Picasso’s Masterpiece: Art in the Novel II

Picasso’s Masterpiece: Art in the Novel II

by Jordan A. Rothacker

This 25th of October marks the 130th birthday of Pablo Picasso. He has been absent from this world since 1973, but the 92 years he was in this world he was very present. And although I was born in 1977 he was very present in my own life. This 130th anniversary is worth acknowledging and celebrating and it is the perfect opportunity for me to finally talk about Picasso.

I am a Spaniard. Biologically and genealogically, this is only partly true, but it is a point of pride that my mother infused in me from a very early age (thankfully no one in Spain is demanding that I prove a “blood quantum” test, but I would actually pass). Growing up, Picasso’s name was synonymous with the word “artist,” as it is still for many people. However, as an unconscious act of rebellion, as children are want to perform, I avoided Picasso for most of my early teen years into adult life. I acted as if Picasso was a given, an easy sell, a fall back artist for a Philistine or poseur. The art-rubes mention Picasso (and more so Dali, who I am still not interested in) while I would always rather talk about Goya and El Greco if the conversation was on Spaniards, or Modigliani and Klee if it was on Modernists. I am not really a pretentious prick, on my behalf, I have always felt a kinship to the underdog in most fields. I have been prone to give Sartre as an example who always claimed to side with the underdog for consistency’s sake or that great Menken quote about the role of the writer (or at least he, as a writer) in “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

This last summer I went to Spain as part of the research for my Comparative Literature dissertation about Africa. The idea was fly into Madrid and then head south to look at some points of Moorish, i.e. African, influences in Andalusia, before heading down to Morocco to get some firsthand Africa. I wound up returning though with Art occupying more of the forefront of my mind than Africa (when asked what they have in common I often quip that “Art is like Africa, everyone claims they care about both but no one really does”). Spain did this to me, and Picasso helped.

I flew into Madrid, a large city, a sprawling metropolis, which for me has most often been no more than a mere transfer point in the extremely inefficient Spanish rail system while I head from one point of a more “real” Spain to another. Various shades of Spanish snobbery abound within me, as they do for most Spaniards. My family is from the north, from the region (formerly kingdom) or Cantabria. They all live now in the village of Orena, two kilometers west of Santillana del Mar, a gorgeous medieval town most famous for the caves of Altamira (from which I bear a bison cave painting tattoo). The family most likely came from the village of Cianca, my mother’s maiden name, located closer to Santander. My mother speaks proper Castillian Spanish as a first language, being first generation born in this country. The Spanish pride is Castillian pride nonetheless. Once as a child I told her the Dali line, “The two things you need to be a great artist is (1) be Spanish; and (2) be named Salvador Dali.” Her response was that he would never say that, he isn’t Spanish, he is Catalan. A more extreme example could be found in my maternal grandmother who while living in the Bronx refused to speak to her Puerto Rican maid in anything but English, because the maid did not speak “true” Spanish. When I was seven, my parents sold everything and moved with my sister and I to Spain. Four people, seven suitcases, and three months of travel like gypsies (and amongst gypsies), never settling any where before returning to the States. Madrid was to me a cold weigh-station we had to pass through to traverse the country.

Yet, despite all of this, I flew into Madrid to check a few things out, before heading south (it was also the cheapest route in the elaborate flight system I came up with; after Morocco I returned to Spain to fly back out of Seville). I had one full day and a night, one cranky, tired, jet-lagged day. When I got off the plane I took the metro down to the big train station, the Atocha, where I would transfer down to Andalusia. I knew the Prado was near the Atocha and I planned to make a visit (I had not been there since I was 1984 though I had been to Spain twice in the last twenty-seven years; Madrid, of course is nothing more than a point of transfer). Out of the subway, in the sun and out on the ground in Spain it took some time to get my bearings, buy a burner, communicate with home, and eat some Spanish food, thus further acclimating to my environment. I ate in a square across from the Atocha, in one of the many places my wife and I ate on our honeymoon in Spain two years before (but the only place we ate in Madrid, since we were just passing through transferring trains).

