Whitehot Magazine

Donald Kuspit on Picasso's Self Doubt

Pablo Picasso, The Acrobat, 1930.  

By DONALD KUSPIT, April 2019

In art the mass of people no longer seeks consolation and exaltation, but those who are refined, rich, unoccupied, who are distillers of quintessences, seek what is new, strange, original, extravagant, scandalous.  I myself, since Cubism and before, have satisfied these masters and critics with all the changing oddities which passed through my head….By amusing myself with all these games, with all these absurdities, puzzles, rebuses, arabesques, I became famous….But when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term.  Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt were great painters.  I am only a public entertainer….                                                        

Pablo Picasso, Interview, Libro Nero, 1952,

For all the acclaim it has received, Picasso’s art remains peculiarly misunderstood.  The art historian Douglas Cooper regards Picasso’s invention of Cubism as the great success story of 20th century art, not to say the greatest revolution in the history of Western art.  For Cooper Cubism is a radical “new language” of art—a language that goes to the root of art--rendering the art of the Old Masters obsolete.  They used the language of art for some extra-artistic—representational and with that social—purpose; Cubism treats it as an end in itself, of intrinsic value, and with that of incidental social value.  Whatever representational hangover Cubist works may have, whatever descriptive dregs or realistic leftovers—the landscapes, still lifes, human figures that are their ostensible subject matter—ironically remain in them, mocking us with their faltering, provisional appearance, are beside their essential point:  disclosing the language of art and using it to achieve an aesthetic effect, as the critic Clement Greenberg argued.  For him Cubism is the influential touchstone of every modern style.  Every style that claimed to be an “advance” on Cubism, more revolutionary, challenging, difficult, unusual than it--presumably because the brave new style, eager to replace Cubism on the throne of avant-garde art, is more purely, radically, unequivocally art, more strenuously deploys the language of art for its own exclusive, intricate, uncompromising sake than Cubism—is indebted to and derives from it.  

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656, Museo Nacional del Prado.

For Cooper, all the art that Picasso made after Cubism was anti-climactic, for it was strangely regressive, backward-looking:  Picasso took on the Old Masters, frenetically engaging them with sadistic, envious wit.  He took on Courbet, Delacroix, Goya, Manet, Delacroix, Rembrandt, and perhaps most famously Velazquez’s Las Meninas.  They were his antagonists, and he boldly attacked them with violent rage, triumphing over them by destroying their works.  He used and abused their works, transforming their coherent style into his own incoherent manner, eccentricizing their art so that it no longer seemed central to art history.  With pathological cleverness, traditional beauty became modern ugliness in his disruptive hands.  Picasso was a master of the dehumanized figure, as the grotesque monsters in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1906 indicate.  They are classical graces become hideously graceless.  Like his use and abuse of Old Master paintings, that painting is a cruel cartoon, spitefully arrogant and contemptuous, of womanhood as well as the high art of what Baudelaire called the Grand Tradition, traces of which remain in the proto-modernists Courbet and Manet, their works indirect homages to the Old Masters who preceded them.  Picasso’s Cubist works are peculiarly sardonic cartoons, mocking everything in sight, rendering it nihilistically absurd and bizarrely ugly, alienating us from it so that it seems meaningless.  We are expected to admire the artful means he used to discredit and subvert observed reality, implying that it is beside the point of art—art for its own ironic sake.  

Pablo Picasso, Ma Jolie, Paris, winter 1911-12.

Picasso was incapable of idealizing any figure, even when he worked in the idealizing classical manner.  His is an attenuated, token classicism, indicating a facile mastery of it, even as his aggressive dismissal of the classical temple as a glorified barn indicates his contempt for classicism.  He viciously negated whatever he touched, ruining it beyond repair, spoiling it so that it became unfit for human use.  For me Picasso’s 1931 illustrations for Balzac’s short story “The Unknown Masterpiece” are the paradigmatic statement of his nihilistic attitude and values:  as he did with the young woman in the earlier Ma Jolie, 1911-1912, he turns the old woman who is the artist’s model in the “The Unknown Masterpiece” illustrations, into an abstract mess, in effect annihilating her.  Enigmatically abstract, she is no longer existentially meaningful.  Picasso clearly values art more than people.  He was an anti-humanist, unlike the Old Masters, who were humanists even when they showed the inhumanity of human beings, as Goya did.    

