Picasso has become the emblematic artist of the twentieth century, giving essential shape to its presiding themes. Nothing is more characteristic of the century than the horror of modern war; and no painting conveys that horror with the force of Guernica, which Picasso painted in 1937 after the Basque town was bombed into rubble. Examining Picasso’s response to the war years in an exhibition without Guernica is difficult, not least because he often didn’t directly confront the war and nothing he did after 1937 has the emblematic importance of that picture. But “Picasso and the War Years: 1937-45,” which opened recently at the uptown Guggenheim, still manages to convey the disturbing power of Picasso’s war-darkened work. The exhibition should particularly interest contemporary artists who make political art, for Picasso understood that it took much more than anger to sustain the forms of outrage.
Organized by Steven A. Nash and Robert Rosenblum of, respectively, the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and the Guggenheim, the exhibition includes about 75 paintings, works on paper, and sculptures; they range in date from the onset of the Spanish Civil War through the end of World War II. Picasso did not have to reach for anything beyond himself in shaping his rich response to the European conflagration: Guernica, for example, unites strongly contrasting elements of form and sensibility that he already possessed. He shook the fragmented space of cubism, which once provided a way for him to make elegant formal constructions, into the flux of terror. He distorted the body to force out a scream; the exhibit includes a study for Guernica, Head of a Horse, in which every nerve of the animal appears stretched to the point of snapping – even its soft tongue sharpens toward a dagger’s point. And yet Picasso also included in the painting a kind of otherworldly distance, which is a necessary part of the tragic understanding. (“After great pain,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “a formal feeling comes.”) The careful manner in which Guernica is built, together with the powerful presence of the animals, evokes the classical tradition.
Although many Picasso pictures of the time did not literally address the subject of war, the show nonetheless suggests that their claustrophobic spaces and darkened tone reflect the war years. This can be difficult to argue, for it is often unprovable one way or the other. Frequently during his life – not only during the war – Picasso made violent or disturbing work. Certainly, the pictures of Dora Maar, his weeping mistress, reflect his personal circumstances during this period. And yet one reason that Picasso became an emblematic artist was that his chaotic inner life was a kind of cultural quicksilver, spilling outward to reflect larger social themes. Picasso himself said, “I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict. But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done.” So monstrous was his narcissism, so porous the boundary between his public and his private self, that a war within could represent the war without. A mistress flinging her arms upward – breast exposed, face twisted in torment – could express the shriek of a woman who loses all in a war. Dora Maar could become Everywoman.
The war touched most of the conventional genres in which Picasso worked, notably still life, whose tradition of the memento mori lent itself to contemporary meditations upon death. The show includes Death’s Head, a bronze sculpture of a skull that also resembles a bombed and cratered world; the skull establishes a bleak, broken rhyme with the disembodied heads in Brancusi’s art, which are symbols of promise and inviolate purity. But the war is most powerfully felt in Picasso’s presentation of animals. If a bull represented life at its most vital and imposing, Picasso, in many of his pictures during the war years, chose instead to portray severed heads. In his great Still Life With Steer’s Skull and Table, for example, the coagulating paint seems to smother the flow of life, much as the blood of the animal dries. And the picture of a feral cat carrying a bird in its mouth across a roof may evoke – allusively – the savage killing of the innocents.
In The Charnel House – painted in 1945 as reports of the death camps began to filter through Europe – Picasso once more publicly addressed the horrors of the war, depicting a slaughtered family. As in Guernica, he used an essentially cubist space and the flickering black-and-white palette of the newsreels. But this painting lacks the extraordinary scale – physical, moral, spiritual – of Guernica. It doesn’t aspire to be a summary painting that concentrates its subject into a singular image. Instead, the picture has an unfinished air. Picasso left ghostly, partially rubbed-out lines in the image; the color seems bled of life; a still life in the upper left appears barren, abandoned. But The Charnel House is yet another example of Picasso’s sublime intuition about how an artist must approach the century’s horrors. Not long after he painted the picture, writers would argue that art must fall mute before the Holocaust – that no image could represent its meaning in anything but the most broken, partial manner. In The Charnel House, Picasso begins but does not presume to end the accounting of the Holocaust: His lines fade toward nothingness.
The designers of “Picasso and the War Years” are less metaphysically astute. They impose a corny, upbeat narrative on the show, ending it with Man With a Lamb, which they place soon after The Charnel House on the Guggenheim ramp. Traditionally, Man With a Lamb is regarded as a symbol of hope; it makes obvious references to peace, renewal, and Christian redemption. However, the Holocaust really should not serve as the walk-up to hope; besides, Picasso made Man With a Lamb two years before The Charnel House. Picasso’s war work holds our interest precisely because his unsettled sensibility does not form into such answers. It is troubling, impure, roiling; it does not end or begin; it can veer, nihilistically, between hope and despair. His sheer vitality – which is ancient, animal, and without answers – is the essential counterpoint to a century of death.