Tag Archives: surrealism
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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Breton, Andre. “Surrealism and Painting” 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 402-416


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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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Podoksik, Anatoly. Pablo Picasso: The Creative Eye (From 1881-1914). Trans. Vladimir Posner. Bournemouth, England: Parkstone/Aurora Publishers, 1996.


Rodenbeck, Judith. “Insistent Presence in Picasso’s Portrait of Gertrude Stein.” 1995

http://www.webcom.com/shownet/tots/picasso/picstein.html [Accessed 24 October 1999].


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.








Salvador Dali’s Tiny Penis


Salvador Dali: The Vision of Hell (1962)

The Vision of Hell (1962)

There is little doubt as to the genius of Salvador Dali’s early work, but critics disagree as to the value of the works completed after 1939, and almost everyone questions or decries the “work” produced by assistants and the many so-called “approved forgeries” of the 60’s and 70’s. Dali’s work and his life is currently enjoying a much deserved reprise, with three movies slated for release later this year (2011). I’ve recently been re-reading Ian Gibson’s 1997 Biography The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali (New York: W.W. Norton). Gibson seems to have presaged the interest and new-found emphasis on Dali’s eccentricities and his sexual proclivities or predilections. I think that most people, even most students who think of Dali, think of the impossible moustache, and probably the “melting clocks” of The Persistence of Memory. The image of the melting clocks is so much a part of the popular culture now, that it may even have eclipsed the fame and reputation of its maker.

History is littered with the dirty little secrets of great men and women, if we only know where to look or whom to ask. And while we might expect complete reports rife with lurid details from snickering detractors; it is seldom –even rare— that we find so many frank assessments from friends and even from the man himself. Unfortunately, with Dali, we can never quite be sure if he is telling us the truth, embellishing a lie, or simply adding to his own myth. Indeed, even when reading about Dali, in the accounts of friends and detractors alike, one is often confounded by the same questions and concerns. Gibson’s book weighs in at a hefty 800 pages. In part it reads like a phonebook of the Avant-Garde: enough names, places, numbers, images and allusions to peak one’s interest, but scarcely enough cohesive thought to hold it: Gibson seems too enthusiastic about the journalistic credo of “the who’s, the what’s, the when’s and the how’s”, and all but neglects the possibilities of “the why’s”. His book is no doubt a remarkable achievement, albeit riddled with long passages of subtext, subterranean innuendo and gossip that ultimately lead us nowhere—and a little out of breath, besides.

Salvador Dali

To attack Dali’s work, we must be as subtle and as brash as the maestro himself, pick our path and lunge at it sideways. We might begin with a more or less standard approach, one suggested by the artist himself and disparaged by Gibson. One of the facts of Salvador Dali’s life, was that there were at least two (but in fact several more) Salvador Dali’s:

“Salvador and Felipa’s [Dali’s parents] first child was born on 12 October 1901. The birth certificate, couched in Spanish, not Catalan, as the law required, states that the child was named Salvador Galo Anselmo: Salvador after his father, paternal great-grandfather and other Dali forbears; Galo as a tribute to his ill-fated paternal grandfather; Anselmo in deference to his maternal grandfather, Anselm Domenech, and the latter’s son. [His note omitted.] We know hardly anything about this first Salvador, who died twenty-two months later, on 1 August 1903, victim, according to his death certificate, of ‘an infectious gastro-enteritic cold’”(49).


“Nine months and ten days after the death of his brother, as if conceived in the urgency of grief, the ‘real’ Salvador Dali came into the world, the signal event occurring in the family apartment at 8:45 p.m. on 11 May 1904.[His note omitted.] …The child was not named Salvador in memory of his dead brother, as has often been asserted, but for the same reason as the had been the latter—family tradition (in Catalunya, as in the rest of Spain, it was common for the same Christian names to be regularly handed down from generation to generation…. It would have been unheard of, certainly, to burden the new son with the second and third names of his deceased brother, and of course the Dalis did not do this. Felipe was no doubt chosen as the male form of Felipa, the child’s mother, while Jacinto was a gesture in the direction of Raphael Dali Cusi, Don Salvador’s brother whose full name was Rafael Narciso Jacinto” (50-51).

This is the basic information we need to refute Dali’s own accounts and the subsequent accounts of others who claim that somehow Dali was living in the shadow of his dead brother, or that the morbidity of such an association had somehow informed the formers work. Gibson continues in an attempt to settle the matter:

“In Dali’s extant adolescent diaries there is no mention of his dead brother, although of course there may have been in those that are missing. The references to him occurring in subsequent writings are shot through with misinformation and fantasy, in what proportion deliberately or unconsciously it is impossible to say. In the Secret Life [one of several ‘auto-biographical’ works] Dali states that his brother was seven years old, not twenty-two months, when he died, and that his demise (from meningitis, he alleges, in blatant disagreement with the death certificate) occurred three years before his own birth, not nine months; he also says that his brother had ‘the unmistakable facial morphology of a genius’, showing signs of ‘alarming precocity’. [Again his note omitted.] Later in The Unspeakable Confessions, Dali claimed that his parents had committed ‘a subconscious crime’ by giving him the same name as his brother and thereby forcing him to live up to an impossible ideal, a crime aggravated by the fact that they kept a photograph of the dead child on a cupboard in their bedroom in, as Dali would have us believe, significant juxtaposition with a reproduction of Velazquez’s Christ” [Another omitted note] (51-52).

I will add a third, pair of salient quotes on this point [and then I’ll be tempted to leave you to read the damn book for yourselves—notes and all!]:

“As for Dali’s Portrait of My Dead Brother, executed in 1963, it is based on a photograph of another child, considerably older than the defunct twenty-two-month-old. [His note here was also omitted.] …


“Most of what Dali has to say about his brother appears to be make-believe masquerading as true history and intended to supply the curious with an arresting but spurious justification for the artist’s eccentric behavior . It is also, perhaps, a red herring designed to put biographers, whom arguably Dali feared, firmly off the track. In the latter respect, it must be said, he succeeded only too well” (52-53).

It seems to me, that Dali is not trying to throw off his biographers as much as he is trying to force us to see him as he wants to see himself, as a figure of reverence; the kind of reverence usually only afforded the sainted dead or martyred. The ‘doubling’ of the self is not a ‘paranoiac-critical’ exercise in excess, but one of a more ordinary exegesis. I suggest that his ‘spurious’ comments about his youth, his dead sibling, even the half-recollected, half-concocted accounts of his upbringing by his father and mother, [or even his relationships with Bunel, Lorca and others] are not Romantic quests into the abyss to retrieve or restore the lost memory of a forgotten twin; but are his failed attempts to reconcile the fractured contents and wonton impulses of his own precarious psyche.

Onanistic obsession suffuses Dali’s work almost from the beginning. [Gibson’s book indexes almost forty references to masturbation alone. Dali’s Secret Life is full of confessions that would seem to suggest, that he linked the act of masturbating to the creation of his own work as well as to the thematic content.] This too may be little more than a purposive play on words, as in: ‘connecting’, by failing to “connect”. It is perhaps even more likely that Dali is playing with the alchemists’ idea of the coniunctio oppositorum: the union of opposites, in which the “opposites” are within the self. His apparent, obsessive need to return to the theme would thus, I suppose, underscore a secondary meaning of onanism as coitus interruptus. For all of that, it becomes apparent that Dali’s inner turmoil resolves eventually to nothing more than the good Catholic twin, and the evil Hedonistic twin; not the somber internal conflicts recovered by a reflexive Freudian dream analysis, but the tawdry repertoire of music-hall melodramas. Drawing on the somewhat over-rehearsed text of the Secret Lives, in his discussion of Honey is Sweeter than Blood [circa 1927—but apparently a lost work—shown in a photo on his page 210] Gibson defaults at the brink of a similar realization”

“…Dali recounts yet another act of masturbation: ‘Once more I wrenched from my body that familiar solitary pleasure, sweeter than honey, while biting into the corner of my pillow lighted by a moonbeam, sinking my teeth into it till they cut through the saliva-drenched fabric.’ [His note—you guessed it—omitted!] If masturbation is a pleasure sweeter than honey, and honey is sweeter than blood, one wonders it blood, in the context of this painting, might not stand for sexual intercourse (and the fear of it), the statement ‘honey is sweeter than blood; thereby being equivalent to ‘masturbation is sweeter than fucking’” (214).

