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Picasso’s Sublime Tragedy

Tragedy

Pablo Picasso’s Tragedy (1903) depicts three figures huddled on a beach—presumably a family. We see nothing of the ‘tragedy’ itself, however; no trace of specific disaster remains, and we are left to speculate about what series of events may have led to their misfortune. The focus of the painting centers us on the figures themselves.

The man and woman are turned inwards in an inherently familial pose, but the distance between them and their downcast eyes reveal their inability to comfort each other. The child, too young to understand the meaning of his own experience, places a hand on the man and looks pleadingly in the direction of the woman. Neither have anything to offer him, and this feeling of impotence must only increase their own suffering. Here ‘tragedy’ functions as a subject in the painting not in reference to any single event, but simply as the human experience.

Picasso is not alone in choosing to depict forms of human suffering and loss, and there is something fitting about this. Even after the fall, it seems that art is still inclined towards a kind of imitation of nature. Good art resonates with our experience of the natural world and with our own human nature as well. It does not flinch in the presence of failure, personal weakness, or moral evil. In point of fact, what is often so disedifying about pseudo-art or kitsch is not so much its technical mediocrity as its lack of honesty. Of course, an undifferentiated portrayal of negative experience can also lead to an insufficient humanism or naturalism. Worse still would be a deliberate focus on ugliness. The seeming danger for Picasso is not the first of these pitfalls, but the latter two.

The subject of Picasso’s work is something that should be inherently undesirable. There is nothing beautiful about tragedy. Although we may be slow to say so, the sight of others’ suffering has the power to repulse and to send us searching for a distraction. Nonetheless, there is something intuitively beautiful about Picasso’s Tragedy that strikes us as paradoxical only on second thought. The painting seems to exert an immediate draw that transports us directly onto Picasso’s gray-blue beach, bringing us close to the figures and to their nameless tragedy as well; it is only on further reflection that we realize how strange it is to be attracted by something so plainly awful.

Picasso draws our attention directly and simply to their pain itself, with no outside referent to distract or to offer impartial resolutions. When considered critically, there seems to be nothing attractive about this. And yet Picasso has presented tragedy simpliciter, and we are drawn by it not as we might be by a depiction of pleasant scenery, but as a father might be drawn by the suffering of his son. Picasso has portrayed the human experience of tragedy in such a way that we feel no revulsion—no burning need to distract ourselves from the human suffering before us. Tragedy is here framed in such primary and universal terms that it necessarily resonates with us all, evoking not pious sympathy, but real empathy.

The presence of beauty in a painting like this will always remain somewhat elusive, but perhaps a trace of an explanation can be found in Picasso’s authentic humanism. Picasso manages to elicit that which is most human in each of us by drawing us into another’s experience of something with which we ourselves are only too familiar.

Picasso was not a religious man, and there is no hint of theological horizon present here. His secularism extended even to his parents, who did not raise him as a practicing Catholic. And yet in spite of this, his work seems to be open to something greater. Perhaps it was the cultural Catholicism of his native Spain which imbued him with a certain anthropological honesty that was receptive to the motions of grace, if only subliminally.

Tragedy in the natural sense is survivable; no misfortune, however great, can completely discourage a person from seeking the good. But, in the eyes of Catholics, God alone can undo the knot of tragedy itself, reestablishing us in the newness of grace. Perhaps Picasso would not have anticipated it, but when his Tragedy is viewed through the lens of faith, our natural empathy can take on a supernatural character.
 
 
This article first appeared on DominicanaBlog.com, an online publication of the Dominican Students of the Province of St. Joseph who live and study at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC. It was written by Br. Reginald M. Lynch, O.P., who entered the Order in 2007. He attended St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, where he studied philosophy and religious studies.

Dominicans of the Province of St. Joseph

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The Order of Preachers, known also as the Dominican Order, was founded by St. Dominic in 1216 with the mission of preaching for the salvation of souls. With contemplative study serving as a pillar of Dominican religious life, the Order continues to contribute to the Catholic synthesis of faith and reason, following the example of such Dominican luminaries as St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas. The Friars of the Province of St. Joseph administer Providence College in Providence, RI and serve as teachers and campus ministers in several colleges, universities, and seminaries in addition to serving as pastors, chaplains, and itinerant preachers. Follow the Dominican students at their blog, DominicanaBlog.com.

