Pepe Karmel

Barbarism, parody, invention: Picasso as “vertical invader”

Thursday April 27 – Session 03 @ COAC

In The Success and Failure of Picasso (1965), John Berger describes Picasso as a “vertical invader” from Spain into France: “always he has subjected what he has seen around him to a comparison with what he brought with him from his own country, from the past (p. 40).”  Berger borrows the idea of the “vertical invader” from José Ortega y Gasset, who in turn borrowed it from Walther Rathenau.  For Rathenau and Ortega, the invaders are the peasants and workers who have traditionally been excluded from civil society but now demand political and cultural representation.  For Berger, Picasso’s Spanish roots make him an artistic outsider in France, his work impelled by a sense of difference and exclusion.  Indeed, Picasso was not fully accepted by the French art establishment during his lifetime.  His first museum retrospective in Paris took place only in 1955, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.   

Outsiders often react to established canons by mocking them.  What is unusual is Picasso’s ability to transform parody into “serious” invention.  Clement Greenberg described Cubism as a “travesty” of “realistic pictorial space,” but this travesty provided a new formal language for modern art.  Similarly, Picasso’s pastiches of stock images of French and Italian peasants led to the invention of his solemn Neo-Classical style, with all mockery expunged.  His Kiss of 1925, a response to Picabia’s parodies of movie posters, prefigures his revolutionary metamorphic figures of the later 1920s and the 1930s.  Picasso’s Neo-Classicism and Surrealism thus demand analysis in terms of the tension between “high” and “low” culture.

Picasso’s “invader” status also relates his work to the postcolonial critique of modernism.  Oswald de Andrade’s “Manifesto Antropófago” of 1928 describes Brazilian art as having a cannibalistic relationship to European tradition.  Marie-Laure Bernadac and Anne Baldassari have noted a similar “cannibalistic” quality in Picasso’s studies after the Old Masters.  His reworkings of Rembrandt, Cranach, and Velasquez, Delacroix, Courbet and Manet are more radical than is usually acknowledged: replacing three-dimensional form with decorative patterning, he rejects the fundamental project of Western art.

There is also more to be said about the profoundly aggressive quality of Picasso’s later pictures.  An outsider inside the “imaginary museum,” he sometimes behaves like a teenager scrawling moustaches and penises on the walls.  Picasso’s attacks on canonical masterpieces call out for comparison to the work of the Nouveaux Réalistes Raymond Hains, Jacques de la Villeglé, and Mimmo Rotella, who created new compositions by defacing advertisements.  As Bernadac observes, Picasso’s defacements of the 1950s provide the foundation for his radical new style of the 1960s.  A consideration of his “outsider” psychology may thus cast new light on this late work, which still presents a challenge for art history.

Pepe Karmel

Associate Professor, Department of Art History, New York University, Astoria

Pepe Karmel teaches in the Department of Art History, New York University. His book, Picasso and the Invention of Cubism, was published by Yale University Press in 2003. He has curated or co-curated numerous exhibitions, including Robert Morris: Felt Works (Grey Art Gallery, 1989), Jackson Pollock (MoMA, 1998), The Age of Picasso (Fundacion Botin, 2004), and Conceptual Abstraction (Hunter College Gallery, 2012). He has contributed to numerous other exhibition catalogues, and has written widely on modern and contemporary art for publications including Art in America and The New York Times.  He is currently working on a history of abstract art.

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