To which analysis the obvious response is that in 1927, the artist is neither concealing his latent desire for Lorca, nor a repressed or aberrant fear of intercourse [with men or women], but is only confessing that he is simply twenty-three. Gibson proudly displays the hook (if not the line and sinker) when he remarks that

“In 1950 Dali said he considered Honey is Sweeter than Blood one of his most important paintings, explaining that it contained ‘all the obsessions of my entry into Surrealism’” [note omitted] (215).

Gibson further compounds his problem [with his analysis] by seizing on yet another set of de rigueur provocations by Dali:

“Dali, a self-confessed worshipper of the female posterior, always insisted that he loathed large breasts as much as women’s genitals, stating his preference, among the body’s orifices, for the anus” [note omitted] (215).

This latter quote must be cast into the pit with other such incitements, designed by the artist to bolster his own rhetorical resume under the aegis of the notorious, and set ablaze with the volatile concoction of his own social-sexual psychobabble. In short, to take Dali too literally, is to miss the point and the power of the ‘marvelous’ in his work, and more importantly, in his life. It is likely that all of his confessions and all of the reports of potty business and toilet talk among his friends were all just part of the act. There are in Gibson’s book a number of referenced quotes citing Dali’s discovery and shame concerning the size of his penis, his scatological themes, whether or not he was coprophagic and his fear of the dentate vagina, and other fears (esp. 112, 279, 367). The most alarming for him and perhaps for most of his readers occurs about midway through his book:

“Dali explains that he suffers from an oedipal fixation ‘of extremely important and determining character’. That we knew already. But the next revelation comes as a shock, for he now claims that his mother made him terrified of sex when he was a child ‘by sucking, by devouring’ his penis. Dali concedes that this might be a ‘false memory’, rather than the recollection of a true historical event, but either way, he now wants us to believe that it was his mother who caused his impotence [note omitted], an impotence so tenacious that only Gala has been capable of alleviating it, ‘the resources of her love surpassing in vital intuition the most subtle advances of psychoanalytic treatment’ [note omitted]. … He never seems to have repeated publicly the charge that it was his mother who rendered him unvirile, but the accusation is expressed here with such vigour that it is difficult to believe that he made it lightly” (367).

I have elsewhere discussed the idea of “lines” that are drawn and crossed, or not crossed; I have reasoned that [along with Thompson] the ‘only people who know where the lines are have already gone over them’; in the earlier work, I concluded that the truly transgressive artist, and that truly transgressive art, has no idea where the line is. Dali, in this statement, whether true or not, never seems to know that there might even be a line, on the one hand; and on the other—while he knows there might indeed be a line, he has no idea where it might be. Perhaps the reason the charge was not repeated, was because someone told him that the statement went too far—even for him. We, and Gibson, should keep in mind too, the report from Julien Green:

“…who recorded that Dali talked about Freud ‘like a Christian talks about the New Testament’. Green asked Dali if his life had been simplified by reading the work of the master. ‘Everything had been made easier for him by the solution of conflicts,’ Dali replied. Green took this to mean that Freud’s work had helped the painter to be a freer human being [note omitted]” (371).

Soft Construction with Boiled Beans

Clearly, either Dali was lying or Green misunderstood what he meant by “the solution of conflicts”. Perhaps some of these conflicts were invented by Dali, to conform his own experience to the blueprint conceived by Freud, concerning the basis for psychosis, neurosis, or even ‘paranoiac critical’ methods of acting, thinking or painting. Dali’s real conflicts may have been as simple as the conflicts we might imagine between a devoutly religious mother and female household staff, and an equally adamant atheistic father. Gibson quotes from Dali’s 1952 account:

“My first teacher, Trayter, when I was very young, only made me learn that ‘God does not exist’, and that ‘religion was something for women’. This idea appealed to me from the beginning. At the same time I found an empirical confirmation of this in the bosom of my family in which the women went to church but my father, who was a freethinker, never. Besides, he [Dali’s father] embellished his succulently picturesque conversation with an uninterrupted series of the richest blasphemies” [The in-text note is Gibsons; his other endnote was omitted by me] (59).

It takes little imagination, or analysis to calculate the affects of a doting, religious mother and a distant, imperious and opinionated father on any child; Dali would (albeit perhaps in his own way) seek his mother’s approval, and to try to secure his own status as a painter of religious imagery, even over his father’s objections. For me, the connection becomes more apparent when we consider Dali’s appreciation for and admiration of Antoni Gaudi and his Art Nouveau architecture. And in particular Parc Guell, La Pedrera and Sagrada Familia. Gibson mentions and summarizes Dali’s article on Gaudi in Minotaure: “On the Terrifying and Edible Beauty of ‘Modern Style’ Architecture”:

“In the article Dali recalls that in 1929, in The Visible Woman, he had been perhaps the first painter of his generation to consider Art Nouveau architecture ‘the most original and extraordinary phenomenon in the history of art’. Since then he has come to the conclusion that Art Nouveau emanates from the world of dreams. In the flowing lines of a single Art Nouveau window, he argues, we find Gothic metamorphosing into Hellenic, Far Eastern and even Renaissance styles. Only dream language can match this. Moreover, Art Nouveau like the dream, expresses sexual desire. Dali has heard people comment looking at Art Nouveau buildings, that ‘you could eat them’. For him this puts it in a nutshell. And since if you love somebody you want to eat them, it follows that Art Nouveau architecture is also intensely erotic. Dali has found remarkable proof, in the lamps presiding over the entrances to the Paris Metro, that Art Nouveau manifests the urge to make a meal of the beloved: nobody has noticed that they are praying mantises! The accompanying illustration by the Hungarian photographer Brassai… forces one to agree this time with the justice of Dali’s ‘paranoiac-critical’ insight [note omitted]” (373).

In the long passage [and it is long for a reason] Gibson discusses one of the themes that recurs throughout Dali’s work from the period [Cannibalism—of people or of objects, Sex—with people or with objects, Desire, and Devouring] yet I am not sure he has read his own passage very carefully, or in the light of the statement concerning Dali’s childhood memory regarding his mother “devouring” his penis. Notwithstanding, more to the point here, Dali has established himself by 1934 as “one of Surrealism’s authentic and original exponents [Gibson’s note omitted]” (374). He has also nominated himself as a painter worthy to follow in the footsteps of Gaudi (the architect of the sacred) as a painter of the sacred, because he understands how sexual desire, even sexual perversity, the dream ‘domain of the artist’ and the religious tradition can all co-exist. Gibson includes an excerpt from the critic Jean Wahl on the same article, on Dali and perhaps on art history thereafter:

“Dali is a discoverer and a discovery, beyond any doubt one of the most authentic exponents of Surrealism. His comments to Teriade on objectivity and delirium, his pursuit of images capable of throwing us into ecstasy, his praise (in tune with Breton) of ‘convulsive-ondulatory’, ‘terrifying and sublime’ Art Nouveau, his idea of a dream space which should be the domain of the artist, his formula, so Baudelairian, that ‘beauty is but the sum of the awareness of our perversions’ …all of this is disturbing and exciting” (Wahl, qtd. in Gibson 375.)

Atomic Leda

There is little doubt as to the genius of Salvador Dali’s early work, but the critics disagree as to the value of his works completed after 1939. Robert Hughes, in Shock of the New, argues the point (Hughes 80, 237). I think Hughes and others are hasty in arguing for that timeline, against Dali. I believe that his paintings reveal a consistency of vision that out-weighs or overrides the self-promotion and personal excesses, that strain the sensibilities of critics like Hughes and maybe the rest of us as well (237). Three examples will help me to prove my point: The Vision of Hell (1962), The Madonna of Port Lligat (1949) and The Madonna of Port Lligat (1950). Separately, or as a group, these paintings can be fit into an understanding of Dali’s work. Each of the paintings betrays a different motive and influence, as well as many of the themes and symbols repeated by Dali, in various guises throughout his career. Hughes points out that the incorporation of incongruous elements is part of the Surrealist’s vocabulary and vision (Hughes 212-213). Each of the works also reveals the threads of continuity that help to define his expression of that vision.

The paintings are of very different sizes: The vision of Hell is hardly commanding at 34 x 24 ½”; the first version of the Madonna of Port Lligat is even less impressive at 19 x 15 inches. The second version of the Madonna (1950)  is 12 feet by 8 feet. All three are works on canvas have been rendered in a style similar to Dali’s earlier and later works, except for the fact that they seem brighter, and almost optimistic—even the Vision of Hell—well, almost.

