Picasso and the art of simile

Reality, tweaked.

New Statesman

Françoise Gilot lived with Picasso for just under ten years and bore him two children. In Life with Picasso, she records that he was fond of referring to Braque as “only Madame Picasso”. When Picasso slept now and then with Nusch, the wife of Paul Éluard, Éluard knew but looked the other way. “The ultimate test of friendship,” Gilot says – to lay down one’s wife for one’s best friend. Picasso: “But it was a gesture of friendship on my part, too. I only did it to make him happy. I didn’t want him to think I didn’t like his wife.” What links these two stories? Condescension, a conviction of superiority, a certain droit du seigneur. Remember Picasso wrote “yo el rey”, I the king, on some early paintings.

In his essay “Borges and I”, Borges notes the gap between his intimate private self and the literary figure, the writer, the Borges of reputation. No such ontological fissure in Picasso. As an artist, he took what he needed – from other artists, from his acolytes, from his lovers, from his collaborators. Lionel Prejger, who worked with Picasso on his metal sculptures, recalled: “He loved all that kind of thing. When Picasso came to my scrap-metal yard, he’d look at all the bits of junk . . .” This self-belief led to a torrential oeuvre, a complete absence of doubt, a refusal of conventional discriminations. Gilot records: “One must be the painter, never the connoisseur. The connoisseur gives only bad advice to the painter. For that reason I have given up trying to judge myself.” Taste is always the enemy of art. But the refusal to discriminate means that as the torrent sweeps along unstoppably, it carries with it sweepings-up and a fair percentage of rubbish and repetition – of kitsch.

In “Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901”, the current exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, you can see his Child with a Dove – the first in a long, lachrymose line of doves, harlequins, fauns and pan pipes. Then there is Picasso’s Blue Period sentimental melancholy, with its self-regarding student-bedsitter politics. Later, the megaphone megakitsch of Guernica (1937), not to mention the terrible attitudinising, the ramped-up rhetoric of Massacre in Korea (1951), whose composition is stolen from Degas’s Young Spartan Girls Provoking the Boys – a picture John Updike said resembled figures in a lift trying not to touch. Picasso took what he wanted. But in this case, his politics, his urgent banalities, were all hand-me-downs. He is an uneven, inconsistent painter.

There are, though, creations that move one by their brilliance, their spontaneity, their exactitude, their economy of means, their decisive perfection. In Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos, we read: “Here error is all in the not done,/all in the diffidence that faltered.” In the best Picasso nothing falters. His art is unhesitating. It is also various, teeming and impossible to encompass. So I’ll write about two drawings, one painting and two sculptures – most of them not widely known or reproduced, all of them incomparable.

On 4 May 1946, Picasso made a penciloutline drawing of two lovers having sex (Couple Enlacé). The man is taking the woman from behind. They are doing it standing up. You can see half of his scrotum like a fig. Her arms are behind her head. Her right leg is lifted high to let him in. His left hand reaches round and down to caress her vulva. His right arm goes over her right shoulder and round to caress the base of her left breast. They are intricately intertwined, inseparable, were it not for the fact Picasso has outlined the woman’s curves in blue crayon and the man’s harder slimness in red crayon. This way we can work out that the woman’s head is laid back, abandoned, ecstatic, on the man’s left shoulder.

The miracle here is first the freedom of the original pencil lines and then the accuracy of the covering crayon, which seems equally free and spontaneous. It isn’t careful in the least. It is carefree yet almost exactly in register as it follows the pencil’s template. It doesn’t seem to be following at all. It is the opposite of painstaking. Intricate though it is, it is as if Picasso was practising his signature. It is full of flourish and at ease with its skill. And it captures something previously uncaptured about the act of sex – its grace, the perfection of its fit, its ideal beauty, what we think we are doing when we lose ourself in the other person. A oneness dependent on differentiation – two colours, two sexes, with a shared pencil outline.

In his Rose or Circus Period, Picasso paints La famille de saltimbanques (1905). This large oil is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The second figure on the left, in front of a fat clown, is a girl with a basket of flowers. It is the study for her figure that I want to analyse. The girl has her back to us. There is no basket, only a dog. She is looking down to her right at the dog below. Her right hand rests on the dog’s head. The drawing has two colours only – black pastel and a faint, dull pink. Her dress is pink and her bolero top is black. Her hair is black with a pink flower in it. The dog too is black. It seems to be drawn on matt wrapping paper. You can see horizontal lines at regular intervals.

The drawing is a beautiful enigma. All its secrets are internal. Though it seems quietly realistic, there is a clue in its single, discreet, disguised anomaly. The girl’s left arm is raised and crooked. She appears to have no hand. The viewer allows for perspective and makes the correction, ekes out the drawing with expectation. But the etiolation is deliberate. Actually, the arm is configured to parallel the dog’s curved tail at the bottom right. And once noticed, this sets off a series of explosive parallels. Her head and the dog’s head are turned to the right. Her feet and the dog’s paws mirror each other. The line of the dog’s torso – an inverted mountain range of ups and downs – is picked up in the outline of her bolero top. And further repeated in the Toblerone of her hairline. A great harmonic drawing, a sumptuous chord.

