In the climate of startling kaleidoscopic change through the work of Picasso there are however certain obsessive themes that recur throughout. . . . [One] theme[,] which has been largely ignored owing to the accepted belief that Picasso was a revolutionary and an atheist who was intent on a revaluation of conventional standards, [is that of] a man who saw with new vision the time-honored myths of religion. This theme, which from the evidence of his drawings must have moved him deeply from early youth to old age, was the crucifixion, being both a violent, unspeakable crime and the traditional act of renewal of life.
Timothy Hilton, Picasso's Picassos
In the first three decades of the twentieth century, Pablo Picasso's output was enormous; in sheer volume-that is, in square yards of canvas, in pounds of metal and wood and clay and sculpture, in stacks of lithographic stones and copper etching plates-if all the artist's work were gathered together, it would be a massive physical assemblage. And even today, new discoveries continue to surface. One unique painting that has received little attention is a small surrealist work, The Crucifixion, painted by Picasso in 1930, when the artist was forty-nine years old. Brilliant in color, crowded in composition, filled with strange images and distorted forms, it communicates its subject matter in the most cryptic of terms.
This subject matter appears unexpectedly within the work of the artist, whose drawings and paintings up to that time had been concerned with persons, places, and things taken from the everyday world about him. Gertrude Stein, Picasso's friend and early patron, wrote, "Picasso knows, really knows the faces, the heads, the bodies of human beings, he knows them as they have existed since the existence of the human race, the soul of people does not interest him, why interest one's self in the souls of people when the face, the head, the body can tell everything, why use words when one can express everything by drawings and colors."1 But she noted-indeed, she deplored-a recent shift in the artist's attention: "During this last period, from 1927 to 1935, the souls of people commenced to dominate his vision, a vision which was as old as the creation of people, lost itself in interpretation. He who could see did not need interpretation and in these years, 1927 to 1935, for the first time, the interpretations destroyed his own vision so that he made forms not seen but conceived."2
It was during this same period that The Crucifixion was completed and a series of studies on this theme, relating to this painting and to the great sixteenth-century Isenheim altarpiece of the Crucifixion by Mathias Grünewald (1515; now at the Musée d'Unterlinden, Colmar), was executed.
André Malraux recounts a conversation he had with Picasso about Bernadette Soubirous, the young shepherd girl of Lourdes, France. As is now well known, the Virgin Mary had appeared to her eighteen times when she was a young girl. Bernadette eventually entered the convent of the Sisters of Charity at Nevers. During her years there, individuals from all over the world sent her images and small statues of the Virgin, but "she chucked them into a closet."
The Mother Superior, dumbfounded: "My daughter, how can you put the Holy Virgin into a closet?" "Because it's not her, Mother!" Re-dumfounded. "Ah? . . . And what does she look like?" "I can't explain it to you . . ." The Mother Superior wrote to the Bishop, who came to the convent with large albums containing all the well-known images of the Virgin-those from the Vatican. He showed her Raphael, Murillo, and so on. . . . She shook her head, no. As they flipped through the pages at random they came upon the Cambrai Virgin, an icon. Bernadette rose, her eyes popping out of her head, then fell to her knees: "That's her, my Lord Bishop!"
As I [Malraux] said, the Cambrai Virgin is an icon. Considerably touched up and adorned with a number of indistinct cherubs; but it has no movement and no depth-no illusionism. Merely the sacred. And Bernadette had never before seen an icon.3
Malraux and Picasso talked about how funny it was that a simple, uneducated girl could possibly have recognized the face of a familiar person in a painting that lacked depth, movement, and realistic illusion: "But come to think of it, how amazing too that the Byzantines ever invented her!"4 Of course, what this story illustrates is exactly what Stein reiterates about Picasso, that "what he could see, did not need interpretation," that "the interpretations destroyed his own vision so that he made forms not seen but conceived" (emphasis added). The Byzantines understood this, Bernadette realized this, and Picasso captured this same spirit in his work when the souls of people dominated his vision.
