Monday, July 20, 2015

Picasso's Kahnweiler: Reflections on a Portrait

Pablo Picasso, Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, 1910. Art Institute of Chicago

“Art is a lie that tells the truth.” -- Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

It was Gombrich, I believe, who analogized Cubist space to the space-time of memory. An object remembered or imagined comes to consciousness as a field of vague impressions, like a detail from a Cubist painting: a drinking glass is a rectangle with a circle on top, a bottle is an oval with a neck, a tree is a column topped with a flabby balloon; a hated lover’s face is a pair of staring eyes, a set of tearing teeth, the machined edge of a jaw, a flat plane of bloody red like a mirror of her loved-hated murderous mind. In a way that language--locked in sequential motion, flowing with the fall of phonemes--can never begin to approximate, impressions rise simultaneously to the mind, like a drowned painting, flotsam from time's shipwreck, floating back to the surface. The knobbed valley of a spine I love to run my fingers down arrives alongside the eyes that slowly close when you rise to my kiss and all is encircled in the curve of your legs embracing my hips as we ride into bliss. Picasso and Braque were the scribes of the mind, and ours is the consciousness they described.

When someone remarked to Picasso that Gertrude Stein looked nothing like his portrait of her, the painter replied simply, “She will.”

When I attempted (with rather spectacular unsuccess) to draw from Picasso’s 1910 portrait of his dealer Daniel Henry Kahnweiler in a gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago (while other visitors wandered past my back making inane comments: “Some a this stuff is like Night Gallery paintings.” “Like what?” “Night Gallery stuff.”), I began to appreciate that Cubism is painting’s period of polymorphous perversity. Like a young child whose sexuality has not yet been tortured into penis or pussy, whose entire body is an erogenous zone, and for whom there is no unerotic touch, a great Cubist painting is charged with meaning over every inch of its surface. There is no negative space in the Kahnweiler portrait, no neutral patches nor pleasingly traditional backgrounds on which the viewer might rest his eye. The whole body of the canvas is touched with energetic life. Even at the extreme edges--dead space on most portraits--the painted surface is broken into the tesserae of brushstrokes and pulled forward into the gray-brown cloud of the picture plane. (Brown and gray like a cigar and its smoke, the very palette reeks of Paris past and tempts us always into sentimental digression. But enough of that.) As we pass into the image proper (a motion that Picasso‘s assault on the propriety of the image strives to render impossible; we cannot move to where we are always already located), the painted meanings multiply into a sometimes highly enigmatic Finnegans Wake of visual puns. The curves of Kahnweiler’s thin moustache, below the inverted bottleneck of his clearly penile nose (drooping below testicular eyes), rhyme with the watch chain near the painting’s center, which might also be seen as a displacement of the moustache (and/or vice versa). And because both curves also suggest female breasts as well as buttocks, we can push the psychoanalytic analogy a bit further and state that the painting’s polymorphousness--its all-over-ness, as well as its representation of the simultaneity of perception--solicits from the viewer a polymorphously perverse gaze that sees every passage of the painting passing into something else, something often, but not always, explicitly sexual. We have already witnessed that gaze transforming the sitter’s staid, suited self into a transsexual contortionist; and now we might notice the watch or ornament that dangles like a lone Hitlerian testicle from the right chain/tit/asscheek. How many things can we imagine this thing might be? No answer is necessary, for the question itself cuts deeply into the meaning of the painting. (“Computers are useless,” Picasso once remarked. “They can only give you answers.”) Near the top of the painting, the fashionable waves of Kahnweiler’s hair are echoed on the form at upper left, an almost indecipherable tribal mask that resembles a gaslight in a wall bracket. And these curves also occur elsewhere in Picasso’s oeuvre as the talon-like fingers and/or pubic hairs of female nudes. (Fuck this ‘and/or’ bullshit. Cubism is always ‘and.’) We have mentioned the nose, and it is only one of the phalluses sprouting up in the painting’s field: the mentioned mask, the bottle at lower right, the oblique white plane on the right of the sitter’s face, the form hovering in air to the right of Kahnweiler’s head (which looks like an undistorted, blatantly obvious erect penis pointing rocket-like into the sky)…Phallus, phallus everywhere, it seems, except where it naturally belongs, at the bottom of the painting, where the sitter’s easily readable clasped hands anxiously conceal and protect the organ Picasso has put so multiply into question. Taking this angle of view upon the painting, we have no difficulty interpreting the whole as a psychological portrait of male sexual anxiety: the prudish sitter projects his phallic anxieties into the world around him, generating the omniphallic environs of Picasso's painting. We should not allow the work’s totalizing eroticism, however, to blind us to an equally important aspect that exists in extreme tension with erotic totality: this is a portrait of a radically fractured self, a human being ripped apart, shattered, smashed, and reconstructed by the mastering will of a titanic artistic Other. Seekers of the tragic in Cubism need look no further than the area above and to the left of Kahnweiler’s hands, where his body is invaded by the whiteness that in this phase of Picasso’s work signifies incommunicable nothingness, meaninglessness, pure abstraction. The bottle beside this area appears to exist much more definitely than the sitter. He is being eaten away by infinite space, dissolving into the snowy whiteness that James Joyce also notably associated, in these same years, with all-encompassing death. (I refer, of course to the ending of Joyce's story "The Dead.") After this knowledge, we note that even the ‘solider’ parts of Kahnweiler are under invasion by otherness. The head, for instance, is positioned in parallel with the aforementioned tribal mask, deconstructed to near-nothingness at upper left. And if we take a horizontal cross-section through the painting at the level of his shoulders, we see an image that remarkably resembles the view from an artist’s studio over the cubistically overlapping rooftops of Paris. This is personality as cityscape. Picasso’s Kahnweiler is a Zelig built from the bits and pieces of whatever environment happens to be passing through him.* It is a portrait of the self as a landscape of others.