Specifically, the Madonna’s show elements of Dali’s earlier surrealistic works, although, in contrast to those works, in a much subdued form. We immediately recognize Dali’s flat, featureless land and seascapes, and the ubiquitous distant horizon evocative of de Chirico (Hughes 238). Hidden images lurk in the folds of the Virgin Mother’s robe, and in the distant hills, just as are found in many other paintings by Dali. In the segmented arch, beneath which mother and child hover enthroned, we find other allusions to dim allegories that are not somehow the “proper subject” of these particular pictures. There purpose is probably just to provoke what Hughes calls the hallucinatory fervor of the works completed in the thirties. Hughes also points out that capriccio images have been “used occasionally by artists since the sixteenth century” (238). Dali’s use of these effects may have been intended to provide his art with a historic pedigree, just as his reading of Freud had earlier provided him with permission.

the Madonna of Port Lligat '49

The smaller earlier version of the Madonna imitates the diminutive size of Dali’s earlier canvases, while the over sized stature of a year later mocks the dimensions of Abstract Expressionism. Hughes might not like to admit this connection, advanced by the mere incongruity of size, but nevertheless he makes reference to it. “That intensity was also bound up with its small scale—the opposite, in this respect, of Abstract Expressionism, whose impact was largely dependent on the engulfing size of the canvas” (238). If Dali’s first Madonna whispered her theme, the second shouted hers. The Madonna’s head in the first version is split at the top, where the light would otherwise merely describe a highlight. The light divides the image without, at first seeming unsettling. The arms of the first Madonna are not attached to her torso. Yet her hands are piously clasped over the willowy white figure of the infant Jesus. Above and behind the enthroned Virgin and Child, the arch describes for both Madonna’s the hortus conclusus of medieval hymns to the Mother of God. The theme is repeated in the 1949 painting by a “window” painted into the infant Jesus. This helps the viewer see through the body of the Virgin to the horizon beyond.

The sea shells and oversized anemone recall another medieval epithet for Mary, as the “flower of the sea”(Jung 254). The “enclosed garden” motif also refers to tradition, history and thus to “pedigree or provenance by showing us the metaphors of the medieval church. The sea behind (from which the shells have come and of which Mary is seen as the flower) is bound by an imaginary enclosure (a frame) the arch is the “gate”.  The arch also encloses the figures of Mary and Jesus, much as Mary encloses Jesus; this is the not the same kind of “doubling” of the self, we have grown used to in Dali’s work. The doubling here is a more traditional, theological cue: The arch represents the Mother Church and what Dali imputes to be her “imperfect embrace.”

A pair of lemons sit curiously, on a ledge under and directly in front of Mary’s throne, (the 1949 version, not 1950). The ledge may be a plinth, a coffee table, a truncated altar or the Surrealists’ dissection table. The lemons refer to the citrinitas, and recall the gold of alchemy, and the alchemist’s quest for the perfection of matter (Jung 263). The scroll at the opposite end of the table is another medieval convention, and probably refers to the prophecies about the birth of the Messiah; here in Dali’s vision it has been tossed aside. The seven architectural elements that compose the arch recede to a vanishing point on the distant horizon. The space in between in the 1949 version of the painting is empty; in the 1950 version the space is occupied by dancing angels. The diminutive size of these angels alludes to their distance from us; and perhaps by default, their distance from us refers to the more human nature of both Jesus and Mary, who are nearer and therefore accessible to us. It is after all an ecclesiastical painting, and Mary and Jesus must fulfill the ecclesiastical role of intercession with the divine on our behalf.

The number seven also plays other significant roles in the allegory. We are reminded of the seven pillars of the temple of Jerusalem which Christ as Messiah, will rebuild on Earth; not present perhaps, but not quite missing either are the seven planets, the seven metals of alchemy, as well as the seven sacraments and virtues that will eventually eradicate the seven deadly sins and overcome our human vices. We should also note that in the 1950 Madonna, Jesus has become an enclosure too; another “doubling”, another reference to the sacraments, as well as a reference to the Community of the Church and the sacrifice of the Mass to which the faithful are called.

madonna of port lligat 1950

In these two paintings, (even given the extreme differences in size) Dali insists that we find in his work the spiritual tradition of painters like Cimabue, Duccio and Tiepolo. The framing arch is found in both the Maiesta of Duccio and the Enthroned Madonna of Cimabue. The joined hands seem more expressive of Tiepolo’s Immaculate Conception, or even Mary Magdalen as depicted by Donatello. The separated arms and hands in both of Dali’s paintings could allude to their being “lifted” or appropriated from such a non-traditional source, to elicit and provoke an additional emotional response in the viewer. In Tiepolo’s piece, the hands express Mary’s piety, she was born without sin; Donatello’s Magdalen would lend an association through gesture with non-Canonical books, especially in Europe and France in particular, that connect the two Maries as mother and the wife of Jesus. Both renderings would fit within Dali’s symbolic vocabulary, and the Hermetic and Alchemical traditions we have been alluding to thus far, however tangentially.

Dali’s use of the symbolic language of alchemy is more than accidental; these symbols are also a language devoted to at least the possibility for transformation. Indeed Surrealism itself is a language in words, paint and imagery of transformation. Dali, even in these relatively late works, has not strayed far from the painterly style of Messonier, and the poetic and literary content of Baudelaire and Lautreamont [Songs of Maldoror—Gibson reminds us of Dali’s illustrations for Maldoror, several of which make explicit the theme of cannibalism, for example (368)]. Hughes notes the connection to Messonier “…whose detailed canvases stood for everything that was not modern: an accuracy more than photographic, with paint as smooth and licked as bathroom porcelain” (238).

The colors and sensibilities of the Vision of Hell (1960) were perhaps indirectly borrowed from Matisse, by way of Joan Miro “…whose lurid and fuliginous colours, glowing between encroachments of black, fill an otherwise neutral subject with such anxiety that the fork, jabbed into the bread roll, seems to be committing an act of murderous spite” (Hughes 255—he is referring to Miro’s Still Life with Old Shoe, 1937). It may seem at first that Dali has borrowed his allegorical utensils from Miro, as well as his colors. Until we remember some of Dali’s other, earlier works from the late twenties and early thirties, as the Meditation on the Harp (1932 -34) for example; or the likelihood that both artists are referencing the Hieronymus Bosch altarpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights.

In his “return” to Surrealism, “The Vision of Hell”, Dali does not altogether abandon the smooth surfaces of the layered washes of the two Madonna’s, but he does seem to show more of his brushwork on all levels of his painting. The bright orange colors of the plane (above which the vision appears, and through which the carving forks first appear, and then thrust through the figure to the left) are applied in thick, even strokes; although in places, no attempt has been made to smooth the surface in preparation for the subsequent washes.  At several points, the highlights have been led onto the canvas by the artist’s brush as a single white strand, to form a ridge of built-up paint, and no doubt for a specific effect. This is especially true on the robed figure of the Virgin, (or her Double). She appears in the upper right corner of the scene and floats well above the vibrant orange wasteland, opposite the larger, twisted and impaled figure to our left. Her familiar robe dissolves into a pool or stream of water as her mantle vaporizes into the clouds that surround her. Dali has created for her another staple of medieval convention, the mandorla.

The agency at work on the robe and mantle are the alchemical acetum fontis as described by Jung (148) that dissolves and resolves matter from its basest to its purest form, and “doubles” or sardonically parodies the lac virginis, of medieval iconography. The confluence of these two “fluids” consubstantiate the mandorla itself in a satire of the central mystery of the Mass. The archetypes shown here are not just the obvious ones relating to the subconscious, but are also those related to the transformational properties of water, vinegar, wine, religion, alchemy, mother’s milk and the person or representation of the Blessed Virgin. Mary is, of course referred to in many ways by medieval Church literature; most significantly here, she is ironically presented as the fons signatus or “sealed fountain.”

