Nikolai Berdyaev on Picasso

By Nikolai Berdyaev, October 10, 2012

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso

An essay on Picasso by the great Russian thinker Berdyaev written in 1914. “Picasso is a remarkable painter, profoundly agitating, but in him there is no attainment of beauty. He is all transitional—all crisis". A critical but incisive look at early Picasso.

When one enters into the Picasso room in the gallery of S. I. Schukin, one is seized with a feeling of subtle terror. That, what one senses, is connected not only with the painting and the fate of art, but with cosmic life itself and its fate. In the preceding room of the gallery was the charming Gauguin. And it seems, that one has experienced the ultimate joy of the natural life, the beauty all still of an embodied and crystaline world, the rapture of the natural rays of the sun.

For Gauguin, the son of a refined and jaded culture, it was necessary to flee to the island of Tahiti, to exotic nature and to exotic people, in order to find in himself the strength to create the beauty of an embodied crystaline, sun-bright natural life. After this golden dream one is roused wide awake in the room of Picasso. Cold, gloomy, frightful. The delight of an embodied and sun-bright life has vanished. A wintry cosmic wind has torn away veil after veil, all the blossoms have faded, all the leaves, the skin of things is tripped away, all the coverings, all the flesh, manifest in forms of imperishable beauty, has fallen away. It seems, that never already will ensue a cosmic springtime, will not be the leaves, the greens, the beautiful veilings, the embodied synthetic forms. And if too there will be a springtime, then it will be totally different, new, unprecedented, with leaves and flowers not of here. It seems, that after the dreadful winter of Picasso the world will not blossom still, as before, that in this winter fall away not only all the veilings, but also that all the objective corporeal world is shattered apart down to its foundations. There occurs as it were a mysterious stretching apart of the cosmos.

Picasso — represents an expression of genius of the disintegration, the stretching apart and pulverisation of the physical, corporeal, embodied world. From the perspective of the history of painting, the raison d’etre for the arising of Cubism in France becomes understandable. Picasso was preceded as a painter by such immense figures, as Cezanne. French painting already for a long time, from the time of the Impressionists, had gone down the path of softening effects, had lost the sense of firm forms, down the path of the exclusively picturesque. Cubism is a reaction against this softening effect, a searching out of the geometric aspects of the objective world, of the skeleton of things. This — is a matter of analytic, and not synthetic, searchings. All more and more it becomes impossible to have a synthetically-whole apperception and creativity in painting. Everything analytically decomposes and becomes dismembered. By suchlike an analytic dismemberment the painter gets down to the skeleton of things, to the firm forms, hidden behind the softening veils. The material veils of the world have begun to decompose and come apart and they have started to seek for the firm substances, congealed beyond this softened effect. In his searching for the geometric forms of objects, the skeleton of things, Picasso has arrived at the stone age. But this — is an illusory stone age. The somberness, the frigidity and firmness of the geometric figures of Picasso only but seem so. In actuality, the geometric bodies of Picasso, piled up from the cubes of the skeleton of the corporeal world, fall apart at the slightest shake.

The final layer of the material world, revealed by Picasso the painter after the stripping away of all the veils, — is illusory, and not real. The insights of the painter do not reveal the substances of the material world, — this world proves to be non-substantial. Picasso — is a merciless exposer of the illusion of an embodied, materially synthetic beauty. Behind the captivating and alluring feminine beauty he sees the fear of disintegration, dissolution. He, as a seer, sees through all the veils, the garbs, the accretions, and there, in the depths of the material world, he sees his own heaped-up monstrosities. These — are the demonic grimaces of the fettered spirits of nature. To go deeper even still, and there would not be any sort of materiality, — there already would be the inner level of nature, of the hierarchy of spirits. The crisis in painting as it were leads to an emergence from the physical material flesh into another and higher plane.

Picasso and his mistress, Paquerette, at the Cafe de la Rotonde

Picasso and his mistress, Paquerette, at the Cafe de la Rotonde

Painting, as also with all the plastic arts, was an embodiment, a materialisation, a crystalisation. The higher ascents in the old painting provided a formal and crystaline flesh. And painting was connected with a solidity of the embodied physical world, with a stability of form with matter. But at present painting is undergoing an as yet unprecedented crisis. If one penetrates deeper into this crisis, then it is impossible to term it otherwise than as a dematerialisation, a disembodiment of painting. Within painting there is happening something, it would seem, contrary to the very nature of the plastic arts. It is as though everything already has been outlived within the sphere of the embodied, materially-crystaline painting. Art ultimately has torn itself loose from antiquity. There has begun a process of the permeation forth of painting beyond the limits of the material plane of being. In the old painting there was much of spirit, but of a spirit embodied and expressible within the crystals of a material world. Now there occurs a reverse process: spirit does not become embodied nor materialised, but rather matter itself becomes dematerialised, disembodied, it loses its firmness, its solidity, its stability of form. Painting plunges into the depths of matter and there, in the bottommost levels, it finds already no materiality. Were one to recourse to theosophic terminology, one might then say, that painting is effecting a transition from bodies physical to bodies aethereal and astral.

