A Shibboleth Is Not A Speech Impediment, Part 1

Answering such crucial questions as “Which Madonna does Googlebot like best?”

Here I try to tie together some ideas drawn from both Christianity and Eastern spirituality, as well as the cyber civil rights movement. It’s not all cerebral stuff. For your trouble you will be rewarded with a video clip of Count Floyd (of Monster Chiller Horror Theatre fame), and Joan Baez will serenade you with “The Cherry Tree Carol.” There’s also a Madonna tie-in.

I do start out by using some old-fashioned words like “shibboleth” and “Crucifixion,” but I’m not a priest and this isn’t a sermon. As followers surely know, I’m an arts geek not a fundie. My spiritual beliefs are really closer to Neo-Vedanta philosophy.

As I ponder the turns taken by my own wandering mind, I see in retrospect that I’m trying to explain, justify, and work up some enthusiasm for topics which may prove vexing. In plain English, I’m tired of seeing Eastern spiritual teachers harassed, particularly on the Internet. Many people choose a minority faith or spiritual practice in good conscience. This is something beneficial and is allowed behaviour in a (mostly) free society. Yet, both the teachers and students of Eastern spiritual studies are often harassed mercilessly for making what are essentially non-conformist and non-materialist choices.

Some of the worst harassers are people who were once themselves interested in Eastern spirituality, but whose nature rebelled against the difficulty of changing their lives. They become fanatical apostates, obsessed with discrediting the movements whose beliefs and practices they formerly espoused. Their personal need for self-justification thus takes on social dimensions. (For more on this, see the late Dr. Brian R. Wilson, The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism.)

In contemplating these matters, I was energized by quotes from The West Wing and On The Waterfront. “Faith is the true shibboleth” is one quote. “Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary” is another. (What sorts of crucifixions take place in an information age on the Internet? Stay tuned…)

Mary Anne Franks: An important writer on cyberspace freedom

On deep background I was influenced by Mary Anne Franks, who discusses how oppressed groups often turn to the Internet in hope of discovering “a utopian realm of the mind where all can participate equally, free from social, historical, and physical restraints.” Yet, cyberspace reality has its dark side, often unacknowledged. She writes:

Cyberspace idealism drastically downplays the Internet’s power to activate discriminatory stereotypes and social scripts. This Article focuses on the particular discriminatory phenomenon of the unwilling avatar. In stark contrast to the way users exert control over their online identities, the creation of unwilling avatars involves invoking individuals’ real bodies for the purposes of threatening, defaming, or sexualizing them without consent. Sometimes the creation of unwilling avatars takes a very literal form: for example, hacking into the account of a gamer and using her avatar as though it were your own, or creating a false profile of a real person on a social networking site. Other examples of unwilling avatars are more figurative. For example, women have been targeted for ‘revenge porn,’ a practice where ex-boyfriends and husbands post to the web sexually explicit photographs and videos of them without their consent. … Female law school students also become unwilling avatars when they are targeted by graphic and violent sexual threads at message boards such as AutoAdmit.com. In most cases of cyberspace harassment, the perpetrators use pseudonyms while identifying their targets not only by name but often also with private information such as home addresses and social security numbers. This informational asymmetry further aggravates the inequality resulting from cyberspace harassment.

— Mary Anne Franks, “Unwilling Avatars: Idealism And Discrimination In Cyberspace”

I would hasten to add that men are also targeted, though not with the same frequency as women. And not all revenge porn is photographic or videographic. A sub-genre is the use of fictional narratives, storytelling, or negative “testimonials” by hate groups to portray real persons as committing sexual acts which they have never committed in real life. This is a way of “sexualizing them without consent” — fake revenge porn using words instead of pictures.

There’s also the problem of reputational asymmetry. Not all cyber harassment is done pseudonymously. In some cases, it’s done by people who self-identify as being for motherhood, apple pie, and mainstream secular values which (in a populist and conformist society) no one could possibly disagree with (or so it is claimed). The targeting of minority adherents for hatred, discrimination, and forced conversion to normative values is sometimes advocated by attorneys and psychologists under their own names, in connection with anti-cult groups like the American Family Foundation a.k.a. International Cultic Studies Association. ICSA-affiliated speakers often circulate false atrocity stories about spiritual groups for reasons both economic and ideological.

