, for them the war is over almost before its begun. (‘“They had lost the war much as a man loses an hour – without noticing it.”)

Which would seem to violate the most fundamental rule of drama, the part about it being dramatic. So why should Sartre do such a thing? Of course, as seen in the previous books, he’s more interested in psychology than events. There’s not a single scene which is not seen subjectively, through the eyes of a character. But the answer’s more precise. He needs this moment to evoke his concept of bad faith.

In his philosophical writings he explains this with the example of the waiter who plays his role a little too readily, who sports his uniform as if it were an expression of his own self. His ‘faith’ in this role is ‘bad’ because he suppresses his own subjectivity to take up an identity which does not come from but has been made for him.

But the enlisted man is perhaps a better example still. From the moment he receives his sealed orders telling him where and when to report, his actions are not his own, he’s to perform his functions as a limb of the French army.

And so the fall of France isn’t portrayed as tragic, the one-proud citizen having to face his country defeated. Characters feel less trauma than nothing. Both in the sense of a lack of feeling, and of sensing an absence the way you can a presence. The officer class are described only through symbols and synecdoches, a window referred to as the General’s eye. But when they finally appear they simply leave, without a word to the enlisted men.

Suddenly, at a stroke, France was revealed as a system devised by men which could at any time have been undone by other men. Hence Matthias’ reflection “we’ve never really seen France: we’ve only been in it.” So they come to inhabit a kind of limbo world, an orderless interregnum between the departing French officers and the arriving Germans. When the frog-marched defeated troops pass a bunch of discarded gas masks, they see in them their nation:

”They were filled with hatred of the parasitic grubs of which once they had been so frightened, yet had to care for and keep efficient. Now they lay between their feet, smashed, useless, and the sight of them was a further reminder the war was over.”

And consequently they and everything around them falls into a kind of stasis. Daniel finds that “nothing is more monotonous than catastrophe. He had begun to get used to it.” This is even true of time. He comes across an empty square where “water lay stagnant in a fountain’s basin,” where clocks lack hands. There’s persistent comparisons to a perpetual Sunday, the un-day where nothing happens.

Daniel’s wanderings through a deserted Paris almost prefigure the SF staple of the last man on Earth, alone in a once-bustling city. But at the same time it’s almost the epitome of the book. We don’t just see the inside of a character’s head the same time as we see what they’re doing, we see the world through their eyes - their subjectivity acting as a kind of filter. If other characters appear we don’t then see their subjectivity, we see them through our current protagonist’s subjectivity. Much of the enjoyment of reading comes from what Sartre can do with this, his ability to take outwardly ordinary objects and situations and charge them with significance. 

So a whole city which has effectively one character in it, later encountering another as if they’re the first two people ever to meet, going on to discuss whether life can really be lived… peak Sartre achieved.

The fall of France, then, does not cancel out bad faith so much as leave it exposed. Not unnaturally, characters speculate over how their new German masters might be. When some reassure themselves with the notion they surely can’t be that bad, Sartre (writing post-war) must have been aware of the irony. But so many characters blithely assume Britain will be next to fall, it becomes almost like reading one of those parallel histories where the Nazis won the war.

Bad faith drives such speculation and so makes it idle. The Germans might make them prisoners of war, enlist them into the occupying army or for that matter think to turn them all into waiters. But, whatever it is, their decision will be their decision. With the arbitrariness exposed, they simply sit and await the new arbitrary. (Notably, when time does start again it follows German time, set an hour after French.)

Asked for his educated opinion on events from his fellow conscripts, Matthieu replies:

“How can it possibly matter what we decide or what we don’t decide? Is anyone asking for our opinion? D’you realise the situation we’re in?”

And even when the Germans arrive they remain inscrutable:

“He tried, in vain, to make out their faces: they had none. Two slim figures, four long, parallel legs, a pair of round, smooth heads with neither eyes nor mouths… They had the stiff nobility of the figures that move forward on old-fashioned clocks, when the hour strikes.”

This situation, being inescapable, even becomes something to revel in. Political surrender can lead to personal surrender, the weight of choice removed from your shoulders:

“They were making the great refusal, spurning, in the name of all the guttersnipes of the world, the obligation of greatness. Why worry so long as one had good health, and enough to eat and drink..? Their austere lucidity had driven them to put aside the consolations of greatness. They were denying even their right to suffer, were refusing to strut as tragic or even historic figures. They could not so much as bring themselves to say we’re just a lot of cheap heels, a bundle of predestined failures; could not even comfort themselves with the thought that life was a gamble. All they could do was laugh, blundering against the walls of Absurdity and bouncing back from them. Their laughter was an instrument of self-punishment, of self-purification, of vengeance.”

