News

From the Archives: Max Kozloff on Cubism’s Ugly Figures, in 1972

Installation view of “Cubism,” 2018–19, at Centre Pompidou, Paris.

©AUDREY LAURANS

Cubism is most often considered in the context of abstraction, but in an essay published in the September 1972 issue of ARTnews, critic Max Kozloff set out to focus on the figure in works by Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and others from the early 20th century. His inquiry began with a simple question: Why did the Cubists distort people’s bodies in their work, making them appear ugly? Republished on the occasion of a 300-work Cubism survey at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Kozloff’s essay broaches a number of related issues, including French male painters’ misogynistic attitudes toward women during the era. Kozloff’s also the subject of an exhibition at the DC Moore gallery in New York right now; his essay follows below. —Alex Greenberger

“Cubism and the Human Comedy”
By Max Kozloff
September 1972

Beyond a learned play of shapes and colors, Cubist painting presents us with an extraordinarily deformed, even monstrous vision of the human figure, which has its own social context and reason for being. Why, in a word, are these people so ugly?

Movements in 20th-century art tend to be locked into traditional frames of discussion, even as that art aspired to revolutionary status. A given knowledge and a persistent body of common wisdom have marked off and hallowed the subversive commitments of the avant-garde. To a large extent dependent on the writings of the artists and their contemporaries, historical grooves have been established that make for easy placement of competing Isms. So, the German Expressionists are talked about in terms of their tortured psyches, their orgiastic impulses, the authoritarian and hypocritical bourgeois order against which they reached so bitterly, in collaboration with a number of estranged poets and playwrights. Or, to take another example, the Russian Constructivists are normally considered exalted, if tragic players on that stage where the utopian dreams of advanced abstraction and national Marxist revolution momentarily joined forces.

Needless to say, the Cubists, too, had been type-cast long ago. They have come down to us as master picture builders, the creators of a new entity called the tableau-objet, or autonomous, self-referring painting, and the prime encoders of what was to become the abstract language of modern art. Their literature follows up this estimate with judgements about the equivocal status of their space, that arena in which idea and perception camouflage each other with high intellectual fervor. It is obviously basic to emphasize the formal labyrinths of Cubist art. Through them the eye is exercised and the mind is challenged. But it is strange how few interpreters have strayed from the outline of these issues, particularly in how they avoid talking about what the Cubists painted.

It has been assumed or, more accurately, implied that Cubism’s vision of space is its real subject, whose ironies and paradoxes are demonstrated by various still-life fragments. But Cubism confronts us with as many figures as still-lifes. And before the spectacle of the human body, we cease to be detached as we are when contemplating images of something to eat or objects to use. Because we are so egocentrically high strung in our nervous, muscular and social identifications with meaning in the work of an artist—even one for whom story line and visual illusion are not primary assumptions. With writing on Cubism, this sensitized presence of the figure is considered at best as a target upon which has been wreaked certain dislocations, whose analysis is given priority over any view that Cubism may have something to tell us about men and women in their own right. Not merely does such an approach mistake part for whole, it overlooks two other facts. For this art exhibits quite indigenous, complex responses and feelings toward people. Secondly, modern art projects succeeding ideas of the human situation thoroughly as much as it articulates changes of style and form. The importance of Cubism on this level is that it literally shatters every previous notion of man’s behavior as represented in art.

It can not be an accident that the one work that almost single-handedly raised the curtain on Cubism is a figure painting. It is also, significantly, a massacre: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

In this large group of nudes, conceived as prostitutes, the artist has wrecked all known standards of Western beauty by a headstrong cleaving of the human form itself. His five females, two crossing their arms behind their staring heads in a caricature of voluptuous abandon, two with snouted, cross-eyed masks for faces, seem to belong to a new with barbarous race. All elbows, they have been hacked in and out of rose, pink, ocher and cobalt planes that still retain their cutting edges. It is not merely that these women are whores, but rather a species of bitch goddess, that startles.

This outrageous painting chopped open Picasso’s youthful development, auguring departures which few of his earlier works had suggested. But, seen as an event within the history of the representation of woman in art, it takes place as a climax of deep flowing rancor.