By contrast, there are non-ICSA attorneys and psychologists who have stood up for the rights of religious minorities, or have been influenced by the high ethical and spiritual values which such minorities often champion and exemplify. See, for example, John E. LeMoult, “Deprogramming Members of Religious Sects,” which appeared in the Fordham Law Review in 1978 and was instrumental in crystallizing opinion against the abusive practice of deprogramming. LeMoult notes that the people who aggressively endeavour to extract converts from minority faith groups typically lack understanding of those faith groups, and also lack any clear-cut moral superiority which would allow them to pass judgement.

Because attorneys and psychologists have come to exert a disproportionate influence on the de facto rules of society — what is considered legal, normal, and acceptable behaviour — there’s often a reputational asymmetry between such professionals (even when embracing crackpot ideas like deprogramming) and the minority spiritual groups they may target for harassment. Hardline anti-cultists tend to believe that the secularist, materialist, and ultra-rationalist world view is simply right, and that people who don’t see this are suffering from some mysterious “cult illness” which demands “remedial treatment” (for purely compassionate reasons, of course). It is, in the immortal words of Count Floyd, scary.

What do Count Floyd and the anti-cult movement have in common?

For decades, much of the modus operandi of the anti-cult movement has been to “scare the daylights” out of the general public regarding non-conventional religious choices. The inability of Count Floyd to actually deliver on his promise of scary blood-sucking monkeys who burrow deep inside people’s bellies and lead to the demise of Pittsburgh is comical in the skit, but less so as it applies to the real world machinations of anti-cult groups. Informational asymmetry and reputational asymmetry means that anti-cultists can simply invent horror stories about faith groups they oppose. If the stories conform to existing “discriminatory stereotypes and social scripts,” they may gain currency despite being invented narratives or borrowed scenarios, or originating from dubious sources. As in the lead-up to the Iraq war, truth and accuracy are considered expendable in relation to the broader political objective. A bubble world of fake “intelligence” is constructed to drum up popular support for actions targeting a subjectively defined enemy.

Which Madonna does Googlebot like best?

Because the power imbalances which affect the real world are also instantiated (and even exaggerated) in cyberspace, minority spiritual figures are easily harassed, and false information (if it appeals to “discriminatory stereotypes and social scripts”) can gain hegemony over true accounts. Big money publications often pander to populist stereotypes about spiritual minorities, and the Googlebot is colour blind with respect to truth and accuracy. It cares mostly for popularity and commerciality. It is (for example) foolishly convinced that the word “Madonna” does not primarily signify the mother of Jesus, nor the Madonna-like voice of folk icon Joan Baez. The Googlebot thinks that anyone who types in “Madonna” must want the blond, brassy, pop idol. The people have spoken! (“Not this man, but Barabbas…”)

The Madonna as portrayed by Correggio.

The Madonna as portrayed by Correggio.

Joan Baez, who was often known by the nickname “Madonna” during her early career.

The Madonna that Googlebot likes best. This pic advertises her "Truth or Dare" line of accessories.

The Madonna that Googlebot likes best. This pic advertises her “Truth or Dare” line of accessories.

There is a sense in which a name functions like an avatar. Creating an “inverted avatar” which steals the name of the original but has opposite qualities is a way of degrading the original while still profiting from its popularity. In the pop idol pic, note the inclusion of a crucifix as a fashion accoutrement rather than a religious symbol.

Socrates was not a material girl…

I’ve been influenced by reading about Socrates. (You know, Socrates, that stone-faced guy who appears at the top left of every post…) In the rule of nations, democracy and popularism are, by and large, to be preferred over autocracy and elitism. Yet, truth itself cannot be determined by a vote, and the deep spiritual truths uncovered by the Buddha, the Christ, and many other spiritual figures are not as popular as the materialist view. Materialism tends to gain hegemonic power in a society obsessed with mindless production and consumption. That which appeals to the most selfish aspects of human nature is often more popular than that which appeals to higher ideals of selflessness.