Matthieu even fantasies about retreating into a vegetable existence:

“The sky was red, the earth cool and blue-shadowed. Matthieu could feel, beneath his hands, beneath his buttocks, a vast expanse of rank, moist hair running with lice. To feel it was agony. Cornered! Millions of men cornered between the Vosges and the Rhine - all possibility of existing like men taken from them. This flat forest of living things would still be there when they were dead. It was as though the world had no room for anything but fields and grass and a sort of impersonal ubiquity. Beneath his hands the earth was as tempting as suicide.”

Though among his fellow enlisted men, Matthieu mostly observes them as they do things. He accompanies others in succession, one by one, but creates no real attachments. As one gets drunk before him he finally tries to join in, only to cry he can’t. Even carving his name in a tree “takes too long”. So he resolves to join a company who will try to hold off the already inevitable German advance.

Remember the ‘Beyond The Fringe’ sketch where the officers need a volunteer for a futile gesture at this stage of the War? The only difference here is that Matthias needs a futile gesture for himself at the end of the War.

This stand-off marginally slows the German advance, but its effect is really only on the little troupe themselves. Their aim is not to buy time for something else to happen, or to provoke further resistance. It’s more, in a very real sense, something to do. He explicitly thinks to himself beforehand “I am going to die for nothing.” For if there is no readymade meaning or morality which we can wrap around overselves like a comfortable blanket, then the only meaning that counts is the one each of us make for ourselves. So that becomes each of our tasks.

“For years he had tried, in vain, to act. One after the other his intended actions had been stolen from him: he had been no firmer than a bat of butter. But no one had stolen this! He had pressed a trigger, and, for once, something had happened, something definite…. He fired. He was cleansed. He was all-powerful. He was free.”

Not for the first time Sartre represents the overcoming of Bad Faith as a transient epiphany, something achievable only with the most extreme effort and which cannot possibly be maintained. (It’s significant that he gave the term no antonym, Good Unbelief or the like.) Matthias doesn’t do the right thing even at the cost of his life so much as sacrifice his life to it, like going out on a high:

”He shook his head angrily. I’m fed up: the chaps down there can think what they like, the world can think what it likes. I’m through with remorse, with hesitations, with mental reservations. No one has the right to judge me; no one is thinking about me; no one will remember me; no one can make up my mind for me. He had reached a decision without remorse, with full knowledge of the facts. He had made up his mind, and, on the instant, his scrupulous, his sensitive heart went tumbling down through the branches. No more sentiment for him! That was over now. Here and now I have decided that death has all along been the secret of my life, that I have lived for the sole purpose of dying. I die in order to demonstrate the impossibility of living.”

Sartre disdained suicide as, in essence, dodging the problem of being. In the previous book, Matthias considers then rejects the option. Yet his actions here are little more than suicide by proxy. It’s common to suggest that the more furiously atheistic a thinker is, the closer their thought comes to resemble religion. And something similar is happening here. Matthias’ placing himself in the way of death isn’t so dissimilar to Saints embracing their ‘martyrdom’.

There’s an essentially similar scene to this in Bertolucci’s film ‘The Dreamers’ (2003), set during the ’68 revolt. In an argument on political violence, one character demonstrates his stance by throwing a rock at some nearby cops. And this way of framing things has something intensely annoying about it. Such acts did happen at that time, but neither as self-expression nor therapy. They were to hold back cops who were trying to attack the crowd in order to disperse it; their meaning came from their context, it wasn’t imposed onto it. Moving away from that context, going back to the perennial focus on the self, moves us away from the point.

Similarly, the need to fight against Nazis is effectively the default anti-pacifist position. (Or at least it used to be, until the alt.right discovered memes and everybody else lost their mind.) But the very same necessity insists on fighting Nazis effectively. We don’t just need to fight them for fifteen minutes to prove a point to ourselves, we need to beat them. And that involves working collectively. Whereas Sartre takes one of the most significant incidents in Twentieth Century history and makes it a backdrop for his psychodrama. (In another example of this uber-individualism, every description of sex throughout the trilogy is negative, never an act of consummation between two people.)

Though, never one to lack the courage of his convictions, Sartre goes out of his way to play this up. In my review of the first book I counterposed Matthieu’s gesture of deliberately stabbing his own hand to Gomez’s fighting against fascists in Spain. Yet when he voluntarily picks up a gun to fight the advancing German army, his mind repeatedly flicks back to that moment. It’s slightly bizarre to recall that Sartre always insisted it was his War experiences which made him a Communist.

