Picasso Selon Freud
I begin with a drawing of 1906, from Picasso’s Rose Period, the era of circuses and Saltimbanques. It is a bareback rider executed in a superb display of evocative contour. Picasso’s line is capable of delimiting the shape of the figure, all the while broadening and splaying the edges in a subtle indication of the weight of the rider’s limbs on the flank of the horse, a pressure that expands the muscle of the thigh, effortlessly implying pockets of cast shadow underneath the flesh. Where the line sharpens to the finest of threads, the effect is of sunlight corroding the edge and thereby flooding the body to set it aglow. No one could express so much with such economy of description as had Picasso’s exemplar J.A.D. Ingres, in the extraordinarily sketched bodies of his portrait sitters, executed in Rome.
However, in Picasso’s 1915 drawing of Max Jacob, startling in its renunciation of the mastery of 1906; the contours of Jacob’s coat and body are clumsy, thick, and insensitive. One might compare it to another portrait of Max Jacob, also from 1915, where Francis Picabia depicts Picasso’s friend as a flashlight, using a visual conceit that Picabia had coined in the same year under the name “mechanomorphs,” or humans reduced to mass-produced objects—much like readymades—an identification assigned to them by Picabia to act as a kind of ironical portrait. The mechanomorph, whether of Stieglitz as a camera, or Haviland as a desklamp or the American nude as a sparkplug, renders the human being as automaton, with hardened contours to match—more from the hand of an industrial designer than of a great artist.
Picabia had also published a satirical portrait of the critic Max Goth in 1917 in the avant-garde magazine 391 meant to mimic Picasso’s newly classical style. Annexed to Picabia’s spoof called “Picasso Repentant,” the drawing of Max Goth echoes the crude outlines of Picasso’s Max Jacob but pastes a photograph of the sitter’s head where Goth’s face ought to be. Sneering that Picasso has fled Cubism “to return to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts” and paint from the model, Picabia’s commentary notes that “Picasso is henceforth the head of a new school to which our collaborator Francis Picabia has not hesitated for a moment to pledge allegiance. The Kodak published above is its solemn token.” Inserting the photograph into the classical silhouette was tantamount to accusing Picasso’s drawing of having itself become mechanized, photographic, and—now identified with Picabia himself—“mechanomorphic.”
Similarly, Picasso’s betrayal of his own linear mastery in the hardened, mechanical contours of Max Jacob’s portrait, continues, unabated, into the 1920s, where portrait after portrait—whether of Stravinsky or Satie or the ballerinas to which Picasso dedicated himself after his marriage to Olga—all these drawings—practically replicas of one another in composition and treatment share his mechanomorphic line, which, tragically, compared with the bareback rider could be called “deskilled.”
On his way to Cubism, Picasso’s turn from the representational mastery of his youth had already involved him in a rejection of Old Master style, as he adopted the brutal forms of primitivism in the execution of The Demoiselles d’Avignon, particularly in the crude modeling of the two right-hand nudes. But Cubism was not a wholesale discarding of the repertory of classical representation. Pockets of delicate shading project the shallow planes of the cubist figure into relief as if ever so slightly canted into space. No matter how radical cubism was, it also displayed the skills of the traditional painter.
The deskilled drawing of Picasso’s Neo-Classical manner therefore calls for explanation. Its transformation into a strange burlesque of Ingres does not so much mirror as challenge the style it evokes. It is not here a case of “Picasso et les Maîtres” but, rather, “Picasso contre les Maîtres.”
Art history, founded on its concern with the onset of the Renaissance, is obsessed with the question of influence. Believing that nothing comes from nothing, art historians are on a constant search for the precedents in previous art whose example will reveal the stylistic components that new art needs to ingest. “Picasso et les Maitres” adopts this idée réçu, never doubting its revelatory force.
My own explanation of Picasso’s hostile confrontation with Ingres, however, has turned on the Freudian concept of reaction-formation—the name the psycho-analyst gave to neurotically compulsive behavior meant to mask forbidden inclinations. In their Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis, LaPlanche and Pontalis define reaction-formation as a psychological attitude diametrically opposed to a repressed wish, and constituted as a reaction against it. (As an example of this they offer bashfulness as the means to repress and counter exhibitionistic tendencies.) The very mention of Freud, here, naturally suggests Picasso’s unconscious. Yet, the purveyors of the idea of Picasso-and-the-Masters are so intent to establish the fact of Picasso the Master, that the thought of anything less than totally conscious control of his work is inadmissible.
Indeed, in the catalogue for a recent Picasso exhibition in Rome, Yve-Alain Bois has argued against the mechanism of reaction-formation developed in my book The Picasso Papers.