To even imply (by creating spiritual alternatives) that there may be something lacking in worldly life, city planning, political leadership, etc. is to commit a kind of sacrilege against the dominant ethic, and may court punishment or forced re-education. This is what happened to Socrates.

Ancient Greek society was both democratic and populist in nature. Socrates was a great believer in the soul, but not a great believer in performing sacrifices to appease all the petty, minor, conflictual Greek gods. He was found guilty of impiety and forced to drink hemlock. His spiritual beliefs and practices were actually more rigorous and pious than those of his contemporaries, which is why he was put to death — he was showing them up!

The jurors who passed judgement on Socrates did not know much about him except what they had gotten from a play by Aristophanes in which Socrates was portrayed negatively as a sophist. The jurors were, in a sense, passing judgement on someone else’s avatar of Socrates rather than the real person. There may also have been political factors at work.

Andrew Irvine, who in 2008 wrote a play called Socrates on Trial, says this: “During a time of war and great social and intellectual upheaval, Socrates felt compelled to express his views openly, regardless of the consequences. As a result, he is remembered today, not only for his sharp wit and high ethical standards, but also for his loyalty to the view that in a democracy the best way for a man to serve himself, his friends, and his city — even during times of war — is by being loyal to, and by speaking publicly about, the truth.”

Socrates’ persecution was both popular and arrived at democratically, but seems shockingly unethical in retrospect. This alerts us to the need for democracy and populism to be tempered by very strong laws protecting the rights of individuals to believe and practice something different than the majority. This dovetails with the views put forth by advocates for cyber civil rights, such as law professors Danielle Keats Citron and Mary Anne Franks.

Franks is concerned with “discrimination as an interference with liberty and equality.” She advocates for “an expansive notion of liberty, one that includes the freedom to think and act and develop one’s life as one wishes, without political or social restraints, except where that liberty would harm others.” Although much of what she writes is framed in terms of gender discrimination, it applies equally to discrimination against spiritual minorities.

Daniel G. Hill, who conducted a major study of religious sects as Attorney General of Ontario, wrote: “Within the reasonable constraints of criminal and civil law, each person must be allowed the maximum in personal freedom to decide whether and what he will believe, whether or how to worship, as well as how or with whom to associate. Within those same constraints, he must be free to pursue any matter that intrigues him and even to fall victim to his own folly.”

Back to Mary Anne Franks: “The virtual world has not only reproduced the various forms of discrimination that exist in the physical world, but has allowed them to flourish in ways that would not be possible in the physical world. … [Cyberspace is in] a state of license in which certain groups with power oppress, threaten and harass groups with less power.” The targeted groups clearly include spiritual minorities.

Inverted narratives as a means of harassment

One of the ways that various groups are harassed on the Internet is by locating the narrative that would normally describe them and inverting it in cruel and offensive ways. So, in the case of young women attending Yale Law School, we would normally think of them as bright and capable. But in the scandal involving AutoAdmit.com (see this Washington Post article for starters), they were misportrayed as brainless, sexually promiscuous, and only getting into Yale by performing sexual favours for female admissions officers. Pick a minority and there are ready-made inversions available. In the case of minority spiritual groups, if they lead a pure lifestyle and are devoted to some saintly figure, they may be misportrayed as leading a depraved, immodest lifestyle, and as enslaved to a dangerous “cult leader” who is caricaturized as both a fiend and a charlatan.

The difficulty of escaping such inversions and caricatures for minority spiritual groups is that there’s typically no one in society looking out for their interests. College-educated segments of the population who’ve been exposed to a broad range of views may easily recognize and reject sexist or racist depictions, but may never have had a course in comparative religion, and may tacitly accept hateful stereotypes of religious minorities when fed them, not having learned to do otherwise. This is why it’s important to teach tolerance as a universal principle, rather than working from a short list of approved minorities.

As the AutoAdmit scandal suggests, when there are people sitting around trying to game Google so that the top search results for a particular person point to hateful and obscene material, unmasking the harassers and giving them some “Google love” may be part of the solution.

