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Meyer Schapiro’s UNITY OF PICASSO

When Isaiah Berlin died, the effusive eulogies unanimously agreed that he was one of the greatest conversationalists since Diderot; indeed, even to listen to Berlin lecture on a scratchy tape is to hear not just an erudite scholar, but a restless, ranging mind in intimate and inexhaustible conversation with a living tradition. Meyer Schapiro was a friend and contemporary of Isaiah Berlin, and not coincidentally Schapiro shares with Berlin a combination of uncompromisingly skeptical rigor, deep humility in the face of great minds and artists, and a searching intellectual generosity and humanity that has always been rare and is even more so these days.

The three exemplary lectures collected in The Unity of Picasso’s Art—discreetly edited by the author’s wife, Dr. Lillian Milgram Schapiro, to reflect the open, extemporaneous rhythms of Schapiro’s public speech—amply exhibit his capacity to illuminate the human and formal necessities internal to works of art, as they emerge in the complex fray of an historical moment, and as they affect the mind and eye of the contemporary beholder. Unlike Roger Fry, whose precision of language and refined formal discernment Schapiro admired early on, and unlike Clement Greenberg, Schapiro was not a critic, not a polemical arbiter of taste. Nor was he an aesthetic connoisseur of the Bernard Berenson type, viewing art as existing in a rarefied, transcendent air, apart from the messiness of human desire, emotion, and strife. Rather, Schapiro was a great historian of the human activity we call “art,” as it arose in a distinctive form in the Romanesque sculptures and illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, and as it continued as a coherent, transforming tradition in the modernist work of Cézanne, Seurat, Picasso, Mondrian, and the abstract artists of the 1950s. Schapiro was also a powerful, original, and highly personal perceiver of works of art. In sensibility and concern, The Unity of Picasso’s Art is continuous with his brilliant early scholarly essays, like “On the Aesthetic Attitude in Romanesque Art.”

The subject of the title essay might seem paradoxical given Picasso’s mythic status as the radical, creative force par excellence in 20th century art: it implies that the astonishing diversity of materials and styles that Picasso employed over the course of his long career form a meaningful aesthetic unity, the myriad aspects of which unfold as part of a larger imaginative project. To be sure, this interpretation has never been regarded as obvious. As early as 1901, poet and critic Félicien Fagus observed that in Picasso “many likely influences can be distinguished—Delacroix, Manet…Monet, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Forain, Rops… Each one a passing phase, taking flight as soon as caught… Picasso’s passionate surge forward has not yet left him the leisure to forge a personal style.” More recently, in her book The Picasso Papers, Rosalind Krauss argues that, after the great collages of 1914 (e.g. “Pipe and Sheet Music,” and “Pipe and Wineglass”), Picasso retreated into mechanical, virtuosic pastiche and Cubist self-parody as an anxious reaction to the emergence of avant-garde (Picabia in his Dada period, Duchamp, Marinetti and the Italian Futurists, Russian Constructivism), which, influenced by Cubist technique, rejected the traditional concept of the artist. Unlike Krauss, a devoted student of French post-structuralism and an obsessed foe of Clement Greenberg’s ideas, Schapiro does not approach the eclectic discontinuities of Picasso’s art from the closed point of view of a philosophy of modernism. Instead, he begins by asking questions about the differing characteristics of Picasso’s works and career:

What sort of sense has this passage? Does the artist expand his world? Does he make discoveries? Does he enrich your sense of being and the possibility of his art through that succession? In other words, does the course or career of the successive styles and even the occasion of working in several styles at the same time introduce an element of enrichment, of value, or do these fail to emerge from the succession? And finally can we ask, how does the career as a whole, as observed through the variety of works and the unfolding of certain characteristics, speak to us as human beings who share with the artist within our own culture certain broad aims with reference to self-development and to our self-realization as human beings?