The Two Brothers (gouache on cardboard) was painted in Gósol in 1906. Picasso kept this picture for himself. You can see it in the Musée Picasso in Paris. It shows a naked boy giving his smaller brother a piggy-back, his left leg advanced towards the viewer. Once more the palette is restricted, this time to brown-pink, though there is crimson and blue in the rim of a drum in the left foreground. The little boy has his arms around his big brother’s neck, his fingers interlaced. His legs poke through his brother’s arms and hang pointing outwards.

The drum has a small pottery dish resting on it, also being carried, and it makes the trelliswork compositional motif explicit, though not obtrusive. Its body is held by interlacing wire in an unequal diamond pattern. Why did Picasso reserve this picture for himself? Because, I think, it contains an artistic secret that is central to the development of Picasso’s art. On the right eyebrow of the little boy being carried is a fleck of paint, a little skin-tag of pigment. This is a sculptural inflection and tells us that the dusky, dusty pinks are intended to summon terracotta garden sculpture.

Picasso’s art really begins to accelerate once he discovers – in his effortlessly ver - satile way – how much sculpture can contribute to painting. If you consider the diagonal nasal striations around the time of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) – those primitive comb-like rakes along the ridge of the nose – you can see they represent rough carving, chisel marks, as well as pronounced shadow. A painting such as Dancing Couple (1921-22) uses the coarse, nubbly grain of the canvas to create the illusion of granite – helped by the monumental quality of the hands and the features (a shared simplified version of Picasso), especially the faintly rudimentary lashless eyelids. Then there is cubism’s initial impulse to represent in one dimension sculpture’s three dimensions and shifting viewpoint. In the 1930s, Picasso’s paintings are pastiches of monumental classical sculpture, with large-limbed subjects clad in pleated tunics – every one a sturdy Isadora Duncan dancer or a Joan Hunter-Dunn, with height and heft and burly wrists.

And Picasso became a wonderful sculptor, better even than Matisse, who can’t quite get his natural beauty into sculpture. Picasso is naturally rebarbative, though he can paint beautiful pictures on occasion – like the representation of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter asleep (Nude in a Garden, 1934) – where the arsehole, navel and nipples are a constellation of Cadbury’s chocolate buttons; the legs are another divided, large-scale vagina; and the fingers and blonde hair mirror their different, shapely strands. The river she lies by is ravishingly coloured, the narcissi above like butterflies trembling with cerebral palsy. Picasso could be beautiful, but mostly he chose to be realistic.

He made two Little Owl sculptures. One owl has a body made from a mattock. The other, even greater sculpture, is made from a dish. Its wings – the mattock silhouette – are made from nails, fixed with plaster to its back. The plaster coverage is only partial, like batter on courgettes cut into allumettes – and this creates the perfect, Platonic fledgling. Its claws are screws, the thread mimicking the hard, scaly legs and claws. Its eyes are screws, its beak a truncated sneck of metal found on a dump. It is brilliant bricolage, an act of improvisation, collage, makedo- and-mend, based on Picasso’s gift for seeing likenesses. His is an art of simile that can create a bull’s head from a bicycle seat and a pair of handlebars; a baboon’s face from two toy cars (a Panhard and a Renault); a little girl’s knitted cardigan from a wickerwork basket; her ears from teacup handles.

One of Picasso’s other great discoveries is interchangeability. In The Embrace (summer 1925), the nose and the eye are a single unit, a penis and scrotum; the bearded mouth and the fringed eye are both vaginas. Breasts can be eyes. The sign for pubic hair – a notched triangle – can also stand in for a belly button and armpit hair. Part of Picasso’s greatness is bound up with the idea that equivalence is more effective than literal representation, dull mimesis. The sign for something shows you have thought about what is being represented. It is reality tweaked.

Picasso’s 1958 Bull at MoMA in New York is a white-wood, simplified outline of a bull in profile, tail down to the right, head to the left and turned to face the viewer. The horns are not pointed but rounded like a boomerang. The lower body of the bull is masked with a second outline, not of white wood but of a coarser, darker wood, the texture of packing cases. To this smooth/ coarse, white/raw-mahogany template, Picasso adds four things: the sinews of the bull, the veins of the bull, the flies on the bull and the sweat on the bull.

The sinews and veins are stripped reddish- brown twigs, roughly nailed to the other two textures. The nails are sturdy and have been hammered in, then bent across the twigs. The nail heads bite into the white plywood finish and the packing case material. Flies and sweat are clusters of gunmetal tin-tacks – darkly glittering, strategically placed where you would expect to find them. The eyes are unforgettable – nuts and bolts right through the head, full of menace – their intensity further focused by a wooden frame.

Picasso said of his goat that it was more real than a goat. You can smell this bull; you can see the sinews; the hair is there before you in the coarse hirsuteness of the wood. To the idea of the bull, to its billboard outline, to its almost cartoon conception, Picasso has roughly added its actual roughness, its animal force, its beastliness.

“Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901” is at the Courtauld Gallery, London WC2, until 27 May. Craig Raine writes regularly on visual art for the New Statesman