Written by an Orthodox theologian in 1918 during the Russian revolution this summary review of young Pablo Picasso's artistic inspiration and technique opens a window of genuine enlightenment. Information in this review can be applied to the present state of fallen human life anywhere anytime. 

THE CORPSE OF BEAUTY [1918]
by Sergius Bulgakov

The art of Matisse, Gauguin, Cezanne, Renoir and others is like a brilliant day of which one wants to say with the poet: 'By the high will of the gods a gold-woven veil is thrown over the nameless abyss of the mysterious world of spirits. This brilliant veil is day, day that gives life to the earth-born, heals aching hearts, and is the friend of men and of gods.'* But when one enters the room where Pablo Picasso's works are collected, one is surrounded by an atmosphere of mystical fear amounting to terror. The veil of day with its reassuring multiplicity of colours is blown away, and one is encircled by horrible formless night, full of dumb, evil phantoms and shadows. It is stifling like the grave.

'But the day fades, the night has come and flung away from the ill-fated world
the cover of the gracious veil; and the abyss is laid bare before us with its
fears and mists, and there are no more barriers between us and it.
This is why the night is fearful to us.

Picasso's art is exactly such a moonless and starless night and just as mystical as it. This is true not of the subjects of his paintings (which, on the contrary, are quite ordinary and even trivial and are generally confined to women's figures, clothed or nude, and to still life) but of his brushwork, his colours, his whole technique; the very nature of his art is mystical throughout. It is certainly mystery painting, even though it cannot be called religious, and there is, strangely enough, something of the ikon about it. In spite of the swift development and radical changes in Picasso's methods, the spiritual content of his art is all of a piece and from beginning to end is permeated by one feeling of ever-increasing anguish and horror of life.

Unquestionably Picasso has strength, and he not merely tries to appear strong (as many do nowadays in Nietzsche's fashion) but his brush has real power. An 'exacting artist', he unremittingly works out the form corresponding to his idea and brings it to the utmost perfection; in thus labouring over form he shows the pertinacity of a great master. This young painter, a Spaniard by birth, with an admixture of Moorish blood (a very important feature!) has already passed through a long process of artistic development, the main phases of which can be seen in this gallery.

His early pictures, painted with great skill and power in the ordinary realistic style (The Drunkard, two male portraits, The Old Jew and a Boy, The Tryst, etc.) are remarkable for the expression of acute, almost subhuman anguish in the eyes and a kind of music of desolation in the figures. Then follow the works of his later Cubist period which produce the most striking impression an are, up to the present, the culminating point of his art.

Here is the pensive Isabeau, as it were fettered with misery; here is the mournful Seated Woman that wrings one's heart with pity; then there come truly demonic images. Here is the Nude in a Landscape twisted in a hideously erotic attitude. Her legs are like the flippers of a seal, she is fat, heavy, falling to pieces; the picture breathes cynical malice and is a wild challenge of depravity, dissolution, and decay. Here is the Woman after a Dance sitting heavily in an armchair and looking into the distance with malignant eyes; how well the disconnected blocks of paint are suited for depicting this vampire with a body built only of malice and geometrical lines!

Here is the Lady with a Fan, entirely made up of triangles and other geometrical figures, malignant, leering, and inhuman. Here are three women like nightmare visions painted in purplish flaming tints, heavily immobile in their dance. Here is the terrible Farmer's Wife made up of geometrical masses of stone, the embodiment of heaviness and inertia. The body has lost its warmth, vitality and fragrance and become linear, geometrical, stony; life has been transfixed in a grimace, flesh has been sterilized and drained of blood with a sort of demonic asceticism. It is spirituality but the spirituality of a vampire or a demon: passions, even the lowest of them, are taken in their purely spiritual, incorporeal essence: they are disincarnate.

These pictures manifest quite a special non-human method of seeing and perceiving flesh; an evil spiritualism disruptive of the flesh and full of hatred and contempt for it; and yet--such is the irony of things--the painter can speak only through the flesh and its imagery.

From the technical point of view, especially with regard to colour effects, the paintings of this second period are probably very remarkable. Their mystical power and content are equally striking; so much so that the paradoxical, deliberate hideousness of Cubist painting is soon forgotten, one simply ceases to notice it--a clear sign that the form perfectly fits its content and that in this sense the work is highly artistic.