I had earlier framed a question about what sorts of crucifixions take place on the Internet. Neither Danielle Citron nor Mary Anne Franks are theological writers, but they do yield insights about how spiritual figures may be treated in an information age where significant portions of people’s lives are led online. It’s illegal to physically crucify someone, but there’s no actual law against crucifying their reputation, or replacing the real person with a falsely constructed avatar to be held up to public hatred and ridicule, virtually clothed in a purple robe. I’ve witnessed such online crucifixions, and feel the need to protest and speak up vociferously, identifying the guilty parties in hope of putting an end to the practice. Such protest is in keeping with the theme of cyber civil rights.

Victoria Coren Mitchell quotes Miranda Hart

It’s scary that people of faith often feel intimidated under present societal conditions. In a fun post, I acquainted readers with an hilarious video of Miranda Hart singing agnostic hymns; but there’s also a serious side brought out by Victoria Coren Mitchell in The Guardian. She writes:

There is a new, false distinction between “believers” and “rationalists.” The trickle-down [Richard] Dawkins effect has got millions of people thinking that faith is ignorant and childish, with atheism the smart and logical position.

I interviewed the comedian Miranda Hart recently. She told me she believes in God but was nervous of being quoted on it.

“It’s scary to say you’re pro-God,” she said. “Those clever atheists are terrifying.”

“Oh, nonsense,” I said. “Let them tell you it’s stupid to believe in something you can’t explain. Then ask them how an iPad works.”

Faith is the true shibboleth. It need not be justified. And no, the Crucifixion didn’t only happen on Calvary.

*  *  *

In Part 1 of “A Shibboleth Is Not A Speech Impediment,” I’ve tried to lay the groundwork for topics I’ll discuss in Part 2 and beyond. Think of Part 1 as a longish introduction, and Part 2 as getting to more of the substance (we hope).

See also “A Study In Contrasts,” where I talk more about Socrates and offer a music clip from Erik Satie’s The Death of Socrates (worth hearing if you enjoy classical music).

Miranda Hart and Agnosticism

The funniest Miranda Hart clip ever isn’t from her own show, but from Hyperdrive where she plays a supporting role…

It’s the year 2051 and the dominant faith appears to be agnosticism. So when Diplomatic Officer Chloe Teal (played by Miranda Hart) reunites with her old flame, he asks her to rekindle his (non) faith through the miracle of song:

This clip made me laugh more than anything in recent memory. Trying not to overthink it, but how many people do I know (including myself on a bad day) who have “hazy feelings of spirituality” which are quickly overshadowed by empirical reasoning? Lots of folks.

What if agnostics weren’t so namby-pamby, but they actively proselytized? Then (as the song goes):

Run to the streets
Tell everyone
He might have made the trees
He may have made the sun…

From Hyperdrive s02e01, “Green Javelins.”

Was Picasso Spiritual? Part 3

I closed Part 2 by saying that it would be easy to subject Picasso the man to a variety of political and spiritual tests — some of which he might fail. But this doesn’t negate what’s spiritual in his work, to be discovered through a careful process of selection.

Have we then settled the question of whether Picasso was spiritual? No, we’ve only scratched the surface! In art, it’s the question and the asking which are often most important. Answers are dull and tend to tamp down enthusiasm for further research. The quest to understand art, spirituality, and life is endless!

What we have discovered is that there’s a spiritual pathway through Picasso’s works. Because his works are so numerous and diverse, we each have the luxury of creating our own personal pathway through them.

To critics of Picasso I would freely admit that the pathway I have chosen is intensely personal. One could just as easily assemble a gallery of his least likeable and most self-indulgent works — an undertaking for which I have no patience.

To those who were determined from the outset that we should judge Picasso harshly and find him unspiritual I would say this: He was an artist, not a spiritual figure. To locate spiritual elements in his work is not to elevate the man beyond his faults, nor to suggest that he should be emulated as if he were a saint. Artists are explorers, and it makes sense to look for what’s valuable in their explorations, what reflects lasting truth.

Picasso paints with light 1

Picasso paints with light #1

A quite different type of criticism of Picasso comes from those modernists obsessed with the Holy Grail of abstraction. For them, Picasso is not truly modern because his works are always based on people, animals, and things. He never cuts the cord and embraces pure abstraction. He’s emotional, political, and biographical. This makes him less spiritual in the eyes of those who equate spirituality in art with the abandonment of content and the emphasis on purely formal elements.