Before attempting to decode Picasso's Crucifixion, let us first explore the artist's earlier phases and discover what Stein mentions: the faces, the heads, the bodies the artist knew as they had "existed since the existence of the human race." With this as a background, we can return to this religious painting and to the vision Stein describes as dominated by the souls of people, of "forms not seen but conceived."
Picasso moved to Paris from Spain, having already had an exhibition of his paintings in his home city of Barcelona when he was only sixteen, and having won a prize with a painting exhibited in Madrid two years later. His father was an art instructor at the Barcelona Academy and had encouraged and directed his precocious son in his budding art career. Barcelona at that time was a cultural center filled with Parisian artists and writers, and Picasso's friends encouraged him to make the move to Paris. Within a few days of his nineteenth birthday, he arrived in Paris and moved into a dilapidated house nicknamed the Bateau-Lavoir, which housed many literary and artistic persons. It was here that he met Fernande Olivier, a French woman of great beauty and some culture, with whom he would live from 1903 to 1912. Olivier describes her first impression of the artist in her volume Picasso and His Friends: "Picasso was small, dark, thick-set, worried and worrying, with gloomy, deep, penetrating eyes, which were curiously still. His gestures were awkward, he had the hands of a woman and was badly dressed and untidy. A thick lock of shiny black hair gashed his intelligent, stubborn forehead. His clothes were half-bohemian, half-workman, and his excessively long hair swept the collar of his tired jacket."5 (See the frontis, a self-portrait, in the present volume.) She continued: "I was astonished by Picasso's work . . . astonished and fascinated. The morbid side of it perturbed me somewhat, but it delighted me too. This was the end of the Blue Period. Huge, unfinished canvases stood all over the studios, and everything there suggested work: but, my God, in what chaos!"6
Fernande was especially intrigued by the combination of intellectuality and human emotion she discerned in Picasso's paintings of this period. She writes of one painting that particularly struck her, depicting a gaunt and haggard man whose expression "told of his hopeless resignation. The effect was strange, tender and infinitely sad, suggesting total hopelessness, an agonized appeal to the compassion of mankind. What was at the bottom of this kind of painting? Was the work completely intellectual in conception, as I've come to understand it since, or did it reveal a deep and despairing love of humanity, as I thought then?"7
The painting Fernande describes is not The Old Guitarist (Fig. 1), but her words, even her query, apply to the emaciated figure who bends with an exaggerated pathos over his instrument in the familiar painting. It was this work that inspired the poet Wallace Stevens to write his long poem "The Man with the Blue Guitar." The poem begins:
The man bent over his guitar,
A Shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."
The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."
And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."8
The poem continues, exploring the relationship between art and life, the poet and his readers, dream and reality.
The somber and pathetic subjects who people the paintings of Picasso's Blue Period gave way to studies of circus performers and actors. The pervasive blue tones were abandoned for a lighter, rosier palette. Two years after painting The Old Guitarist, Picasso painted the Family of Acrobats, or Family of Saltimbanques, in 1905 (Fig. 2). In this large canvas he assembled a number of circus characters who had appeared in his earlier works. The young harlequin, the somber and fat clown, the leggy adolescent tumbler, and two children make up a group physically near one another but psychically distant, each self-absorbed-dreaming his or her own individual dreams, as does the charming woman seated at the right who looks out of the picture zone toward the viewer with an unfocused, inward gaze.
