Modern Art and Spirituality: Picasso

In my ever scattered state many vague inklings float around in my head. One idea I’ve tinkered with and have not found the time to explore is creating spaces between spirituality and modern art. By modern art, I mean the art of the 20th and 21st Century. Now, please don’t expect long, profound essays on the artists. I’m just musing, playing if you will, with some ideas. If you’re willing to entertain such clowning, please join me. And if a particular artist is close to your heart, join me by commenting below or writing something yourself. With the preliminaries out of the way, let’s dive in, shall we?
There is no better place to start our journey than an artist who believed himself to be the last great artist. Even when retelling his nativity—yes he retold and embellished his birth—he alluded to being born at the same traditional hour as Jesus. He, however, also claimed to be stillborn. Only when his uncle, Salvador (that’s Savior), blew cigar smoke over him did Picasso come alive and become inspired! The autobiographical mythmaking does not stop there. He drew like Raphael at the tender age of twelve etcetera ad nauseam.

Picasso romanticized his past and felt his passion unfulfilled in his present in equal measure. At heart, Picasso seems an old-school romantic maybe even a troubadour. Longing, dreaming, nostalgic for both the inexistent future and never existent past. Yes, one could ask if Picasso was a destroyer of art. But hey, who tilling the soil to reinvigorate desire has not seen some conceptual casualties. But Picasso’s longing to unite his future and his past were not only conceptual. With a suggesting of Einsteinian relativity, Picasso blurs space and time into space-time using light as a kind of measure of both in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).

Picasso’s nostalgia and longing also shine through in his engagement with art history. He loves and manipulates past artists, and he eschews art history. For him, all artists since van Gogh are autodidacts; none partake in direct historical succession; all are like the premodern tinkerer.

A clear figuring of Picasso’s reimagined premodernity happens with his three transitional Surrealist paintings: The Three Dancers (1925), Crucifixion (1930), and Guernica (1937). Paul Tillich, the German existential theologian-philosopher, adored the much more famous Guernica, but we will focus on the overt themed yet lesser know Crucifixion (Austin, 2005; Manning, 2009). Two comments on Picasso’s Surrealism seem salient here. First, Picasso’s paintings lack perceptional dimensional depth. They echo earlier forms of religious art, notably writing Eastern icons (Barolsky, 2010). Such images act as a screen through which one sees the veiled eternal.

Picasso’s dimensional dearth serves a second function. The flattened painting hosts, in fact, happenings stretched over space-time with light—like an icon Picasso’s Crucifixion distorts time(Kaufmann, 1969). He, however, avoids eternity opting rather for a distorted immanence. The distorted events have Christ crucified at the same time he’s side is pierced while the two thieves are taken down, and the soldiers cast dice for his clothes.

The Virgin Mary’s umbilical cord is still attached to Christ as he dies which makes one wonder for a moment if this isn’t rather a Madonna with the Child (Dillenberger & Handley, 2014). Then there is the strange circular figure on the upper left corner. Is it the vinegar-soaked sponge, the sun covered in shadow, or Sisyphus’ stone, who knows? Now, to be fair, recent Picasso scholarship has moved beyond such overt religious interpretations opting for a multimodal approach. Scholars don’t discount the religious interpretation—it’s obvious Picasso’s Crucifixion stays within the Christian universe. Yet, many scholars now focus on personal or world historic events which may have influenced Picasso(Penrose, 1981). Mullarky, for example, correlates Christ with Picasso, the Virgin with Olga (his wife), and Maria Magdalene with Marie-Thérèse Walter, his very young lover (Mullarky, 2015).

Whatever each interpretation’s merits, a constructive chaos seems most striking in Picasso’s Crucifixion (Miller, 2007). One notices the seeds of a jumbled and stretched world order which comes to fruition in Guernica’s revolutionary chaos. The conceptual space-time continuum is shattered with Christ’s crucifixion (García-Rivera, 2003).

The church has always been stuck between the wonderful chaos let loose on the cross and how to structure this chaos with liturgy and the liturgical year to engender embodiment of the Christ-event. In our time, however, externalized memory overwhelms rituals designed to internalized memory . When such ritual structures erode, memory changes and a particular history decays. We are more blurred and flattened every day like our beloved screens on which light collapses time and space. Maybe Picasso’s Crucifixion is an icon peering into our flat memory-less future.

References

Austin, M. 2005. Explorations in Art, Theology and Imagination. Oakville, CT: Equinox Publishing Ltd.
Barolsky, P. 2010. A Brief History of the Artist from God to Picasso. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Dillenberger, J., D. & Handley, J. 2014. The Religious Art of Pablo Picasso. Berkley, CA.: University of California Press.
García-Rivera, A. 2003. A Wounded Innocence: Sketches for a Theology of Art. Collegeville, MN.: Liturgical Press.
Kaufmann, R. 1969. Picasso’s Crucifixion of 1930. The Burlington Magazine. 111(798):553–561. [Online], Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/876113.
Manning, R., Re. 2009. The Cambridge Companion to Paul Tillich. (Cambridge Companions to Religion). Cambridge, UK; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Miller, C.F.B. 2007. Bataille with Picasso: Crucifixion (1930) and Apocalypse. Papers of Surrealism. (7).
Mullarky, M.B. 2015. Space, Reality, and the Will of the Individual: Picasso’s Crucifixion of 1930. Bowdoin Journal of Art.
Penrose, S., Roland. 1981. Picasso, His Life and Work. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Author Details

Calvyn du Toit

Calvyn C. du Toit is a PhD-candidate in Christian Spirituality at the University of South Africa (UNISA), and a Research Associated in the Department of Christian Dogmatics and Ethics at the University of Pretoria. He lives in New York City, where he is h(o)us(e)band to Christine, and 6PM Music Director at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal).

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