Dora Maar au Chat (1941)
When I first saw Picasso’s work in the Museé National Picasso, I knew immediately that I’d stumbled upon an artist of immense and—for a high school student—inaccessible depth. Picasso’s cubist aesthetic distorts his work beyond easily recognizable images; unfortunately, rather than appreciate the paintings and for their force and message, my friends and I made a game of guessing about his original subjects.
“That’s gotta be a woman”
“No way, it’s a couch.”
“You mean a horse?”
Now that I’m a bit older—and a bit more aware—I better understand Picasso’s artwork. My initial confusion at his jarring veneers has given way to an abiding appreciation of his style; he magically captures in paint not simple appearances, but rather the sensual, imperceptible facets of humanity. His portraits, such as Dora Maar au Chat (1941), challenge abiding archetypes of beauty and taste. In fragmented visual exposition, Picasso establishes a duality between what is visible and sensual, proving that neither realm can exist without the other.
The multiplicity of his canvases stun viewers. Guernica, one of his most famous, depicts the German bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The swaths of color suggest the very blood spilled by the unfortunate innocents; the braying of the dagger-tongued mule a slight retaliation, almost audible; the subverted bull, goring the horse; and the ghost-like people, spirits spilling into death.
Picasso’s work undeniably evokes beauty and artfulness. Still, at base, I find myself looking at his painting and wondering, What’s happening here?
Imagine my happiness, then, at finding that Picasso also wrote poetry. Finally, something I could understand! In fact, the painter wrote enough poetry to fill a book: Burial Of The Count Of Orgaz & Other Poems (2005), compiled by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris. My first encounter with the Picasso’s work was in a lesser-known anthology, 20th Century French Poets (2004) edited—and partly translated—by Mary Ann Caws. I remember reading Picasso’s poem (alas, a single example in the whole anthology) hungrily, hoping to discover some codex to which I could relate his visual work.
Her Great Thighs
Her great thighs
the planets the wide curtain drawn and the transparent sky hidden behind the
the oil lamp and the little bells of the canaries sweet between the figs—
the bowl of milk of feathers snatched from each laugh undressing
the nude removing the weight of the weapons taken from the garden flowers
so many games deadmen hanging from the branches of the schoolyard haloed
lake the lure of blood and thistles
hollyhocks played in the dice
needles of liquid shadow and bouquet of crystal algae
open to the dance step of the moving colours
shaken in the bottom of the glass poured out
on the lilac mask dressed with rain.
I was initially disappointed; the poem is not a straightforward companion to his work. But then I sat with the poem a while, as one might when facing an elaborate artwork. Just as with his paintings, I began to understand the poem as I spent more time with it; eventually, it became a wonderful commentary on Picasso’s artistic style—in paint and print alike.
The poem begins in an enumeration of a woman’s body parts. Picasso deconstructs woman-qua-archetype, listing the ‘building blocks’ of woman rather than a more vague appeal. This deconstruction is not unlike the fragmentation seen in his paintings, such as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, The Dream, or his various portraits. However, as in those paintings, the work hides an intention more complete than the aesthetic might suggest.
The Dream (1932)
As the enumeration ends in the first stanza, we’re presented with a final point: “Her tears.” Here, the physical mechanisms of femininity are foregone in favor of a secretion, a byproduct of those mechanisms. The “tear” starkly contrasts the list, presenting itself as a result of female form, rather than a part of it. This change in subject parallels the transition to the following stanzas—lines, undoubtedly, of wider brushstrokes and more intense symbolism.
In the second stanza, adjectives and verbs produce whole sentences. A fuller picture—if still a nonsensical one—replaces the first stanza’s sentence fragments. It’s more appropriate to read the second and third stanzas for rhythm and form rather than content. Picasso aligned himself with the surrealists, and divining a coherent ‘plot synopsis’ for his poems will be ultimately a fruitless act; it’s well known that he preferred to leave his works open to interpretation, rather than forcing specific readings and subtexts.