The square was actually in the service of the Museum Reina Sofia, a fact it took me a while to realize. I like art, I thought, and though I don’t know what is in there, as opposed to The Prado, I might as well check it out, I am here, I have all day. In I went.

(I might be sounding like an art-rube here, but remember, my mind was on Africa, and I was slightly jet-lagged, tired, and cranky.)

The museum was of a wonderful design, mixing old and new, reminding me of so much of Bilbao. I saw some traveling shows and some great Richard Serra installations, but couldn’t really find my way around the museum to the permanent collection. I asked a guard, displaying wide my map and using some poor Spanish and she directed me to an upper floor and showed me how to walk on the floor pattern to one big room at the end of it. I did as I was told. On this floor I sauntered through bits of permanent collection and lots of closed off rooms. Eventually, I approached a forking path, to the left led me to the big room on the map and to the right led me to what appeared to be preparatory rooms for the big one. At the forking path I realized what it was all about. I caught a corner of the big painting filling the big room. My heart stopped and my stomach dropped. I knew what was about to happen, but I took the right fork out of respect for the curatorial process and to delay the unveiling of what awaited me.

As I suspect, the preparatory room was filled with small paintings and drawings, each one with the same title, Study for Guernica. I took each one in until I reached the space in the middle of the preparatory room. There she was: Guernica.

It was my first time, and I felt it. I wanted to cry. All its meaning, all its context, all the art behind and within it. I wanted to cry. I wanted to hug Picasso.

I had seen the image many times. Looked at each of its images, its parts many times, but they were always small in a book, always black and white. Here, before me, it towered, loomed, announced, screamed at me, judged me, judged us. It had no colors but shades of black and white and yet it was nothing like the images I had seen in books. This was real. Picasso had awoken within me.

High on this art, I toured through the rest of the museum, seeing shows about labor and socialism, workers, peasants toiling, pictures of World War Two, many faces and bodies that fought and suffered under fascism (this is also what I love about post-colonial African literature, the human spirit, its sorrows and triumphs; the underdog). When it was done and I realized it was almost six, when the Prado is free to the public, I needed to get in before the line got to long. I was high on art, Spanish art, revolutionary art, all art. At the Prado the Spanish pride stayed alive with the works of Velasquez and whole rooms of Goya, wonderful, dark, revolutionary Goya, as well as the awe-striking play of color I love in El Greco. And this museum, one of the greatest in the world, also gave me Caravaggios and Fra Angelicos, and a room filled with the wonderful creepy worlds of both Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

I did go down to Seville that next day and I did eventually make it to Morocco. Between the two I stopped in Malaga, Picasso’s birthplace and original home to visit some friends. While I was there I went to Picasso’s house (now a museum) and I went to the Picasso museum and I saw all the billboards proudly announcing it to be the year of his 130th birthday. When I returned home to the states, my African research tasks completed, I could not shake my art hunger, a specifically Spanish art hunger at times, and a hunger that was stronger now further from its source. I started reading novels where real world pieces of art appeared, where they are rendered in prose (as I wrote about in my first Art in the Novel essay). I reread lines in my notebook from the trip, one of which mentioned a line by Andre Malraux on Picasso that I saw in the Picasso Museum in Malaga. It came from Malraux’s book Picasso’s Mask (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974). I got this book and began to savor it, slowly.

I played fast and loose with my art reading. As it was summer I wanted to feel free and to just take in what I enjoyed and was immediately drawn to, no curriculum or plan. I read through The Artist’s Reality: Philosophies of Art, by Marc Rothko (one of my favorite 20th Century artists), Paul Klee’s letters, a random Goya art book I owned, and CVJ, Julian Schnabel’s memoir from 1987 full of color plates of his work. My Freshman year of college I saw “Basquiat” at the Angelica in New York and not only loved that tragic artist even more through it, but the film’s director who I only barely knew through reputation as that New York 80’s plate guy. Reading his development as an artist and his thoughts on aesthetics kept me very excited about the visual medium. And with the sad passing of Border’s I stocked up on tons of pricey art mags at low rates.