Sartre and Communism, that takes us onto Part Two…

”They Slouched Obedient”

Geographically this third book ventures the furthest; while ’Age Of Reason’ never left Paris, here the opening scene is set in America. Yet it’s a retreat from the ever-shifting ‘mosaic’ style of ‘The Reprieve’. There’s a corresponding reduction in the number of characters, taking us back to our regular cast, those who know one another personally.

However, Sartre then manages to do something so much the opposite it seems almost as strange. Matthias’ exploits have taken up the bulk of Part One. (Interspersed with other characters, but they often get only a single scene.) Brunet, though an established character, doesn’t appear throughout any of this.

But bizarrely the character who’s served as our protagonist, who opened and closed the first book, has to himself the most dramatic scene of the whole trilogy, which causes his death - but that doesn’t end the book. Instead we reach Part Two and the focus falls and stays onto Brunet. Some effort is spent in placing him in the vicinity of Matthias’ death, though he’s unaware of it. But rather than cross-cut the ensuing one hundred-plus pages stick to Brunet; there’s a sum total of three breaks, separated into three paragraphs in the English translation and not even that in the French original. It differs in other details. For example, this time the occupying Germans are characterised (if to a small degree).

And, spiking this still further, this section also includes hefty sections of political discussion. (Mostly where Brunet arrogantly yet hopelessly seeks to defend Stalin’s Non-Aggression Pact.) Which is quite a detour, for up to now the War’s just been a backdrop for individual psychodramas. So should we see this not as Part Two at all, but as finding a separate novella inserted two-thirds into a novel?

Not quite. In the very inverse of Matthias, Brunet takes his own affiliations for absolute granted. He’s a recruiting sergeant, for a different army to the uniform he wears, but a recruiting sergeant all the same. France may have fallen but he remains a Communist Party cadre, and thinks only of how to bring influence upon his surroundings. “I’m a militant and nothing but a militant”, he rages. And his being made a, so to speak, rival protagonist - literally bookending Matthias - only underlines this contrast.

And if he’s always looking out not in, at those around him, it’s almost entirely without sympathy. “You don’t seem particularly fond of us”, one opines. Indeed he sees the defeated French troops as a herd, sheep in need of shepherding, and he flickers between disdain and dispassion. The few workable exceptions to this he labels “useful tools”. A Priest is immediately seen as a rival.

’Where were the Comrades? Not hard to tell a Communist when you see him. Oh, for one face, one hard, calm, controlled face, for something that might have betokened a man! But no: under-sized, nimble, mean, they sloped along, their ferrety muzzles pressing ever onwards, the facile mobility of their race showing through the dirt, twitching their mouths like the mouths of puppets… no good for anything but to appraise, to draw fine distinctions, to argue and judge and criticise, to weigh the pros and cons, to savour objections, to demonstrate, to draw conclusions - an interminable syllogism in which each of them was a term. On they slouched obedient, argumentative, unworried by their fate.”

He rails against not their imprisonment but the lack of labour discipline this leaves, the way they’re left with time to dream.

“God in Heaven! if only they could get rid of all this ridiculous hoping! - if only they could be put to doing something! Before the war, work had been their touchstone: work had been their test of truth: work had decided their relation to the world. Now that they cared about nothing they had come to believe that anything was possible: they lived in a dream-state, no longer capable of knowing the truth when they saw it.”

In his scheming way he’s as oblivious as the foolish idealist pacifist Philippe, both looking to the workers but only for what they want to see. When his men report back that things aren’t working out as planned, his tongue-lashing betrays him. He’s unable to see that, not only does their failure stem from his orders, every single defect he throws at them is his not theirs. (And how many bosses have you had like that?)

But the reverse happens. What’s infected the men comes to infect him. First he disdains them for wanting to be fed, oblivious to his own need for sustenance till he collapses. Then his own interior self slowly steals up on him. At first, quite literally through his dreams. Though, inevitably enough, this doesn’t end with him in a happier-now state, finally in touch with his feelings. Arguably it makes him a neither-nor creature, neither a friend to his follows nor a decent party cadre.

Yet we should remember that at this time Sartre was a public Communist Party supporter. What can be made of this? In fact, much like his author surrogate Matthias, Sartre expressed sympathy for the Party without ever joining it. And this ‘support’ doesn’t seem to have ever been uncritical in practice, and may have been partly due to his taking them for the only show in town. (In later years, when other options emerged, he associated with anti-Stalinist Leftists.)