For years this painting hung in a private home in Munich where the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who knew Picasso, lived during the summer of 1915. Grasped by the haunting poetry of the painting, Rilke composed the fifth of his Duino Elegies while, according to his own words, "beside the great Picasso." It begins:
But tell me, who are they, these acrobats, even a little
more fleeting than we ourselves,-so urgently, even since childhood,
wrung by an (oh, for the sake of whom?) never-contented will? That keeps on wringing them,
bending them, slinging them, swinging them, throwing them, and catching them back-9
A year after painting Family of Acrobats, Picasso began a portrait of Gertrude Stein. We have Stein's own account of this in her Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas: "Just how [the portrait of Gertrude Stein] came about is a little vague in everybody's mind. I have heard Picasso and Gertrude Stein talk about it often and they neither of them can remember. . . . Picasso had never had anybody pose for him since he was sixteen years old, he was then twenty-four and Gertrude Stein had never thought of having her portrait painted, and they do not either of them know how it came about. Anyway it did and she posed to him for this portrait ninety times and a great deal happened during that time."10
Throughout the Autobiography, we get numerous references, with great affection and humor, to Picasso.11 Following a detailed description of the initial sitting for the portrait, Stein wrote, "Finally spring was coming and sittings were coming to an end. All of a sudden one day Picasso painted out the whole head. 'I can't see you any longer when I look,' he said irritably. And so the picture was left like that. Gertrude and Alice B. went off to Italy and while they were gone Picasso painted the face in again. On her return Gertrude was pleased, but everybody else said that she did not look like that. 'But,' Picasso said, 'that does not make any difference, she will.' And she did."12
During the time that the portrait of Gertrude Stein was in progress, Picasso was also concentrating his creative energies on an extraordinary painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (Fig. 3), which sums up the many pictorial inventions of the previous, very productive year. Although it was publicly exhibited in Europe only once, and rarely reproduced, it was seen by other artists in Picasso's studio, having an influence way beyond what can be explained by these limited viewings. Now, so many years later, its power and influence are undiminished. When Stein saw it for the first time, she described it as "rather frightening."13
Picasso's own recollections about the painting were recorded by his friend Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler as they chatted in 1933 about those early days in Paris, when cubism as a style was born and Kahnweiler eagerly espoused the cause and became the dealer for Picasso and Derain and Braque. "According to my first idea, there were also going to be men in the painting-I have drawings for them, too. There was a student holding a skull, and a sailor. The women were eating-that explains the basket of fruit that is still in the painting. Then it changed and became what it is now."14
Thus the painting that was intended originally as an allegory of the wages of sin changed. The sailor and the flowers were taken out, leaving behind some fruit and what Alfred Barr has called "five of the least seductive nudes in the history of art." Picasso had on occasion spoken of the way a work of art changes during its creation: "A picture is not thought out and settled beforehand. While it is being done it changes as one's thoughts change. And when it is finished, it still goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it. A picture lives a life like a living creature, undergoing the changes imposed on us by our life from day to day. This is natural enough, as the picture lives only through the man who is looking at it."15
Cubism radically changed the way we see the visible world. In her small book on Picasso, Gertrude notes three reasons cubism came to be: "First the composition, because the way of living had changed the composition of living had extended, and each thing was as important as any other thing. Secondly, the faith in what the eyes were seeing, that is to say the belief in reality of science commenced to diminish. To be sure science had discovered many things, she would continue to discover things, but the principle which was the basis of all this was completely understood, the joy of discovery was almost over. Thirdly, the framing of life, the need that a picture exist in its frame, remain in its frame was over. A picture remaining in its frame was a thing that always had existed and now pictures commenced to want to leave their frames and this also created the necessity for cubism. The time had come and the man."16
The later refinement of Cubism is seen in Picasso's Portrait of D. H. Kahnweiler. Picasso, reflecting on this phase of Cubism, told Françoise Gilot:
In those polyhedric portraits I did in tones of white and gray and ochre, beginning around 1909, there were references to natural forms, but in the early stages there were practically none. I painted them in afterwards. I call them attributes. . . . It was really pure painting, and the composition was done as a composition. It was only afterwards that I brought in attributes. . . . You know my Cubist portrait of Kahnweiler[;] . . . in its original form it looked to me as though it were about to go up in smoke. But when I paint smoke, I want you to be able to drive a nail into it. So I added the attributes-a suggestion of eyes, the wave of the hair, an ear lobe, the clasped hands. It's like giving a long and difficult explanation to a child: you add certain details that he understands immediately in order to sustain his interest and buoy it up for the difficult parts.17
Picasso added to this an interesting comment, showing a recognition of the problem of communication his art presents the viewer: "As Hegel says, they can know only what they already know. So how do you go about teaching them something new? By mixing what they know with what they don't know. Then, when they see vaguely in their fog something they recognize, they think, 'Ah, I know that.' And then it's just one more step to, 'Ah, I know the whole thing.' And their mind thrusts forward into the unknown and they begin to recognize what they didn't know before and they increase their powers of understanding."18
In 1920 there was another shift in style, and the fragmented, flattened forms of cubism gave way to the ponderous volumes of female figures in the large painting Two Seated Women. In their colossal figures, their stylized features, and the columnar folds of their garments, Picasso is referencing early classical sculpture. The gravity of the mood, the massive forms, and their passivity and ponderousness contrast strikingly with the dynamism of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon or the poetic, haunting charm of Acrobats. But in this neoclassic painting, Picasso returns again to "the faces, the heads, the bodies . . . as they have existed since the existence of the human race," to use Stein's words again.