It is difficult to give an idea of Picasso's paintings without reproducing them in colour. Their main subject is unquestionably woman, the Feminine itself, artistically apprehended and perceived in different forms. How then does the painter see and feel this Feminine? This is the key to the understanding of his art, since the eternal Feminine, the world's soul, is the mother and mistress of all art. In Picasso's art she appears in unutterable humiliation as a hideous, heavy, shapeless and decomposing body, indeed the very corpse of beauty, seen in God-defying cynicism (Nude in a Landscape), in diabolical malice (After the Dance), as a decaying astral corpse (Seated Woman), or with the snake-like leer of a witch (Woman with a Fan). And all those visions live and are something like miracle-working ikons of a demonic nature; an uncanny power flows from them. To look at them for any length of time gives one a kind of mystical dizziness. They are so artistically convincing and mystically true that it is impossible to doubt for a moment the artist's sincerity and the mystical realism of his art. It is curious that the same powerful and uncanny impression is produced by his other pictures of the same period in spite of their wholly inoffensive subjects: still life, a bottle and a tumbler, a vase of fruit. It is the same unredeemed, hopeless heaviness, the same mystic dread and anguish. A kind of dark force emanates from them all and makes itself almost tangibly felt. These powerful and eerie black ikons actually remind one of some Egyptian idols of sacred animals in the Egyptian section of the Emperor Alexander III's Museum. What hell there must be in the artist's soul if its expressions are of this kind. His paintings give one a nightmare. There is not a single ray of light in this arid and sorrowful desert, scorched by the flames of hell. The favourite colours in Picasso's palette, by the way, used by him to perfection, are purplish red and muddy orange--colours of evil significance in the 'aura'.

I do not clearly understand the meaning and value of Picasso's recent paintings, confined mostly to still life in a disintegrated form. Does it mean a special kind of perception in four-dimensional space and its projection on a surface? Or is it a case of 'occult clairvoyance', of images from other planes of being, so that their pictorial representation is related to the original in the same way as a musical score is related to sound? Is it decay or a higher state of art? Unquestionably Picasso introduces into a flat representation rhythms of movement inaccessible to ordinary vision (as Churlanis does in his pictures). It is impossible to doubt the truth and sincerity of this latest stage of Picasso's development, but since its meaning is not clear to me, I speak here only of the Picasso of yesterday--of his first and particularly of his second period.

The impression produced by Picasso's work is one of the most powerful that art can give, though it is qualitatively different from that given by the great works of antiquity or of the Renaissance (for instance by the Venus de Milo or the Sistine Madonna). There is something in it that makes it 'modern', characteristic of our spiritual epoch; this is why it is so suggestive, provocative and disturbing. It is not easy to analyze the chaos that rises from the depths of the psyche, from the 'nocturnal consciousness.'

The mystical nature of art is here laid bare and made self-evident. This is why after Picasso, everything else in the same gallery, though masterpiece it may be, somehow falls flat and seems insipid, naive, unconscious. M'ir gab der Gott sagan was ich leide [God gave me the gift to say how I suffer]--this applies to every true artist, and it has been given to Picasso to confess the unknown and mysterious noumenal sin through which he has become the plaything of an obsessing spirit, an artistic and therefore convincing advocatus diaboli.

Accordingly, Picasso's art is a powerful religious temptation, a trial of faith. Demonism in art is of course the most subtle, intimate, and therefore dangerous form of Luciferian infection in human creativeness, since art, in contradistinction to philosophy and even more to science, is connected with the inmost depths of the spirit. One may not know Picasso, or one may ignore him through spiritual laziness, indolence, or for moral and ascetic reasons, since unquestionably his is a morbid art. But it is not always possible or indeed right to do so, just as it would not be right in reading The Brothers Karamazov to skip the pages on rebellion and pass at once to Zossima.

It is not easy to tackle in earnest Picasso's representation of the world and to overcome it. He is frightening because he is demonically genuine. Possession is once more becoming prevalent; struggle with it requires sobriety, spiritual health, integration of personality, and above all the rock of faith, reliance not upon our solitary and subjective selves but upon the 'togetherness' of the Church. Only in the name of Christ within the Church can demons be exorcised.

There exists a mysterious rhythm, a certain musical correlation between light and darkness, in obedience to which the unknown architect of Notre Dame in Paris placed on its outer balustrade his chimères, demonic monsters of great artistic power and profound mystical reality. I have always marvelled at the riddle of the chimères, those demons that have settled on the roof of the cathedral: what anguish wrung them from the artist's heart? To how many men have they been a temptation and a stumbling block? I mean not the tourists, but those who gathered under the roof of the beautiful cathedral to pray, both in the far-off Middle Ages and in our own day. Are not Picasso's paintings also chimères on the spiritual temple of modernity? It is impossible to imagine these evil things inside the cathedral; if Picasso's pictures were brought into a church one fancies they would, like the chimères, be immediately burnt up and turn to ashes. And yet, in virtue of some mysterious attraction, those unclean spirits settle on the roof of a church. It is remarkable too, that so many motifs in Picasso's art go back to African idols which his African ancestors may have worshipped; thus his chimères are hieratic in their very derivation.

There remains another question, unanswerable and enigmatic: Was the majestic portal of the Paris Cathedral the work of the same artist as the chimères, or of two quite different men? History does not say.

*
Bulgalov's reference is to a poem entitled 'Day and Night' by Tyutchev (Tyutchev, Th. I., Stichotvoreniya (Berlin, 1921), p. 102.)

This essay was transcribed from “A Bulgakov Anthology” published in the United States by The Westminster Press, Philadelphia; first published in Great Britain in 1976 by SPCK. Translated from the Russian by Mrs. Natalie Duddington & Dr. James Pain.

 

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