And, while I might be looking for what I want to find here, I think you can see this critique already incipiently developing. If so, it’s a journey which ends with Jean Barot’s dismissal: “The political mind always tries to act first upon the others, to organise or force them to do something, while it stays outside of the social movement. [Whereas] our task is political only in so far as it deals with the destruction of political power.”

Saturday 13 July 2019


Barbican, London, Thurs 11th July

I don’t believe the concept of plot spoilers applies to reviews, so let’s just say something upfront - this didn’t start well, but got a whole lot better. So you won’t have to listen to me grouch the whole way through, okay?

I’m not quite sure how the rule came to be that modern concerts must have a visual element. Maybe someone figured that without one, everyone would just check their phones the whole time. I don’t object to it in itself, good things have been done that way.

This NIGHT ups the ante by co-crediting the artist and describing the thing as “a multimedia performance”. And perhaps not by coincidence the visual elements just seemed intrusive and gimmicky. To the point it was less like something being added and more like something being taken away.

In the early part, they mostly consisted of live-filming then digitally mapping the players. (See the publicity shot, up top.) Which was so unlike the quite traditional acoustic music I figured that had to be the point. And indeed the publicity comments “We live in a data-driven world, but is it really possible to quantify human emotion? This concert puts that question under surveillance.”

It’s true that music, however lyrical or sublime it sounds, always reduces to maths. A ‘number’ is another name for a musical piece, after all. But this was too much like saying “pay more attention to the little man behind the curtain”. Which isn’t how that quote goes.

It seemed to me the music picked up about a third of the way in, but that could have been me getting better at tuning out the visuals. Two pieces perhaps represented the Quartet’s main strands. They went through the first movement of Steve Reich’s classic ’Different Trains’. (Which of course they premiered, way back when.) While I’ve seen it done live before, it’s always a pleasure to hear and for once the film was befitting.

Having made a reworked ’Purple Haze’ their calling card, they also served up another reworked rock number - the Who’s Baba O’Reilly’. (Though of course that was itself influenced by Terry Riley, lines of influence are rarely linear.) But more unusually they covered two actual songs - ’Summertime’ and ’Strange Fruit’ - while keeping the song structure mostly intact.

If I tell you one piece had the refrain “One Earth, one people, one love” you are probably already imagining how it sounded. Quite possibly while being sick into a bucket. Whereas it was actually a highlight. The refrain was intoned flatly by a computer-modulated voice, while the music was slow and sombre. The film, also thankfully befitting, emphasised the circularity of the Earth. So the refrain became less a feelgood New Age mantra, and more a plainly spoken fact around which we’ll one day have to rearrange our lives. (It later proved to be by Terry Riley and titled, inevitably enough, ‘One Earth, One People, One Love’.)

I left with the feeling this had been an entry-level programme, composed of movements or shorter pieces, and with less of the ‘difficult’ compositions some baulk at. Which is absolutely a good thing to do, from time to time. If there had never been boarding points, I wouldn’t be aboard now. But the last thing you should then do is set it to a distracting filmshow.

That Riley number (not live)…

Kings Place, London, Sun 7th July

Fellow punters leaning over and asking if I know much about this act, that’s not uncommon. The person at the bag desk asking the same question, that’s something new. And I had to admit to knowing nothing beyond what was in the programme: “NYX is a collaborative drone choir and otherworldly electric chorus, re-embodying live electronics and extended vocal techniques.” (And, come to think of it, I still don’t know what the acronym stands for.) The night turns out to be a sell-out, so it seems I wasn’t the only one to be intrigued.

The five women in the choir come onstage gradually, one by one, without any fanfare. The stage is all black save a few strip lights, with the singers equally in black. The titular electronics play a part, as do looped samples. But the voices do most of the work. When not singing they tend to fall stock still, as if meditating. It’s the most ritualistic concert I’ve seen since Stockhausen’s ‘Stimmung’.

It’s a reminder that the chanting voice remains one of the eeriest instruments there is, perhaps because it should by any rights sound familiar. Very near the start, one voice holds a tone, lets it fall and repeats. A second voice then breaks in just as it falls. And the effect isn’t to add a new element, so much as amend the first, like watching a line that suddenly goes into a third dimension. From there the voices are forever scattering and regrouping, your ear effectively one step behind.

There’s something spectrally ungraspable about it all, like an audial version of a mirage. Partly because the whole is always more than the sum of its parts, so always seeming to stem from elsewhere.

And they seem to work that. At one point they build to a full-throated screamathon, but just as they reach boiling point they breaks into something else. The way a movie will suddenly cut from a horror scene.