The synchronicities of my summer continued with the release of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” I saw the film a total of five times in the theater (the fifth was research for a paper on the film that I gave at a comparative literature conference in September). Sitting in the theater for that film was a magical and wonderful experience, and though the portrayal of Picasso in it was closer to caricature than portrait, the film did help trigger some insight for me. In one scene, Owen Wilson’s character is having read to him by the stunning Carla Bruni-Sarkozy the diary of Picasso’s mistress Adrianna (a fictitious creation for the film). Writing about Picasso, Adrianna says, “Matisse is the greater painter, but Picasso is the greater artist.”

This resounded within me, the truth of this. Picasso was always working, changing, evolving, charging the gates of the artistic status quo, producing an unbelievable body of work, but individual works, how many were actually great? Matisse had one style and it was utterly distinct from any other artist. So sure, Matisse was a greater painter, but Picasso was a greater artist. He wouldn’t have liked to hear this. Malraux tells us that Picasso liked to say, “’I was a painter,’ not ‘I was an artist’-a word he would use only derisively” (49).

There is such a bulk of work from this master that people usually don’t speak of individual paintings of his as much as periods of painting. Some people like the Blue Period, some like the Cubism (I am not inclined to either), and some people prefer the simplicity of his later years, the bicycle seat and handlebars bull head sculpture, the black and white Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (more where I stand). Thinking of the man’s career and complete oeuvre is a blur with little ground for orientation. Except, of course, for Guernica. I loved that work, it affected me, and I wanted to say something, but I wasn’t sure what yet, or how.

I started working on my first “Art in the Novel” essay, published here at As It Ought to Be, looking at “prose renderings” of real world pieces of art in fiction, specifically Don Delillo’s Point Omega and Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters. This kept me going but it was far from getting to Picasso and Guernica. I couldn’t finish Malraux’s book but I enjoyed slowly chewing over Malraux’s thoughts on and reminiscences of Picasso. The Spanish painter loved Goya, so did I, but who didn’t really? He loved Cezanne too, and understandably so. This brought me back to Emile Zola, whose novels captured my attention some years ago, and his work based on his friend Cezanne, The Masterpiece (L’Œuvre). Rereading parts of this novel, along with everything else, continued my thoughts about the intersections of visual and literary arts. Fate and synchronicity prevailed and soon I discovered for the first time in my life, Honore de Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece (Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu). The back cover of this book said something about it being beloved by Picasso and I was sold. It also mentioned that it was beloved by Cezanne, and I was starting to see a paper or essay coming together.

So I read The Unknown Masterpiece (first published 1831; book form in 1837; mine NYRB, 2001) and I refreshed my self on The Masterpiece (1886; mine Oxford University Press, 1999) and soon I found a suitable tribute (within my own abilities) to Picasso by way of “Art in the Novel.” In the 130th year since Picasso’s birth I question the importance of this “great” artist, and my answer is Guernica. It is his masterpiece, his “chef-d’œuvre,” and it follows a very clear and literary trajectory for modern masterpiece. Balzac’s story, a mere thirty-four pages, was a hit when it was published. It is somewhat of a historical fiction about three painters in 1612, two of which, Nicholas Poussin and Francois Porbus, are historical figures. The third, Frenhofer, is fictitious and the real subject of the piece, Frenhofer and his masterpiece. This is little action to the story: Poussin, a novice, visits Porbus at his studio on rue des Grands-Augustins, hoping for some apprenticeship, Porbus is speaking with Frenhofer about his own painting, Poussin listens to the rantings of this old man he doesn’t know and soon Porbus makes asides to Poussin about Frenhofer and how great he is. Frenhofer speaks of his great masterpiece, La Belle noiseuse, that he has yet to finish, an all-consuming work, but he needs a model. Both younger painters are extremely intrigued by the talk of this masterpiece and want to find a way to see it. Poussin leaves entranced by a new way to think of art and goes home and asks his girlfriend, Gillette, if she would pose for another man, hoping that can get the painting done faster and get him a peek. After some couple banter she agrees.