The immediate ancestors of the Demoiselles are a series of compressed, stubby-bodied, large-headed, muscular nudes, in which reminiscences of archaic Greek sculpture and Picasso’s own physique are about equally blended. Their type relates also to Cézanne’s late bathers in their chunkiness, if not their terra-cotta color, density and weight. Their vaguely coquettish gestures contrast with the blankness of their setting, and the stiffness of their torsos. To look back, beyond them, is to see Picasso occupying himself with his famous portrayals of clowns, mountebanks, harlequins and acrobats of a circus world which he had bohemianized, in obvious concord with his own precarious status as a down-and-out artist, an obscure prestidigitator. It was his device to see their world through the filter of one dominant hue, pink (hence the Rose Period), just as, earlier, he had conceived of an even more declassed environment, that of the old, the infirm, the blind, the poor, above all the lonely, in the chill of a pervasive blue.

All these mournful subjects, idealized in their deprivation, belong to a fantasy that is as much self-pitying as it may be compassionate. And as befits a fantasy, Picasso gives us a sealed off, self-contained environment, populated by types rather than individuals, whose relationships with each other are extremely elemental and generalized. By and large, only one emotion, bereavement, say, or forbearance, dominates at a time. It is all the more remarkable, then, that Picasso’s earliest independent work is that of a painter of society, in the tart manner of Toulouse-Lautrec. There the subjects were bullfights, the Barcelona cafés and the crowds at the Paris cabarets. His record from roughly 1900 to 1907 shows an artist who moves from a kind of glamorized report of sleazy nightlife, with an obvious enjoyment of slumming about, to exceptionally internalized, mood-soaked picturings of social outcasts, and on, finally, to a weirdly arcadian depiction of nudes, their anatomies rendered hard as if transformed into rock.

Suddenly, with one blow, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, he liquidated not only the illustrational mannerisms of his art, but its self-referring, romantic psychology. In their place is an angular grotesquerie of form—for years he pretended ignorance of his indebtedness to African art—and a calculated indifference of face that is positively defiant. Hitherto, the grave if pathetic figures of the Blue and Rose periods had been distracted, or better, bewitched, by their helplessness. With them there could be no awareness of communication with the spectator because of an unbridgeable social gulf that left them among themselves. All this now dissolves in the bluntness with which the Demoiselles gape back at us, as they offer their bodies that may not even deserve the name human. Apparently they suffer a greater bodily affliction than any of his pervious personages, but instead of being possessed or identified by it, these women blatantly exhibit their condition, as if there had been no sudden depreciation of the commodity value of their female form. To be sure, the Demoiselles are linked with Picasso’s past work on two continuing levels: 1) they are typed in terms of occupation and class; and 2) they are more closely associated with intense, continual physical experience than the middle-class city dweller, to whom the opposition of the early subjects is always implicit. The whore is another outcast creature, in Picasso’s vein; but rather than being overtly discarded, she is covertly accepted by society.

Still, the functioning metaphors of this picture are entirely different than those of all his preceding effort. A Saltimbanque is protected, so to speak, by the artist’s tenderness and empathy; a “demosielle,” someone who hardly needs the artist’s support, puts the viewer on the defensive. The more malignant his treatment of her image, the more capable does she seem of taking care of herself in the world, of staring us down and of perplexing us. Shortly after humiliation drops out as a theme of his art, so too does it representational credibility. We are no longer asked to see the distortions of 1907 in the same spirit as the bony hands and sunken jaws of the miserable. Where once these had been attributes of bodies under stress, their analogues in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon are fixed features of particularly belligerent icons. And the impersonal ferociousness with which he takes liberties with these icons—almost as if justified because they are now objects of hatred—become the first prophetic liberties of 20th-century art.