But this was a gig full of unexpected twists. And while the above description holds overall, there were also for example harmonies launched into worthy of any girl band. And they climaxed with a rousing mantra chant, which stayed revolving round your brain long after the night had finished, and you were on your train home.

Not only not the right gig, but a collaboration with singer Hatis Noit so sounds quite different, but gives you some idea. This is closer, but longer.

Saturday 6 July 2019


Tate Modern, London

“When we love a woman we don’t start measuring her limbs, we love with our desires.”
- Picasso

Ego Trumps Id

Devoting a prominent ten-room exhibition to one year of an artist’s career, hung more-or-less chronologically - that might seem to be overplaying the genius card. Even when your subject’s Pablo Picasso. Taken literally, it would suggest we could have seventy-three such exhibitions, one for each of his productive years.

But the show’s argument is that 1932 was key. That June, aged fifty, he received a prestigious major retrospective in Paris. And, rather than feel flattered he seems to have taken the occasion as an existential threat. He insisted on curating the show himself, proclaiming in advance he intended to do it “badly”, refused for it to be hung chronologically and then for any dates to be provided, capping it all by refusing to attend the opening.

Retrospectives were then rarely given for living artists, and it seems to have suggested to him he no longer was one. To him it was more millstone than milestone. As the show puts it: “By 1932… Picasso increasingly experienced the trappings of success as a gilded cage. He missed his artist friends of old. He wanted to be closer to the discussions around contemporary art, not least the storm that was Surrealism.”Bob Dylan once said “An artist has gotta be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he's at somewhere. You always have to realize that you're constantly in a state of becoming.” I suspect Picasso would have agreed.

All of which raises the question - if the artist himself felt that way, that his best years were behind him, shouldn’t we take him at his word?

Take Surrealism. It’s true the Surrealists at first embraced him, devoting to him most of the first issue of their magazine ‘Minotaur’. Both he and they were not just interested in primitivism, but tended to treat it as the key to art. And he painted on impulse, getting out of his own way as much as he possibly could, impatient of requests to explain himself. He was a compulsive artist, someone who paints because he can’t not paint.He’s quoted in this show as saying “it’s strange how little the artist’s will matters.”

Which this might look from the outside like the Surrealist surrender to unconscious forces. But it isn’t. The mediumistic aspect of Surrealism is entirely absent. To them art was a tool, a way of getting at something. Which, when it arrived, should be as much a surprise to the artist as anyone else. While Picasso wasn’t about id but ego, specifically his ego. As he said: “A painter paints to unload himself of feelings and visions.”

His liaison with the Surrealists was more marriage of mutual convenience than meeting of minds. An emerging art movement got themselves a star player, while he got to look contemporary all over again. He never formally joined the group notorious for Stalinist levels of party discipline, insistent table-thumping manifestos and high-profile excommunications. On a wall quote he claims his concept of Surrealism was always different to everyone else’s, which is just a more self-important way of saying the same thing.

And yet despite all this his supposed ‘Surrealist’ era is probably my personal favourite of his many periods, and the Marie-Therese pictures are among my favourites of that era. Speaking of who...

The Object Desired

Norman Mailer’s theory of Picasso was that his art wasn’t advanced by broad social, cultural and scientific changes. Art critics like to throw that bigger stuff in because it makes them seem learned, that’s all. Really, it was his love life. He had endless styles simply because he had endless affairs, and he’d boldly launch a whole new look to his work to best flatter his latest crush. This theory goes unmentioned by this show, yet is proven on every wall.

And by 1932, though still married to Olga Khokhlova, he’d already embarked on an illicit affair with Marie-Therese Walter. Picasso never painted from life, but invented a set of motifs to represent figures. (Enhanced by the necessity, at this point, of hiding his affair from Olga.) To the point that its oddly jarring to see actual photos of her, the real person outside of Picasso’s depiction.

The most famous portrait of her, which inevitably makes it onto the poster, is ’The Dream’ (above), apparently on show in the UK for the first time. Typically she’s made up of sweeping contours captured in elegant curves, with a deliberately limited range of bright bold colours. The environment behind her is often similar, as if her personality’s projecting onto her world. There’s a great warmth and softness to these images. She’s made to look innocent, an Alice abroad, her eyes never scrutinising but either absorbingly open or (as here) dreamingly closed. 