The second part of the story is three months later when Porbus and Poussin go with Gillette to Frenhofer’s studio near the Pont St. Michel for the modeling session. They tell Frenhofer that they will let him use Gillette for his model if after he shows them the painting. Resistant at first, Frenhofer relents when he sees how beautiful Gillette is. She models, Frenhofer paints, the other two wait, and soon the masterpiece is done. Frenhofer shows them the work, his Catherine Lescault he is calling the woman in the painting, and looking at the canvas all Porbus and Poussin see is a chaotic wall of paint. They can almost make out the image of a foot. Frenhofer sees a woman come to life in the painting and says, “Never will painter, paintbrush, color, canvas, or light succeed in creating a rival to Catherine Lascaux” (38). The younger painters write him off as mad, and yet Porbus comes back to check on the old man the next day and finds that he “died during the night after burning his canvases” (44).

At Porbus’s studio, Frenhofer describes his masterpiece, and what he is trying to do for art: “It is not the mission of art to copy nature, but to express it. Remember, artists aren’t mere imitators, they’re poets” (13). “The victorious painter… perseveres until nature’s forced to show herself stark naked, in her true spirit” (15). “It’s ten years now… that I’ve been struggling with this problem [bringing art to life-like-ness]. But what are ten short years when you’re contending with nature? How long did Lord Pygmalion take to create the only statue that ever walked” (24)! After all of this we read, “for the enthusiastic Poussin, this old man had become, by a sudden transfiguration, Art itself, art with all its secrets, its passions, its reveries” (25).

At his studio later, when the masterpiece is complete, Frenhofer says about it, “Where’s the art? Gone, vanished! Here’s true form—the very form of a girl” (39) and “you must have faith, faith in art, and you must live a long time with your work to produce a creation like this” (41) and “I have eliminated the very notion of drawing, of artificial means, and given my work the look and actual solidity of nature” (42). And remember to everyone else it looks like a chaotic mess of color with sort of a foot in the corner. And remember he burns it, and all his work that night and dies.

Zola’s work on visual art is a full detailed novel of four hundred plus pages. His main protagonist is painter Claude Lantier with a secondary role for his writer friend Pierre Sandoz. Lantier is based on Paul Cezanne and Sandoz on Zola himself, childhood friends, both raised in the provinces. The Masterpiece captures the whole Impressionist and plein-air movement in France from the art schools and studios to the cafés, countryside, and salon exhibits. Similar to Balzac’s story there is a tense relationship between Lantier and wife/model, Christine, about her role in his life and art. Eventually towards the end of the novel Lantier starts working on one huge masterpiece. It becomes his obsession and Christine models for him.

Zola describes the process for Lantier over the course of years in great detail while stricken by poverty and his relationships with friends, wife, and child suffer. “He practically lived on his ladder, wielding his enormous brushes and expending muscular strength enough to move mountains” (268). “He worked on the canvas for two whole years; for two whole years it was the sole aim and end to his existence, sometimes sending him soaring to heights of delirious joy, sometimes plunging him into such depths of doubt and despair that poor wretches breathing their last on beds of pain were happy by comparison” (269). His idea is to paint a “nude figure as the incarnation of Paris, the city of passion as the resplendent beauty of a naked woman. Into it he poured all his own great passion” (271). “A dozen times the central figure was started, abandoned, completely repainted. One year, two years went by and still the picture was not finished. One day it would be practically complete, the next scraped clean and a fresh start made. Such is the effort of creation that goes into the work of art! Such was the agonizing effort he had to make, the blood and tears it cost him to make living flesh, to produce the breath of life” (282)!