One of the eight carving forks passes through the apparition of the virgin, and into the side of the opposing figure. Mary’s mantle, robe and the water and clouds into which they dissolve, also have those uncharacteristic, ridged white highlights—that are simultaneously thick and thin. Yet where the fork passes through Mary, it and the robes are painted in very thin washes of blues and umbers, in order to give the effect of the illusory and ethereal nature of the vision. The fork itself is substantial, but Mary is unaffected by the penetrating menace it embodies; yet the fork passes through her entirely. Mary is standing in the tradition of Our Lady of Dolours, Our Lady of Mercy or Our Lady of Carmel, the latter mentioned by Sister Lucia in an account Dali read before undertaking the commission. Mary’s attitude is suggested by her gesture, this in imitation of the two versions of the Madonna of Port Lligat. The positioning of the hands in all three paintings is far too exact to be coincidental, and must have been intended by Dali, as significant to his statement. I believe that, more than any recognizable theological argument, Dali wanted his viewers to identify this painting, and the painter with both the various historical traditions of great religious paintings, as well as the images he established in his own earlier (important) works.

The painting was commissioned by the Blue Army, a sect of the Catholic Church devoted to the Blessed Virgin, to commemorate the vision of the three children of Fatima (of whom Sister Lucia was one), to whom the Virgin Mother appeared in 1917. The painting is a part of the religious and sacred iconography of Dali’s later work, but it also marks his return to the tortured excesses of his Surrealism of the Thirties. This is deliberate. Hughes reminds us (or at least me) that almost all of the Surrealists were Catholic, at least by birth if not by observance. Dali, in spite of the influence of his anti-Catholic, Atheistic father and Trayter, his non-traditional primary education teacher, and for all of his irreverence and lack of humility, still possessed something of his mother’s profoundly religious sensibilities and sentimentality. I also believe that Dali wanted to create for his mother and the Mother Church a relic that would have a lasting, intrinsic meaning and a more temporal value as well.

The cost of the commission was $15,000, and even for 1960 this seems a modest sum. It is unlikely that Dali needed to undertake the commission at all, it is far more likely that he did so for his own reasons. He was already famous by then, already rich, although how rich is a subject of some discussion (Gibson’s Chapter 13 deals with money matters in mind numbing detail describing how the Dali’s (Gala and Salvador—but mostly Gala) would only accept cash for payment, and flaunted tax laws of at least the United States, Spain and France (549-578). [I could not find a reference to the Vision of Hell in Gibson’s book, he does mention that in December 1960 Dali finished the Ecumenical Council, his “last full-scale ‘religious’ work” and “one of the worst paintings he had done in the genre” (552).] Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to believe that Dali had more ecclesiastical purposes in mind when he undertook the commission.

Perhaps he felt that by giving something of value to the Church, that at one time he might have considered his Church, or that was certainly his mother’s Church, might serve to offset some of his more heretical or even sacrilegious works. Even in his heresies, Dali never really strayed too far from an underlying piety and conformity that’s shown in the so-called “sacred works” that mark the middle of his career. (His many references to, and several versions of Jesus’ crucifixion, clearly belong to the same tradition of other “accepted” non-traditional crucifixions by Masaccio, Grunewald and El Greco.) His early period was more excessive, but still not too far from the Western religious tradition of “reform from within”, so that this “redemptive effort” would be impossible to imagine as his goal. The gift of a major work to the Church might convince critics of his sincerity as a reformer, or even as a visionary, of the Faith. But this was not a major work. And although he often styled himself as a Catholic Visionary, he styled his moustache with greater sincerity.

Crucifixion (Hypercubic)

Let’s assume for a moment that Dali wanted to ‘give’ something to the Catholic Church, could the small canvas be considered a ‘major work’, one capable of redeeming the “Great Masturbator”? We know of Dali’s great admiration for the work of Gaudi, and that Gaudi’s Cathedral has already carved for itself a niche in the collective unconscious in ways that Vision of Hell probably never will (but Persistence of Memory already has surpassed). Could Dali have imagined that the Vision of Hell commissioned for the modest sum of a mere $15,000 could become his Sagrada Familia? It seems unlikely. Although, there is a parallel that one might draw between the smaller paintings typical of his early work. This is also significant when we consider the remarkably different sizes of the two Madonna’s of Port Lligat [19 x 15 inches (1949) and 12 x 8 feet (1950)]. The Vision of Hell, completed in 1962, was considerably smaller than most of the other works completed in the early 60’s, the smallest of which seems to have been five feet at least, on one side. In fact when I viewed The Vision of Hell, encased as it was in a back room at the Las Vegas Museum of Art, the very first impression that struck me, was how incredibly small it was. I could not measure it in the case, but it seems, now in memory to be much closer in size to the first Madonna of Port Lligat, than the second. And thanks in part to its mysterious disappearance for thirty odd years until 1997 (I saw it in 1999 or 2000) and the unusual place it seems to hold and the attention it receives from among many writers on the internet, its importance seems to be growing.

The painting was locked in an unadorned plain looking wooden case, behind non-glare glass. The painting itself seemed trapped in a box, well below eye level, and I had to stoop over to view it, and to crouch even more—almost sitting on the floor to see the bottom half of the picture. I was fortunate to spend about a half an hour or so alone with the painting—except for a roundtable meeting about twenty feet away (at which museum types were apparently meeting with an artist who was unhappily represented in a current or perhaps upcoming show.) As I crouched there, sketching furiously, trying to ignore the meeting that was taking place, I noticed some of the elements of the painting that I read about, but not seen in any of the online reproductions I had seen of the work. Immediately I noticed the pictorial references to Bosch’s Hell, in the upper left corner. A standard with a tattered banner, is flying above a burning and smoldering building, and is repeated by Dali twice: First the cross is carried by a solitary figure, who is walking across the orange plane of the picture, (identified by some as Lucia, and by others as St John.) The tiny little figure is only about an inch tall, and is remarkable mostly because of the cross it is carrying. The second appearance is in Dali’s signature; the down stroke of the “D” is tilted forward, elongated and crossed at the top in emulation of the flag bearing cross of St John in Bosch’s panel depicting Hell.

The great fissures in the surface of the plane, across which the little figure is moving, vent smoke and steam; and in the steam or smoke we can distinguish the onkoi, the masks of comedy and tragedy. Both masks appear to be Dali-esque self portraits, especially the one to our left. They have been drawn very loosely, but are distinct nonetheless; what does not seem as clear is which one represents comedy? Perhaps in this version of Hell there is only tragedy? Above the plane of orange and yellow (not really flames—but “flatness” the colors of flame), and dominating this “Christian” representation is a very disturbing, very distorted image of the pagan Mother Goddess. [Mary’s Double?] Or perhaps she is the Gnostic Demi-Urge of Creation [Yahweh’s Double?] She is pierced by eight large carving forks, perhaps a reference to the pagan wheel of the year [a Double for the Christian Calendar of Feasts and Holy Days.] The image seems to graphically imply that the old religion might provide the [cannibalistic] “feast” for the new one. At the very least, the juxtaposition of the pagan Goddess with the Queen of Heaven is sufficient to provide the kind of incongruity that might qualify this work to stand with other Surrealist masterworks.

A further revelation, an image that Hughes cites as peculiarly Surrealist (257) is the bronzed hermaphroditic child, who flanks the tortured image of the goddess. This figure springs from her wounds, and is baptized in the fires that rage above and below it. This child, drawn in deep perspective as viewed from the ‘top’ of its head and shoulders (thereby rendering it sexless) shows no trace of the calumny being inflicted on its dam. There can be no doubt that the source of this figure is the Revelation of John, and that his name is Abadon. He prefigures the Anti-Christ, the great Beast of the End of Times. And we are reminded that Mary’s message, as reported by Lucia and the other children of Fatima, was that if mankind does not repent their sins, that God will visit another great war on them, and eventually the prophecies of Revelations would be fulfilled. The serenity of the emerging figure of the Anti-Christ is what is most disturbing. Dali paints him in thin, bronze washes, that disappear as we look at them, it is truly remarkable, and for the religious, no doubt disturbing.

Dali’s Vision shows less of the pretense and posturing of his early work, here he is not as argumentative, he is instead, almost devout. [As if perhaps, he is the tiny little figure holding the standard of St John.] While the two paintings of the Madonna of Port Lligat are devotional or spiritual in theme, Dali wants us to see them as struck in a new light. He urges us to accept his new sensibility, brought about by, and in spite of the Surrealists, through his appreciation of the new sciences of Freud and Jung, that gave him and us a new vocabulary of images.  Dali’s two earlier pieces display none of the scatological and masturbatory humor of his previous works, and they reveal no trace of what later became his self-promoting, self caricaturing style. These two Madonna’s properly belong to both important stylistic periods of his work (the profane, scatological, surrealistic; and the more mature, sacred, psychological—transformational—periods); and these two paintings provide us with access to thematic statements made in works like the Vision of Hell.