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  • Loreen Lee

    Please delete this if you consider it too long a piece. It is from my book Portals of Paradox, and in this segment shows an incarcerated women's response to viewing paintings by Picasso, and feeling that he would identify with her plight.

    "Good Friday. Well, here she is. A fool's mate. That's what she is. A fool.
    A fool with a stake in her heart, nailed to the cross of love. Sacrifice, without salvation. Sanity, stained by sin. Well, they might as well have built a coffin
    too. Instead of the cross. For love has died tonight. Another metaphor. That's what it is. Love after rape is nothing but a misplaced,
    mixed-up metaphor. Enough of these
    metaphors. It is as certain as the
    night is dark, that the body will never be resurrected."

    "'Not
    so Good' Saturday". The night has
    passed, but it is indeed their moment in hell, together. What else could go wrong? There were doctors and nurses running around
    their cell half the night. The
    epileptic had a seizure. Not that she
    could help it. But now they are all
    sleep deprived. And Teresa is still not
    speaking to Annette. And Penny is right
    in the middle of it. Trying to patch
    things up. Trying to get Teresa to tell
    Annette what she is angry about. Trying
    to get Annette to remember what she has done.
    Penny doesn't like the role of mediator. She is sure she will do something wrong and
    then they'll both be angry with her.
    But things could be worse.
    Anastasia, the artist, has loaned Penny the book she has been reading on
    Pablo Picasso. And so Penny is now looking
    over the illustrations trying to decide for herself whether or not he is the
    charlatan that Anastasia says he is.

    "Line
    drawings. The shortest distance between
    two points is not a straight line. It's
    a line drawing by Picasso. Clean,
    clear circling lines, circumscribing a content. 'If a work of art cannot live always in the
    present it must not be considered at all', Picasso says. The capability, the capacity of
    genius: 'What one does is what counts
    and not what one had the intention of doing'.
    And the cruelty of a charlatan: 'If there was a single truth, you
    couldn't make a hundred paintings of the same subject'. But what was he drawing? Character or caricature? Was this the laughter of the gods?"

    Penny looks up from her book. The epileptic is sitting on the stool talking
    on the phone. But she doesn't look very
    well. She looks like… "Seizure?" Penny runs to her as quickly as she
    can. But she has already fallen. She is already thrashing around on the
    floor. What do you do? Just hold her still. "Somebody call the guard. Somebody get some medical help."

    "Hold her tongue, down,"
    says Teresa. What is she saying? It's hard enough to hold her head still so
    that she won't be banging it on the floor.
    What do you do in situations like this when you don't have any training?

    "We’ll take her," says the
    guard. But she is quiet now. Looking like she is in some kind of a coma.

    "Sorry I didn't get to you
    before you fell," Penny says. "But if it happens again, I'll know the
    signs."

    "You should have held her
    tongue down, like Teresa told you," says Annette.

    And now the nurse is there giving
    out the medication. And he's teasing
    Penny. Saying that maybe she should be
    taking some medication, too. And now he's
    asking Penny about Anastasia. Wanting
    to know if she has been taking any showers.
    Asking Penny to keep an eye on her.

    "You're not going to spy on
    Anastasia, are you?" asks Teresa.
    "You wouldn't do a thing like that, would you?" And Teresa and Annette walk off together to
    discuss the possibility. They are
    talking to one another, again. They are
    talking and walking. And they are
    keeping their eye on Penny.

    Medication. She's tried that medication. It blocks your mind. So that you can't think of anything. You become a walking zombie. You become the walking dead. But not even that condescending male nurse
    can make you take any medication. Not
    if you don't want to. That's what's
    good about being on the range. It's
    better than the hospital. Because no
    one's going to give you a needle, if you screech or scream. No one's going to put you in solitary
    confinement if you shout, shriek or squeal.
    You can express yourself.

