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Picasso and the art of simile

Reality, tweaked.

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

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror