Picasso and Tragedy

Clar05_3916_02T.J. Clark at the LRB:

In the ten years preceding Guernica Picasso had been, to put it baldly, the artist of monstrosity. His paintings had set forth a view of the human as constantly haunted, and maybe defined, by a monstrous, captivating otherness – most markedly, perhaps, in the Punch and Judy show of sex. ‘Au fond, il n’y a que l’amour,’ he said. This was as close, I reckon, as Picasso ever came to a philosophy of life, and by ‘love’ he certainly meant primarily the sexual kind, the carnal, the whole pantomime of desire. In his art monstrosity was capable of attaining to beauty, or monumentality, or a kind of strange pathos. But do any of these inflections lead to Guernica? Are not the monstrous and the tragic two separate things? To paint Guernica, in other words, wasn’t Picasso obliged to change key as an artist and sing a tune he’d never before tried; and more than that, to suppress in himself the fascination with horror that had shaped so much of his previous work? (The belonging together of ecstasy and antipathy, or fixation and bewilderment – elation, absurdity, self-loss, panic, disbelief – is basic to Picasso’s understanding of sex, and therefore of human life au fond. And the very word ‘fascination’ speaks to the normality of the intertwining: its Latin root, fascinus, means simply ‘erect penis’.) But isn’t Guernica great precisely to the extent that it manages, for once, to show us women (and animals) in pain and fear without eliciting that stunned, half-repelled, half-attracted ‘fascination’?

Many have thought so. But the story is more complicated. I doubt that an artist of Picasso’s sort ever raises his or her account of humanity to a higher power simply by purging, or repressing, what had been dangerous or horrible in an earlier vision. There must be a way from monstrosity to tragedy. The one must be capable of being folded into the other, lending it aspects of the previous vision’s power.

more here.