Picasso, Painter and Model Knitting, 1927.

Picasso was a quick study of any and every style, superficially mastering its appearance with little or no understanding of its inner meaning.  His surrealism was more self-conscious than fraught with unconscious meaning, and he used tribal or so-called primitive art to mock civilized and civilizing art.  Caustically quick-witted, Picasso undermined what he appropriated for his own perverse purposes.  It is as though he was a sand crab that couldn’t move—develop--artistically unless it entered and lived in, for however short a while, the shell of some other artist’s art, discarding it after it had served his own selfish purpose—destructive purpose, as he made clear when he said his Cubism was a sum of destructions, bringing art into question even as it seemed to re-construct and re-conceive it.  His is a   de-evolution of art, rather than the evolution—“advance”—it claims to be.  

I suggest that only when Picasso was beginning his career, during his so-called Blue and Rose periods, was his art authentically his own, rather than some predatory, sadistic take on some other art--some Old Master art, for him all too glorious and self-congratulatory, as its deification in the temple of art called a museum suggests.  Even so-called primitive art—art from non-European civilizations--had become museum art, which is why it was as worthy of misappropriation—and misunderstanding--as officially civilized European art.  He took every art he engaged down from its historical pedestal, in the process degrading it by using it as a catalyst for his own creativity.  Picasso in effect discredited whatever art he appropriated—took over, vanquished in creative battle, consumed until it was beyond recognition--implying that he served no artistic master, only himself.  For Picasso the artist is an unpredictable, anti-social, dangerous, wild card in an all too predictable society that finds safety in art, finds in art relief from the pain of life—the pain of life that Picasso openly engaged in his Blue Period and Rose period works.  Cézanne said the artist is a criminal; Picasso is the exemplary artist-as-criminal.  

Pablo Picasso, Woman in White, 1923.

There were other short-lived moments of tenderness and love in his art—his portraits of his first wife and his children, and perhaps above all the quasi-classical Woman in White, 1923 are exemplary—but there are many more hate-filled images of women in his art, as the numerous images of grotesquely surrealized figures he painted in the 1920s and 1930s make clear.  The indifference with which the female figures in the Suite Vollard, 1930-1937 pose for the artist is a projection of his indifference to them:  like the model who posed for Ma Jolie and the model who sits for the artist in “The Unknown Masterpiece” and the prostitutes who became “Les Demoiselles of Avignon,” they are of interest for the artistic possibilities latent in their manifest bodies rather than for themselves.  Picasso’s women are dispensable after they have been betrayed by being used for making art, by becoming catalysts for Picasso’s destructive creativity.  

Psychoanalytically speaking, Picasso’s murder of the art of his Old Master predecessors is a sign of his Oedipus Complex.  They are in effect the godfathers of his art, father figures he massacred—dominated by using their art as fertilizer and fodder for his own art—to prove that he was the greatest artist of all, the all-time king of art.  Freud thought that patricide was the original sin—the primordial crime—and Picasso began and ended his career as a patricide, ruthlessly slaughtering every artist-father who stood in the way of his delusion of artistic grandeur.  The wish to kill the father and possess the mother—think of all the women that Picasso possessed—informs Picasso’s malevolent appropriation of Old Master art, eliminating all traces of its influence by turning it into a bad joke.  His biological father was “a traditional academic artist…who believed that proper training required disciplined copying of the masters, and drawing the human body from plaster casts and live models.”  One can view Picasso’s attack on traditional academic art and the human body as an attack on his father—a rebellion against his father, who was his mentor.  It began when he painted over his father’s unfinished sketch of a pigeon—Picasso was thirteen—supposedly leading his father to give up painting, convinced that his son was a better artist than he was.  The story may be apocryphal—his father continued to paint—but it is symbolic; it conveys an emotional truth as well as the truth about Picasso’s attitude and art:  he “finished” whatever art he “stole.”  He “finished off” other artists by covering their art with his own—making their art over with his own, thus obliterating it, erasing any sign of their hand and vision.  If perversion is the erotic form of hatred, as the psychoanalyst Robert Stoller argues, then Picasso’s attitude to other artists is perverse, for he hates them even as he loves them, as he shows by crushing their art in an embrace, suggesting, at the least, a profound ambivalence to it and them.    