A violent change of mood is found in The Three Dancers, painted only two years later, in 1925 (Fig. 4). But between the lyrical naturalism of some of the paintings of this period and the convulsive dynamism of The Three Dancers, an event of importance to the artists and writers of western Europe occurred.
In 1924 André Breton's Manifesto of Surrealism gave formal definition to a movement that had grown out of the post-World-War-I Dada movement. "I believe," Breton proclaimed, "in the future resolution of the states of dream and reality, in appearance so contradictory, in a sort of absolute reality, of Surreality, if I may so call it."19 Breton defined surreality as "psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express-verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner-the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern."20 To this he added: "Encyclopedia. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principle problems of life."21
But in another sense, to fall asleep is to dream. The dream was the great primal source of subject matter for the surrealists. The surrealists had greatly admired the work of Sigmund Freud. In his Interpretation of Dreams, Freud delineated more than simply how to interpret dreams, outlining a whole philosophy behind the theory of creativity. Freud recognized that if one were able to suppress the critical faculty that governs our thoughts and actions (the state that dreams take place in), then "innumerable ideas" would flow through the conscious mind that otherwise would be missed. "You critics, or whatever else you may call yourselves," he said, "are ashamed or frightened of the momentary and transient extravagances which are to be found in all truly creative minds and whose longer or shorter duration distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. You complain of your unfruitfulness because you reject too soon and discriminate too severely."22 A major aspect of Picasso's genius seems to be that he was able early on to free himself of any such constraint.
The Three Dancers confronts us with a vision striking in its physical and emotional violence. Seen objectively as representations of nature, cubist paintings such as the Three Musicians of 1921 are grotesque enough, but their distortions are comparatively objective and formal; while on the contrary, the frightful, grinning mask and convulsive action of the left-hand figure of the Three Dancers cannot be resolved into an exercise in esthetic relationships, magnificent as the canvas is from a purely formal point of view. The metamorphic Three Dancers is, as Alfred Barr remarked, a turning point in Picasso's art almost as radical as was the protocubist Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. "The dynamism of the left-hand dancer foreshadows new periods of his art in which psychologically disturbing energies reinforce, or adulterate, depending on one's point of view, Picasso's ever changing achievements in the realm of form."23
For the surrealists, art was a means of self-expression, an instrument of self-discovery, not an end to be savored. Whether or not a work of art was surrealist hinged on the methodological and iconographic relevance of the picture to the main ideas of the movement-that is, automatism and dream image. Automatism, such as in works by Miró and Masson, was the draftsmanly counterpart to free verbal expression in which improvisational shapes, biomorphic in form, were used, these being both ambiguous and suggestive of much, but identifying nothing.24
The Three Dancers may also contain an underlying religious theme, as some historians have noted the crosslike posture of the central dancer. The painting was purchased directly from Picasso by the Tate Gallery, London, in 1965. Soon after, Ronald Alley, Keeper of the Modern Collection, began to investigate the work for a series of lectures. His research focused on an event that left a deep impression on Picasso for the rest of his life-the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas.