In the second stanza, Picasso chooses a series of pleasant images (canary, lamp, the nude, fig, flowers) that carry a multitude of interpretative possibility—similar subjects appear in many of his paintings. Contrastingly, the subjects of the third stanza rage against the metaphoric comfort we settled into in the second. “Deadmen hanging”; “blood and thistles”; “needles”; and “crystals,” stand as a symbolic counterpoints.
However, the conflict Picasso establishes in these lines does not represent a pejorative reflection, but rather another layer of embellishment—neither good nor bad—added to the poem. This reading is reinforced in the final lines, as Picasso exposes the very style of creation: “open to the dance step of the moving colours /shaken in the bottom of the glass poured out / on the lilac mask dressed with rain.” These lines seem to imitate the interplay between paintbrush and canvas. There are other possible interpretations, but the focus remains on vivacity (“moving colours”) and kinetic splatter (“shaken” “poured” “dressed”). In the final lines, Picasso mixes the effect of his stanzas as one might mix paint.
I won’t argue that the master painter is also a master poet; his writing is a bit too contrived, especially for surrealism. His voice almost duplicates the poetry his colleagues were writing at the time. His writing should not be considered wonderful literature, but instead a unique perspective on his painted art. He writes as I imagine he painted: In layers—simple at first, he gives way to complexity, allowing outbursts of conflict, and finally redressing his piece in wide, conciliatory strokes that fool neither him nor the reader.
After reading this first piece, I did a bit of research. Picasso began writing in 1934, and during the following year (1935-36) he gave up painting—due to a troubled marriage—in favor of surrealist poetry, influenced by his good friend André Brenton. Though he returned to the canvas, he never stopped writing poetry.
I read some of his other poems, but—given their literary inadequacy—I never felt the same thrill of practically seeing the artist paint in words. The wordplay of Picasso’s style, however, never leaves his writing. He kept his poetry in a journal, titling them by the dates on which they were written. I’ve posted a couple below, indicative of his prevailing fragmentary style.
the flute the grapes the umbrella the armor the tree and the accordion the butterfly wings of the sugar of the blue fan of the lake and the azure waves of the silks of the strings hanging from the bouquets of roses of the ladders one and incalculable outsized flood of doves released drunk on the cutting festoons of prisms fixed to the bells decomposing with its thousand lit candles the green flocks of wool illuminated by the gentle acrobatics of the lanterns hanging from each arc string and the definitive dawn
8-9 november 1944
on the shrubs of ink fresh butter lace fans open in sated scattered divinities the incandescent crystal that sings on the wing on the bee’s wax of the rose-bush gathers with delicate and supple spoonfuls the airy houses of cards of the perfumed male voices of feathers oiling the road the miraculous rainbow festoons of the jars full of milk drinking with loud yells the azureal blue jumping with both feet on the tropics of the mirror hanging with all hands at the window
The poems seem to be an almost indistinguishable successions of disparate elements. Upon closer inspection, each subject appears to briefly relate to the next in either connotation or phonetic foundation. It’s thrilling to think these lines were penned by the same artistic mind that produced some of the world’s most impressive paintings.
Beyond that, however, his words become somewhat lost in poetic jumble—interesting to theorists, but difficult to access for the common reader. Luckily, readers shouldn’t worry about decoding Picasso’s poetic. Instead, we might consider his writings a window—a unique vantage point from which to admire his art. We are given an invaluable look at a singular artistic consciousness spread over multiple mediums—an opportunity not to be ignored. Readers with patience will witness the machinations of a genius.
Christian Harder is an undergraduate writer at Virginia Tech in literature who believes in innovations in form and style. He believes politics, preaching, and political correctness have no place in art and remains wary of the effect large cultural institutions and popular trends have on an otherwise intelligent public. He anticipates attending graduate school come next year. Harder maintains his website Pages to Pixels.