I cannot agree with what on careful inspection turns out to be an elitist view of art. The advances made by modernists are impressive, and the search for truth must needs include not only form, but also the formless as well as the interzones. But it strikes me as foolish if, in evolving some taxonomy of art, we should quarantine Picasso from modernism and chide him for painting what he loved — goats and owls, pigeons and Madonnas. He moved modernism forward by leaps and bounds; and modernism (if I may so suggest) is not the rejection of everything which came before, but the inclusion of everything which has become possible.

Pablo Picasso -- a maker of goats, owls, pigeons, and Madonnas.

Pablo Picasso — a maker of goats, owls, pigeons, and Madonnas.

Especially in their youth, artists often want to “burn the Louvre” (whether literally or figuratively); and indeed, for an artist unsure of his own identity the past can seem like an oppressive weight he cannot crawl out from under. The solution is not to destroy or disinherit the artistic past, but having learned from it to go beyond it with tremendous strength of mind, and a visionary quality which hastens the arrival of the future.

Picasso paints with light #2

Picasso paints with light #2

Abstraction is simply another mode of expression, another way of seeking the truth, another way that art can be. It’s not inherently superior to other modes and other views. The extreme view which extols abstraction as the ultimate in spirituality is incompatible with the view we have arrived at via Picasso that “the art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was.”

It’s absurd to speak of Picasso “betraying” cubism during his neoclassical period, or to suggest that his ceramics celebrating antiquity detract from his reputation as a modernist. Modernism goes hand in hand with freedom of expression, and this includes not only the freedom to paint or sculpt unconventionally, but also to make use of such conventional elements as one finds helpful in expressing what one wants to express.

The human condition is one of social interdependence, and an art which insists on total abstraction runs the risk of becoming not spiritual, but rather dehumanized. This is not to say that the ideal of an art purged of all human concerns and reflecting purely formal elements is entirely without merit; but it should not become an obsession or exclusionary high tower.

I’ve purposely avoided getting bogged down in the sub-question of what is spirituality, because that would have led away from the works themselves. Modern artists often create works which do not explicitly affirm or commend faith, but which do point to some higher beauty which exists, and which might be said to come from the mind (or soul) of God.

Pablo Picasso, "Blue Vase," 1962

Pablo Picasso, “Blue Vase,” 1962

When we lose ourselves in a work of art, this can be a spiritual experience in which we transcend mundane categories that ordinarily separate art, artist, viewer, and consciousness. The experience of oneness and insight which art can foster is a spiritual experience, even if it sometimes lacks religious icons or explicit affirmations of this faith or that. Perhaps what we’re really talking about is art as a way of seeing reality. Reality itself is non-denominational.

In a world that’s often as dull as a railway timetable, the ability to imagine and create speaks of something spiritual. Fixing the exact location of that spiritual something is notoriously difficult, like a problem in quantum mechanics. The closer we get to it, the less it looks like something small, finite, within ourselves, and more like something universal which we can all potentially tap into, colouring it with our own experience. In this sense, we are each writing God’s autobiography. For more on this, see You, a series of guided meditations by Sri Chinmoy.

One last painting I here offer is titled Still Life With Bull’s Skull, though its psychological effect on me never had anything to do with bulls or skulls.

Pablo Picasso, "Still Life With Bull's Skull"

Pablo Picasso, “Still Life With Bull’s Skull”

It always reminded me of a child sitting up in bed and waving, after a dream in which he experienced something which could never be expressed in words. “I’m impossible, yet here I am. I exist. Hi!” the child seems to say.

Picasso famously said that all children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once one grows up. I’ll end as I began, with a snippet of poetry:

When 18
I had a black upright piano
with yellowing keys
it was sometimes in tune
a friend once played Bartók
but I doodled modally
and tried to learn counterpoint.

Art posters—
Degas, Miró, Chagall
a pole lamp bounced warm light
up at the ceiling
when dawn searched charcoal rooftops
it found me in Van Gogh’s Room at Arles
I was Picasso’s Guitarist
my arms grown long thin and bony
fingers curved around a fretboard
hair white, sculpted head held akimbo
poised for a lifetime of unemployment.