As opposed to Freud’s principle of unconscious production, Bois substitutes the wholly conscious exercise of parody on Picasso’s part. Parody, Bois argues, neutralizes the idea of pastiche of which Picasso was then accused, since parody allows the skillfully self-aware artist to assume many styles and manners at the same time. Further, Bois points out, Picasso’s own awareness of this multifaceted aspect of his work led to his many portrayals of the capricious Harlequin, master of many disguises, and often to Picasso himself as Harlequin.
Against this idea of the Harlequin as a symbol of Picasso’s self-knowledge and self-mastery, we could ask if there is any evidence of the neurotic Picasso, of the great artist as anxiety-ridden and thus not wholly in control of his behavior at all times? Some such testimony comes from the pen of Gertrude Stein as she tells of the rupture between Picasso and his long-term model and mistress, Fernande Olivier. Picasso, she reports, “said her beauty always held him but he could not stand any of her little ways.” How could this not recall Charles Swann’s final remark that Odette was not his type, pas son genre?—this from Swann, perhaps the most neurotic character in all of literature.
Gertrude Stein is seconded by both André Salmon and Jaime Sabartès when they casually speak of “Picasso’s eight years of boredom.” Another example is given by Norman Mailer in his book, Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man. There, Mailer tells the story of Picasso and Apollinaire, both arrested by the Paris police with regard to the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. When Picasso was brought to Apollinaire’s cell to verify the poet’s story, Picasso apparently said, “I do not know him.”
Mailer, viewing this denial of his friend as the very pinnacle of uncontrollable anxiety, writes: “Picasso is now obliged to see himself—a clown searching for machismo who looks to fire his pistol at three in the morning through the roof of a cab. Small wonder if his Harlequins were sad. They knew how he would act in a crisis.”
Another example of Picasso’s loss of conscious control over his own production is given by the conductor Ernst Ansermet, who visited Picasso in Rome in 1917, at his studio facing the Villa Medici. Ansermet was startled to see the naturalist landscapes Picasso was working on at the same time as he was continuing his Cubist drawings and the conductor asked Picasso about what Ansermet considered a stylistic schizophrenia. “But can’t you see?” Picasso replied, “The results are the same.”
It seems to me, however, that an artist as canny as Picasso could only call “the results the same” in the grip of an unconscious repressive power that doesn’t allow a critical assessment of the very classicism to which he was turning as a defense against the mechanomorph with its implication of the readymade.
Françoise Gilot’s Life with Picasso is punctuated by the agony of Picasso’s daily awakenings, each morning with its compulsive rituals and its expressions of doubt about his own success. Picasso’s superstitions produced another misery of indecision, so much so that at the parting between Picasso and herself, the artist told Gilot that he had passed his “anxiety” along to her.
Freud tells us it is just anxiety, unleashed by a sense of danger, that produces what he calls symptom-formation. Is the patient anxious about masturbatory instincts or any other early sexual drives that might be punished? The fear this causes will provoke the ego to repress the libidinal impulse. Here Freud adds that that impulse had been repressed by the process of being transformed into its opposite. To this transformation and the pairs of opposites that arise because of it, he gives the name “reaction-formation.”
What might have been the condition against which Picasso was defending himself, only by assuming its very character? We have already seen this at work in the wooden, industrialized line of the repetitive, Neo-Classical drawings of the 1920s. Picasso’s anxiety in the mid- and late teens was three-fold. He feared abstraction, afraid that it was the logical extension of the Cubist grid and therefore of himself. So too, he feared the rise of Picabia as the new leader of the avant-garde, leaving him and Cubism in the pitiful position of second-best. His great supporters Apollinaire and Stieglitz had already abandoned Picasso for what they considered more avant-garde production: Futurism on the one hand and on the other Picabia with his readymade wit and his abstractions.
Jean Cocteau said that Picasso’s disappointment with a Cubism hardened into a set of clichés and impossible to regard any longer as the leading edge of the avant-garde was the motive for Picasso’s decision to go to Rome to work on the décor for Diaghilev’s ballet Parade. With Rome the site of his turn to Old Master art, Paris had lost its fascination for him, as the hostility of the French during World War I led Parisians to accuse those artists not-serving-at-the-front of having German sympathies and calling them “boche.” And many art historians add that with the death of Apollinaire, Rome seemed more and more an attractive alternative.
Against Ansermet’s puzzlement at the turn away from Cubism, and as a way of supporting Picasso’s insistence that “the results are the same,” some historians argue that for Picasso to incorporate into his work details from Ingres or Renoir or Cézanne was really a way of continuing one of the main inventions of Cubism, in its form as collage. A style that attaches foreign materials, such as wallpaper, oil cloth, or tobacco pouches, they reason, would naturally allow the next logical step of affixing collage-like fragments of historical art onto the surface of a painting. But the mechanical contours of the Stravinsky and Satie portraits with the repetitive character of their compositions is not the collage of Neo-Classicism into his own style but the application of a kind of mechanical reproduction that Walter Benjamin tells us is the very nature of photography—as, indeed, this series of drawings reluctantly bows to the Picabia accusation of Picasso’s new allegiance to Kodak. Following the logic of reaction-formation, the defense against photography takes on the very look of the photographic.