Note that these are not abstract questions about “style” or “modernism,” nor do they indulge in the grotesque cult of the “creative personality” that still surrounds Picasso. They are instead personal questions, addressed to Picasso and to the contemporary beholder of Picasso’s art, about the inventiveness, freedom, depth, and value of his work. These are questions that cut to the purpose of making and looking at works of visual art in the first place.

Picasso was a precocious draftsman and a compulsive imitator of the late 19th-century modernists enumerated by Fagus, and also of canonical masters like Raphael, Velazquez, Poussin, and Goya. Picasso’s work, according to Schapiro, took on an increasing independence and willful, almost arrogant purpose in 1905 and 1906, with the misnamed “pink period” and then the immeasurable impact of the Cézanne memorial retrospective in Paris. In contrast to earlier self-pitying fantasies of impoverished bohemian life, paintings like “Acrobat on a Ball” (1905) and “Boy Leading a Horse” (1906) are boldly frontal and muscular, their dry, earthy pink and gray palette drawing attention to themselves as the rudimentary building materials—mud, crushed stone—which the artist manipulates and transforms. In “Self-Portrait with Palette” (1906), following Cézanne’s 1887 painting of the same name, the palette is rough and bleached, the surface flat and heavy, the line simplified and fierce, intimating the savage freedoms of Fauvist works like “Nude with Raised Arms” (1907) and “Demoisselles D’Avignon” (1907). Whereas Cézanne gives depth and resonance to the canvas’s flat surface through subtle, layered contrasts of color and rhythmic modeling, Picasso is “trying to recover the elemental conditions of things within our space and especially their tangibility, their tactility” by pressing the physicality and process of art to the surface of the picture, and at once violently reducing and freeing the vocabulary of representation. Matisse’s Fauvist painting has a gorgeous, elegant lyrical design; Picasso, in 1907, almost insists on a foundational ugliness, and builds through deconstruction.

The Cubism which begins with marvelous landscapes and figures like “Houses on the Hill, Horta de Ebro” (1909), “Seated Woman” (1909), and “Woman with Pears” (1909), and evolves into the dense, superimposed planes and intractable indeterminacies, the deceptive shading and sourceless glimmers of light of the so-called high analytic phase, issues from Picasso’s concern with material and process, the explicit reconstruction of the basic elements of visual representation, and the liberation of composition from the strictures of classical illusionistic painting. “That type of free composition with a new approach to continuity and discontinuity,” Schapiro writes, “is inspired by the conviction that painting is a process of forming lines and strokes in a free manner so that they have a high degree of orderliness through correspondence of tones, of balances, of directions, but also a high appearance of openness, randomness, a continual changing and shuffling of forms.” Yet it is important to keep in mind, as T.J. Clark does in his brilliant chapter on Cubism in Farewell to an Idea, that Picasso, unlike Mondrian and Malevich, never gave up painting the portraits, bathers, pitchers, and violins which form the common currency of painting—and especially French painting—from Poussin to Chardin, from Ingres to Manet. Picasso does not so much reject Renaissance point-line perspective and illusion as insist that the picture plane remain literal and close to the artist’s hand, blurring the boundaries between the real and the imaginary. Central, near-abstract Cubist works like “Woman with a Zither (“Ma Jolie”) (1911-12) and “The Architect’s Table” (1912) should be understood as anchored both by things and by the history of painting; Picasso’s often iconoclastic freedom is always asserted against and within tradition. Schapiro explains the introduction of “real” things in the Cubist collages—pieces of newspaper, lengths of rope—as part of Picasso’s effort to “recover the elemental conditions of the presence of things within space,” for now “something of the ambiguity of the painting appears in the frame, which is a real object and belongs to the world as much as to the painting.” Having decomposed the world into basic elements, Picasso sought to recuperate it. Schapiro’s Picasso is enclosed in the solipsism of an obliterating imagination, and yet full of an impossible longing for things as things.