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907.

Picasso’s brief period of Cubist innovation (1907-1913) was his heroic, revolutionary, modernist moment.  The rest of his extensive oeuvre is “post-modernist,” that is, it involves an ongoing attempt to come to terms with and overcome traditional academic art—his father’s idea of art.  It continued to haunt, trouble, tempt him.  Just as he argued with his father about art when he was an adolescent in art school in Madrid, so he argued with Old Master museum art the rest of his life, suggesting that he remained a rebellious adolescent in spirt all his life.  Brought up on traditional academic art, he was dependent on it despite himself.  Addicted to it, he needed a fix of it to make his own independent art. He damaged it by recreating it in his own self-image, but he respected it by showing his obsession with it.  

Pablo Picasso, Saltimbanques (The Family of Saltimbanques), 1905.

Underlying his intense engagement with it was a sense of déjà vu—a sense that art had already happened, that it was over, that it was no longer important, that it was no longer relevant to life, no longer a source of “consolation and exaltation,” as he said, that the so-called advance of art (avant-garde art) was a joke compared to the advance of science and technology.  Was Picasso’s destruction of the traditional art of the Old Masters—a tired, old, obsolete art, an academically embalmed art--an angry acknowledgement of this modern reality?  Did he turn it into a farce to suggest that the artist was a lonely clown, a public entertainer, as he called himself late in his life, like the performing artists in the Family of Saltimbanques, painted in 1905, early in his career, along with the other paintings of isolated itinerant traveling circus performers he painted during his Rose Period?  They were all traditional-looking paintings; like his neo-classical paintings they showed that he could not escape the influence of the Old Masters, that he admired them however often he attacked them.  They are not a “sum of destructions,” as his Cubism was, and while they have been appreciated, they are not regarded as the quintessentially modern Picasso, as Cubism is, but allusively nostalgic.  He made them before he made Cubism, suggesting their regressive rather than progressive character, indicating that Picasso was depressingly stuck in the past rather the beginning the lively new future of art.  

Looking at Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt, as well as other “great painters”--Courbet, Delacroix, Manet, Goya, Velazquez among them—Picasso was faced with the “catastrophe of the already-happened,” as Roland Barthes called it, deriving the idea from Freud.  It is because of his troubled awareness of already happened art—that art had a long and distinguished past, impossible to eradicate however hard one tried to do so, for one was dependent on it for one’s own art, one interiorized it by destroying it, turned a good art object into a bad art object by perversely making it one’s own—that Picasso remains a strangely equivocal quick-change artist.  Picasso’s art is neither clearly of the past nor the future, neither clearly traditional nor modern—there are too many traces of the past in it, too much of a feeling for the past in it, giving it an emotional substance it would lack if it only pursued what Baudelaire called “the sensation of the new” by way of innovative form—suggesting it suffers from what T. S. Elliot called the dissociation of sensibility.  Indecisive and inconclusive—inherently uncertain--Picasso’s art remains stuck on the horns of an aesthetic—and emotional—dilemma.

Pablo Picasso, Artist and His Model, 1926.

