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    The Roots of Modern Art, Part 7: Picasso (I)

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    • 06/17/2006

    By /index.php?/user/8-davidm/">David Misialowski (2006)

    People who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree." - Picasso

    What more can anyone say about Picasso? Certainly I have nothing to add in the way of scholarship, so I will confine myself to unsystematic personal impressions, and in so doing I will risk barking up the wrong tree. Also, in these essays I have necessarily passed over a number of artists and events that might contribute to an understanding of the rise of 20th century art. But I am limited by space and time, in way that Picasso was not.

    We have seen how hard it is to define art. One idea, Wittgensteinian family resemblances, suggests that we should look at individual works of art by their overlaps and associations, rather than try to define art as a whole. With that idea in mind, how would one even define Picasso? There are Picassos that look nothing like other Picassos! It is hard to imagine that the same artist made the following pictures:


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    I think it is fair to say that no other artist in history was as versatile as Picasso. The Picasso style is the anti-style. Even with artists like Van Gogh and Cezanne, in whom we see sharp changes and evolution, we find elements of content or style common to their late work and their early work, and Cezanne developed a mature style that he refined.

    Everything is different with Picasso. He began drawing and painting as a young boy, a boy who painted like a man, and continued making powerful images until his death in 1973 at age 92. So he left eight decades of work, and during that time he veered in one direction and then another, inspired by muses who were often mistresses but also by others that, as Jung believed, might have been inaccessible even to him. His creativity was ceaseless, inexhaustible, unexplainable.

    It would be beyond the scope of this particular essay to study all of Picasso, an endeavor that in itself would demand many books (and of course, countless such books have been written). Consequently, I will confine myself to looking, first, at the Picasso who developed, in concert with others, cubism, which never became a school per se (though certainly seemed to be heading in that direction in the years before World War I), but had a decisive influence on the art and architecture of the 20th century. And in a second instalment, I will try to analyze his 1937 Guernica, a work possibly as iconic for its time and place, as the Sistine Chapel was for its.

    Cubism was an art of both intuition and analysis, of discarding tradition while pushing toward a new one. In trying to pin down what makes a Picasso a Picasso, it is ironic that we can't even say, "Well, Picasso was unique. He made and broke his own rules, and nobody else was him." But some art scholars have thought that cubism was his most influential visual contribution, and it turns out that this sort of painting was often so depersonalized that it is hard to distinguish a Georges Braque

    cubist work from one by Picasso. Consider:


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    One of the above is by Picasso and one is by Braque, but which is which? So Picasso even daunts us when we try to identify him by his originality. It seems that no matter what he did, he confounded expectations. Consider, too, that after inventing and refining cubism, he abandoned it and started painting in the following, neo-classical style:


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    Picasso, though a visual genius, like all artists existed in a certain cultural context, at a time of proliferating cultures that, fortunately for him, would admit of proliferating species of art. So we can approach his art in the context of its time. He was born in 1881 in Spain, to a father who a painter and a professor of art, and by his teens, he was painting magnificent mimetic works firmly in the Western tradition. He was 16 (!) when he painted the following work, Science and Charity:


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    He was 14 or 15 when he painted The First Communion:


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    Some people (almost always non-artists) say in derision, looking at mature Picasso works that seem childish, that "my child could do that". Picasso took such remarks as compliments, for he came to think of the works of children as superior to refined work. He wrote:

    Unlike in music, there are no child prodigies in painting. What people regard as premature genius is the genius of childhood. It gradually disappears as they get older. It is possible for such a child to become a real painter one day, perhaps even a great painter. But he would have to start right from the beginning. So far as I am concerned, I did not have that genius. My first drawings could never have been shown at an exhibition of children's drawings. I lacked the clumsiness of a child, his naivety. I made academic drawings at the age of seven, the minute precision of which frightened me.

    So anyone who thinks that Picasso could not draw and paint mimetically like a virtuoso, quite in the tradition of the grand masters, should have this misconception dispelled by the above works. Remember the age at which he pulled these off. Most painters have to struggle for years to achieve the technical mastery that Picasso possessed in his teens. Maybe one obvious reason why his painting got so weird later on is that it simply bored him to do, over and over, that which he had effortlessly mastered in his youth.