It should be clear that they also reveal a strain of aggression in one man’s feelings toward women. “We used to make a lot of jokes about that painting,” he said in 1933. “One of the women was Max’s [Jacob’s] grandmother. Fernande [Picasso’s mistress at the time] was another one, and Marie Laurencin another—all in a brothel in Avignon.” It is easy to disregard this jest at the expense of the women in his circle as a studio flippancy. But it is also true that for over 40 years, other male artists had grappled with the female subject, forming in their work a mood of increasing disturbance that, in retrospect, is monstrously capped by Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

It may be only coincidence, but surely a suggestive coincidence, that this canvas seems to hark back to Manet’s Olympia of 1863, in a bald flatness of style, awkward disposition of forms, and the common theme of truly unseductive, naked womanhood displaying itself so sluttishly as to deprive the male appetite of any illusion of being ennobled by the beauty of its object. These pivotal masterpieces of modern art, renowned for their formal innovation, also twitch a most vulnerable nerve in the sexual mores of their societies. For in the Manet and the Picasso, the female subject openly acknowledges and communicates her awareness of her body as an object, an act so impolite as to violate a taboo. In the interval between them appears a number of paintings demonstrating a high incidence of moral conflict in depicting of the modern nude.

Toulouse-Lautrec, for example, records the brothel as tawdry but not vicious, its denizens sympathetic in their worldly fatigue, forgiven in their debauchery. Edvard Munch, never one to flatter the human race, judges woman often as a kind of vampire engaged in a more than equal combat with man in a grim war of the sexes. Gauguin invests with animal stupidity, yet also idealizes his Polynesian maidens as purer and more earthy alternatives to the worn-out refinement of Western femininity. And far closer to the Picasso in time, Georges Rouault’s Odalisque, 1906, portrays woman, in the words of Leon Bloy, as a “pus-filled goatskin with slimy thighs.” With their jowled bodies and gorilla scowls, such creatures, depraved beyond all shame, are mired in what is for Rouault the filth of Christian sin.

It is, therefore, a pessimistic tradition that Picasso inherited, anti-erotic even to the extent of chastening the pictorial means themselves into a glowering or bilious vision of the flesh. Behind it, though, lies a current or sceptic realism whose purpose was to strip away the enshrined shams and the genteel lies that in most public media sentimentalized the relations of the sexes. For nowhere is modern art’s protest against bourgeois double standards and the cash nexus of the marketplace so intimate as in the pictorial theme of the woman who sells herself. Taken over-all, it had originated in an assault upon the officially blessed pandering that had produced the covertly prurient Salon nude. Among the painters who had desublimated the theme of sex, the impulse had been to show the subjugation of women, and perhaps something of their reaction to it, in its actual horror. In an atmosphere charged with the novels of Zola and the plays of Ibsen, theirs was not simply a revision of an alternate mode of taste, but a militant correction of values. But the more they focused on the image of the corrupted woman, the more she seemed worthier of stigma, or of fear rather than of pity. The portrayal of thoroughly unattractive nudes had long been known in European art, particularly in the North. But their interior qualities and more authenticity as persons made up for their lack of sensual allure (if indeed it was a lack to contemporaries). In contrast, the beautiful nudes of antiquity and their descendants were never so personalized. By the late 19th-century, it was possible to conceive a nude as devoid of “soul” as of seductiveness—a modern touch.

Of course, important exceptions come to mind. Renoir, Rodin and later Matisse were uninhibited celebrants of the joys of sex. Their art was often permeated by a febrile sensuality unreflective of the tensions and changing social roles that emanated in a pervasive modern lovelessness, or at least the consciousness of it surfacing in waning Victorian mores. But those artists who were directly involved with this theme were constrained to expose it by negative example. Under their hands, the representation of women frequently took on a toxic and misogynous coloring. When earlier 19th-century painters showed the plight of the depressed working classes, their programs were clearer largely because coherent stereotypes were available to them, and because they themselves could identify with the exploited. But in the fight for equality of women, the younger men were combatants on the other side. The hostility projected in their image of women ran parallel to a bourgeois cliché about prostitutes. For while the filles de joie were often construed sentimentally and (to assuage guilt) as having hearts of gold, society more genuinely felt that they were without minds and spirits, mere mechanisms of sex. Her “heartlessness” was what provoked the greatest scandal in Manet’s Olympia, accompanied by the first gleanings that contemporary art would be taking an anti-humanist stand with regard to the figure. The vacant stare and ungraceful posture became gathering signs of modern art’s retreat from the sense of the body as an independent organism, animated by the mental and emotional energies of a particular individual. Rouault’s whores reveal themselves as fall women and, as such, still take their meaning from a possible redemption. But Picasso’s nudes, surpassing their prototypes in cruelty and ugliness, are the avenging furies of a new order. In these nominal sex symbols, all pretense that we are dealing with fellow beings has been blasted away.

But such a unilateral act of destruction had positive goals. For one thing, the Demoiselles, in their extreme vitalism, reverse the peculiar drainage of energy that had earlier marked the theme. Existing outside time, and somehow above society, in their jagged limbo, they radiate an almost aboriginal power. Then, too, we perceive that if it has sacrificed elegance, the subject has been heightened by irony. Already its title, referring to innocent young maidens (though only so baptized much later by André Solomon), alludes to a sarcasm worked out with supreme pictorial force. While many of the details and proportions derive from African and Catalan Romanesque sources, Picasso’s primitive whores are also cast somewhat in the mold of Cézanne’s late bathers. The artist, then, effects a sardonic marriage between the arcadian theme of bathers-in-a-landscape, which he savages, and tribal fetishism, which he heroicizes. All the body junctures and crescents seem to hit each other, jostle out and eventually upward, almost flame-like, with an intensity that is quite terrible. Nor is Picasso above commenting upon his earlier career, whose palette is brought into this implausibly fused scene. The blues and roses that had once underscored the meager condition of a dispossessed couple or a circus vagabond are now combined to mint a chromatic product so evenly tempered that neither the glare nor the freeze of it dominates. Though not heavily saturated, it is a coloration of indescribable freshness—almost genetic in the sense it gives of an art being reborn. And finally, one has the emotional dissonance of being invited to share Picasso’s own antipathy to his disfigured subjects, while at the same time he removes them to an otherworldly setting.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon reverberated through the subsequent history of Cubism, opening up concepts of treating the human figure that are faintly alarming, even though psychologically abstracted. Picasso followed up his gains with a number of raw totemic figure studies that followed up the cudgels against the human body in a radical large scale work, finished in 1910, Nudes in the Forest. This “tussle with volumes,” as Léger called it, seems to give an up-dated version of a well-known Renaissance subject, the battle of the male nudes. To make almost excessively apparent the muscle-bound tensions and the clumsy joints of tubular anatomy, Léger reduced color to a pattern of greyed lavenders and greens. Armored so heavily that they can barely stand up, these “heroic” athletes creak at every gesture. They are Herculean woodsmen, turned into automatons, who stumble through the chunky debris of tree trunks they would appear to be chopping down with a torpid frenzy. Deeply affected by Cézanne and much inclined to Henri Rousseau, Léger accentuated the volumes of the one and emulated the metallic shadings of the other. Yet the new note struck here is that man slices away at a jungle-like environment in his own image. And when Léger’s temperament, and not merely the historical derivations is considered, that image is mechanical. In this painting, for the first time, human sinew is covered with a machine-like surfacing. The rounded and fanned-out bulks of all these volumes produces a space that would look much deeper than in the contemporary work of Picasso and Braque, were it not also obsessively cluttered and airless. Léger unnervingly stresses the made quality of the natural world and the people in it, uniformly reduced to metallic artifice. At this point in his career, we feel that his stylistic logic has imposed a mechano-morphic posture on humanoid creatures, but that, also, the transforming process is only half achieved. One confronts a fantastic vision bent on rationalizing itself.

It must be stressed that Cubism introduces into modern art a spectre of beings made neither more nor less interesting or attractive, as if it were a question of the artist’s taste, but men, or women, horrifically, ludicrously “other” than ourselves: alter-egos mimicking many of our traits, features, movements, attributes, yet incarnated in a form alien to flesh and blood. Cubism pictures not the transcendence of “soul” over body, but the mutual estrangement of the two. Certain traditional modes are retained—epic, genre portrait—but it is as if a new, mocking hollowness has entered into them. Bodies are entities that are sometimes constructed like edifices, and the matter out of which they are composed is inanimate. Yet their depersonalized, self-alienated appearance is wittily played off against the notion that their behavior and affairs are still normal. They carry on or pose as though nothing had happened. Either the inanimate world has disobeyed, started into life; or everything instinct with movement and growth slows before our eyes into paralysis. But Cubism assumes that a charade has as much reality and consequence as the way events actually happen.

