Nekyia: Picasso and the Suicide Death of the Poet Carlos Casagemas

Self Portrait from Picasso's Blue Period

The death of the poet and artist Carlos Casagemas, Picasso’s friend and almost constant companion in Barcelona and later in Paris, precipitated a creative crisis (Podoksik 21-25). Picasso was in Madrid when the young man shot himself in the middle of a Parisian café on the Boulevard de Clichy. After first returning to Malaga with Picasso in December of 1900, Casagemas had returned to Paris alone. Picasso had taken a position in Madrid as an art editor of a new journal, Arte Joven (EBO). Casagemas was understandably despondent and had declined Picasso’s repeated ‘desperate’ invitations to re-join him in Spain (Podoksik 24). Although Picasso’s prodigious output in the year 1901 seems to contradict the proposition that his thoughts about himself as an artist had been challenged, it does not.

Sketches from original paintings and sketches by Picasso--kknox

February 1901, and the Fall advent of the Casagemas “death cycle” mark points of transition in Picasso’s early career. As Picasso struggled against the “academic style”, he incorporated into his work the insights he gleaned from his contemporaries and explored his own psyche as a possible source of intervention. This period of transition reflected a confluence of styles: From the beginning of the year his work was still suffused with the echoes of El Greco, Zurbaran, Goya and Velazquez, as was much of his early work; these influences gradually gave way to Forain, Steinlein (the illustrators of contemporary Parisian magazines) van Gogh, Lautrec and the Nabis (especially Vuillard and Bonnard) as well as to Picasso’s own flirtatious references to the Catalan Modernists (Podoksik 19-22). Furthermore, it may be possible to trace a connection between Picasso’s search for his artistic voice during this period, and the later identification of him by Andre Breton as the ‘informing genius of Surrealism’ in 1928 (qtd in Chipp 407); or indeed, as Salmon wrote in 1912, as the “foremost artist of his age” (qtd. in Chipp 203). Apollinaire (who was slighted for his eye, but not often for his pen) best summarized the transformation of Picasso’s art during this period:

“This Malagueno bruised us like a brief frost. His meditations bared themselves silently. He came from far away, from the rich composition and the brutal decoration of the seventeenth-century Spaniards.

And those who had known him before could recall swift insolences, which were already beyond the experimental stage.

His insistence on the pursuit of beauty has since changed everything in art”(qtd in Chipp 230-31).

As early as 1899 or 1900 Picasso became increasingly concerned with the “final truth; the transience of human life and the inevitability of death” (Podoksik 20). As Anatoly Podoksik described the subjects of these works, he argued that they culminated in Picasso’s 1900 canvas The Last Moments (20). This large composition was shown in Barcelona early in 1900, and later the same year at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Podoksik tells us that the work was only recently rediscovered by X-ray analysis (20). The Last Moments was perhaps symbolically buried by Picasso beneath La Vie. The two paintings certainly share more than the same space on canvas and illustrate what Podoksik regarded as Picasso’s ability to capture “the general significance of universal human experience…due to [his] expressing, with the most exhaustive completeness, man’s internal life and all the laws of its development” (11).

Podoksik sees The Last Moments as an entirely “theoretical” painting: in its “morbid symbolism”; in its “characters”, a dying woman and the priest attending her; and in its “style, which bespeaks the artist’s affinity with the ‘spiritual’ painting of El Greco, then considered the founding father of the anti-academic, modernist tradition”(20). Picasso achieved continuity, whether consciously or not, by painting the La Vie over the earlier work. The theoretical symbols and characters of The Last Moments were displaced in La Vie, as the artist confronted his thoughts and feelings—especially his guilt—concerning the death of his friend Casagemas.

La Vie

In the Casagemas “death cycle” so called because the theme was treated at least four times in 1901 alone, and reaches its apogee in 1903 with La Vie. Picasso drafted the image of the poet in two distinct moods. None of the paintings betray the circumstances that surrounded Cassagemas’ suicide (except in some of the titles). Picasso depicted his friend conventionally and sentimentally at first, then his treatments change, gradually, perhaps inexplicably. Initially, Casagemas seems to be dead, suspended in time and perhaps trapped between worlds. Casagemas may still live in the artist’s memory, but there is little that is alive about his cold, blue corpse. As the series progresses, Picasso brings his friend back to life as a surrogate for himself. In 1903, through a process of transformations expedited by Picasso, Casagemas conquers death in La Vie.