One of Picasso's lovers, Françoise Gilot, told the story of how, in 1944, Picasso took her to visit an old friend, Germaine Pichot. She had at one time been quite beautiful but now was bedridden and "toothless." "After talking quietly with the old woman for a few minutes, Picasso laid some money on her table and they went out again. Picasso explained . . . that when Germaine was young, 'she was very pretty and she made a painter friend of mine suffer so much that he committed suicide.'"25 In her day, Germaine had been known for her many lovers, even after her marriage.
Gertrude Stein described Germaine Pichot as quiet, serious, and Spanish:
She was married to a spanish painter Pichot, who was rather a wonderful creature, he was long and thin like one of those primitive Christs in spanish churches and when he did a spanish dance which he did later at the famous banquet to Rousseau, he was awe inspiringly religious.
Germaine, so Fernande said, was the heroine of many a strange story. . . . She had many sisters . . . and . . . had been born and bred in Montmartre.26
Picasso painted The Three Dancers in 1925, most likely after a stay in Monte Carlo, where he made numerous studies of dancers at the ballet. Alley reports that, years later, Picasso mentioned to Sir Roland Penrose that while he had been working on the painting, his old friend Ramon Pichot had died, and that he had "always felt that it should be called The Death of Pichot rather than The Three Dancers.27 Alley notes that in the painting the dancer on the left is female, is almost completely naked, and dances with a "much more frenzied action than either of the others."28 He also notes that the dark "shadowy profile on the right of the picture has some resemblance to [Pichot]."29 Through his lengthy analysis, Alley concludes that the figure on the left is Germaine, "with her aggressive sexuality and her double head, one aspect gentle and the other demonic," and the figure on the right is Pichot, and that the figure at center is Casagemas, "the figure's pallor and frailty" suggesting "suffering and vulnerability, perhaps even death."30 If this analysis seems a stretch, the discussion of Casagemas in chapter 2, and especially the painting Christ of Montmartre (Le suicide), indicates otherwise.
Right after its completion, André Breton featured The Three Dancers in La Révolution Surréaliste, in July 1925.
After this brief survey of earlier stages of development of Picasso's art, we turn now to a study of the painting The Crucifixion of 1930 (Fig. 5). This study, or seeing of the painting, relates to the theme of this volume as an example of an investigation into religiously significant images in contemporary art.
Within the early "heroic" years of surrealism, Picasso created his first known (i.e., published) Crucifixion composition, in 1927.31 It is a drawing that bears the evidence of numerous revisions of form. Here we see the surrealist's curving line that arbitrarily swells, defining a monstrous arm and a hand like a catcher's mitt, and that diminishes to indicate a mere round protuberance for a head. Though the line itself ebbs and flows with only minor changes in width or rhythmic speed, it has the magical property of suggesting a three-dimensional form, as if the drawing were for a bas relief.
The iconography-the reading of the images-begins with Christ. His small head encircled by a crown of thorns and set in an egg-shaped halo is in the center of the upper part of the composition. His bulbous arms stretch the length and breadth of a wide crossbeam, the hand at our right turned palm up, a large nail at its center. At the left, an enormous hand grasps a diagonal ladder, and a swollen foot is tilted forward below it. Several figures merge into each other at the left side of the corpus, and at the right a horseman with a two-pronged lance in one hand is about to plunge it into the side of Christ while holding a shield in the other hand.