She looks so childlike partly because of the childlike nature of the painting. Picasso’s often thought of as bawdy and unashamedly eroticised, yet here she seems as much child crush as sex object. We should remember that, while the actual Marie-Therese famously met Picasso when seventeen, by this point she’s twenty-two. Less than half his age, but scarcely a child. While some of her descriptions (“I was smothered with love and kisses and jealousy and admiration”) make it sound more like his first affair than hers.

With ‘Reading’ (above) there’s more modelling in the figure, and the background looks more like pictorial space. (Unusually it’s made up of angles rather than curves, including a somewhat unexplained frame to the left.) Yet the figure is more distorted, not to mention bright purple. But perhaps most notable is that despite these differences her head is in two halves in both.

And this split face is another recurring motif. Here, despite what was said above, is one point we do have something genuinely Surrealist. In Surrealism muses were held to occupy a liminal space, which the double face might be seen to represent. Note that ‘The Dream’ also has a split background, which includes a curtain being half-pulled back. And gives her arms, and even different parts of her necklace, different colours.

If Surrealism was the desire to break the divide between conscious and unconscious, to see them less as opposites than halves of the same whole, muses were the guides who helped you cross that barrier. And women made muses precisely because they were half-outside society, because they were considered to be more akin to children than men.

‘Girl Before A Mirror’ (above) again plays upon a double image. The mirror’s not obvious, the reflection symbolic rather than actual, the figure not even looking into it. Here the mirror seems to represent not self-awareness so much as another self, rearing up at us.

‘The Sculptor’ (one of the few 1931 works sneaked in) shows Picasso as a sculptor and Marie-Therese as a bust, blurring the line between muse and product. The other two works in the background, the sculpture and hung painting, look to also be of her. If Marie- Therese is an Alice, Picasso’s a combination of luring White Rabbit and Mad Hatter, but mostly Red Queen. Around here, even the way she looks belongs to him. (Though note how he now has her split face and Roman nose.)

Yet simultaneously to all this evoked innocence, if we look back to ’The Dream’ she’s depicted with one breast bared. Which is quite common, though they’re often (as in ’Reading’) represented only by concentric circles. While the upper part of her turned head resembles a penis. (A dirty in-joke I think I’m actually glad I had to have pointed out to me.) In other works she’s not just naked, but has this foregrounded in the title, such as ‘Nude Woman in a Red Armchair’.

‘Yellow Belt’ is one of the simplest and boldest works, yet also one of the most crudely sexualised. This time even I didn’t miss the phallic nose, nor the red slit for the mouth. (Which is then echoed in the back rest of the chair.) If anything, it’s too crude to pass as a piece of toilet wall graffiti.

Body as Landscape

Focusing in on one year like this, you get to see just how fixated Picasso was. Things recur again and again and then again, in sometimes quite slight variations. Yet he wasn’t known for being short of imagination. Why should this be?

Years ago, as the most amateur cartoonist in world history, I’d find myself frequently draw the same things repeatedly. It was out of sheer necessity. I was hoping to hit on what I wanted, a paw-handed monkey hoping to score a visual Shakespeare. But Picasso… I am going to argue that he wasn’t the same sort of artist as me.

We shouldn’t see these myriad variations of a theme as a way of working out, of trials intended to arrive at a finalised version, sketchbook doodles he inexplicably painted up full scale. We should see them more as a way of getting out, of exorcising something. His head was packed with obsessions, which he could only deal with by painting them.

Nevertheless, if there isn’t a progression there are phases. Over the months elements morph, or shift in and out.

Traditionally, tall paintings are described as Portrait, and long as Landscape – after the genre they were most used for. Picasso starts with Marie-Therese in portrait, as shown above. But he soon comes to paint her recumbent figure as a landscape. And not merely in landscape format, he effectively paints her as if she was a landscape. She becomes, in the words of Mark Hudson at the Telegraph, “a slumped mass of prone flesh”. The attention shifts quite decidedly from her face to her body, which has the effect of further sexualising her. There’s paintings where her head’s a bust, as in ’The Sculptor’, as if detached altogether.

The still-nearly-square ’Nude in a Black Armchair’ (above) can be seen as transitional. The cheeseplant, placed here as if sprouting from her, becomes another recurrent motif. Timothy Hilton’s description, “the paintings overflow with a sense of fecundity, felt in the girl herself and all that surrounds her”, (‘Picasso’, Thames & Hudson) kicks in about now.

...then look how far he takes it with ’Reclining Nude’ (above). It’s still recognisably Marie-Therese. The curved arms and disc-like breasts are in a continuity with the works above. But what of the strange flipper shapes in her lower half? The disappearance of hands? The cold slab and complete loss of the cosy domestic interior?