The Casagemas cycle suggests Picasso’s psychological descent into an underworld (Golding 214) that parallels the images of suffering, dementia, pathos and poverty that Picasso created following his visits St. Lazare women’s prison in the Fall of 1901 (Podoksik 32). An important distinction is made by Podoksik about the differences between the paintings from 1899 through the first half of June 1901, and Picasso’s developments during the second half of 1901. As his discussion unfolds, Podoksik uses the aphorisms generally assigned to the earlier period, such as “stained glass”, “café”, “pre-Fauve” or “Vollard” styles. He then summarizes,

…“earlier when depicting a café scene in the style of turn-of-the-century art, Picasso was attracted by the modern city’s ‘physiology’. By the anomalies of actual existence; now in the second half of 1901, the social aspect retreats far into the background; serving only to set off the universal symbolic meaning of the painted image” (Podoksik 27-28).

Podoksik also sees significant emotional and ideological links between the people who inhabit Picasso’s cafes and the Night Café that van Gogh described as “a place where one can perish, go insane, commit a crime” (qtd in Podoksik 31). Podoksik also reminds us that of the three essential elements that Pierre Daix enumerated as “ripening” in the last half of 1901, the “…predominance of form in the compositions…”, “…sentimental themes…”, and “…the use of monochromatic blue…” (qtd in Podoksik 31). In fact, it was to Daix that Picasso confessed, many years later, “…it was when thinking that Casagemas was dead that I began to paint in blue” (qtd. in Podoksik 31).

Golding introduces his readers to Jung’s assessment of Picasso’s early Blue Period:

“[It was] seen as evidence of the first stages of schizophrenia and as the symbol of ‘Nekyia’, a descent into hell and darkness. Picasso’s subsequent evolution, Jung felt, was an ever more desperate effort to shelter behind a barrage of unintelligible symbols, leading the painter inexorably into the murky gloom of a Neolithic night” (214). During a brief discussion of Evocation and La Vie, within the larger context of his analysis of The Three Dancers, Golding links Picasso’s “journey inward and downwards” with the “ultimate destination and aim of all the true Surrealists” (215). Golding remarks that the “conclusions [Picasso] reached when he had explored the labyrinths of his psyche were not those of his Surrealist friends”; Picasso did not, for example, cede primacy to the dream state over the “stimulus of the waking, visual world”; nevertheless, it was at least in part, “the Surrealist experience which endowed his work of the period with its depths of psychological meaning and emotional intensity” (215).

Jaime Sabartes summarized Picasso’s views from the period, “[he] believes Art to be the child of Sorrow and Pain…. He believes Sorrow lends itself to meditation, while Pain is the substance of life” (qtd. in Podoksik 32). Podoksik adds that what is remarkable, “unique” here, is that “[Picasso] expressed [the] leitmotif of a whole cultural era…through a purely poetic metaphor—blueness” (33). Podoksik intensifies this connection of “blueness” to poetry by recalling that

“Rainer Maria Rilke stood studying the paintings at the Salon d’Automne in 1907 and imagined someone writing the history of the colour blue in paintings throughout the ages—now spiritual; now gallant, now devoid of allegorical meaning” (33).

He suggests too that what Picasso produced was “heterogeneous and complex, not only in style but also in content” (33-34).

Podoksik also directs us to one of Picasso’s poems from the 1930’s in which he wrote, “You are the best of what exists in the world. The colour of all colours…the most blue of all the blues” (33). Whether or not Picasso believed in the transformative properties that inhere in the color blue, Jung reminds us that the Romantics did. Jung sees trans-cultural links between the ‘seven stages of transformation’, the ‘Rosie Cross’, the “golden flower” of Chinese alchemy, and the ‘Blue Flower’ of the Romantics. Jung reminds us first, that these are all symbols of solar transformative properties (“the Earth’s answer to the Sun’s countenance”); and second, that

“…the well known ‘blue flower’ of the Romantics might well be the last nostalgic perfume of the ‘rose’; it looks back in true Romantic fashion to the medievalism of ruined cloisters, yet at the same time modestly proclaims something new in earthly loveliness” (Jung 150).