This figure, referred to in John's Gospel simply as "one of the soldiers [who] pierced his side with a spear,"32 long ago was given the name Longinus. The name is obviously derived from the Greek word for spear or lance, and so the spearman is called in the Acts of Pilate (from the pseudo-Gospel of Nicodemus) and named in early manuscripts (such as the sixth-century Rossano Gospels). One of the curious conflations of Christian iconography is the later interpretation that the soldier who pierced the side of Jesus was one and the same as the centurion who was converted after the death of Jesus and exclaimed, "Truly this was the Son of God."33 Trecento paintings most often represent Longinus, as Picasso did here, firmly astride a horse and among those gathered at the foot of the cross.34 We shall see that in Picasso's later (1929) drawings the horse and Longinus are both present, but in those drawings Longinus is no longer astride the beast. In the 1930 Crucifixion, he returns to his mount, his lance in his hand.
By studying the 1927 and 1929 drawings together we are able to see that the first undulant line at left is the contour for the arm and hand of a man who is much larger in scale than any other persons or objects. We suddenly sense him to be very near us, his armpit visible, but the palm is turned away from us as he grasps the ladder and turns his head with open mouth to the nightmarish scene, in which we see legs of the crucified and the Magdalene, her face bent back to her buttocks.
Some of the female faces are seen Picasso-wise-that is, simultaneously full face and in profile; others, Janus-like, are at the right of the legs of the crucified. Longinus appears wearing a Greek helmet and carrying a shield and lance. In the 1927 drawing the lance is thrust vertically in front of him, while in the drawing of June 8, 1929 (Fig. 6), it seems to be held at his side and has become the staff that holds a flag-a flag that has a double profile upon it, a white classical head with mouth open, whose profile creates a complimentary interlocking negroid profile. Just below this image on the flag we find a similar double profile, dark and light. A reminiscence of Grünewald's Magdalene, with her interlacing fingers, is to be seen in the undulating lines with fingers and fingernails carefully indicated. The drawing of June 8 has two iconographic additions-in the center front a drumlike structure with an upturned top on which we see a single dice and, at the center right, an arm with pointing finger, which certainly is related to Grünewald's John the Baptist's large hand with its insistently pointing finger. Below a crowd of spectators are seen in profile; Longinus's horse, far from bearing his master, munches amiably on a tuft of grass. Both drawings show a slight indication of setting: several Roman arches.
Two days after doing this second drawing, on June 10, 1929, Picasso did another sketch with further transformations and additions (Fig. 7). The great man at the left, holding the ladder, undergoes another metamorphosis, and his profile now can be read both as the boundary line of his lips and chin and as the toes of the foot-a foot that presumably belongs to the crucified figure, who is only partly seen in these drawings. The Magdalene has been even more cruelly transformed, her long phalluslike nose again pressed against her buttocks, the eyes set one over the other, the mouth in profile surrounded by teeth that frame a sharp triangular tongue. The hand with the pointing finger, which has come to look more like a directional sign than like the hand of Grünewald's Saint John, has acquired a head and a suggestion of garments. This profile seems a kind of prophet type, grave of expression with one all-seeing eye, a large nose, and flowing beard. A rather charming, imaginative addition is the filling of the space between the horse's neck and thigh with a woman's head. She seems to peer outward toward us, though one eye is in profile and the other is full face. The inclusion of this face and the turning of the horse's hoof so that we see the horseshoe with its nails are gratuitous additions of Picasso, whose mind was forever in ferment, creating and recreating a strange and fascinating mix of forms taken from traditional iconography, from other masters, and from his own repertoire of created images.
Nine months later, on February 7, 1930, Picasso painted his Crucifixion (see Fig. 5). Not large in size, approximately twenty by twenty-six inches, it was painted on wood; and it is one of a group that the artist never sold, retaining it in his own possession. It has been exhibited a few times in the large surveys of the artist's work, but for most of the decades since its creation, it was in Picasso's own hands.
The painting must have had a special significance for Picasso himself. But what is its meaning to us? With the preparatory drawings in mind, we can find the figure on the cross, with its flat round head and mere dots for features, its paddlelike hands on the crossbeam. A figure resembling an old-fashioned clothespin stands on a ladder hammering a nail through one palm. At the foot of the ladder two crumpled figures are perhaps those of the two thieves, whose tau crosses are seen, very small in size, at the lower left and upper right. In the foreground, a figure wearing a helmet holds across his shoulder the tunic which "was without seam, woven from top to bottom,"35 and watches the throw of the dice by a monstrous creature who is casting lots with him.