Therefore we have something of a paradox, since if the defense against photography ends up producing a photographically deformed Neo-Classicism, how—we might ask—is it a defense at all? Freud’s answer here points to the dialectical nature of reaction-formation as a secret strategy of the libidinal drives to achieve satisfaction in the very face of repression. This they do by paradoxically assuming the guise or double of the very activity the ego is trying to ward off. Does a neurotic wash his hands compulsively? His drive to cleanliness, Freud says, is a defense against masturbation by adopting its exact opposite. Dialectically, the theory also posits what Freud calls “secondary gain,” through which the defensive action’s rubbing of hands imitates the very behavior it is supposed to counter, and thereby recalls its forbidden pleasure.
Picabia not only represented the mechanizing of the human personality but the acceptance of the readymade substitute for artistic creation. The mechanization of creativity was precisely the effect of photography’s “you push the button, we do the rest,” which Picasso saw as the utmost enemy of art. We hear this in Picasso’s question to the photographer Brassaï, when he learned of Brassaï’s talent as a draftsman. “Why don’t you go on with it?” Picasso asked, “You own a gold mine, and you’re exploiting a salt mine.”
I have spoken of Picasso’s Neo-Classical pastiches as reproducing just this character of photography, which I will call, here, the “photo effect”. Just as many positive prints can be pulled from a single negative, one aspect of the photo-effect is the production of identical multiples, as we have seen in the serialized character of the Stravinsky/Satie portrait production. Ironically, as I will now show, a pastiche of the Neo-Classical masters is not, necessarily, a release from the photo effect.
Picasso’s admired Ingres participated in this “effect” by making multiple copies of his own work: fourteen times as in this case of his 1814 Paulo and Francesca. In S/Z, Roland Barthes offers an explanation for the incessant copies. Ironically, the very love of the two characters for one another is not unique—as we think love would demand, but is itself a copy: “Without the—always anterior—Book and Code,” Barthes writes, “no desire, no jealousy: Pygmalion is in love with a link in the code of statuary; Paolo and Francesca love each other according to the passion of Lancelot and Guinevere; itself a lost origin, writing becomes the origin of emotion.” In this example, Barthes reminds us, Dante’s Inferno is the go-between, the original of which Paolo and Francesca cannot but be the copy. In S/Z Barthes stages the multiple voices of what he calls the codes (voices whose origin,” he writes, “is ‘lost’ in the vast perspective of the already-written).”
Barthes uses an example from Balzac’s story “Sarrazine” that reads, “Have you ever encountered one of those women whose striking beauty defies the inroads of age?” In relation to this citation Barthes comments on the phrase, one of those women by saying: “Every body is a citation: of the already-written;…the origin of desire is the statue, the painting, the book.”
As if to obey the Structuralist law of the already-written, Ingres’ multiple copies of the lovers focus on the book, the go-between, captured in the painting at the unrepeatable, split-second of its fall. Like their kiss, this moment should be instantaneous and therefore unique, like the love itself. Yet, the fourteen repetitions Ingres cannot resist making, over two decades, were executed in many media: painting, etching, drawing, and gouache.
Often the line in the copies is hardened and inert, never so much as in the steel engravings Ingres commissioned for his publication of the Complete Works of J.A.D. Ingres. Originally, Ingres had developed his own Neo-Classical style from copies of Greek vase painting, going so far as to use tracing paper, which delivers not only a mechanical, impersonal, outline—since the hand that captures the contour never leaves the sheet—but enforces as well the aesthetic alienation of seeing the original in mirror reversal.
The Small Bather, perhaps Ingres’ greatest work, is itself a mirror reversal of the Fornarina shown both on the master’s lap, in Raphael and the Fornarina and on Raphael’s easel. The Fornarina’s famous turban finds its echo on the head of the Small Bather, who, with her back to us insures we will notice that, like the tracing-paper copy, we are seeing her from behind. All of this brings us to the Photo Effect of Picasso’s “master,” Ingres. Small wonder that in using Ingres to fight off the threat of photography, Picasso would paradoxically fall its prey—the victim of its structural nature as serial, multiple, mechanical, the cause, as Walter Benjamin says, of “the withering of the aura.” If Ingres is the great example of the “photo-effect,” Picasso’s willing subjugation to him would have internalized the photographic, making it an internal danger—to be repressed only by reaction-formation.