Jung offers us this meditation at least three years after his often cited (and poorly received) analysis of Picasso’s Blue Period, that was reprinted in Cahiers d’Art in 1932 (Golding 360, n. 13:13). There is however, no discernable connection that leads us back to Picasso’s poem, as the mere approximation of coeval timing it is compelling, but ultimately inconclusive.

Picasso undoubtedly saw himself as having departed on a journey “inward and downward”. Casagemas’ death served him as both a catalyst and an analogue, and however derived, “blueness” was his transformative engine and cardinal metaphor. The chronology of the death cycle is not as important for our purposed here, as are the artist’s restive and incisive treatments of his subject(s). One version, Casagemas in his Coffin, (1901, Oil on Cardboard: 72.5 x 57.8 cm) is all in blues and greens. The tones are melancholy, inert and passive, as it simply proclaims that Casagemas is dead. Regardless of the order prescribed by dates, this first painting can be read as our starting point and as Picasso’s point of departure.

The Death of Casagemas (one version with the candle)

In a second painting, The Death of Casagemas, (1901, Oil on Wood: 27 x 35 cm.) Picasso added a candle and suddenly the corpse changed. The hoarfrost blue and green of the previous work yield to warmer, self-indulgent yellows, oranges and reds; as a result the mood of the painting softens. The forms of the candle and of Casagemas’ profile are allowed to dominate the composition. The light given-off by the candle is intended to be interpreted as a form as well. In this alternate version, the glow of the candle warms the air around it with thick, insolent, vaulted chromatic arches. The atmosphere Picasso creates is more redolent of a van Gogh sun, than of a candle set near a bier. Picasso insinuates that Casagemas is in some way transfigured by his (Picasso’s) novel illumination. Casagemas can no longer be regarded as just a death mask attached to a corpse awaiting burial, thus consigned to memory. Picasso has not yet revealed the full extent of Casagemas’ apotheosis; he has changed the way we feel as we look at his treatment of the scene in historical revision….

In the third painted sketch, Casagemas is shown with his head turned to almost three quarter’s profile. This sketch is not as disconsolate as are those more austere profiles featured in the two previous works. The head is raised and it seems that Casagemas may not be dead at all, only lost in contemplation. His eyes are closed, but only the title reveals his disposition, Le Suicide (1901, Oil on Cardboard: 52 x 34 cm.). The sheets that once shrouded him can now be interpreted as a simple white garment. Blue remains an important color, but now it must compete with the browns of Casagemas’ disheveled hair and the deep umber recesses of his closed eyes. Picasso reveals to us that Casagemas’ personality lingers somehow despite the reports of his death.

A fourth painting, Evocation (The Burial of Casagemas—Evocation, 1903: 146 x 89 cm.) is different in both scale and temperament than the other simpler paintings in the cycle. Picasso’s presentation of the events depicted in Evocation borrows heavily from El Greco’s Burial of Count Orgaz. In El Greco’s Burial, Christ holds court in heaven and presumable awaits the arrival of the dead Count. St. Stephen and St. Augustine attend the details of the interment or resurrection (as we might interpret them). Christ, his court, and the Saints are absent from Picasso’s painting. The court of heaven has been transposed by Picasso into small groupings of a more secular bias: a nude couple, apparently both female; a trio of partly clad female figures—perhaps the muses who inspired Casagemas’ poems; and an obscure figure on horseback who prepares to lift a waiting nude female up behind him on his mount….