    A hundred years ago, he was living as a bohemian in Paris and he was a rebel, holding bourgeois values in contempt. By this time, although the normative aesthetic restrictions of the French Academy still held some sway, they were in disrepute among a growing number of avant garde artists, and the works of people like Cezanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin were coming widely to be known and appreciated, not just by other artists but by the public, which had already embraced impressionism. This was consistent with a changing and fragmenting culture.

    The paintings that the Academy sanctioned were in many ways technically magnificent, but we have already seen their severe limitations with respect to other theories of art, and moreover, they were products of a certain philosophy: the philosophy of rationalism, scientism and realism, a belief in objective truth and value, and in cultural teleology, the conviction that Western Europe was "moving forward" toward something better.

    The industrial revolution and technological progress underpinned this teleological conceit, but more sensitive observers, like artists, noticed that every "advance" brought a host of new problems with it, like the overcrowding, unsanitary living conditions and poverty associated with urbanization. The rationalist, teleological conceit eventually collapsed in the charnel house of World War I, which itself was a dress rehearsal for World War II and the Holocaust. Some people who believe that artists actually are seers think that the distortions of the art of Picasso and others after the turn of the century were previews of coming "attractions" in the non-art world.

    Today, the artist as rebel, rejecting mainstream culture, is such a cliche that the artist who plays this role is probably no more unconventional than the conventions he or she is scorning, and one could argue that at the present, to be truly transgressive would be to become bourgeois! But at the time Picasso and other artists and writers probably were thinking more systematically about their rebellion, in a way that probably people like Van Gogh and Gauguin had not, their rebellion being mainly intuitive and reactive.

    Thinkers like Nietzsche, who argued for the absolute freedom of the artist and inveighed against the shortcomings of modern culture, religion and morality, influenced Picasso and the artists and writers in his circle. They thought that society was decadent and overcivilized and that visually, it needed to be reinvigorated. They prescribed a healthy dose of primitivism for the arts. They saw, and admired, the primitive and what they conceived to be more "natural" and intuitive living arrangements in the cultures of people in places like Oceana, and especially Africa.

    While European culture at large was stereotyping Africans as primitive in the sense of being not as "evolved" as Europeans (and thus providing itself with an excuse to steal African lands in the name of civilizing the barbarians), Picasso and the artists, probably, had their own stereotype of Africa, as a romantic paradise uncontaminated by civilization where the people, and the art, was authentic. Gauguin's earlier flight to Tahiti, where he made his best art, anticipated this view.

    In the milieu of African art, and the works of Gauguin, Van Gogh and especially Cezanne, Picasso gradually moved toward a synthesis, of their concerns, and galvanized it with his own unique talent. Before cubism, he went through his Blue Period (a period of personal poverty and the suicide of a close friend) and then his more cheerful Rose Period, during which he produced some striking drawing and use of color, but during those periods his art remained fundamentally rooted in the past, an art that was mimetic and story-telling. But by 1907, after he had absorbed African art and had been exposed to the proto-cubist experiments of Braque, his art changed. Consider this work, Three Women:


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    This picture from 1907 shows the influence of Cezanne and African art, but Picasso has made it his own. Recall how Cezanne made his figures monumental and depersonalized, particularly in his late studies of bathers; how the figures themselves seem to have been hewn from the stone, and how the clouds took on the aspect of mountains. Recall how Cezanne flattened the picture plane and took liberties with perspective, gently banishing the "window on the world" approach to fixed-perspective art. We also see those properties in Picasso's figures above, in an even more extreme way. We see it in the inhuman red color he chose to paint the flesh, and in the vivid way that he has articulated planes and angles, making flesh and rock merge.

    He Africanized the faces, consistent with his study of African masks, and he made positive and negative space ambiguous, particularly in the lower part of the canvas. At the same time he somehow charged these granitic and even bestial women with robust sexual energy. He arranged them in seductive poses, forcing the viewer to equivocate between the seduction of the poses and the sexless, rock-like planes and angles that comprise the poses. This sort of internal contradiction and ambiguity would become characteristic not just of the contents but of the formal elements of cubism. These figures obviously are a long way from the traditional depiction of the human form, especially that of the female, and it is thought the Picasso painted this proto-Cubist work to "catch up" with the similar works, though landscape studies, that Braque was making at this time. In his choice of color, form and composition, Picasso has replaced the idealized female form with the primitive one.