The peculiar inconclusiveness of Picasso’s vast oeuvre is the central clue to it.  One can regard this inconclusiveness—his ravenous hunger for and brutal digestion of other art, ruining it beyond repair—as a kind of deconstruction of art, in Derrida’s sense.  More to the emotional point, it is a kind of hysterical consumerism—ambition run amuck, destroying what it desires out of frustration with it, for it is never satisfying enough.  It shows Picasso desperately refilling himself in a futile attempt to overcome the unconscious feeling of emptiness aroused by his consciousness of art that has already happened—without him.  He was not simply competitive with other artists, but threatened by them, locked in a fight to the death with them.  Destroying them, he became peculiarly self-destructive—restlessly uncertain of himself, consumed by self-doubt.  He was doomed to repeatedly push the burden of art history up the slippery slope of his own art, always in danger of being crushed by its weight.  

More insidiously, he became cynical.   The defense of cynicism saved him from complete self-doubt.  He may be the first great revolutionary of modern art—a Robespierre who guillotined aristocratic Old Master art, whose Cubism castrated traditional modes of representation of landscape, still life, the human figure, portraiture—but he is also its first cynic.  I suggest that avant-garde art is implicitly cynical, in Peter Sloterdijk’s sense of the term.   “Psychologically,” Sloterdijk writes in the Critique of Cynical Reason, “present-day cynics can be understood as borderline melancholics, who can keep their symptoms of depression under control and can remain more or less able to work.  Indeed, this is the essential point in modern cynicism:  the ability of its bearers to work—in spite of anything that might happen….A certain chic bitterness provides an undertone to [the cynic’s] activity.  For cynics are not dumb, and every now and then they certainly see the nothingness to which everything leads.  Their psychic apparatus has become elastic enough to incorporate as a survival factor a permanent doubt about their own activities.”(1)  

Picasso is reputed to have been a great, sex-hungry lover, with many women servicing him—a reputation he carefully cultivated and eagerly believed by the sensation-hungry artworld—but he was an even greater, hardworking artist, making more works than women, fucking over more other artists than women.  He betrayed them all, moving from one to another, in constant need to conquer others to be himself.  His great art, born of his compulsion to work and fuck, is fueled by great self-doubt, informed by cynical recognition that greater art existed—and, more broadly, that art had already happened, and in a sense was over.  For science and technology had become more meaningful in modern times, as the industrial revolution made clear.  Modern art is a defensive response to it, and dependent upon it—takes its cues from it, as Italian Futurism and Russian Constructivism make clear.  It is also dependent upon modern ideas, as Surrealism’s dependence upon Freudian psychoanalysis makes clear, along with the view that Cubism “illustrates” Einstein’s theory of relativity.  Abstract painting can be understood as a defensive response to photography, a modern invention that threatened representational painting with obsolescence, and brought into question hand-made art as distinct from machine-made art, the camera being a machine in contrast to the paint brush, a high-tech means of making art in contrast to a low-tech means (2).

Picasso, Dream and lie of Franco – Plate I, 1937. 

Picasso epitomizes the paradoxical situation of modern art:  on the one hand, a sense of infinite possibilities, of optimistic openness—a sense that “anything goes”; on the other hand, a sense of déjà vu, the depressing realization that everything has been done before, that all a modern artist can do is exploit and riff off some art of the past, improvise his or her individuality out of its remains.  In other words, modern art is oddly regressive however progressive it claims to be, for it is grounded in pre-modern art.  Neo-classical Picasso cursorily copies it, Cubist Picasso nihilistically tears it apart, Surrealist Picasso perversely distorts it, but without it there is no “modern” Picasso.  His art is a kind of malicious, sarcastic commentary on traditional art based on an encyclopedic knowledge of it.  He consumed it with a defensive rapidity; destroying it he became creative, ingeniously raping it he became a cynical genius.  And a cartoonist:  his Cubist and Surrealist works are mocking cartoons.  Les Demoiselles de Avignon, 1907, Guernica, 1937, Massacre in Korea, 1951, among many other works, are cartoons.  He brazenly turned great masterpieces—most famously Velazquez’s Las Meninas, 1656—into a cartoon.  “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child” he wrote, with arrogant and ironic conceit.  In 1957 he pretended to paint like a child when he made 58 paintings of the princess—a child-- in Velazquez’s painting.  The paintings are cartoons in all but name.  The Dream and Lie of Franco, 1937 is a laid out like a comic strip—a joke book.  The sequence of 18 cartoons turn Franco into a bad joke.  Matisse was on target when he called Les Demoiselles de Avignon a bad joke.  They are dehumanized monsters, and Franco is even more monstrous—perhaps the most monstrously inhuman and horrifying of all of Picasso’s monstrous figures.  Emblematic of Picasso’s hatred—certainly deserved in the case of Franco—they suggest that what Freud called the death drive drove Picasso’s art.  His symbolic self-portrait as a murderous minotaur, living on human sacrifices—feeding on human bodies--confirms this.  Like the predatory minotaur, he was more vicious animal than benign person.  Empathy for others is rare in his art.  However libidinous and beautiful the model in the Vollard Suite, 1933-1937, the crotchy old artist studiously depicting her is Death personified:  the works in the suite are a rendering of the familiar theme of Death and the Maiden, famously treated with macabre enthusiasm by Hans Baldung-Grien.   