Questions can be raised as to the legitimacy of such attitudes in the continuance of a figural art. But the affect and volition displayed by the Cubist patronage, though strange, cannot be pried loose from the way it functions in a coherent social order. As evidence of this, consider one of the most praised, but surely also one of the most problematical Cubist figure paintings—Picasso’s Girl With a Mandolin of 1910. No one now judges the anatomical dislocations in this work to be opposed to elegiac mood. But a literal view of the image could conclude nothing else. To an innocent eye, almost never employed in critical writing, the girl is a mutation. Her lower jaw has been reduced to a block, and her right breast has been intended, scooped down, and then harshly extruded to a shingled tip. Contrarily, the graceful, pensive pose, the refined, softly brushed greys, and the delicate activity of strumming the mandolin, are extremely sympathetic.

The probable cause of this weird expressive conflict may be interpreted on the basis of Picasso’s history as an artist. Could it not be that Picasso reverted to a subject out of his Blue Period repertoire at a moment when he was thoroughly engaged in the disassemblings of his early Cubist style? Surely the 1910-11 monochromes, so frequently thought of as a making way, in tone, for facet recession, also owe a great deal to that earlier era of reverie, of which they carry a strong emotional vestige. But to eyes practiced to read the Cubist vocabulary, and therefore enlightened as to its conventions and metaphors, no discrepancy between form and content exists in the picture. To take this view of the work, however, is to deprive it of the ambiguities inherent in the Cubist principle of treating the figure and its behavior as psychologically viable, in the teeth of its inhuman appearance.

The import of Girl With A Mandolin perhaps becomes clearer if it is compared with such contemporary male subjects as Picasso’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard. The artist hardly ever creates the image of a woman as portrait during this period. He reserved the mode almost entirely for man. (The sole exception, the Portrait of Gertrude Stein, has in common with his dealer, Vollard, its depiction of a patron.) In other words, a woman can be typed, shown as a nude body or abstracted almost out of recognition, as in Ma Jolie, where the gender of the subject plays hardly any role, but she is not accorded the particularity and, it should be added, the dignity of one-to-one, formalized contact furnished by a portrait. More significant is the fact that Vollard is presented as an individual of phenomenal power and massive, ennobled presence, while the female type often gangles like a simian, is cantilevered uncomfortably in space, or is given bowed appendages. (A good example is The Bather, 1908.) All the facets studding the face of Vollard, and to a lesser extent Picasso’s portraits of the dealers Uhde and Kahnweiler, express the individuality and self-confidence of the subject. A similar form language only contorts his female subjects with an inbred rictus to which they are . . . indifferent. The Analytic Cubist style confers an emotional tone, honorific or antipathetic—as Picasso wills it.

It is fair to say that the other Cubist artists had less stratified and complex attitudes towards the human figure, although they were by no means neutral in their dealings with it. Léger’s jocular The Cardplayers of 1916, in which the male body has been turned into a cross between a congery of stove pipes, ventilator tubes and a piece or ordnance, has nothing derisive about it. However calculated, its metamorphosis of the French soldier into a clickety-digeted machine is not self-conscious, though it does express awareness, as Robert Rosenblum put it, of “a goal of esthetic order whose lucidity and precision are classical in flavor.” In this ponderous card game, recollections of the antique and of the industrial forms of World War I are fused with real stridency. But it is an effect that does not compromise the existence of the figures as accomplished imaginative facts.

One feels otherwise about Albert Gleizes’s Man on a Balcony, 1912, for here it is still implied that the subject has an independent reality, aside from the way it has been apprehended by the painter. The figure has been chipped at, parts of it slid slyly off from plumb, with nice judgment—but also timidly, in an effort that has stopped far short of any genuine transformation. Gleizes hesitates, does not complete his possession of the figure, and is lost. The image is no longer endowed with the weight that could have been observed, but has not been given a plentitude that may be imagined. In many comparable Cubist figures, the delicate question of how convincing is the tie between tangible volumes and fantasy content hobbles the artist and nags the viewer.