    (One could ask whether this effort by Picasso and others to infuse their works with the primitive, in the service of what they saw as the authentic, was inauthentic. After all, Picasso was a product of civilization, even if he rejected aspects of it. He did not have an "innocent eye" and moreover, probably neither did the Africans whose art he tried to emulate and transform. As I mentioned, one could argue that in romanticizing Africans, Picasso and other artists of this time were stereotyping them in their own way for an artistic purpose, just as the dominant culture was stereotyping Africans in a different way for a different reason.)

    In 1907 Picasso produced the following work, which art historians have judged to be a decisive turning point in 20th century art, not because the work was "good" (we have seen how problematic such talk can be) but because, objectively, it had enormous influence on other artists and their work:


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    The painting is called Les demoiselles d'Avignon, and it depicts five prostitutes in a brothel. After he painted it, he turned it to the wall of his studio, and for a long time he showed it only to a few fellow artists and writers like Gertrude Stein, and even they hated it. But remember that starting with Manet's 1863 painting of a picnic that scandalized the French Academy, many artists were continuously pushing ever further from academic standards. Picasso has arguably, in this painting, brought this movement to a culmination.

    In it, he rejected the canons of classical beauty in favor of simplified forms that hang together with sharp, geometrical angles and curves. He rejected gentle light-and-shading effects, with mixed and muted colors, in favor of raw, flat, garish color fields. He rejected "window-on-the-world" perspective in favor a flat canvas. He rejected traditional perspective for multiple perspectives. He rejected idealizing the female nude in favor of charging them with a primitive and overtly sexual energy. He rejected normative Western standards of beauty in favor of African expressionism, most notably in the faces of the two figures on the right that are actually depictions of African masks. As we have seen, others before Picasso rejected, to one degree or another, many of the Western traditions, but probably no painting before this work had displayed the flouting of those canons in such a fundamental and obvious way.

    Picasso and Braque essentially co-invented Cubism, working first independently and then yoked closely together, like "mountaineers", Braque said, and later many others joined in. Seeing an early Cubist landscape by Braque, a critic remarked: "Mr. Braque despises form, reduces everything, places and figures and houses according to geometrical schemes, to cubes." The term stuck, even though there was actually not much of the "cube" in Cubism. Recall how the term impressionism was born from a critic’s derisive description of a painting by Monet. Unsurprisingly, when Braque submitted his early, proto-cubist works to officially sanctioned art exhibitions, they were rejected. Manet would have sympathized.

    Here is a summary of the main concerns of cubism:

    I. Space and Time.

    Picasso, Braque and others, under the influence of prevailing intellectual trends, perhaps even the Special Theory of Relativity (more about this possible connection in a bit), rejected traditional conceptions of space and time. It is known that they were influenced by the work of the mathematician Poincar� (and see especially Conventionalism and the Philosophy of Geometry), who held that Euclidean geometry was conventional, a convenient but not necessary way to interpret the world, a view that put him at odds with the philosophy of Kant, among others. But by this time it was understood that there could be a proliferation of geometries, like Reimannian geometry, with its emphasis on a curved space.

    Other influences bore on them too, the same sort of influences that were undermining positivism: The X-ray machine had been invented in 1895, and by the dawn of cubism it was understood that there was a lot more to the world than met the eye - the visible world was the tip of a visual and ontological iceberg. At this time there was also much talk of the fourth dimension, in the sense of a possible fourth spatial dimension or in the sense of time as a dimension. Picasso and others knew that if one could view the 3D world from the perspective of a fourth spatial dimension, one would be able simultaneously to see the figure from all perspectives, and also its interior. If one could view a figure from the perspective of the time dimension, one would be able to see it spread out like a set of still frames in a movie - displaying what philosophers of time today would call its temporal parts. Being painters, they naturally tried to interpret these new ideas visually.