The show comes up with a few possible influences for this, but if you were already thinking ‘tentacle porn’ - top marks! Picasso’s known to have taken to Shunga, Japanese erotic art. And while there are definite similarities, such as the sexually charged use of nature in garden or indoor settings, it might be more illuminating to look at the differences.

Shunga’s adoption of tentacles dates back at least to Hokusai’s 1814 ‘Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife’. Yet, even as that artwork’s (literally) monstrous there’s still something sensuous about it. There’s an accompanying text conveying how much the Fisherman’s wife is getting off on things, so perhaps we can only shrug, say “consenting adults” and not concern ourselves with how she’s going to introduce that squid to her parents. Part of the fantasy is of course more appendages equals more fun. But another part is that sex enables us to become beasts again, to slip out of that pesky human consciousness for a bit.

But there’s a difference. As I once said over Shunga: “With those elegant, endlessly overlapping contours it’s often hard to tell one set of limbs from another – a neat visual analogy for the loss of self that comes with sexual release. The couples look like they’ve become single creatures, multitudinous and self-pleasuring.”

Whereas Picasso’s depictions of flesh lean much more to the monstrous.If there’s someone who finds ’Reclining Nude’ sexy, I can only hope I never run in to them. Unlike the copulating couples found in Oriental art Picasso is rarely himself represented, and if he is (as seen) it’s as the artist. Which only adds to the sense that what we’re seeing is his desire, his fetishistic gaze. The association of sex with horror is never too far away. To misquote Heisenberg, the act of desiring changes the object which is desired. In fact, its the desiring look which makes theobject of desire becomes monstrous, as if it’s been saturated by some kind of transforming ray.

...and, as if that wasn’t enough, there’s one more mutation to come.

Repeat a phrase too many times and you wear out its meaning, it degrades into anunintelligible set of sounds. Similarly, draw something over and again and it becomes codified, at a greater remove from what it ostensibly represents. Picasso may have been painting Marie-Therese out of sexual obsession, but this still happens. So he uses it to his advantage. The elements he’s used to signify her become discombobulated, a set of parts gathered together like loose stones.’Woman in a Red Armchair’ sounds like an alternative title for ’The Dream’, whereas it actually looks like this…

It assaults and breaks down its subject as much as his Cubist era, though in quite a different way. It’s not our view but the object itself which is broken up. Yet the pieces are modelled and textured, so in themselves look more ‘real’ than most of the portraits. Perhaps without him intending it suggests an absence at the core of things, that beneath the motifs he’s been using to fetishise Marie-Therese the real person is absent. Object of desire degrades intojust plain object. Or, as sounds more likely, she was in front of him the whole time but Picasso never really saw her.

Dagger Glares

And where, you may be asking, was Picasso’s wife in all of this?

This was how he painted Olga in ‘Portrait of Olga Picasso’ in 1923, less than a decade earlier - elegant, poised and confident. Now compare that to his mildly different view of her in ‘Woman With Daggar’
, below.(There’s also ten portraits of her in a timeline here.)

Full of shapeless protuberances stretching in every direction, this Olga seems more malevolent spirit than flesh-and-blood person. She’s like a dark cloud intensifying the claustrophobia of the room, her extended devouring mouth poised over the much smaller head of the white figure. The dagger seems to pin down, hold in place, as much as it causes blood to pour. This savage work was painted, of all times, on Christmas Day 1931, perhaps after it was suggested Picasso might want to spend such a day with his wife and child. We should also note how the title has switched from ‘girl’ to ‘woman’.

While the extremely unrestive ’Rest’ (above) takes the setting Marie-Therese occupied in ’The Dream’, only to place in it a contorted figure in it who looks a whole lot more like the Olga of ’Woman With Daggar’. The figure’s angled the other way, facing stage left, enhancing the sense of them as opposites. The warm, solid colours are repeated but made paler, more diffuse, possibly even smeary. And the room’s become claustrophobic and windowless, even the wallpaper pattern distorted.

And what do we make of ’Sleeping Woman By a Mirror’?Compositionally it’s almost a complete echo of ’The Dream’, even down the section missing from the head. But it’s not just bolder and starker, the face is actively violent – an act which seems almost all the artist’s? It seems built around the distinction between an artistic blurring of the features and an actual bruising of the face. 'Sleeping' seems a bit of a euphemism  for it’s reminiscent of the way “rub you out” is slang for murder. Yet the features are preserved perfectly in the mirror. (Which also proves this is Marie-Therese, not Olga.) It seems even within an image of her, we’re being told the image of her is the ‘true’ thing.