With collage and synthetic Cubism, these issues flatten out. There, all imagery is imparted directly through the method of pictorial construction, so that comic or malign potentialities that may transfigure the human form are inseparable from the means deployed.

Two paintings of busts, Picasso’s Student With A Pipe and Gris’ Smoker, both 1913, illustrate the point. The pin-head eyes and the long, equine face of the students are amusing intimations of mental dimness. But the specifically Cubist device of contrasting the wrinkled paper cap with the schematic head, the real paper and the “abstract” face exchanging roles, livens the image far more deeply than would pure caricature. And in giving the pipe hole a pupil, Picasso comments nicely on the students lack of perception as well as on the supposedly inanimate status of objects. Gris, for his part, presents us with a literal instance of the addleheadedness that modern life may induce, as the head of his gentleman swings metronomically in an arc above the column of his neck. (To judge by the colors, greens, blues, ochers, the artist is also interested in a mad alternation between night and day, interior and outdoors.) Only the illusionistic curl of cigar smoke, defying all contact with the geometrically scrambled face, retains its random liberty.

We can see that collage functioned to disperse the given structure of anatomy far more radically than in the sculptural mode of early Cubism. Our bodies do not respond to a species of cut-outs on anywhere near as visceral a level as to depicted volumes. Almost as if in compensation, the collage “view” of the human figure becomes unprecedentedly ironic—a deft misalliance of “living” geometry and creaturely objects.

Picasso’s flashily carnal Woman In An Armchair is a model of this development. Framed by large sinuous curves, fleshed in tawny hues, her hair moistly streaming, her lingerie crumpled, this paragon of boudoir sex is also disemboweled. Ingres, whom Picasso may be recalling in his melodious contours, conceived the nude as an exquisite languid animal; Picasso imagines her needing pegs to hold on to her pendant breasts. In details like this, as well as the bush of the armpit and the roll of the rib cage, he has his exceedingly irreverent way with the ideal of the Odalisque, yet makes her more libidinous than ever before. Affinities with a work such as this, though far more explicitly dehumanized, are found in the mechanical nudes of Marcel Duchamp of the year earlier and the sexed apparatuses of Francis Picabia, in the years after. Both these artists enjoy the conceit that machines reproduce themselves by mating akin to human love. In caring for his intellectual apprehensions or his metaphorical gifts more than for what we would naturalistic psychology, the Cubist artist jolts together our often contradictory motor sensations, physical memories and fantasies, hostile or otherwise. The dismantling of the figure could be seen facetiously, as the equivalent of a craft or industrial operation. It was a simile that was bound, also, to conceive of the body as an inorganic assembly of parts, mere anatomical signs, fair game for optional redistribution. To impose a machine metaphor upon human will was one of the more imaginatively disingenuous features of Cubist thinking.

To amalgamate the figure with its surroundings, through the most insouciant paradox, was another. Several works of the immediately pre-war years draw attention to this as a basic motif of Cubism. With his Woman in Blue, Léger obliges us to travel on the outskirts of his large, central blue and white screens in order to perceive human fragments that are themselves constantly interrupted by balustrades, tables and the like. One feels that all the atmospheric elements, excitingly contrasted as they are, will topple out of an equilibrium which only momentarily sustains the presence of the figure. For in Léger’s terms here, the separate identities of bodies and their surroundings are less important than how one can give a sense of modern, ever fluid sensation through the abridgement, condensing and interacting of images.

More wickedly gratuitous is Picasso’s unstable montage of smoker and interior in Man With A Pipe. The artist salts in a kind of confetti with his clapboard cornices and derbied gentleman, who is nothing but a stuffed man composed of, and no more animate than, the objects of his world An underlying still-life mentality of the Cubist artist, that since 1909 conditioned his treatment of the figure, suddenly appears illustrated by the mutant figure. And now the very furniture seem to grin.