Above, at the right, the arms that reach upward with clasped hands surmount a strange triangular flow of garments. From this, or from behind it, emerges a grotesque sculptural monstrosity with beaklike nose and dots for eyes, and jaws with teeth that close vertically rather than horizontally. It suggests a great praying mantis, a strange insect that still inhabits the twentieth-century world but seems to come into it out of a prehuman era. The insect fascinated Picasso. Its form may have inspired Picasso's Seated Bather (Fig. 8). Certainly, both of these paintings were related to The Crucifixion.
Another antecedent painting of Picasso's that may assist us in understanding the development of certain forms is the strange, demonic Nude in an Armchair. Her great yawping mouth, with its teeth like nails in a pincerlike jaw, is the prototype for the strange head that seems about to close its jaws around the wound in the side of the crucified figure just as Longinus-here a tiny figure on his horse-withdraws his spear.
A kind of counterpart to the jaws is found in the wide, crescent-shaped form with two round eyes, directly above Longinus. Is this the moon as Juan Larrea suggests?36 We saw a moon and sun in the 1927 drawing. Are they re-created here? Larrea's suggestion is that the strange masked figure with rays about it at right is the sun. Alfred Barr and Ruth Kaufmann identify this latter figure as the Magdalene, an identification that I think our studies of the drawings support.37 The strange, realistically three-dimensional object levitating in the upper left is usually interpreted as the vinegar-soaked sponge.
Mary the mother may be the figure with the vesicle-shaped face at the right of the cross, with her face in profile, blunt nose and protruding lips. The triangular dark-light zone that encloses both of these faces locks them together in a play of opposites, but the resulting image has an archetypal gravity. It is quite certain, simply from the evidence of the drawings that have been published, that Picasso continued to work on variations.
We know from Picasso's friends and associates that during the heyday of surrealism he did a great deal of writing. His published surrealist play, Desire Caught by the Tail, is one known example, but it is reported that there is much more written material. Gertrude Stein said that he stopped painting during intervals between 1927 and 1935, the period when these Crucifixion compositions were done. She went on to say that since "it was impossible for him to do nothing, he made poetry, but of course it was his own way of falling asleep during the operation of detaching himself from the souls of things."38
But whereas Picasso's contemporaries dreamed of and painted metamorphic subjects from nature, as did Joan Miró in Person in the Presence of Nature, or oedipal desire, as did Salvador Dalí in his Oedipal Complex, Picasso created his most surrealistic painting in this intense, complex, brilliantly colored, puzzling, suggestive painting The Crucifixion.
John Golding concurs, reminding us that during the early years of the surrealist movement, Picasso had also been fascinated with a "new range of primitive sources," with their focus on "metamorphic, erotically charged imagery," and that, most likely, his sleeping nudes begun in 1932 were influenced by his study of primitive sources such as the ancient Venuses of Willendorf-images that would eventually be "transformed into the classical figures of Greece and Rome."
Picasso's Neo-Classicism had to a large extent gone underground during the second half of the 1920s but it had never been totally suppressed and during the 1930s classical values and imagery were once more to assert themselves strongly (if sporadically) in his art. Classical mythology, in a Freudianized form, began to interest Surrealists in the latter stages of the movement, and to this extent Picasso was once again a pioneering figure in its history. . . .