Since its inception, Cubism’s reduction of pictorial elements to fragmented planes has periodically been interpreted as reflecting changes in the conception of space brought about by Einstein’s theory of relativity and the non-Euclidean geometry of Minkowski and Rieman; indeed, Einstein was repeatedly called upon to comment on the supposed relationship between relativity and Cubism. In “Einstein and Cubism: Science and Art,” Schapiro patiently and devastatingly refutes the idea that there is any relationship between Cubism and the math and physics of relativity theory, based as it is on a misreading of Cubism and an embarrassing ignorance of physics; in the process, he both clarifies his views of Cubism and its relationship to Italian Futurism and Russian Constructivism, and also provides a far-reaching historical meditation on the relationship between science and art.

The idea proposed in the first book on Cubism written by artist-authors Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, developed by the influential art historian Sigfried Giedeon, and subscribed to in passing by Irwin Panofsky, is that Cubism’s fragmented planes implicitly reject the absolute, unified, Newtonian space of Renaissance point-line perspective, relativizing the representation of an object or figure in space to a revolving sequence of points of view and thereby incorporating the “fourth dimension” of time into the picture. Never mind that in interviews both Picasso and Braque insisted that their decisions were irreducibly aesthetic, uninfluenced by scientific progress, and that as of 1908 neither of them had access to popular lectures or books on relativity theory. Einstein’s theory of relativity only applies meaningfully to phenomena at great distances and speeds, not to mandolins and pears juxtaposed on sharply tilting tables, and the rigorous mathematical language of physics has no place for subjective concepts like “point of view.” Duchamp, during the years before he gave up painting, and Italian Futurist painters like Balla, were frustrated by Cubism’s static formality and its reliance on traditional genres, and, influenced by photography and cinema, they used Cubist language to depict violent motion: brides descending staircases, dogs running, speeding trucks, and spinning machines. Still, the notion of time at work here, Schapiro points out, is not that of Einstein or Minkowski, but is the subjective “durée” of Bergson and Husserl’s phenomenology of time; Balla was no more interested in theoretical physics than Picasso, but he did consider the impact of technology on experience. Rather than inventing a new concept of space, Cubism pressed to the limit tensions between matter, freedom of construction, and illusionistic representation in ways already begun in Rubens and Chardin. It may be Cubism’s traditionalism that gave it such power over subsequent painters like Gorky, de Kooning, and Pollock.

In “Guernica: Sources, Changes,” Schapiro provides a meticulous account of the sources and evolution of Picasso’s passionate allegory (and perhaps the most documented painting in history), and also develops in detail ideas regarding Picasso’s tradition to neoclassicism and synthetic cubism begun in “The Unity of Picasso’s Art.” Both “Three Women at the Spring” (1921) and “Mother and Child” (1921) have the dry, earthy tones of Picasso’s pre-Cubist painting, but now the figures are built out of heavy, sculptural volumes, so that they seem less like figures than crushing, somehow melancholic monuments. Schapiro suggests that this return to groups of figures that are reminiscent of Poussin and Ingres expresses a need, in the physical and spiritual ruins of Europe, to recuperate the human world from the stifling, manipulative powers of the imagination, and also to return to the stable, normative types of European painting that Picasso had helped undermine. Nonetheless, Picasso’s neo-Classical peasants, saturated with memories of rural Spain, seem fitted together by force, like strange, almost monstrous commemorations of lost pastoral innocence. The most startling development, however, comes with the lush, distorted, and violent paintings like “The Ram’s Head” (1925) and the surrealist-influenced “Seated Bather” (1930). The surrealist paintings of Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy sought to render visible the fluid, associative processes of dream logic, the troubled, erotic phantasms of the unconscious.