In late 1916, Picasso was commissioned by Serge Diaghliev to design the decor and costumes for a ballet called Parade, plotted by Jean Cocteau, music by Eric Satie and choreography by Leonide Massine. Though with no previous involvement in theatrical enterprises, he undertook this new direct challenge very naturally by introducing his Cubist esthetic directly onto the stage, in context a radical act. To a ballet as planned as a kind of gay and nonsense vaudeville, Cocteau applied the title “aliste,” and Apollinarie, super-réaliste,,” or Surrealist. For they were aware that the literalism of Cubism, constantly shifting elements of reality into illusion-making frameworks, would be a powerful antidote to the folkloristic and fabulous productions that Diaghliev might have been expected to put on at his Right Bank showcase Théâtre du Châtelet.

Picasso’s presence went far to ensure a collage-like aura to the whole affair, which was designed as a ballet-farce enacted in front of a theater (“parade” referred to the song and dance of performers before the circus tent). Picasso’s large back drop, representing a harlequin family with a toreador and a winged horse, was placed very close to the stage apron, cramping the performers, whose role consisted mainly of begging the audience to go inside to see them. A mere “prelude” comprised the entire first act, just as the “real” space of people introducing the spectacle became the fictional space of characters in a ballet.

Highlighting the cast were Picasso’s managers, two of them, the French and the American, being 10 feet high hunks of cardboard Cubist scenery, each occupied by a man who staggered or stamped about, trying to mark time, as if he were a human metronome. The American manager, attired in skyscrapers and top hat, equipped with a megaphone supported by a false arm, berated the audience for mistaking the parade for the real show. He might also have explained that he was as much part of the decor as a protagonist within it. A great deal of the originality of Parade derived, then, from a pictorial conception. But the theatrical requirement, in turn, illuminated an allusion to painting, since it affected a movement only implied by the Cubist figure. Those strange apparitions called “managers” reduced the actual dancers on the stage to puppets, but puppets suddenly, by comparison, made more fleet, supple and graceful than they had ever seemed before. Hence an entire spectrum of contrasts in gestures, gait and scaling appeared to levitate and magnetize our urban environment in a new series of clownish rhythms. The ungainly, monolithic managers were neither paintings, sculptures nor costumes, but an ad hominem mix of all three, capable only of a stilted lope. They contrived to illustrate that inhabited and uncanny motion, that special aspect of made-objects come alive, potentialized in the Cubist vision of the human figure.

If there is any one personage portrayed by the Cubists with distinct favor, it is Harlequin, the joker in their stack of brightly decorated cards. They image him in a way similar to Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, 1911, as a mannequin briefly and magically animated, a figure stemming from the Commedia dell’Arte or the street circus, who acts as a cardboard emblem of disappointed love. Because he is a stand-in for the artist himself, the opposite number to the dissected females of Cubism, and for the reason that he is a straw-man whose every action is understood as pantomine, Harlequin emits suggestive clues to Cubist psychology. By tradition, the Commedia dell’Arte had been countrified or small town theater, a broad popular entertainment stereotyped for child-like tastes. The 19th-century artistic revival of interest in the the theme was suffused by a romantic nostalgia, meaningful as an antidote to the positivism and industrialism of the era. By the first World war, however, when the character reappeared in the work of Picasso, Gris and, later, the Cubist-influenced Gino Severini, he seems to represent that personal expression and authentic feeling—the Romantic ideals par excellance—had been dispossessed, forced to lead a secondary life in mimicry of themselves. This is surely the difference between the romantic Rose period harlequins (aside from the enormous change in style) and those of a dozen years later.

The diamond-suited specimen give in Picasso’s Harlequin, 1915, typically allows no distinction between the role and the performer. A symbolic incarnation of clownishness, he has changed places with the emotionally huddled-in human being forced to clown and mime for a living. Fronting a sequence of stage-flat “echoes,” all of which appear set in arc of pendular motion at different speeds or intervals, this harlequin can be as mobile as a rocking horse. We have already seen such movement in Cubism: jerky, titled, out of kilter, metronomic, wound up in some peculiar way, as if the image were a clockwork mechanism. But more important is the impression given by this Harlequin of having been touched by the artist puppeteer at some undetermined center of gravity and started off on its own ghostly shuttle. How great a distance separated Léger’s lumberjacks from this anti-hero who can be animated only into the weird, but unencumbered grace of a marionette.