    II. Objective and Subjective

    Western tradition art placed a premium on planning. The world was believed to be an objective place, the same for all, and all who painted had to learn a set of standard techniques for grasping and depicting it. But as we have seen, this consensus of what the artist ought to do, and what the world was like, began to break up in the mid-19th century, and by the time of Picasso it was, at least among the avant garde movement, in ruins. While it is true that in the case of cubism, a good deal of analysis and planning took place, cubism essentially elevated subjectivism. Invention took precedence over planning. This was particularly true in late cubism, which came to be known as synthetic cubism, as opposed to the early stage of it, analytical cubism. Picasso left records of how he painted that included, later in life, movies of him in action, and he, like so many other 20th century painters, relied heavily on inspiration. He did not build his works from the ground up, as the Old Masters had done, but started some way, even arbitrarily, and often changed course numerous times, working and reworking the surface of the canvas or paper until he got something that he intuitively felt was "right".

    III. Inner and Outer

    While traditional painters were concerned with the outer world, Picasso was preoccupied with the inner one. Rather than depict the forms of nature that presented them to his eye, Picasso invented forms, a bewildering array of them over the course of his long life, taking the outer world as, at most, a scaffolding for his fantasies and inventions. Interestingly, though, Picasso, unlike so many 20th century painters, never went over into full non-representationalism. The figurative always remained central to his art, no matter how wild his distortions became.

    We can see the passage from the austere formalism of Cezanne to the formal Cubist dislocations of time and space by comparing the following portraits, the first by Cezanne and the second by Picasso, both of the art dealer Ambrose Vollard:


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    Just as a quick aside - for who can resist? - here is taste of what we have today, postmodern art, and for now I'll let the reader imagine the point. It is called Happy Mr. Vollard, as it is by T.F. Chen.


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    We saw that Cezanne, especially late in his career, was a formalist, and that a formalist is someone who, broadly, thinks that aesthetic pleasure, or experience, or insight, or whatever it is (assuming it is anything) that we derive from pictorial art has to do mainly with the way that marks on a surface are arranged, and not very much, if anything, to do with what is depicted (if anything is depicted). We saw how Cezanne depersonalized his wife in the service of form, and we see him doing so again in his portrait of Vollard, making the art dealer's face almost an abstract mask. But in his own portrait of Vollard, Picasso went far beyond Cezanne, while incorporating Cezanne's influence.

    Picasso not just flattened the canvass but fractured it, as if space itself were an object, one that the artist struck with the vibrant hammer blows of his paintbrush and broke to pieces. In this picture, we sense that there is no space - just faceted, jostling and interlocking forms vying for attention no matter where one looks. The work gives the impression of a highly complex stained-glass window through which the ochre of Vollard’s faceted but still recognizable face shines like a somber sun.

    In flattening the canvas and banishing the illusion of space between objects, Picasso subtly gave the impression that the figure was displaying itself from multiple perspectives, even from behind. The painting also features another kind of space, a tactile one: we sense that if we could run our hands over the surface of the canvas, we would feel the edges of the fractured space. Impressionism was a tactile art as well, but those who practiced it were trying to evoke the tactile sense of sun falling on surfaces by use of unmodulated brush strokes. In the case of Picasso's Vollard, light, shade and color are incidental; he made space itself tactile. In a Cubist painting, empty space ceases to exist, and so positive and negative spaces lose their articulation and separation. Passages are ambiguous.

    Cubists turned the hourglass of tradition upside down: Instead of depicting deep space from a fixed perspective, they articulated a flat surface from multiple perspectives.

    Picasso repeatedly subverted tradition, and for this reason some have thought him as a destroyer, a bull run riot in a china shop. It is true: he was a destroyer, but in the service of creativity. To call him a destroyer would be no reproach, unless one thinks that he was destructive, which many people do.