    "Black
    lines dissecting colored cubes.
    Distorted, chestnut clumps of festering flesh. These were the goddesses of the
    underworld. These were the cadavers,
    the carcasses of the living dead.
    'Tous les desmoisselles d'angler'.
    Women before mirrors. Women at
    the beach. Women at a well. Was this the veracity beneath the mask, the
    verity behind the masquerade? Feeling
    torn into fragments? Emotions ruptured
    and rent? Spirit split and severed,
    sliced and shredded into bits. Spirit,
    wearied, wintry and worn. But he had
    drawn no portraits, no pictures of prisoners.
    No prisons. No
    penitentiaries. And he had made no
    sculptures of women who were not considered sane. Yet all of these women were in hell. All of these women were in prison. Picasso was no charlatan. This was not deceit, deception,
    duplicity. Picasso had drawn what he
    felt. He had drawn what he knew. That is why all of these women were in hell. That is why they were without
    salvation. Picasso felt himself to be
    a criminal. Picasso knew what it meant
    to be demented and deranged."

  • An American GI who met Picasso in Paris told him he did not like modern paintings because they were not realistic. He made no reply. A few minutes later the soldier showed him a snapshot of his fiancée. "My word!" said Pablo. "Is she really that small?"

  • Loreen Lee

    Picasso is not alone in choosing to depict forms of human suffering
    and loss, and there is something fitting about this. Even after the
    fall, it seems that art is still inclined towards a kind of imitation of
    nature. Good art resonates with our experience of the natural world and
    with our own human nature as well. It does not flinch in the presence
    of failure, personal weakness, or moral evil. In point of fact, what is
    often so disedifying about pseudo-art or kitsch is not so much its
    technical mediocrity as its lack of honesty. Of course, an
    undifferentiated portrayal of negative experience can also lead to an
    insufficient humanism or naturalism. Worse still would be a deliberate
    focus on ugliness. The seeming danger for Picasso is not the first of
    these pitfalls, but the latter two.

    Hoping to encourage discussion on the topic of the relation of art to reason and faith, I note in the above a reference to kitsch, which has been defined for me as art not having a moral basis. I can only hope to solicit a response as to what this means to you. Christianity has long found blessedness within the sorrows of life. We are urged to reflect on the Way of the Cross for instance. But how/when would morality in art entail an 'insufficient humanism or naturalism'. What would constitute a deliberate focus on ugliness.

    I put forth my 'take' on Picasso from about a decade ago, to point out a possible conflict in interpretation between that presented by the Dominicans, and an attempt to present a possible psychological basis within Picasso for his ability to empathize. An early painting of Picasso I have seen takes for its subject a young girl receiving Holy Communion. The photographic realism of this early painting is remarkable considering the different techniques he later adapted towards art. He did truly 'explore' both the aesthetic possibilities and moral elements within the life process. I take this to be an opportunity to reflect on how these two characteristics can be related. Is Christianity the only and true basis of morality for instance? What is 'morality'?

    .

  • Danny Getchell

    Even after the fall, it seems that art is still inclined

    An interesting usage. Can you point me to any examples of "pre-fall" art for comparison??

  • In my eyes there is no God to undo the knot of tragedy but humans can and do everyday. While many claim to have faith that a God is doing things we never seem to see it. We do see millions of humans consoling, healing, sacrificing and loving each other. This is what sustains me, though any existing God is welcome to contribute. I just see no evidence of one.

  • Peter

    The greatest tragedy is Jesus on the cross. It is not just the physical tragedy of his betrayal, torture and death, but the infinitely greater tragedy of his being momentarily abandoned by the Father in atonement for the sins of men.

    For us to be abandon by departed loved ones, especially when they are young, is a terrible tragedy but it lasts until death. For us to be abandoned by God, however, is a terrible tragedy which, unlike the atonement of Jesus, lasts forever.

    • So Jesus didn't know he would be resurrected all along? To me the idea of abandoning oneself is I impossible.