But can the Cubist figure have anything of what we call grace, physical or spiritual? In 1900, Henri Bergson’s “Essay on Laughter” anticipated such a question in a remarkable way. Concerned with a theory of the comic, he wrote: “The attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine.” And observing this phenomenon in visual art, he goes on: “We shall probably find that it is generally comic in proportion to the clearness, as well as the subtleness, with which it enables us to see a man as a jointed pupped . . . inside the person, we must distinctly perceive . . . a set-up mechanism. But . . . the general appearance of the person . . . must continue to give us the impression of a living being. The more exactly these two images, that of the person and that of the machine, fit into each other, the more striking is the comic effect.” But Bergson takes pains to show how little he approves of the intelligence, energy and purpose that are the highest human attributes: “our imagination . . . sees the effort of a soul which is shaping matter, a soul which is infinitely supple and perpetually in motion, subject to no laws of gravitation. This soul imparts a portion of its winged lightness to the body it animates: the immateriality which thus passes into matter is what is called gracefulness. Matter, however, is obstinate and resists . . . It would . . . immobilize the intelligently varied movements of the body in stupidly contracted grooves, stereotype in permanent grimaces the fleeting expressions of the face . . . Where matter thus succeeds in dulling the outward life of the soul, in petrifying its movements and thwarting its gracefulness, it achieves, at the expense of the body, an effect that is comic.”

Many of Picasso’s, Léger’s and Gris’ figures seem to get on with the matter, even to embody it, under conditions that Bergson would stigmatize as comic. Though the laughable is hardly alien to human behavior, there is, for Bergson, something foreign to the sentiment, something antagonistic to life itself in that which induces laughter. But though the Cubist figure may often seem ridiculous, it is not ultimately a very risible creation.

Opposed to Bergson on the apparent gracefulness of the mechanical, though he does not deal with the comic, is the German author Heinrich von Kleist, who wrote an imaginary dialogue with a dancer who had invented a new kind of puppet theater (1810). Here it is observed that every movement has its own center of gravity, and that the limbs of a puppet can be set in motion merely by control of this center. “What advantage would these puppets have over living dancers? . . . a negative one, namely that they would always be without affectation. For affectation sets in, you know, when the soul, the vis mortix, is elsewhere than at the center of gravity during its movement.” When a human being fails to make an attempt to imitate a certain movement, he invokes laughter, for “Only a God,” writes Kleist, “could measure himself against matter in the field of dance.” And he has his narrator say further: “In the organic world we see that grace has greater power and brilliance in proportion as the reasoning powers are dimmer and less active.” Nor does he shun the final conclusion of this view: “We shall find [grace] as its purest body which is entirely devoid of consciousness or which possesses it in an infinite degree, e.g. in the marionette or the god.”

Such proposals may lend insight into the equivocal figure of Cubism. It can never be settled whether this hyphenated human offers a hopeful or truncated vision of social conduct. To be sure, Léger, during and after World War I, can still see man in the city as powerful in his robot status, bravely equal to his modern industrial surroundings (The City, 1919). The Harlequin, on the contrary, blends its comic motifs with a tragic tone. Parade was deliberately zany, an esthetic pratfall; the once pathetic harlequin, however, is now rather ominous and makes us uneasy. His eye, beady rather than defiant, as in the Demoiselles, stares out, too steadily, too unblinkingly, to let us rest secure. To move with an iron-like clangor is still to act on one’s own. The consciousness of the Picasso harlequin, bereft of soul but glaring with life, is far more problematical. Obeying gravity rather than taking wing against it, incapable of motion except that of a mannequin’s, he nevertheless seems liberated and superior because his every move is true to his nature. Garbed in the uniform of the vulnerable, he yet has every appearance of the self-sufficient.

It was inevitable that the collage fragmentation of space and the Cubist metamorphosis of the world into a still-life should have prepared for this unsettling image of humanity. But to an equal degree, it was the outcome of the psychology behind those icons that are Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. On André Breton, the progenitor of Surrealism, the effect of the Cubist figure was quite vivid: “When we were children, we had toys that would make us weep with pity and anger today. One day, perhaps, we shall see toys of our whole life, like those of our childhood once more. It was Picasso who gave me this idea—Picasso, creator of tragic toys for adults.

Copyright 2019, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.

  • Issues