The symbolic language of Picasso’s Evocation is evasive. What is immediately clear is that whatever Picasso’s figures are doing, they are not immediately involved in, nor are they moved by the drama unfolding below them. “Above” and “below” are relative terms and therefore are bound to a single point of view. If the point of view changes as we look at the picture, then the meaning becomes ambiguous; certainty, the absolute, all of the trappings of didacticism are relegated to an endless series of contingencies by Picasso’s shifting point of view. “Form” is no longer able to “dominate” the artist’s composition; and instead, his figures preoccupy languid moments: perhaps relevant, but perhaps irrelevant to the death of the poet, Picasso’s friend. Picasso’s figures exist—simultaneously apart—all in a shared space, and they are animated b their collective or individual objectives—not by the artist, nor by the events he has depicted. Words dissemble meanings; and the artist implies that we must not try to describe his painting; we can only experience it—simultaneously apart! The allegory has stripped away the personal significance [for us, for Picasso]: of the poet, of his life, his death—his transformation into something else or something other. And all that remains now is the work of art and the artist.

Evocation The Burial of Casagemas

We note that the shroud is in relatively the same position in both paintings. Picasso’s arch of clouds in Evocation corresponds to the arch described by the hosts of Heaven, as shown by El Greco. The priest who presides over the burial of the Count is analogous to the gate of the churchyard in Picasso’s scene. Orgaz’ body lies with his head toward the priest, undoubtedly to expedite his soul’s trajectory to Christ’s paradise. In Picasso’s scene, by contrast, the young poet’s head declines away from the gate of the churchyard, but not necessarily away from ‘salvation’. With patterns of ambiguous whites Picasso leads the observer’s attention upward. His figures conduct their various pursuits amid relentless fields of ‘blueness’ and blue fields of ‘air’ and ‘ground’ to suggest “…strong allegorical overtones ranging from the mystic and religious to the profane and quasi-blasphemous…”(Golding 214). The less effusive themes and the life sized people of El Greco’s Burial have been displaced by Picasso’s frolicking, tiny ephemera.

In both paintings the faces of the dead are obscured, because these are not portraits of the dead. The actions, the personalities of the participants, the emotions attendant to the action, are all allowed to take precedence in both burial scenes. El Greco’s “ideal viewer” stands on the same ground as the ‘human’ participants involved in the episode. As we look at the painting, some of the onlookers (including the painter himself) look back at us, calling our attention to the fact that we are all the witnesses to this solemn occasion. Picasso makes his figures much smaller, less human, less personal, more mercurial and perhaps livelier and (oddly) naked. Podoksik offers this assessment:

“…there is no doubt that Picasso, in the grip of his ‘blue’ world outlook, found the universal in the concrete: symbolic, suggestive in meaning and piercing in emotion, an expression of universal sorrow. This was an existential emotion rather than an empirical one” (38).

It is precisely the inconstancy of his figures that remakes our role; we are not the spectators at an important event shown in paint, we must see Picasso’s Evocation, as an artist’s statement. Picasso’s account of The Burial of Casagemas does not represent actual events (any more than El Greco’s painting did) it requires our interpretation. We can perhaps participate in Picasso’s painting more fully than in El Greco’s because, while the former is poetry (good or bad), the latter is pageantry.

We can conclude, at least in part, that Picasso’s death portraits commemorated his friend, the poet Casagemas, as Picasso saw him. We can speculate that these portraits impart some message to us beyond their surface appearances, yet they retain a certain intimacy and solemnity that is profoundly human. In contrast, the diversity and magnitude of the events depicted in Evocation, reaches far beyond these commemorative portraits, just as it also departs from El Greco’s Burial. Evocation depends upon less tangible conceptions than ‘life or death’ and the ‘transience of human existence.’ Evocation is framed in a complex, pastoral language that we must interpret.

El Greco chronicles a funeral and foreshadows the inevitable redemption and ascension of the Count to the Christian Paradise. The Burial of Count Orgaz requires no great degree of interpretation. Picasso’s painting presents a bifurcated polemic, the meaning of its various branches are uncertain. Perhaps Picasso argues for the redemption of his friend into a simpler, more secular version of paradise? Perhaps the Evocation of the title refers to the fanciful imaginings brought to the gravesite by the mourners? Perhaps there is an alternative meaning known to and discernable by the painter himself? Each of these questions is equally problematic, and equally unanswerable.