The classicizing not only of the outward forms of Picasso's art but of its imagery and symbolism can be seen most clearly by comparing his Crucifixion of 1930 (Musée Picasso, Paris) to the mythologizing works which succeeded to it and to which it in many respects forms a prelude. The Crucifixion, despite its small scale, was the most complex painting, both formally and iconographically, that Picasso had produced since the Three Dancers on which he had been at work five years earlier.39
And last, we turn to Picasso's drawing The Crucifixion (after Grünewald; Fig. 9), one of a series done in 1932. Picasso's friend Christian Zervos most likely brought the Grünewald masterpiece to his attention. Zervos, an avid collector, was the founder of Cahiers d'Art (1926-1960), published in Paris. In 1936 he produced a special edition on Grünewald's Isenheim altarpiece, featuring stunning black-and-white plates and even a miniature recreation of the altarpiece in which the panels could be opened and closed (Fig. 10). Zervos contends that this wasn't the first time Picasso had seen the altarpiece-Picasso would surely have studied the altarpiece for some time prior to the publication. Utley writes that "Picasso's dialogue with Grünewald started in his 1930 Crucifixion."40 Another historian notes that Picasso had stopped at Colmar to see the altarpiece while on his way to Zurich, but was evidently unprepared for what he would encounter there; he was "bowled over" by the work and soon after began making his own interpretations of Grünewald's masterpiece.41
John Richardson suggests that Picasso focused, as did Grünewald, on the Christ and the two Marys. "He has also followed Grünewald in choosing to depict Christ's passion at the time-from midday until three in the afternoon-when darkness fell over the land, 'a sign that the heavens went into mourning at the death of the Savior.'"42
This unusual work is one of a sequence of surrealist compositions Picasso made from his observations of the altarpiece. And what Picasso gives us is a series of bonelike forms against a lunar landscape, with even a hint of stars in the background. The upright posture of the figures creates the sense of movement, calling to mind the surreal scene described by the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel:
The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" I said, "Sovereign LORD, you alone know." Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones and say to them, 'Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.'" So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone.43
One can imagine the rattling sound as the bones come to life again, only here as a carefully choreographed performance. It is a puzzling work, as are all of the works in this suite, one in which Picasso has resolved his study of the Isenheim altarpiece-both the gruesome aspects of death by crucifixion, and the joyful rebirth of the resurrection-by bringing together, in forms that dance with life, the pieces of bone that make up the composition. There is an undeniable sense of joy with this work as the parts teeter on tiptoe or balance one atop another in a display that defies death and gravity.
The effect that Grünewald had on Picasso is perhaps most apparent in another example, figure 11. Here Picasso has brought the bone forms out of darkness and into the light, assembling them on and around the cross. The effect is quite different. The sense of movement persists and even more so in the background, with its swirling lines. The groupings parallel to some degree the groupings of the bystanders in the altarpiece: the two Marys and Saint John to the left, and the tall Baptist on the right.
This motif is simplified further in one other example, figure 12. Gone is the sense of motion or performance that the previous examples create. Instead, these bone forms appear somber and still. There is no sense of ground and sky, nor any real sense of background or location, a circumstance heightened by the fact that the top of the crucifix runs off the page. There is in this example much more of a cohesive whole, accentuated by the round form at the top, suggestive of a head that possesses arms, a torso, and legs.
Peter Selz has noted that the "rediscovery" of Grünewald's Crucifixion (the title of first panel of the altarpiece) in the late nineteenth century, and scholarship done on it in the early part of the twentieth century, was quickly seized upon by artists working in new modes, like expressionism. These young artists found that Grünewald's use of color and line to convey emotional and spiritual meaning was akin to their own goals:
Grünewald . . . became the ideal of a new generation, which saw in his Isenheim altarpiece a freedom of creation following the intrinsic logic of content and composition rather than nature. Grünewald, it was felt, penetrated to the core of human emotion and created a truth that went far beyond the doubtful truth of reality. Young artists recognized in Grünewald the fervent religious faith for which many of them had been searching. Here was the utmost expression of "artistic purpose." His figures revealed extremely intense emotions of suffering, mother love, piety. His form was the vessel of his emotion, and the mastery of light, color, and line was used only for the expression of inner feeling. Grünewald, like the expressionists, used color to create a rhythmic harmony that was an integral part of his total composition.44>