Pablo Picasso, Massacre in Korea, 1951.

If Picasso is the seminal cynical artist of the 20th century, or the first 20th century artist with the “modernized, unhappy consciousness” of a cynic, to use Sloterdijk’s words, then the significance of his innovations changes.  His rejection of “the conventions of Italian perspective,” his astonishing “combinatory ability,” “the protean richness of his style,” his manipulative use of “the entire field of art history”—Francoise Gilot’s description of his revolutionary achievements—are not the means by which he gains new ground for art, but rather strategies for holding his own on the old ground of art.  But he turns it into a wasteland:  his war with traditional art ends in a Pyrrhic victory.  He fights with it to the death, and the fight ends with the collapse of art.  In his nihilistic hands it becomes a sort of living death, like the remains of the Roman Forum.  Once grand and noble, it is now a disaster.  Just as Rome was sacked, so Picasso sacks traditional art—ruthlessly competes with it until there is nothing left of it:   Picasso’s art is a catastrophe in the making.    

Gilot called Picasso a “demi-urge artist”; he is perhaps the supreme example of one.  She said that his greatest achievement, technically speaking, was the invention of collage.  (Braque invented papier collé; Picasso carried it to what was an extreme for the time.)  The invention of collage was coincidental with T. E. Hulme’s philosophy of “Cinders,” as he called it.  One may not believe in the significance of such historical coincidences, along with the cross-referencing of different fields, but the fact remains that the fascination with “cinders”—a cinder is a piece of “partly burned coal or wood that has stopped giving off flames but still has combustible matter in it”—was as much an factor in the development of modernism as the theory of “positivism,” which holds that everything can be explained through scientific analysis, and the “optimistic materialism” of the technological revolution.  The critic Clement Greenberg argued that modern art was fundamentally optimistic, materialistic, analytic, and as such oddly scientific, not to say experimental, as the art historian Ernst Gombrich said.  But the philosopher and aesthetician Theodor Adorno argued that the modern work of art tends towards a condition of fragmentariness and that the aphoristic fragment is the modern unit of thought.  The despairing use of the fragment—a cinder of an image, a cinder of thought--as the fundamental unit of art pervades Picasso’s work.  His art at its most modern—when it is not pretending to be traditional (classical)—is a sum of fragments that do not add up to a whole.  It is a kind of puzzle that prides itself on its incoherence.  The puzzle is incomplete; many of its pieces have been lost.  Using its remains, Picasso gives us a fragmentary, peculiarly incomplete work, “artless” however “crafty,” a stumbling block to the mind as well as eye. 

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937.