There is little doubt as to the genius of Salvador Dali’s early work. As for Dali’s detractors (even Hughes) who claim that all of his best work was done in the 30’s, I would suggest that they take another look. Maybe Dali has managed the alchemist’s trick of coniunctio oppositorum– of uniting the pairs of opposites into one—albeit with his self-confessed tiny little penis….

The Persistance of Memory






Adams, Laurie Schneider. A History of Western Art, 2nd ed.  Vol. I & II. New York:McGraw-Hill

Fisher, Sally The Square Halo & Other Mysteries of Western Art: Images and the Stories that Inspired them. New York: Harry N. Abrams Publishing, Inc.

Gibson, Ian. The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Hughes, Robert The Shock of the New: The Hundred Year History of Modern Art, Its Rise, Its Dazzling Achievement, Its Fall. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

Jung, Carl Gustav. Dreams, RFC Hill, Trans. New York: MJF Books.

Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. New York: Harry N. Abrams Publishing, Inc.






Art History: At a Glance (Teachers only–You Kids…Get off of My Blog!!))

The earliest mathematicians and scientists were neither mathematicians nor scientists.  They were Babylonian priests.  They adapted or co-developed a system of writing and numbers that they inherited from, or gave to the Phoenicians. [the Phoenicians did not call themselves Phoenicians–it means the “Red People”–go look it up!]  They were the first astrologers and they invented the Zodiac, the lunar calendar and the clock.  They divided day and night into twelve equal segments, each, and assigned each hour sixty minutes and each minute sixty seconds.  They also invented numerology and other forms of divination.  They were also the first Civilization to produce epic poetry. Their earliest myths tell of the defeat of the great goddess of antiquity, Tiamat at the hands of the hero Marduk. Although goddess worship survived, the myth is a poetic retelling of and justification for the primacy of the cults of the male gods and the shift away from a maternal society they once were, to the paternalistic society they had become. Ironically, most of the Priests who discovered or invented all of the above were Priests of Innana, the goddess of love, family and war!

The hero of the oldest extant example of Babylonian epic poetry lends his name to the work: Gilgamesh. At one point in the story, one of the gods is trying to sleep but can not, because Mankind is too noisy, so the god sends a flood to destroy all of Mankind. Another god, named Ea (“Yah”) takes pity on Mankind and tells Gilgamesh to build a big boat and gather animals so that they might be safe from the flood.  Some time after, the Canaanite god El became confused with the Babylonian god Ea—apparently both shared the same appellations like “Adonai” (“Lord”).  In Semitic cultures the name of god is sacred and may only be spoken by the priest in the temple. Everyone else uses titles as a substitution for the name. By the time the Hebrew tribes consolidate their beliefs into the Torah, they are using the names and titles of different gods interchangeably: YHWH, El and Adonai. They also use over ninety different titles that express the attributes or images of these gods; these attributes are also an amalgam of different stories about not one, but several different gods from both Babylon and Egyptian Myth.

The first line of the Hebrew Torah will suffice to prove my point, when properly translated: “Bereshith bara Elohim ha shemoyim va ha eretz.” This line is usually translated as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”  There are three problems with that translation: First, Hebrew does not have definite articles; and second, “Elohim” is the plural of “El”; and third, “Shemoyim”, “heavens” is also plural. A more accurate translation would be “In a beginning some gods created some heavens and an earth.” My point is that there are ideas that have long passed from our collective memories that remain encoded in the world around us.

We may wonder why there are twelve hours in a day and night; or why 60 minutes in an hour and sixty seconds to a minute? The answers are all based on the same premise: Numbers were sacred to the Babylonians and they used them to create their sacred geometry.  Twelve is sacred because it is the product of four times three; four is the number of elements (fire, air, earth and water) the cardinal directions (north, south, east and west); and three is expressive of the great goddess, her consort, and their offspring.  Three is also expressive of the nature of the goddess as maiden, mother and crone. Twelve can also be expressed as the product of two times six; six is two times three; the most holy numbers for the Babylonians were one, unity; two, union (copulation); three, fruition (offspring and trinity); four, twice the power of two; and five because of its mathematical association with Phi. [12×5=60 minutes and 60 seconds; 7 is the result of adding 2 to 5; and 8 is 4+4, 2×4, 5+3, 2+3+3 and 1+7; thus eight has all of the powers associated with those numbers, and was thought to be a symbol for perfection.] The Babylonians were the first to note that when we add the numbers from one through four, the sum is ten. They, and the Greeks after them, expressed this visually; the Greek name for the shape survives: the Tetrad.


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*                *               *               *  [If these stars don’t show up in the form of a pyramid, build one out of pennies from your pocket…if you don’t have a pocket–for God’s sake put some pants on!!]

The number thirteen was sacred to the Babylonians as well, because if you take three more stars or dots, you can create a six pointed star, composed of two interlocking triangles, and these (outer stars) also describe twelve line segments.  This shape was called the tetrachys by the Greeks.  If you look on the back of a dollar bill you will find this fertility symbol that was sacred to the ancient goddess of Babylon directly over the head of the American eagle! The eagle is posed so that its head, wings, talons and tail imitate this sacred shape.


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*                                          [Same here–you need 13 lucky pennies….]


The upward pointing triangle represents the masculine principle and the downward pointing triangle represents the feminine.  The star in the middle represents the fetus in utero.  This shape is full of possibilities for the geometry teacher.  Students can be challenged to find how many triangles there are, how many regular shapes, irregular shapes, polygons. Students might be asked to calculate angles or build a three dimensional model out of paper or other materials. When students are told that this is a magical shape, emblematic of fertility and of the goddess, I think it becomes even more appealing to them, much as it was to the Ancient Babylonians, or the designers of the 1947 dollar bill. [Then they will all start dressing in black and listening to “Metalica” and “Alice in Chains”.]

The 1947 dollar bill has other interesting numerological associations. The American eagle clutches an olive branch with thirteen leaves in one talon and thirteen arrows in the other.  One might say well these may not indicate the sacred number of the goddess, until one remembers that fewer than thirteen colonies were created as thirteen States by the founding fathers. One might note too that the eagle has nine tail feathers.  Nine is probably the number most sacred to the goddess because it is 3, 3 times. It is also the number of the cube, a sacred shape, especially when viewed in relationship to a sphere that encompasses it: the relationship of such a cube to such is sphere is expressive of the value of Phi.  Finally if one looks at the pyramid of thirteen tiers of stone and the inscription above it: “Annuit Coeptus” , one might wonder where this comes from or what it means?  When I told my students in the past, that it means “he saw that it was good or complete” they often guessed it was from the Bible.  In fact it is from the first century poet Virgil’s Aeneid, a poem about the founding of Rome written to flatter the Emperor Octavian (Augustus). The appearance of the phrase in Virgil’s poem occurs in Book IX, line 625: 6+2+5=13!

[Augustus was a title that could be conferred by the Senate; Octavian insisted it be given to him and stole it for himself.  I think historians should take it away from him.  He was not very “August”: he sent his own daughter into exile, and cheated friends and family members at dice.  And although he did institute a kind of “family values” anti—adultery law, it only really applied to women—like his daughter Julia.  His biggest crime of all was that he has been directly linked to the murder of Cleopatra. To cover-up his indiscretion, his historians “spun” the whole romantic, adder-to-the-breast myth.  Even the most lethal cobra in Egypt does not kill fast enough to fit the accounts given by his so-called historian! Call him Octavian!

Cleopatra was ruthless—she had her little brother killed; but she was hot! Not because she was beautiful, necessarily, but because she was interesting; she spoke seven languages and was the richest, most powerful woman on Earth at the age of nineteen….  Julius Caesar was 54…. I am 47….Octavian was in his 30’s—and a jackass….If he had a lick of sense, he would have taken Marc Antony prisoner, divorced his wife, married Cleopatra and raised Caesarion as his son and heir. Thereby, he could have perhaps saved Rome and the world from the “seven bad Emperors”, including Nero and Caligula. Of course the Roman public did not like Cleopatra, mostly because she wore rouge on her lips.  In Graeco-Roman society the only women who so adorned themselves were prostitutes who wanted to advertise their particular area of specialization.]