    Over the years, Picasso has inspired, mainly among non-artists, a range of negative feelings, including disparagement, condescension and loathing - even a burning hatred. See how, at Abstract Art, the author reassures her readers that while the bulk of Picasso's work is little more than a hoax (thus, unsurprisingly, indulging and validating their biases) he really could paint realistically if he wanted to, and she cites examples of his early mimetic work. She informs her readers that Picasso painted weird stuff because he knew that suckers were hooked on novelty, and so he gave the public what he wanted. Unsurprisingly, the author can't even keep basic facts straight: Contrary to her claim, Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (which we'll look at shortly) was not the first cubist work, Duchamp having painted it nearly five years after Picasso and Braque invented cubism. But this sort of ignorance, sadly, is typical for what passes as art appraisal by those who either don't know anything about art, or don't care about it. Consider, too, the Picasso: Fraud website. And so on.

    To be clear, no one has to like cubism, or any art, for that matter. As I have tried to show in the philosophy of art essays, attempts to define art, or to talk about good and bad art, founder on philosophical problems. But it is one thing to say that art comes with philosophical baggage, and another thing to dismiss out of hand anything that does not correspond to your art biases, while parading your ignorance of basic facts to boot.

    Some people question whether art, especially visual art, has any real relevance. In a future essay, Art as Power, I will try to answer that question. (Sneak preview: the answer is YES.) For now, I would like to suggest that the frothing hatred directed at Picasso (still!) shows just how relevant art is, and this hatred is no accident. It is a cultural phenomenon, and the hatred comes from a particular sort of person. I would also like to point out (and I will elaborate on this in Art as Power) that the three great totalitarian psycho-states of the 20th century - Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China - banned nonobjective and avant garde art, and decreed that realistic art, and specifically a brand of social realism that stressed the heroic, was the only valid art. In general, this aesthetic line is taken by most, maybe all, authoritarian states and by authoritarian personalities.

    Again, I will talk more about this later, but for now, I suggest these facts should give pause to those who find modern art alienating, baffling, depressing or a hoax. Surely, the Nazis, the Stalinists and the Maoists knew that it was not a hoax, and they knew what power modern art had - a power that was a gun aimed at their wretched heads. (No wonder Goring said, "When I hear the word 'culture' I reach for my gun." For him, doing so was a matter of self-defense.) I should put it like this: modern art is on the side of the people. Ironically, many of these very same people are not on the side of modern art. Be that as it may, let's return, for now, to Picasso and cubism.

    As I have mentioned, in addition to a new conception of space, Cubists were concerned with differing concepts of time - rejecting the view that there was a privileged time, even during the same period that Einstein was showing that there was no privileged, Newtonian now. Maybe we could say that Cubism was post-Newtonian. To see one way in which the Cubists reinterpreted time, consider Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase:


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    It is Cubistic time-lapse photography, showing the fractured figure in its descent from top left to bottom right all at a single glance: time spatialized. This work anticipates the modern philosophical idea of temporal parts, which holds that people, and all objects, do not pass through time, but rather perdure, timelessly, within it. On this account, just as we have spatial parts, we have temporal parts. As the top of one's head, and the bottoms of one's feet, are examples of spatial boundaries, so, too, we all have temporal boundaries: birth and death.

    A 2002 Article in Physics Web explores whether Picasso knew about Einstein, and perhaps specifically special relativity, and whether this knowledge also influenced cubism. The answer is indefinite, but the science philosopher Arthur Miller nevertheless believes there is a link. From the Physics Web article: "Miller regards Cubism as a 'research program' in which Picasso, like Einstein, discovered a new aesthetic - the reduction of forms to geometrical representations." By this account, the boundary is blurred if not erased between art and science: artists carry out research as scientists do, and scientists make theories because they are aesthetically pleasing.

    In synthetic Cubism, Picasso and others extended their research program to collage, combining paint with found objects, torn newspapers and the like. Consider the following collage by Picasso:


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    The works of synthetic Cubism because simpler, more colorful, seemingly more intuitive and focused less on disassembling form, but reassembling it into new patterns.

    Even before Cubism, abstract, non-representational art was on its way, and, as I have argued, one could say that Cezanne himself, in his late paintings of a mountain, created the first truly non-representational works of the 20th century. But art scholars generally credit Cubism with inspiring many artists to pursue non-objective art who might otherwise have hesitated to do so.