The Burial of Count Orgaz El Greco

In a sketch from 1904, (the Portrait of Casagemas, Nude; Pen and ink with blue pencil: 13.3 x 9 cm.) Casagemas is resurrected: he is nude and awkwardly covering himself; his hair is disheveled; his eyes are sullen, dark and disoriented. He stares at us, brooding, as if in defiance of the fact that even as we look at him, we know that he is dead. A year earlier, in 1903 Casagemas was enlisted by Picasso for another appearance. In the serial pentimenti La Vie (1903, Oil on canvas: 77 3/8 x 50 5/8 cm.) Picasso borrowed Casagemas’ face to put on his own nearly nude frame. A young, nude woman stands next to him and seems to lean on him. Opposite the couple, a robed woman holds an infant. The author of an article from the Cleveland Museum of Art suggests that this robed woman and the child she is holding supersede the bearded priest in Podoksik’s description of The Last Moments: “The cloaked female figure was initially a bearded male” (MPV).

This picture stands near the end of the Blue period, it is the largest, and for many critics and scholars it is Picasso’s most important work from that time. La Vie suggests that by 1903, Picasso integrated into his work the feelings he had concerning the death of Casagemas. Certainly through this process of integration (pentimenti) Picasso provides his friend with some measure of immortality. He also may offer us the sythesis that Podoksik refers to as a “universal symbolic meaning of the painted image”. Death, specifically Casagemas’ death, is an important motif that pervades the entire period of Picasso’s work. Furthermore, we can conjecture that there is a relationship among these particular paintings that links together Picasso’s thoughts on life and death, without determining what those thoughts are. For example, Picasso substitutes the priest in El Greco’s Burial with the gate to the cemetery in Evocation.

A similar exchange takes place in The Last Moments and La Vie. The permutations between these two paintings include: a robed woman substitutes for a priest; the infant she is holding (life) takes the place of death; the dying woman is replaced by the young couple in La Vie; a reinvigorated Casagemas trades his winding sheet for a loin cloth (almost) and perhaps most significantly, Picasso exchanges his own face for the death mask once worn by Casagemas. Picasso described this approach to his art in a 1935 conversation with Christian Zervos:

“In the old days pictures went forward toward completion by stages. Every day brought something new. A picture used to be a sum of additions. In my case a picture is a sum of destructions. I do a picture—then I destroy it. In the end, though, nothing is lost; the red I took away from one place turns up somewhere else. It would be very interesting to preserve photographically, not the stages, but the metamorphoses of a picture. Possibly then one might discover the path followed by the brain in materializing a dream. …A Picture doesn’t change …the first ‘vision’ remains intact, in spite of appearances” (qtd. in Chipp 267-268).

Death is addressed repeatedly throughout Picasso’s work. It should come as no great surprise that he uses ‘destruction’ as a metaphor for the process whereby his images are achieved. Art is for Picasso, a process of accumulated “deaths”; a sum of “destructions” and not a simple act of “creation”; and art is the “path followed by the brain in materializing a dream”. We might speculate that Picasso sees death as a principle of displacement, because “in the end, nothing is lost”; but since Picasso’s argument is more poetic than logical, such a transposition might be deemed unfair. It would be fair to deduce that Picasso sees his art as a way to understand creative and destructive acts and thus perhaps life and death, without arriving at any specific conclusions about either. Picasso hints at this when he says later in the same conversation with Zervos:

“While it is being done [a picture] changes as one’s thoughts change. And when it is finished, it still goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it. A picture lives a life like a living creature, undergoing changes imposed on us by our life from day to day. This is natural enough, as the picture lives only through the man who is looking at it” (qtd in Chipp 268).

Picasso’s notable omission in this passage is that he fails to draw the obvious conclusion: A picture that ‘lives like a living creature’ must also eventually die. In other words, (again without drawing a strictly logical conclusion) artists give life to a painting working from a ‘first vision’ that already has a life of its own; this vision continues to live as long as people look at it: Picasso may stop short of stating a conclusion because ‘art’ is just the path he is on, there is no specific, ‘empirical’ destination at some unknown end.  He speaks of a ‘first vision’ that ‘remains intact in spite of appearances’. It is possible at this point to side with Jung, and to see Picasso’s art as a flight from the realities of life and death. It is also possible, on the other hand, to see his art as an ongoing process, of creation and destruction that Picasso understands will only end with his death.