Recent scholarship and theory has linked the value of Phi (1:1.618) to Aesthetic theory.  The value of Phi was first established by the ancient Babylonians who found it everywhere in nature, including on the human face and figure. For example, for many people, the distance from the top of the head to the naval and the distance from the top of their heads to the floor approximate the value of Phi. I suggest that Math teachers develop this into a classroom exercise.  Students can take each other’s measurements and then do the math to see whose measurements come closest to expressing this ratio.  Other parts of the body may also be measured and tested against this theory—in particular, the parts of the face, relative to one another: the ratio of the size of the eye to the nose; ears to the eyes, lips to the eyes and so on.

The value of Phi has been used to design buildings and to create art, since ancient times.  We can find it in the Great Pyramid at Giza; The Parthenon in Athens; Notre Dam Cathedral in Paris; Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper and Mona Lisa since the concept was re-discovered in the West, after the Great Crusades. I say “re-discovered” because much of the writing of the Ancient World was destroyed when the Library at Alexandria was destroyed by overly zealous Christians in the First Century of the Common Era.  For eleven hundred years European builders (there were no architects until the late Fourteenth Century) could not build a decent arch. The reason no one in the North could build an arch was because no one knew the Roman recipe for cement.  The knowledge of the Ancient world, including Greek plays, the recipe for cement, the writings of philosophers to give only a few examples, had been preserved and translated by scholars in the Arab world. Western pilgrims, soldiers and clerics traveled back and forth from Europe to the Holy Land for most of three hundred years during the “crusades”. (The Church lifted the last Crusade tax in 1968, in Pueblo, Colorado.) In the following chapter on DBAE and History, we will discuss the Crusades at greater length.  For our purposes here it is sufficient to note that the Golden Mean and the Golden Section and the value of Phi were all retrieved for the West from the Arab world.  This recovery sparked a craze among builders and Artists to incorporate these into their work.

Math and teachers in the other sciences can browse the web for pictures of buildings and art works that incorporate the Golden Mean, Triangle, Section and the value of Phi.  These can be duplicated and distributed to their classes and then the students can work in teams to find how many instances of each of the above are built into the building or incorporated into the artist’s image.

Another mathematical exercise involving art and paintings from the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th Centuries C.E, would involve first having students calculate the number of degrees of angle that the perspective used by the earlier artists, is “off”; then comparing the works of the different centuries to determine when mathematical perspective came into widespread use.  The students could use transparencies, felt-tip pens, protractors and rulers to aid in their calculations. Teachers who wish to investigate this exercise further should examine the following three masterpieces:  Tres riches Hueres, February, Paul, Hermann and Jean Limbourg; The Annunciation, Robert Campin; and Holy Trinity, Massacio. All three are easy to find on the internet. Teachers and students might consult Erwin Panofsky’s Perspective as Symbolic Form, for diagrams and examples.

[Take a break, come back later–that’s a lot of shit to absorb in one sitting…]

Art History is a history of cultures.  Cultures are a totality of images, artifacts, ideas and events shared by people with a common memory. Main-stream History is not the study of a series of events, names and dates; it is the study of a series of interpretations of events, names and dates. Art Historians may ask more questions than they can answer, main-stream Historians try to answer more questions than they can. Main-stream Historians when asked to cite the causes of World War II, many would cite the unresolved boundary and border disputes after World War I; others might cite the struggle for possession of Middle Eastern oil fields; still others would point to widespread poverty and the almost universal collapse of the world’s great economies.

Art Historians can show all of these in the intellectual products of Art movements like dada, Surrealism, Cubism and Futurism. All four of these art movements were political as well as artistic.  Dada arose among a group of ex-patriot artists living in Switzerland during the First World War.  They were against practically everything; politically, socially and artistically they were Anarchists. They wrote manifestoes proclaiming the death of Academic Art; they performed ritualistically and chanted non-sense words as a means of artistic expression. None of the co-founders of dada could agree on what “dada” meant: one says it is “Yes, Yes” in many European languages; another says it is French slang for a hobby-horse; a third says it is just repetitive nonsense.

As an example, at one dada performance, the audience gathered in a large theater; the lights were lowered; the curtain was raised about eight inches—revealing a line of feet, on cue the line began to march in place.  After several minutes of marching in place, the line marched off stage, the curtain was lowered.  A fist-fight broke out among performers and theater goers; the brawl spilled out into the street and the authorities had to be called! The movement lasted only four years (the approximate length of the Great War).  Yet the dada-ists left their stamp on all of the other “isms” that would follow.

Another movement that preceded the Great War but did not survive it, was called “Futurism”; ironically, not because it looked to the future of Art (or anything else) but because its members held that there was no future for traditional art. In their manifestoes they called for a ten year moratorium on painting the nude figure [Not my favorite group, since I only paint nudes!]. Their movement did not last for ten years, and many of the Futurists died in the war.  Most of the futurists were Italians, fascists and supported both Hitler and Mussolini. Artists’ works like Constantin Brancusi’s bronze piece Bird in Space were the precursors of Minimalism and other forms of Conceptual Art.

Andre Breton was an ambulance driver and medic in the first war to end all wars; he was familiar with the dada movement and had written a manifesto.  Then, in 1924 he published a manifesto for a new movement, “Surrealism”.  Breton was a poet who was fond of the work of Guillaume Apollinaire who coined the term. Surrealism was a primarily literary movement that became associated with painters like Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and even Picasso.  Dali, who lived in the United States for twenty-five years, enjoyed the status of one of today’s Rock stars. Picasso refused to even visit the United States, but did visit the former Soviet Union. Andre Breton died in relative obscurity.

Of the three Picasso was the most politically aware; he sensed that a second war was coming and moved his important works to safety. His masterpiece Guernica was a political statement about the fire bombing of a little Basque village by Hitler’s troops, in support of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, during the Spanish Civil War, before the outbreak of World War II.  Guernica was a Royalist outpost resisting Franco’s rebellion. Picasso may or may not have been a Royalist, but he was a staunch Catalan nationalist.

Picasso, along with Georges Braque and Juan Gris, developed two or three identifiable styles of “Cubism” between the two wars. Analytic and Synthetic Cubism occupy opposite roles in the art of the painter.  Painting, as has often been observed, is about “seeing”.  In Analytic Cubism the artist sees and presents different facets of the thing depicted simultaneously.  In Synthetic cubism the artist sees the object’s essence and presents that essence as quintessence. In the former, planes are clearly marked, in the latter, those demarcations have been removed.

Cubism faded after the Second World War, at least in part because of the revelation of the Holocaust and the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  In a world of such unimaginable atrocities and distortions of human flesh at the hand of other human beings, there was no longer a place for imaginary distortions. The world had been plunged into what Kenneth Galbraith called “The Age of Uncertainty.”  All of the “isms” unleashed by the Art world on an unsuspecting (and increasingly disaffected and uninterested) public, since the end of the Second World War, have been attempts to settle this endemic uncertainty.

Even a partial list of these “isms” to a non-specialist is staggering:  Abstract Expressionism, Conceptualism, Minimalism, Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Constructivism, De-constructivism, Post-modernism and ultra-realism. Most of these movements arose out of Art theories and criticism offered by French critics like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Their basic premise removes the authority over a work of art from the artist and places it with the viewer. The artist may “pack” his or her work with meaning; but it is ultimately the well-heeled viewer who “unpacks” that meaning.  Over the last fifty years of the Twentieth Century, Art and Artists, Critics and Collectors, became increasingly aloof and remote from the general public. The plastic arts ceased to exist, to a large degree, outside of the gallery movement. The plastic arts became something that required an explanation.  This is what some have called “Art with Text”.

[This part is for Art Teachers only,  so the rest of you little starch blockers –go do your hair or something…]

The astute teacher of High School History courses probably knows that all major events have left visual records of artists’ interpretations of those events within the culture. As Human Beings, we have always been makers of tools and have always been makers of images, of ourselves and of the world around us.  From the time we first know we are able to, we are impelled to “make a mark”. We organize the contents of our consciousnesses first with our imaginations and only later according to names and words. Pictures and images precede language in the human psyche.  By looking at pictures and images, for most people, is how we learn most efficiently.  In the study of History, there are a wealth of pictures and images that can aide both students and teachers in learning and teaching their subject.