The difficulty that this strain of surrealist painting runs into is that it often becomes the mere illustration of psychoanalytic icons. With its chalky blues and greens, what “Seated Bather” does is combine the constructed quality of Cubist and neo-Classical painting and deform them from inside until the figure becomes grotesque and threatening, a magnified insect on a Mediterranean beach. While Fauvist paintings savage line and Cubism’s shuffled and fragmented forms remained external, the shapes in “The Ram’s Head” seem to have been exploded from within, turned inside out. In both of these paintings, Picasso transmutes the terrible, destructive logic of the unconscious into the realm of matter, of mud, sunlight, flesh, and nerve; in comparison, Surrealist painting is clean and polite. Schapiro suggests that here Picasso is no longer attempting to represent bodies from the outside, but to make visible the inner, somatic experience of bodies, especially suffering bodies, bodies torn apart by pain. Schapiro’s insight is deep and important. In the great studies that followed “Guernica,” like “Horse in Agony” (1937), “Weeping Woman” (1937), and “Woman with a Cockerel” (1938), the biomorphic lines and deranged features do not feel like they have been manipulated by the artist’s free, sovereign hand, but like they have been ravaged by an inner force, with the boundary between the inner and outer dissolved. If Picasso’s early work suffers from being cool, these drawings have a tragic, visceral, emotional intensity. This might also be said of the heart-breaking self-portraits Picasso painted in his nineties.

It is fitting that Meyer Schapiro’s reconstruction of Picasso’s imaginative career should end here, at a moment when Picasso’s work is emotionally exposed, when he appears to have let go of his pride and vanity, for I sense that Schapiro conceived of making and beholding visual art as a profoundly moral enterprise. But Meyer Schapiro was not a moralist in the pious, reductive sense, like many Leftists in his milieu in the 1930s, or for that matter, the more recently “politically correct” artists and critics; he simply thought that art is significant, that it is capable of producing experiences that sharpen our perceptions, deepen and complicate our emotions and thoughts, that it is connected to our “self-development and self-realization as human beings.” Meyer Schapiro was also a talented amateur draftsman and painter, a fact attested to in the recent volume of reproductions of his drawings, etchings, and paintings. At Columbia University, Schapiro painted landscapes of Central Park that show the influence of both Cézanne and the landscape work of Stuart Davis. He scribbled biting, ironic cartoons of Institute for Social Research (now the New School) colleagues Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer listening to a broadcast of a Hitler speech. He painted his summer house in Vermont in a thickly impastoed style that suggests Van Gogh and post-Impressionism; he painted abstractions indebted to Arshile Gorky, Adolf Gottlieb, and Mark Rothko; and in his numerous portraits of his wife, Lillian, his sense of line is confident, elegant, and just free enough to suggest the guiding presence of the 20th century masters. Part of what I have referred to as Meyer Schapiro being a moralist has to do not just with the precision of his observations, or his insistence on honesty and clarity (“Einstein and Cubism” is a good example of this), but with the sense of the purposes and stakes of making and looking at works of art, and this sense, I think, was honed by his lifelong habit of painting and drawing. These qualities place Meyer Schapiro in the distinguished company of writers on art like John Ruskin and Roger Fry, and it may also be one of the reasons Schapiro could move so effortlessly between the medieval and the modern, always giving the reader the sense that these works of art are part of a huge, deep, ongoing human project.

Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996) was University Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, where he was a student and teacher for over 50 years. He is one of art history’s most accomplished scholars in the fields of early Christian, medieval, and modern art, and the theory of art. Among the many honors accorded him were the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard University (1966) and the Slate Professorship for Art History at Oxford University (1968). His previous publications include five volumes of selected papers, including Modern Art (Vol. II), which was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award (1978) and the Mitchell Prize for Art History (1979). The Unity of Picasso’s Art is Professor Schapiro’s fourth posthumous publication.

Also available by Meyer Schapiro

Impressionism: Reflections and Perceptions of Romanesque Art (Selected Papers, Vol. I)

Modern Art (Selected Papers, Vol. II)

Late Antique, Early Christian, and Medieval Art (Selected Papers, Vol. III)

Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society (Selected Papers, Vol. IV)

Worldview in Painting—Art and Society (Selected Papers, Vol. V)

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Daniel Baird


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