The Year Draws In

The show goes on to say: “If love had been the guiding star of Picasso’s life and art in the early part of 1932, and fame its crowning summer glory, by the end of 1932 the signs of tragedy were writ large.”

Marie-Therese grew seriously ill, from a virus she picked up while swimming. Something in Picasso’s brain associated this with (in the show’s words) “the threat of drowning and the possibility of rescue”, perhaps simply because they were simpler to depict in art.

’The Rescue’ (above) finds three figures in the rescue scene, then makes all of them Marie-Therese. There’s quite a stress on the two-dimensionality of the image, the background (bar a few flowers) a wall of green and the waterline conveyed by… well, a line. Also, while one figure is safely on land and looks to be pulling up another, in the lower right her foot is going back in the water, and seems to be mixing with the hair of the third figure. The scene looks urgent, but rather than depict the moment of rescue it’s showing something cyclic – as if we all go under the water repeatedly, and have to haul ourselves out.

A sequel, also called The Rescue’, (above, not painted till January ‘33), takes the same setting. The figures are reduced to two, but also fused into one, further enhancing the notion this is some kind of internal struggle.

And the dangling head in both versions is clearly echoed in the not-cheerily-titled drypoint ’The Rape’, where rescuing hands become the grabbing grip of the rapist. Perhaps we should try to look for some symbolic value for that figure. But we’d just come back to seeing it as Picasso. And perhaps worse, it not only resembles ’The Rescue’ but comes on the back of the notion our lives are beset by perennial problems, against which we can only constantly struggle.

The show tries to tie all this in with “the political and economic situation in Europe”, but inevitably fails. Mussolini was dictator of Italy, but had been for a decade. Hitler became Chancellor, but the start of the following year. In Spain, an early military coup against the Republic was defeated. Picasso was in many ways the Dylan of Modernism. Everyone really, really wants to imagine he was strongly influenced by politics. But he really, really wasn’t. Instead he lived in a hermetic, aestheticised world, where anything that permeated that world soon got absorbed into it. ‘Guernica’, not painted for another five years, was his ‘Masters of War’. An exception to the rule.

The Misogynist Mind

The alert reader may have noticed my first praising these paintings, even saying they’re some of my favourites of Picasso’s, then pointing out their rampant misogyny. Sometimes you need to hold in abeyance the sordid details of an artist’s biography in order to appreciate their art. Bob Dylan’s love songs might still move us, even though we know he often behaved like a jerk to women in real life. No such separation of duties is possible here. Picasso’s whole self goes into his art, for both good and bad. The misogyny’s in the very marrow of his work, the highly masculine virility turned into the creative urge, then disgorged onto the canvas. Picasso the misogynist is Picasso the artist. There’s no getting around this, and we shouldn’t even try.

I once said of Gauguin that “Gauguin, to Gauguin, is a multiplicity, while all women are One…. each individual woman is only there to represent Woman.” Though he was continually changing the style with which he‘d represent Woman, Picasso only really varies from this to decide that all women are Two. Who, not unsurprisingly, are those currently giving him what he wants and those who aren’t.

Women are contrapuntally split between providers/enablers and thwarters. Though Olga’s normally considered to be stabbing Marie-Therese rather than Picasso himself, she’s still in effect the castrating bitch to Marie-Therese’s love object. Yet if they’re constructed as opposites what’s more significant is what they have in common. Neither is a person in her own right, everything about both of them is to do with the role they play in a man’s world. They’re not portraits of two women but of Picasso’s own obsessions, in the path of which two women happened to wonder.

Picasso was a Bluebeard, effectively capturing women like prize treasures. Grand-daughter Marina said of him: “He submitted them to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them, and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.”

It would be tempting to argue that the problems are so pronounced they become benefits, that they’re so good artworks in the sense of expressing what they mean that they provide an x-ray into the misogynist mind. Like the Police do with suspects, shouldn’t we take wrong ‘uns and try to flip them into useful informers? As I said once of de Kooning, his works are “interestingly misogynistic, they offer insight into the misogynistic mind.”

But I want to believe that so much I can’t help but become sceptical of it. The obviousness of the images come back here. They fit so neatly into feminist theory that they even start to feel slightly unreal. You could drop these images at random into a feminist primer, and they’d fit so neatly. Yet if they illustrate the basics, do they take us any further? Was Picasso, however great an artist, merely commonplace as a misogynist? Is it like looking at a thousand coughs and sneezes, then trying to convince yourself you now have a cure for the common cold? I would, I promise, tell you the answer to that if I knew it.