The principles of DBAE require that teachers do more than simply use visual aides. DBAE requires that teachers in any discipline engage their students in art making. Assignments in High School History classes should include oral and written reports or research papers.  DBAE suggests that the teacher devise other art making projects that reinforce lectures and readings on a given topic, event or historical figure.  In order to complete the project, students would need to do more research to gain more information about the subject of their project(s).  These projects could be small or large in scale, individual or group in nature. For example, one group of students made national headlines and received TV coverage because they did a (very bad) reproduction of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam.

Murals are good class projects, assuming that all of the appropriate permissions are obtained. The teacher should involve the students in writing and presenting the proposed project to the appropriate school or district authorities. My class room had two doors; I had a design contest among the students; we obtained the necessary permission, and proceeded over the course of two years, to paint all four sides. History teachers can lead the same sort of project, instead of painting a single design they could employ several designs and “wrap” the design all around the interior of their rooms.  Different textures can be created on the wall to imitate the surfaces the various works from different time periods were painted on.  The designs may be original if the students are talented enough. If not the students can scan pictures into the computer and print them out on transparencies that can then be used to project the image on the wall with an overhead projector. Several students working together can sketch the image on the wall with pencils or charcoal sticks.

The textures of cave walls, Egyptian tomb walls, Greek Vases, Roman Mosaics, tapestries and so forth, can all be imitated with joint compound and various tools.  Cave walls can be created with a trowel and sand impregnated joint compound. Tomb walls were coated with plaster (lime) but plaster has to be painted when wet, which is very difficult to do.  Joint compound can be substituted then painted white when it dries. To imitate the texture of the Bayeaux Tapestry one can smear the wall with joint compound, then starting at the top, press loose weave canvas or burlap into the wet mud.  When the mud is set, but not dry, the cloth can be peeled off and it will leave the impression of the cloth behind. For shiny surfaces like Greek Vases or any glazed pottery, high-gloss latex enamel can be applied to the sanded joint compound.  Gold and Silver enamels are available for painting model cars. The tiles of mosaics can be painted in semi-gloss and high-gloss enamels. The grout can be painted with flat black latex paint and a fine bristle brush.

As the students work on the project through all phases, research, selection of images, transfer and execution, the teacher can conduct lecture and discussion sessions about the various time periods covered.  Handouts and worksheets can be developed for the students’ homework.  Short essays can be assigned to students on topics like “Why did early man paint the animals on the walls of the Lascaux caves?” Or “What did Greek Architects do for the first time that made Greek buildings unique in the ancient world?” The first question calls for the student to reflect on human nature, their own experience and material presented by the instructor.

In other words there is no one right answer.  Scholars are divided on this question.  Some believe that the pictures commemorate some great event or hunt.  Others think that the pictures evoke the spirit of the animal “Shaman”; a mythical being that can be wooed or appeased to ensure the return of migratory animals.  We only know that the pictures have been painted not just once, but many times over at least a millennium.  We know that the representations of animals are skillfully rendered and very realistically portrayed, while human beings are depicted as little more than “stick-figures”.

The second question has various elements to its answer: The main element that should constitute at least a part of the student’s answer is that Greek buildings were built on a “human” scale.  The proportions of the various parts to the whole express the same ratio as those of the human body. (Usually this ratio is the ratio expressed as Phi.) The Greeks were the first “city-planners”. All of the buildings and common areas of the Acropolis in Athens were planned for commercial, ceremonial and strategic reasons.

[Hey–get back in here, you’ll want to read this!! No?! Jackass….]

The Parthenon contained, for example a temple to the Goddess Athena Parthenaos (hence the name) and a city treasury for use in times of siege. In times of war the entire population could retreat behind a large wall intended to stave-off any such attacks.  Ultimately the wall failed; but even after Athens fell to Sparta at the conclusion of the Peloponnesian Wars, Sparta allowed construction to continue on the rest of the complex. This was uncharacteristic of the otherwise “laconic” Spartans.  Spartan culture was centered on making war and controlling its hoplite slaves. The only way that a Spartan male could pass into the afterlife, was to die in battle.  The only way for a Spartan female to pass into the afterlife, was to give birth to at least one male child. Spartans lived in simple wood, mud and thatch huts; perhaps as a consequence, when we think of Greek culture, we think of Athens.

The Ancient Greeks were a combative somewhat arrogant people; their basic attitude has often been summed up in the phrase –in Roman letters—“Hameis men Hellenes esmen, humeis de Barbaroi” [or “We speak Greek, while you go ‘Bar-bar-bar-bar-bar’”].  The Romans liked this attitude, so they copied most of what the Greeks did. They enslaved the Greeks and forced them to give them culture at the point and blade of a gladius.

Athenian Greeks were the first to integrate figurative sculpture into their architecture.  The Erechtheum, for example, is a commemorative monument (that celebrates the legendary first king of Athens and his daughters, whom he sacrificed—he thought–for the sake of his city….); it is a temple at which young women would make sacrifices to secure a suitable mate; and it is a public work of art that incorporates the images of King Erechtheus’ daughters, as the pillars that once supported the roof. In this instance Greek Architects are using, for the first time, the structural elements of a building to remind people of a story.

[A really fucking abrupt transition–hold on!!]

In the middle of the Sixth Century of the Common Era, a skillful soldier and manipulative man named Flavius was busy hood-winking then Emperor Justin.  Justin was a bit on the dull side but had been put into power by Flavius and others in the army. Flavius had craftsmen fashion a wooden stamp in the shape of Justin’s signature.  Flavius would write documents and proclamations, “read” and “explain” the documents to Justin, and then Justin would stamp them with his signature.  Not surprisingly, one of the last documents Justin signed named Flavius as his successor!  Shortly after signing the document Justin died under suspicious circumstances and Flavius re-named himself as Emperor Justinian.

Justinian planned to rebuild Imperial Rome of the Caesars’.  He sent his armies out from his Capitol in Constantinople to retake much of the Eastern Empire from the Moslems and the Western Empire from the various marauding tribes from Northern and Central Europe.  As his armies were successful and his Empire grew, Justinian’s architects oversaw a massive building campaign; they built churches, amphitheaters, hippodromes, other public buildings and baths. Although he seldom left his seat of power in the East, Justinian saw himself as a Western, Roman Emperor.  And while most History books concentrate on his Code of Laws, Public Works, and building programs, a far different picture of him emerges if we read the Secret History written about him and his wife, the Empress Theodora.

This account was written by Justinian’s official court Historian, a man named Procopius.  At one point he wrote that Justinian “had killed more men than all of the other Emperors combined”(The Secret History).  He also tells us that Justinian was ruthless, jealous and a cheat.  If one opposed the Emperor, he might just disappear, and his family would have its property and lands confiscated by the Crown.  Fairly early on in his reign taxes were so high that thousands of people gathered to protest.  When it seemed to him that the throng was going to storm the Royal Palace, Justinian started to make preparations to escape; but, as the story goes, his wife Theodora intervened made a speech and convinced her husband to fight back.  He did.  He gave orders that all of the protesters be put to the sword.  Thousands of defenseless people were slaughtered.  There were no other rebellions (Secret History).

Justinian was in his fifties when he married Theodora.  She was nineteen. (I’m still 47.) Procopius offers several lurid stories about Theodora.  He relates that she was the daughter of one of the leaders of several rival factions of performers.  Her father died when she was 11 or 12 and her mother married the leader of a rival faction (a trainer of circus animals). Her mother also turned Theodora and her two older sisters into prostitutes.  He wrote that she was often known to go off into the woods with parties of as many as ten young men and their man servants.  She would then proceed to service the men and then their servants.  He wrote “She threw wide three gates to the ambassadors of Cupid”(Secret History). Of her behavior at court, he tells us that she liked to walk around the palace naked.  She also held court with her female attendants and some male hangers-on.  If one of the men looked at her in a manner that she considered unseemly, she would have him stripped naked and flogged on the spot, then sent into exile, his goods and his lands were made forfeit. Procopius tells us to that she sometimes wielded the whip herself and seemed to enjoy administering punishment (Secret History.)

Naturally, the public face of the Emperor and Empress was far different.  When Justinian’s Cathedral was built in his new capitol of Ravenna, he and his Queen attended the dedication only in effigy.