Michael Howard

*  *  *

Note: A limited number of digital reproductions of Picasso’s works are included here for educational purposes and to promote awareness of his contributions as an artist. Some or all such works may be copyright Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Special thanks to the Masterworks Fine Art Gallery of Oakland Hills, California, which has many exquisite Picasso ceramics and linocuts for sale.

Was Picasso Spiritual? Part 2

I ended Part 1 by suggesting that in his ceramics Picasso was moving toward simplicity and timelessness. This is a side of Picasso not sufficiently appreciated: one who admires the qualities of Greek and Egyptian art and takes joy in emulating it, making it a part of his own oeuvre. Not a mere nod to the past, but a genuine recognition that the past remains with us.

The public has a limited tolerance for complexity, and tends to fixate on certain facets of an artist’s work to the exclusion of others. Some of what’s good about Picasso may be hidden in plain sight because it fails to jibe with our expectations, and so goes unnoticed. If our stereotype of Picasso is that of the cubist, distortionist, and painter of exotic nudes, viewing his ceramics and linocuts reveals a quite different picture:

The accompanying music forms a counterpoint both fitting and ironical. “Aspri Mera,” sung by Greek-French chanteuse Nana Mouskouri, means literally “white day,” and here signifies an idealized day when everything is put right. The singer, who could easily be one of Picasso’s mistresses, says in part:

I will water with a salty tear
   the weather, bitter summers
I learned to be close to you
The dawn gave to the sky
   pigeons without life
I will come back as a sad Madonna
Goodbye, don’t cry for the sorrow…

As if by magic, pigeons and Madonnas appear on cue! (Translation adapted from one by Korina found here.) There is perhaps some danger in sentimentalizing Picasso, but one should view this slideshow as chipping away at ideas about him which have become fossilized, set in stone. Some people mistake his ceramics for the merely decorative, not recognizing that their simplicity is a profound form of artistic statement, for as the great Sri Chinmoy remarks: “Simplicity is an advanced course.”

Pablo Picasso, "Face No. 197, 1963"

Pablo Picasso, “Face No. 197, 1963”

This earthenware plate with its near-smiling face introduces us to Picasso’s “happy boy” icon — a big, round moon-face with minimal features, placid and showing no signs of modern anxiety or angst. Some of that simplicity-inspired-by-antiquity is also visible in a painting from 1946:

Pablo Picasso, "Head of a Woman with Green Curls"

Pablo Picasso, “Head of a Woman with Green Curls”

Picasso could communicate with great clarity and directness, as in this red clay study from 1964 reflecting Egyptian influence. It’s an immensely tactile portrait — as our eyes travel over it, we can almost feel the ridges:

"Petit Buste de Femme"

“Petit Buste de Femme”

Picasso knew everything that was happening in modern art. As a colorist and stylist, he could easily make Chagall or Matisse his own. Certainly one is reminded of them in this lovely and poignant piece from 1948, Claude in the Arms of His Mother, which rivals in expressiveness any Madonna and child done by the old masters:

"Claude in the Arms of His Mother"

“Claude in the Arms of His Mother”

At times, Picasso could be obsessed with form, line, and colour to the exclusion of empathy for his subjects; but not so with the above picture, which shows tremendous love.

The Picasso family, 1953. From left to right: Claude Picasso, Pablo Picasso, Françoise Gilot, and Paloma Picasso.

The Picasso family, 1953. From left to right: Claude Picasso, Pablo Picasso, Françoise Gilot, and Paloma Picasso.

Another domestically-inspired work hails from 1954:

"Claude Drawing Françoise and Paloma"

“Claude Drawing Françoise and Paloma”

It’s not as tender, but is wonderful in its form and looks almost like a still from an animated film. (The Picasso Summer, a 1969 film based on a story by Ray Bradbury, does include an animated sequence where figures from Guernica come to life.) The more sombre tone of Claude Drawing reflects the fact that Françoise had left Picasso by this time and taken the children with her.