    One should bear in mind that in this essay, I have treated of cubism in an introductory way, focusing on Picasso. Those who wish to learn more of this art movement will find a rich literature, both online and in print. And it, like all art movements, one can examine it from many perspectives that I have not even touched on here: gender issues, for instance, to which the art professors Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten devote an entire chapter in their book, Cubism and Culture. An overview of some of the other artists who pursued cubism may be found here.

    In his 1913 essay, "On Point of View in the Arts", the Spanish philosopher Jos� Ortega Y Gasset wrote, "The evolution of Western painting would consist in a retraction from the object toward the subject, the painter." Cubism simultaneously affirms and challenges this idea because it features a tension between objective and subjective, inner and outer, space and time. One the one hand it appears to be depersonalized in a way that seems to defy "retraction toward the subject, the painter". On the other hand, for all its formal innovations, it involves so much invention of form, and so much improvisation, that inevitably it speaks to the inner state of the artist.

    Although Picasso left cubism behind, its influence pervaded much of his later work. As a movement, Cubism broke up in the slaughter of World War I (in which Picasso refused to fight, and in which Braque was seriously wounded, but recovered to continue painting). Picasso reinvented himself as an interpreter of classical forms in a way that shocked many of his contemporaries, because his new approach seemed so unradical. (maybe Picasso already foresaw the possibility that to be truly transgressive, one ought to be bourgeois), but his "classical" forms are sometimes so strange, so mammoth and space-extinguishing, and so weirdly stylized (but exquisitely drawn), that some have thought them to be a deliberate parody of academic painting. Consider a few:


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    This detour into neo-classicism would prove to be a hiatus until Picasso's next great burst of activity, which involved, among other things, surrealism, an art movement that I will examine in a future essay, which will include a discussion of Picasso's surrealism.

    Picasso remarked that people who tried to explain pictures were usually barking up the wrong tree, but that didn’t stop Jung, after attending an exhibition of Picasso's works, from trying to understand what motivated the artist. From the perspective of the present, Jung's analysis might seem inappropriate, because Picasso was not his patient. Nevertheless his short 1932 essay remains interesting.

    Of Picasso, Jung writes:

    Non-objective art draws its contents essentially from 'inside.' This 'inside' cannot correspond to consciousness, since consciousness contains images of objects as they are generally seen, and whose appearance must therefore necessarily conform to general expectations. Picasso's object, however, appears different from what is generally expected - so different that it no longer seems to refer to any object of outer experience at all. Taken chronologically, his works show a growing tendency to withdraw from the empirical objects, and an increase in those elements which do not correspond to any outer experience but come from an 'inside' situated behind consciousness - or at least behind that consciousness which, like a universal organ of perception set over and above the five senses, is orientated towards the outer world. Behind consciousness there lies not the absolute void but the unconscious psyche, which affects consciousness from behind and from inside, just as much as the outer world affects it from in front and from outside. Hence those pictorial elements which do not correspond to any 'outside' must originate from 'inside.'’

    Jung ventures that Picasso's works are of the "schizophrenic kind" (though he later emphasized, in a postscript to the essay, that he did not wish to imply that he thought Picasso suffered from schizophrenia): "The picture leaves one cold, or disturbs one by its paradoxical, unfeeling, and grotesque unconcern for the beholder."

    For Jung, Picasso was on a quest (as who was not for Jung?). He writes that Picasso is ruled by the "symbol of the Nekyia", representing "the journey to Hades", and that Picasso is lured by the "underworld fate":

    ... the man in him who does not turn towards the day-world, but is fatefully drawn into the dark; who follows not the accepted ideals of goodness and beauty, but the demoniacal attraction of ugliness and evil. It is these antichristian and Luciferian forces that well up in modern man and engender an all-pervading sense of doom, veiling the bright world of day with the mists of Hades, infecting it with deadly decay, and finally, like an earthquake, dissolving it into fragments, fractures, discarded remnants, debris, shreds, and disorganized units.

    Jung writes: "Picasso and his exhibition are a sign of the times, just as much as the twenty-eight thousand people who came to look at his pictures."

    Picasso certainly was a sign of the times, despite or because of his bewildering originality. And perhaps the most potent sign of his times is to be found in his iconic mural Guernica, which I will discuss in the next instalment.

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