*And in Picasso's studio, one suspects, that environment would be exceptionally phallic, so the work's eroticism might be ultimately understood as another aspect of its portrayal of fragmentation. (Pardon me for offering this potentially major, synthesizing insight in a funky footnote.)**

**And pardon me again for getting my DFW*** off. Call it an homage.

***David Foster Wallace****(1962-2008), American writer whose life and work were tragically truncated by suicidal depression. Elaborate, extended, ramifying, digressive footnotes and endnotes were a hallmark of his style. Wallace was a 1980s literary theoryhead, so it's entirely possible that, aside from the obvious Nabokovian influence, Wallace's style was decisively licensed by a single, rather amazing footnote (on the subject of footnotes) in the Adorno chapter of rockstar lit theorist Fredric Jameson's early work, Marxism and Form. Jameson writes (in a footnote no less, a clever example of formal criticism as imitative form and/or vice-versa): "The footnote in this context may indeed be thought of as a small but autonomous form, with its own inner laws and conventions and its own determinate relationship to the larger form which governs it--something on the order of the moral of a fable or the various types of digressions which flourished within the nineteenth-century novel. In the present instance, the footnote as a lyrical form allows Adorno a momentary release from the inexorable logic of the material under study in the main text, permitting him to shift to other dimensions, to the infrastructure as well as to the wider horizons of historical speculation. The very limits of the footnote (it must be short, it must be complete) allow the release of intellectual energies, in that they serve as a check on the speculative tendency that might otherwise run wild, on what we will later describe as the proliferation of "theories of history." The footnote as such, therefore, designates a moment in which systematic philosophizing and the empirical study of concrete phenomena are both false in themselves; in which living thought, squeezed out from between them, pursues its fitful existence in the small print at the bottom of the page."*****

****Do you have any idea of the intricate hand-eye coordination involved in boldfacing only those single letters in those words? No, you probably have better things to geek out on...

*****Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971). p. 9.****** Despite Jameson's (only partly deserved) reputation for forbiddingly dense prose and near-unintelligiblility, his early works are quite lucid and interesting. I recommend Marxism and Form and The Prison House of Language.

******I've been reading this book off and on, a chapter or so at a time, for about a year now. I find Fredric Jameson, like the eponymous Irish whiskey*******, best taken in smallish doses.

*******Jameson Irish Whiskey********, best medicine for the Dublin flu.

********Will they send me a free case for plugging them here? (I'm keeping all ten fingers crossed.)*********

*********And perhaps I should add that Ben and Jerry's makes a fine ice cream and that Rolls Royces are excellent automobiles. 

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