Picasso painted some of his most traditionally beautiful portraits of women back in his neoclassical period, which came after his first major excursion into cubism:

It may be said without fear of contradiction that no one could make a bust of a woman like Picasso (but see feminist implications further down). After such a feast of beauty which does not challenge, we may be shocked to view his less representational works, where he interpolates his subjects through cubism, abstract sculptural forms, and psychological profiles. Despite its passionate title, Female Nude (I Love Eva) takes more work on the viewer’s part to discern the emotion. I know someone who swears he can spot three presidents:

Picasso's "Female Nude (I Love Eva)"

Picasso’s “Female Nude (I Love Eva)”

This next one might be billed as Pig Wearing a Suit of Green Armour:

Picasso's "Woman In Green"

Picasso’s “Woman In Green”

Another might be called Portrait of a Hatstand with Stained Glass Attachments, and has a bit of a Doctor Who feel to it (“Are you my mummy?”):

Picasso's "Portrait of Woman (Dora Maar)"

Picasso’s “Portrait of Woman (Dora Maar)”

There’s something Moorish in this painting from 1952. No, not the Spanish Moors, but Henry Moore:

Pablo Picasso, "Nude Wringing Her Hair"

Pablo Picasso, “Nude Wringing Her Hair”

Picasso stretches reality and exaggerates certain features (here the long neck, hair, and act of curving the body), distorting the form to better communicate the essence. Another painting plays with the trope of the woman who’s mysterious and sphinxlike — by turning Jacqueline Roque into something Egyptian, carved in stone:

"Jacqueline with Crossed Hands," 1954

“Jacqueline with Crossed Hands,” 1954

There’s an episode of Northern Exposure in which a hair technician describes her expert machinations as “shovering and balloonifying.” That’s certainly what Picasso does in the example below, and there are others where the models are suspended in air like floats from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade:

"Bather With Beach Ball," 1932

“Bather With Beach Ball,” 1932

If this ode to modern inflation is cheerful, his Weeping Woman series evokes a universal archetype of suffering, but is also personal to Dora Maar:

One from the *Weeping Woman* series

One from Picasso’s “Weeping Woman” series

Picasso said, “For me she’s the weeping woman. For years I’ve painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure, either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was the deep reality, not the superficial one… Dora, for me, was always a weeping woman… And it’s important, because women are suffering machines.”

Nevertheless, like most male artists of the twentieth century, Picasso used the female body as raw material for his visions of what art could be. The results were not always complimentary or respectful by today’s standards. This clip from the 1958 film The Horse’s Mouth gives something of the prevailing attitudes towards artists and models at the time. Look for Michael Gough as a sculptor obsessed with evoking “mother earth surrounded by her dead,” while the poor model shivers and cramps:

I will grant you that in order to pronounce Picasso spiritual one has to ignore a lot and put up with a lot. He never seemed to question the inherited setup whereby a woman’s function was to pose for male artists. Art historian and feminist Griselda Pollock addresses this issue pointedly in Art of the Western World, noting that “male avant-garde artists have staked their claim as ambitious modernists on the bodies of women.” For further discussion, see her “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity”.

It would be easy to subject Picasso the man to a variety of political and spiritual tests — some of which he might fail. But this doesn’t negate what’s spiritual in his work, to be discovered through a careful process of selection. Much that the critics herald may be safely rejected in seeking after the spiritual Picasso.

I have tracked this elusive beast as far as I safely could on foot, and having no motored vehicle, must leave it to the reader to proceed further, according to what he or she may consider prudent. Yet our journey is not quite done. In Part 3, I’ll ponder what we’ve learned and discuss Picasso’s (sometimes disputed) place in modernism. Naturally, there’ll be more pictures, photos, videos, and poetry. I hope you’ll enjoy hearing Françoise Gilot tell the story of how Picasso rescued a baby owl and nursed it back to health, and how she fed it mice from the publisher’s downstairs.

*  *  *

Note: A limited number of digital reproductions of Picasso’s works are included here for educational purposes and to promote awareness of his contributions as an artist. Some or all such works may be copyright Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Special thanks to the Masterworks Fine Art Gallery of Oakland Hills, California, which has many exquisite Picasso ceramics and linocuts for sale.