Picasso’s statements (when applied to his paintings) allow us to consider the transformation of one character into another, one canvas to the next, or one style to another style, while retaining a sense of continuity. This transformation is obvious in the case of The Last Moments and La Vie, but it is not always so obvious or complete.

“When you begin a picture, you often make some pretty discoveries. You must be on guard against these. Destroy the thing, do it over several times. In each destroying of a beautiful discovery, the artist does not really suppress it, but rather transforms it, condenses it, makes it more substantial. What comes out in the end is the result of discarded finds. There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality. There’s no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark” (qtd in Chipp 270).

If we apply even the rudiments of logic to Picasso’s statement, we find by extending his thought, that to replace the one ‘reality’ with another ‘reality’ is not to lose that with which we started; if we revisit The Last Moments and La Vie, in the light of this axiom, we find that each of the transformed figures can be read as having been stamped with ‘the indelible marks’ of the figure that was ‘destroyed.’ So we should read traces of the bearded priest as now resident in the cloaked woman holding the baby; the young couple is linked to the dying woman through Picasso’s idea of ‘discarded finds’; Picasso and Casagemas must also be connected as they too have been ‘transformed’, ‘condensed’ and made more ‘substantial’.

In his discussion of the archetypal symbolism of dreams, Jung shows how very different images can be related to each other within a single dream narrative. We can appropriate his methods in order to understand Picasso’s associations because Picasso’s ‘downward and inward’ journey has led him (and us) to the labyrinthine depths of the psyche, where dreams originate. As already noted, Golding, Podoksik and many others see a connection between Picasso’s work and the Surrealists’ preoccupation with dreams. Picasso’s own reference to the ‘path the brain follows when materializing a dream’ was mentioned too, but was not sufficient by itself, to serve as a foundation on which to elaborate an argument admitting Jung’s methods of association to the interpretation of Picasso’s paintings.

Jung sees the symbolism of dreams within an established context provided by the images and processes of alchemy (117-120). Jung’s basic premise is that the images of dreams and of alchemy persist throughout all cultures, not because they have origins in each other, but because they each have origins in archetypes that are universal (120). Alchemy provides a familiar visual vocabulary for Jung’s archetypes. What he refers to as a mandala image is a more useful tool to understand a dream, a painting, or a process of painting like that described by Picasso.

“The true mandala,” Jung writes “is always an inner image, which is gradually built-up through (active) imagination, at such times when psychic equilibrium is disturbed or when a thought cannot be found and must be sought for, because it is not contained in holy doctrine” (170).

The inner image then, is composed of many parts, each which has an individual identity, an identity related to other images surrounding it, as well as an identity derived from the interplay of all of the images in the mandala. Jung continues, with regard to these images,

“…it seems to me beyond question that these Eastern symbols originated in dreams and visions, and were not invented by some Mahayana church father. On the contrary, they are among the oldest religious symbols of humanity…”(170).

The relevance of Jung’s discussion to Picasso’s description of his work and his artistic process is immediately apparent. Although, the process that Picasso describes seems far less tranquil than that described by Jung. It is true that the artist speaks of repeatedly “destroying” the image, but this implies a similarity to the gradual process that builds-up Jung’s “inner image”; the inner image or as Picasso says, “first vision”, the “picture” or the “mandala” doesn’t change, “in spite of appearances.” The mandala is created in order to find what is “missing”; and Picasso tells us, his paintings are a “sum of discarded finds”.

We might next consider Jung’s description of the “visual impression” of a common dream, and the possible relevance that his explanation of it may have for the transformation of figures we have traced among the images of The Last Moments and La Vie:

“A death’s head. The dreamer wants to kick it away, but cannot. The skull gradually changes into a red ball, then into a woman’s head which emits light.

Evidently…a play of opposites has occurred: after being rejected the unconscious insists on itself all the more strongly. Fist it produces the classical symbol for the unity and divinity of the self, the sun; then it passes to the motif of the unknown woman who personifies the unconscious. Naturally this motif includes not merely the archetype of the anima but also the dreamer’s relationship to a real woman, who is both a human personality and a vessel for psychic projections” (Jung 157).