After so many years and the death of his infant son, Lantier was still at this grand painting. Christine is fed up, he won’t even make love to her. During a fight, he says, “Yes. Art is the master, my master, to dispose of me as it pleases. If I stopped painting it would kill me just the same, so I prefer to die painting” (404). She taunts him and finally seduces him, getting him to renounce painting forever after they finally make love. The next morning, just after dawn, he slips from her bed into his studio and is heard to say: “Here I am! I’m coming” (412). When Christine awake and goes in search of him she finds that, “Claude had hanged himself from the big ladder in front of his unfinished, unfinishable masterpiece” (412).

There is no doubt that Zola built a lot of the character Claude Lantier out of Cezanne and their friendship. From a real world artist came a came a fictional character and a whole novel around him. What it did to their relationship is still up for debate, but they ultimately did drift apart after the publication of the book. “Cezanne felt that Balzac ‘understood’ him much better than Zola” (199), Graham Robb tells us in his amazing biography of Balzac, simply titled Balzac, (Picador, 1994). On the same page he tells us that apparently once when asked late in life about Frenhofer, Cezanne “repeatedly struck his chest with his index finger, thereby confessing… that he was the character from the story. He was so moved that tears came to his eyes.”

This fascination with, and inspiration from, a fictional character by a real life artist is confirmed in Philip Callow’s biography on Cezanne, The Lost Earth (Ivan R. Dee, 1995). “Reading Cezanne’s statements on art and its aims one is struck by the way in which Frenhofer’s ideas resemble his own… Frenhofer was a man who had not managed to make clear his vision, who was deluded—a fate especially poignant to Cezanne, who was never quite convinced that he has beaten the cliché and broken through, as he touched the canvas intuitively, with the very touch of life itself. And because to him art was a religion, nothing else would do” (154-155).

Frenhofer was an inspiration to many other artists in the real world, Robb even mentions in a footnote that it was one of Karl Marx’s favorite stories; he mentions it in a letter to Engels (449). The artist who happened to take this connection the farthest, farther than even Cezanne, was Picasso. Robb in Balzac, as well as Arthur C. Danto in the Introduction to my copy of The Unknown Masterpiece, both mention that Picasso took a studio in the building at 7 Rue des Grands-Augustin because he believed this to be the setting Balzac chose for the opening scene of the story. Picasso first became acquainted with the story in 1927 when Ambroise Vollard, an art dealer, commissioned Picasso to do etchings for the centenary of the story to be released in 1931. John Richardson tells us, in the third volume of his massive biography on Picasso, titled A Life of Picasso (Knopf, 2007), “The obsessive twentieth-century artist closely identified with Balzac’s seventeenth-century painter, Master Frenhofer” (78). He also notes that Picasso’s painting Artist and His Model also derives inspiration from Balzac’s story.

In late 1936, Picasso was approached by a delegation representing the Spanish Republic (Spanish was in the throws of Civil War) and asked to make a mural for the Spanish Republic pavilion at the upcoming World’s Fair to open May in Paris. He eventually accepted and began work on sketches for a painting concept called The Studio, something not far off from Artist and His Model or a scene from either Balzac’s story or Zola’s novel. The Studio is a somewhat ironic title since for three decades Picasso was never entirely happy with his Parisian studios but in March of 1937 he stumbled upon serious serendipity. Dora Maar, a photographer he had recently started seeing while his family was away in the country, recommended a studio that had just become available in a building next to her own. This studio was in 7 Rue des Grands-Augustins. Robb tells us in a footnote that “Picasso presumably identified the house by the spiral staircase mentioned at the beginning of the story” (449).