The mosaics are made from tiles and many precious and semi-precious stones. The gold is gold leaf. The surfaces of all of these materials can be imitated with paint. To allow the students to gain a more authentic experience, the border could be set with plastic or glass ornaments.  Larger pieces of “stone” should hot glued to the taping mud after it dries.  Gold paint makes a convincing substitute for gold leaf; even imitation leaf is expensive and difficult to work with. True gold leaf is expensive and nearly impossible to work with. I have done only one painting with a true gold leaf background.  One has to learn to work quickly and not breathe.

The juxtaposition of the images of Justinian and Theodora against the information given by Procopius gives the students’ not only a sense of irony, but also a sense of how governments can manipulate their public faces to appear stately and regal, while they live  completely opposite lives.  Justinian was an Empire Builder, a conqueror, and a thug; Theodora ruled with him as co-Regent; and was a prostitute, a nymphomaniac and a masochist.  When Justinian died, she ruled alone and set the precedent for later Byzantine Empresses. [That there could be Empresses, not for how they should behave!]

[If you’re not a teacher, read this next part with your eyes closed, we’ll get back to the good stuff in a minute…]

I think that students should also come away from this type of exercise wondering if everything in their textbooks is true.  Students should also wonder if everything in their textbooks is all there is to know about a person, place or event in History.  If students become engaged in the subject they are learning in a way that involves all of their senses they are more likely to see that learning is not a passive thing.  History textbooks, like all textbooks can be boring and anemic.  We will discuss this in the next Chapter on Textbooks and DBAE.  For the present, I promised a further discussion of the Crusades.

[Okay–you can open them now–Surprise!! –pretty fucking lame, but what do you expect at five in the morning?]

At this point, my discussion will be temporarily out of sequence; I should discuss the Norman Conquest instead, since it happened in 1066 and the Crusades began in 1195.  Well, Urban II chatted-them-up in 1195 no one was ready to leave until about a year later. [The Crusaders must have taken dates to the Holy land?!]  I feel justified in talking about the Crusades at this point because I wrote that I would in the previous chapter and because this chapter is growing rather long.  Depending on the source, and what one wishes to consider a Crusade, they lasted about two to four hundred years. They lasted longer than the United States has been in existence. So, if one was to imagine all of the social, cultural, political and inter-societal changes that have transpired since the inception of the United States, and place them in a different, more ancient context, one would almost begin to surmise the earth shattering changes that reverberated out of the cultural exchange between Christian and Moslem worlds.

The word in German is Weltanschaang.  “World view” does not approximate the profundity of the German word, but may have to suffice.  People living in mud-huts in Europe, traveled to the middle-east and saw houses of brick, palaces and Mosques of stone with massive arches of which Europeans could only dream.  Theirs was a wet-dream soaked in blood and carnage, on both sides. In the end, the Crusades proved nothing but the depths of depravity to which mankind can sink, mire itself in and ultimately, disgustingly, revel in it.  The idea that European Christians had any claim to the Middle-East because of the highly dubious ministry of a problematical Rabbi should have been seen as sheer non-sense.  But, because in 1195 there were no printing presses in the West, because there was no classical scholarship in the West, and because there was little culture and refinement in the West, it seemed a likely proximate cause of action.

For a Moslem scholar of the Twelfth Century, living in Acre or Jerusalem, or anywhere in the Holy Lands, it would be the equivalent experience of say, an American Ph.D., at Harvard witnessing a nuclear attack on the United States, by Great Britain, because of the persecution and death of a Native American Shaman like Geronimo. [He actually died from pneumonia at a relatively old age—His skull was reportedly stolen by members of Yale’s Skull and Bones society, including—either Prescott or the Senior George Bush.]  But then, it has only been a little over a hundred years—one imagines what might happen in one thousand years!

The Great Crusades were perhaps the most significant events in world history, before the First World War.  This is true, not because European forces prevailed, but despite their losses. In fact the Europeans only won the first Crusade.  I believe this was due at least in part, to the fact that the Moslems and Jews did not realize that they were under attack. One of the more disastrous was the third Crusade.  The Crusade was led by Richard I (Couer de lion) of England and Phillip (Augustus) of France.  There were rumors in their day, and much speculation since, about whether or not the two were lovers.  They gained some early victories, only to later realize that Saladin was too smart and his forces too strong for them.  Phillip went home to France; Richard was kidnapped by King Leopold of Austria, a vassal of the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI.  Henry VI held Richard for ransom for 150,000 marks. According to an article on Wikipedia.com[i], this was twice the annual income produced by England (Richard I).

Elinor (of Aquitaine) raised the ransom and eventually Richard went home to France.  While he had been in the Holy Land, his brother John (Lackland) had schemed against him.  And while John was plotting in England, French nobles were seizing Richard’s lands in the North and west of France.  Richard died in one of these little skirmishes in 1199, and John became King.  Richard had named Arthur, his Brother Geoffrey’s son as his heir.  As Geoffrey was the older brother, his son would have a better claim than John. Geoffrey was rumored to have been killed by his own men.  Although the official histories say he was trampled by a horse. [History does not record who might have spooked the horse.]

Elinor and Henry II had five sons William the count of Poitier; Henry, the Young King (his cousin was Henry III and Henry died before actually wrestling the throne away from his dad,) Richard Couer de lion, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, and John Lackland. They also had three daughters: Matilda, Eleanor and Joan.  Elinor also had two daughters with her first Husband, Louis VII of France. She married Henry a few months after her marriage was annulled.  Henry also had ten other children with four other babies’ momma’s, the last of whom was Louis’ daughter by his second wife, and the half-Sister of Phillip, the product of Louis’ third marriage. [I know this seems very complicated, but it’s simply a matter of a lack of self-control, and reliable contraception.  Any way you look at it, that’s a lot of Royal fucking by a lot of Royal fucks… ]

Elinor had gone with Louis to the second Crusade, and led his men into battle, along with her female attendants; all of the women rode stripped to the waist. [I’ll wait here while you go back and read that again….] Elinor also led her sons (the three surviving ones—William died in infancy and Henry in adolescence) in revolt against their father. The effort was a failure, and Henry had his wife placed under House Arrest in The Tower of London.  Henry’s Seat of Power was split between his courts at Achen, and Chinon. Henry was a good King, but a bad husband and father. He ruled the largest Empire in Europe since Charlemagne. He instituted what would become the English Common Law and a system of magistrates to conduct courts, thereby replacing the Church’s trial system. He was also a brutal thug; he had his best friend Thomas a Beckett the Archbishop of Canterbury, killed in his own Cathedral, at the altar while at evening prayers.  Beckett had vocally opposed Henry’s reforms and Henry did not much like dissent. [Or condoms—they “just didn’t feel right.]

Elinor was released on Henry’s death in 1189, after fifteen years of captivity.  Elinor died in 1204 but not until after seeing her son John crowned King. John was a bad administrator and something of a tyrant.  It was during John’s reign that the Nobility of England rebelled against the Crown, and it was he who signed the Magna Carta in 1215, that limited the power of the Monarchy and pointed the way to Parliament.

The political and territorial outcomes of the various Crusades were relatively unimpressive, from a European viewpoint.  The indelible impression made on European culture was incalculable. Islamic culture gave to the West coffee, dessert, paper money, the windmill, the wealth of Ancient knowledge, Greek Philosophy, Literature, theater, the Roman formula for cement, medical knowledge, including inoculation against disease, Geometry, Algebra and other Sciences and the idea of Chivalry.  But the most important ideas the West received from the Arab world were the concept of zero and the use of Arabic Numerals. It was the use of Arabic Numerals and math that fueled and funded the Renaissance.  European money changers could now, with Arabic numerals and double entry book keeping, become European Bankers. The men who understood how to use this system became wealthy virtually “overnight.” The Borgia’s, the Uffizi’s and the De Medici’s were the most famous and the most powerful people in both the Government and the Church.

[We’ll take up the matter of the Renaissance later, right now I need to sleep…]




[i] There are many different articles about Henry II his wife and his sons and the Crusades. They are not all in agreement; this is one of the points about scholarship and the web that I want to make. Be careful. Not everyone out there is trustworthy and diligent. Don’t believe everything you read, unless you read it several times from several different, independent sources. Even then, be careful! And if some of you little cheese bags think you are going to steal this shit and turn it in for credit, I will find out; I will hunt you down and spend ten or fifteen minutes of the precious time I have left polishing my boots on your ass!!