I would go so far as to say that in whatever pastiche that came from Picasso’s brush or pencil, we find the presence of the Photo Effect. His 1917 Retour du Baptême, d’après le Nain, is a double pastiche, not only imitating the Le Nain of its title but, as well, the pointilliste style of Seurat, himself a self-proclaimed, late convert to Classicism. Picasso’s mechanized version of the Neo-Impressionist dot in work after work, as in The Green Still Life from 1914, renders the Impressionist sensitivity to the smallest nuances of light decoratively mechanical, as though it were Picabia who had turned his mecanamorphic attention to the study of atmosphere.
Michel Foucault enters into something like the photo-effect in Ceci n’est pas une Pipe, his analysis of René Magritte, which ends, “A day will come when, by means of similitude relayed indefinitely along the length of a series, the image itself, along with the name it bears, will lose its identity. Campbell, Campbell, Campbell, Campbell.”
Warhol, indeed, renders the human being as mechanomorph when, in his Marilyn Monroes, the portrait subject is flattened to an advertising page of publicity, which insists that there is nothing behind the cosmetic facade, making the living actress always-already a reproduction.
To move from Warhol back to Picasso’s pastiches of the Old Masters is to repeat that the industrialized quality of Picasso’s line in the Neo-Classical portraits and the Max Jacob, resonates with the very exercise of mechanical drawing with which, in the mid-1920s, Amédée Ozenfant outlined the bowls and wine-bottles he called objets types. These, the formal prototypes for industrial objects to be mass-produced, cross the line from still-life to readymade. The association with Picabia is doubled in the strange relation to Ozenfant: Along with Ingres, both Picabia and Ozenfant pre-figure the reaction-formation that will connect Picasso dialectically with his two mortal enemies: photography and the readymade.
The seriality, the industrialized drawing, the impersonal character of Picasso’s pastiches of Old Master art evoke that very quality of the photographic. But there is another model of photography that needs to be added to this catalogue. This is the precedent of animated films.
Twenty years ago I was privileged to examine Picasso’s sketchbook for the variations he was doing on Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe. What I saw was the way the drawing on the top sheet of the sketchbook was etched into the paper with a hardened, sharp-pointed instrument that impressed its own contour into the soft paper of the underlying sheet, allowing minute changes from the first to be made on the second drawing. This was repeated page after page, until the whole sketchbook gave the impression of the kind of “flip book” that cartoonists examine for effects of animation as they rifle the pages in quick succession.
In Picasso’s variations, Manet’s classical contours are skewed into the photographic, serial character of animation. Reaction-formation offers an explanation for what then took place. The motion imposed on the static, formal composition of the Manet allowed the erotic implications of the original—which had caused the outraged reaction against it at the Salon des Réfusés—to blossom forth as full-fledged pornography. Picasso’s examination of Old Master art had developed his scrutiny into an aggressive stance that curiously resembled voyeurism, this voyeurism itself calling forth its object as sexual orgy.
Defense against the danger of voyeurism would naturally, according to Freud, elicit a passive attitude—the opposite of voyeuristic aggression. But according to Freud’s dialectic of “secondary gain,” the original libidinal drives will be smuggled into the very form the opposing posture will assume. This, indeed, is what takes over in Picasso’s Suite 347.
347 is an extended series of etchings, which again and again stages Raphael’s fulfilled desire for the Fornarina, which Picasso imagines as a primal scene with himself as the infantile watcher. Perhaps we should turn to Freud’s case history of the Wolf Man to think further about the compulsively erotic variations of Ingres’s Raphael and the Fornarina portrayed in Suite 347.
In the Case History of the Wolf Man, Freud stresses the contrast between the passivity of the child-viewer and the erotic activity of the primal scene he witnessed—the child’s own passivity repeated by the absolute stillness of the wolves in his dream.
Picasso’s own repeated appearance in 347 as-the-immobile-watcher stresses his own identification with the Wolf Man’s passivity. This passivity is given here not only as the voyeurism of the artist first peeking through the curtains and then from under the rug, but also as the distanced view of the photographer who operates behind his lens and makes his picture mechanically, like Brassaï’s salt-mine. On the other hand, activity belongs to the parental couple whose coitus, as the opposite of Picasso’s stillness—mechanizes their very movement, giving it the character of the hated photographic drawing and a kind of “secondary gain.”
I have no doubt there will be some of you who witness this ironic discussion of the sublime Picasso with indignation and outrage. How can the great master, you are probably wondering, be held responsible for the occasional lapse of his taste? But the structure of Picasso’s responses, I am arguing, has already been analyzed by Freud in the Wolf Man, in Little Hans, in the defensive phobias of obsessional neurosis, along with its anxiety. According to Françoise Gilot, to Gertrude Stein, and others, Picasso was immune to none of these.
This essay was initially given at the Lourve on January 9, 2009 in the context of the exhibition Picasso et les Maîtres.
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