So here Picasso was, in a place where the fictitious Master Frenhofer once stood. What would he do with this magical of literary locations, would he paint a grand mural of a studio with an artist and a model maybe, a beautiful woman made more real than real by the genius of his brush in a way that both Frenhofer and Claude Lantier dreamed of but never could? No. For on April 26th, General Francisco Franco of the fascist revolutionary movement of Spain would allow German and Italian planes to experiment with blitzkrieg on the small Basque town of Guernica killing thousands. News reports in Paris on the next day and subsequent days told of the gore, death toll, and what had become of the bomb-cratered-ash-ridden town of Guernica. Though an expatriate settled in France, Picasso was a Spaniard through and through and could not let this pass on into a forgotten past, especially since within weeks Franco’s propaganda machine was spinning the story, giving blame to Basques and communists. We can read all about this in Russell Martin’s Picasso’s War, not a scholarly text, but a nice telling of the history around this painting.

By early May, in his prized new studio, Picasso had let go of any plans once connected to a work called “The Studio” and moved on to something else. He held a press conference and said, “in the picture I am now working on and that I will call Guernica, and in all my recent work, I clearly express my loathing for the military caste that has plunged Spain into a sea of suffering and death” (Martin, 3). Martin describes how Picasso worked feverishly day after day culling images from his own personal, and very Spanish, mythology. From May 11th when Picasso put the first paint to canvas, after days of sketching, he was locked into a frenzy of work. “For four weeks, Picasso did little but smoke and paint and occasionally stand back from the canvas to consider what he had wrought. He left the studio in the rue des Grands-Augustins only to eat and sleep, Dora herself his sole assistant during those days, the war in Spain and the destruction of an innocent town his only muse” (94). At the end of June, Picasso delivered the canvas himself to the pavilion. Soon the whole world had to reckon with a new masterpiece.

All of this literary history (and weaving in and out between text and real life, between art and reality) aside, Picasso’s masterpiece is great because it is real; it is very, very real. The work is a response to life and grounded in reality. From that hard ground of specificity it is able to out to the universal (which of course is just back to some grounded, basic, foundations of being human), to speak to all of those ready to listen. He has shot beyond the traps that snared both Frenhofer and Claude Lantier, while creating something at which they both aimed. What they both wanted was to stop imitating nature in their paintings, but to imitate nature itself in the act of true creation. Picasso was a true artist in his dedication, it defined him. Andrea Malraux describes the artist himself, in Picasso’s Mask, as having “a will to create that was all the more fierce because it did battle with Creation itself, and knew it” (31). Malraux also tells us that, “Before the Spanish Civil War, Picasso spoke more to me of Goya than any other painter” (154). And that makes it particularly nice when he cites Picasso as saying, “Museum or no museum, we live with paintings—there’s no doubt! What would Goya say if he saw Guernica? I wonder. I think he would be rather pleased. Don’t you” (135)?

I would answer Picasso: yes, I do think Goya would be pleased. The painting is a wonder to behold. There is no color but black, white, and gray. The horse at center screams out with a tongue like a sword or spear. To the left, a mother, stripped down to the basics of her humanity and maternity, weeps over her dying baby. A severed arm holds a sword. The soldier’s head on the ground doesn’t bleed; we see that he is hollow. Someone with a lamp shouts into the room too late. To the right, simple being with arms raised in despair and agony. Below them a roughed woman drags herself into the situation bare breasts twisted inward at each other. It does not ask who is the enemy, the perpetrator, it simply shouts, “THESE ARE THE VICTIMS!” Goya gave us The Disasters of War, with the masterpiece, The 3rd of May, but he gave us many such masterpieces. Picasso was not normally an outward politic artist, but a masterpiece like Guernica is far from propaganda. Allow us to close with a word from the man himself, which Martin uses to epigraph the book Picasso’s War:

“What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only eyes if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscles? Far, far from it: at the same time, he is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.”

Thank you, Pablo, and happy birthday, you will not be forgotten.


Jordan A. Rothacker is a PhD student in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia.

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