The threads of continuity that wind through the Casagemas Death Cycle, Evocation, The Last Moments and La Vie allow us to find both the transitory and essential bonds connecting them. Jung’s mandala may hold a key to understanding these connections. The genesis of Picasso’s mandala of images is Casagemas’ death. In the first three paintings we are watching as Picasso rejects or at least struggles with the Death’s head; Picasso slowly reforms the face of the corpse to reflect the light of the sun-like candle; but ultimately he lifts the face from the corpse in the Casagemas cycle to create a makeshift face that he wears himself in La Vie, which could be read variously as – Picasso transforming Casagemas (re-birth), or Casagemas transforming Picasso (re-death, or guilt). Jung’s interpretation seems even more on point for the latter part.


The two women in La Vie are quintessentially “not merely the archetype of the anima but also represent the “dreamer’s relationship to a real woman, who is both “a human personality” and a “vessel for psychic projections.” At first the substitution of a bearded priest for the woman holding a baby may seem strange, but if this woman represents the anima, the creative or generative feminine force, she would naturally be granted a sacerdotal role. This woman is holding a child so the exact nature of the hieratic function is apparent to us; she is also a “vessel” for the ultimate “psychic projection”, life itself. The woman who stands at Picasso/Casagemas’ side represents another vital feminine energy, a lover who was known to one or both of them. Judith Rodenbeck (and many others) suggests that she is Germaine, the unfortunate young woman that Casagemas tried to kill just before killing himself. It is also widely reported that Picasso had an affair with Germaine for about a year after the poet committed suicide.  Germaine too, in our ironic reading of the painting, is a vessel of psychic projections, she represents Death. The young couple is visited by Life and the Generative Feminine or Feminine Sacred; they are joined together by sex and guilt, as well as by Life and Death. Picasso wears Casagemas’ face, thus becoming Death to her Life—much as she was Death to Casagemas’ Life. This is a curious if not altogether clear representation of what Jung called the “play of opposites” at work. In The Last Moments, of course the woman waits for Death, attended by a priest or holy functionary. There are many levels of this play of opposites present, but here again I don’t believe that a specific meaning was intended by Picasso, and that may be what makes the painting work for us as a form of the mandala.

The Blue Nude 1902

Art Historians and scholars identify as many as eighty different styles in Picasso’s long and varied career (Cannaday 29). Indeed, Picasso’s early career seems to be marked by rapid changes in subject and style that demonstrate both his virtuosity as a painter, and his insecurities as an artist. Podoksik comments that he had,  “passed too rapidly through modernism and, having exhausted it, found himself at a dead end, without a future” (21). He had to reinvent painting  and start over—not once by many times. It seems unnecessary to categorize his art as any thing other than “Picassisme”, as Salmon calls it (qtd. in Chipp 204). To summarize his career (if that is possible) we might recall the words of Giogio de Chirico in Meditations of a Painter (1912):


“I believe that as from a certain point of view the sight of someone in a dream is a proof of  his metaphysical reality, so, from the same point of view, the revelation of a work of art is the proof of the metaphysical reality of certain chance occurrences that we sometimes experience in the way and manner that something appears to us and provokes in us the image of a work of art, an image which in our souls awakens surprise—sometimes, meditation—often, and always the joy of creation” (qtd. in Chipp 398).






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—-“Conversation, 1935” Theories of Modern Art: A Sourcebook by Artists and Critics. Herschel B. Chipp, with Peter B. Seltz and Joshua C. Taylor. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. pp 266-273


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Salmon, Andre. “Anecdotal History of Cubism” Theories of Modern Art: A Sourcebook by Artists and Critics. Herschel B. Chipp, with Peter B. Seltz and Joshua C. Taylor. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. pp 188-206.








4 thoughts on “Nekyia: Picasso and the Suicide Death of the Poet Carlos Casagemas

  1. What a fascinating, in-depth article! I’m very excited to include it in this month’s art history carnival. One small suggestion: you might want to change the font – the white on black is a bit hard on the eyes ;)- perhaps a different font style might help?

  2. Thanks for the comment and thank you for including the article in this months Art History Carnival…! As for the font and the white on black–I am working on it… Kelly

  3. Thank you for your essay. More helpful than most things I have found on the net. Thank you. I know it takes time and effort to do something like this.

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