In Gnosticism, the demiurge is “a heavenly being, subordinate to the Supreme Being, that is considered to be the controller of the material world and antagonistic to all that is spiritual.”  That is, the demiurge is the devil.  He moves at full speed towards cynical nothingness, which is what Picasso’s so-called Analytic Cubism does.  The fact that Picasso was not an “innovator in color,” as Gilot said—he used it to “qualify” things rather than constitute them, she noted---indicates an indifference to light.  According to the Book of Genesis, the Creation began when “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.  God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness,” implicitly bad, that is spiritless, lacking God’s creative spirit, His innate creativity.  Analytic Cubism is de-creative that is, destructive, as Picasso acknowledged, and with that spiritless.  It is an attack on God’s creation,  more particularly on the nature He created:  Analytic Cubism denaturalizes whatever natural thing it touches, turning it into a sterile abstraction.  Analytic Cubism is about the absenting—the slow but steady eliminating--of light and color.  There is no color and no sunlight in Guernica:  the dim light there is comes from a small old-fashioned lightbulb, a sort of mock sun uselessly suspended above the tormented figures.  They are the victims of the triumphant bull, a symbol of the minotaur Picasso.  The figures are weirdly luminous—they have a ghostly presence.  They exist in the hellish darkness of the devilish Picasso rather the heavenly light of God.  Guernica achieves its presence through its manipulation of shades of darkness.  Picasso seems more at home with death and suffering than with life and happiness, despite his hedonism.  The many distorted, tortured figures in his art—especially in Guernica, but also in his Cubist and Surrealist works—have a certain affinity with the martyred figures of tortured saints in traditional Spanish Catholic paintings.  It seems no accident that Picasso was drawn to the devoutly Catholic El Greco’s bizarrely distorted figures.  I am suggesting that Picasso’s art is deeply informed by his Catholicism.  Indeed, he is the most Catholic of Catholics—the Grand Inquisitor, the enforcer of the faith.  He is the Grand Inquisitor of art and people, torturing traditional art on the rack of his art until it acknowledges the greatness of his art, and torturing the women he fucked to test their belief in him.   

Pablo Picasso, Minotauromachy, 1935.     

Minotauromachy, 1935 epitomizes Picasso’s Gnostic outlook on life:  the forces of darkness, symbolized by the huge, powerful minotaur, guilty of crimes against humanity, all but overwhelms—threatens to extinguish--the forces of light, symbolized by the small candle held by the little girl, a symbol of vulnerability, innocence, hopefulness.  The small light in the darkness will slowly burn itself out, while the energy of the minotaur seems inexhaustible.  Monstrous darkness will inevitably triumph over light, always in limited supply.  According to the philosopher Hans Jonas, modern Existentialism is traditional Gnosticism in spirit:  for both to be human—or is it less than human, as the brutal minotaur suggests--is to be thrown into the darkness of nothingness, hopefully seeing the humanizing light as one falls.  The little girl with the candle faces death in the form of the minotaur, holding her own for a moment.  But when the virginal girl grows up and becomes a desirable woman, as her exposed breasts suggests she is—becomes the female toreador stretched out on the back of the horse—she will be killed by him.  The horse on which she lays is an altar, and she is a sacrifice on the altar.  She seems to be peacefully asleep, but the minotaur holds a sword, suggesting she has been murdered, perhaps in Picasso’s sex-mad mind a phallic coup de grace.  A bullfight is a fight to the death, and in Picasso’s art the bull always wins the fight.  The work is a Triumph of Death, Picasso the minotaur is a personification of Death, the little girl and the desirable woman are disposable life.   

It has been said that Picasso reduces art to a “semiotic project,” which explains why many of his works seem like “reservoirs of irreality,” as José Ortega y Gasset suggests,(2) and why they seem peculiarly cynical.  I suggest that their cynical use of signs and symbols, bringing with them an aura of irreality, has more to do with Picasso’s bleak gnostic outlook on life, all the more bleak because he is stuck in the deadening darkness, life-giving light having no staying power and limited presence in his art. WM 


(1)Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 5.

(2)José Ortega y Gasset, “Point of View in the Arts,” The Humanization of Art and Other Writings on Art and Culture (Garden City, NY:  Doubleday, 1956), 116.


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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