Already within Vrubel there began a delicate distension of the material body. With Picasso there is a shakiness to the very boundaries of physical bodies. There is the same symptom with the Futurists, in their notices tempo of movement. The promotions and charlatanism, distorting the present-day art, have deep causes in the distortion of the crystaline aspect of everything vital. Already with the Impressionists began a sort of disintegrative process. And this is not from an immersion within spirituality, but occurs rather from an immersion in materiality. Early Italian painting was full of deep spirituality, but the spirit was embodied in it. In modern art spirit is as it were on the wane, and flesh becomes dematerialised. This is a very profound jolt for the plastic arts, and which strikes at the very essence of the plastic form. The dematerialisation in painting can produce the impression of the ultimate collapse of art. Painting just the same is bound up with the crystaline forms of flesh, as poetry is with the crystaline forms of the word. The dissociation of the word, its distention has to produce the impression of the collapse of poetry. And truly indeed there happens the same stretching apart of the crystaline aspects of words, as with the crystaline aspects of flesh. I shall not speak about the Futurist poetry, which up til now has produced nothing remarkable. But here too is Andrei Bely, whom I regard as an original, remarkable, nigh close to genius phenomenon in Russian literature, who as such might be termed a Cubist within literature. In his novel “Peterburg” can be discerned the same process of stretching apart and pulling apart of cosmic life, which also is in the Picasso picture. In his belaboured and nightmarish word combinations there become distended the crystaline aspect of words. He is the same sort of vexing and nightmarish artist, as is Picasso. This painful vexation is from the stretching apart, from the ruination of the world, or more precisely, not of the world, but of one of the embodied worlds, one of the planes of world life.1

Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev

Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev

And it seems a sad and bitter thought, that there will no longer be beautiful bodies, pure crystals, the joys of embodied life, of the synthetically-whole apperception of things, of an organic culture. All this is passe, and the passe is discovered in aching grief, in sighs over the past, in painful fright at the perishing of the embodied beauty of the world. Architecture already has irreversibly gone to ruin, and its ruination is very noticeable and striking. With the perishing of the hope for the rebirth of a great architecture perishes also the hope of a new embodiment of beauty in an organic, naturo-corporeal national culture. In architecture a very shallow Futurism has long since already gained the victory. It would seem, that in the world of a material embodiment, of corporeality, everything is already crumbling irretrievably, everything is already detraque. On this plane of being there has become impossible already any organic, synthetically-integral joy, any stability of beauty. It would seem, that in nature itself, in its rhythm and cycles something irreversibly has crumbled and changed. There is no longer and cannot be such a pretty Springtime, such a sunny Summer, nor the crystaline aspect, the purity, the clarity, in either the Springtime or in the Summer. The times of the year are all mixed up. People no longer rejoice at the rising and the setting of the sun, as formerly they were wont to rejoice. The sun itself no longer shines as before. In nature itself, in the meteorological and geological phenomena there is occurring a mysterious process of an analytic dissociation and distention. Many perceptive people now feel this, such as are endowed with a mystical sensitivity towards cosmic life.

About human life, about the human being, about the human social aspect there is nothing to say. Here everything is clearly visible, evident. Our life is a continuous decrystalisation, dematerialisation, disembodiment. The successes of material technology only but enable the disintegration of historical bodies, of the orderly manner of flesh born in life. All the stability is shaken, and with it is shaken not only the past evil and injustice of life, but also the past beauty and past comfort in life. The material world seemed to be absolutely stable, firmly crystalised. But this stability has proven to be but relative. The material world is not substantial — it is merely functional. And already outmoded are those conditions of spirit, which engendered this sense of stability and crystalising aspect of the embodied material world. Now at present the human spirit is entering into another stage of growth in its being and the symptoms of the distention and dissolution of the material world can be seen everywhere: both in the jolts to traditional lifestyle and all our way of life, to kindred bonds, and in science, which snatches away the traditional boundaries of experience and is compelled to admit of a dematerialisation, and also in philosophy, and in art, and in the occult currents, and in the religious crisis. There is decomposing the old synthesis of an objective world of things, there perishes irretrievably the crystals of the old beauty. But the attainment of beauty, which would have corresponded to another stage of growth for man and the world, there is not still. Picasso — is a remarkable painter, profoundly agitating, but in him there is no attainment of beauty. He is all transitional, all — crisis.

"Green Still Life" by Pablo Picasso 1914

“Green Still Life” by Pablo Picasso 1914

It would be onerous, pitiful and painful to live in such a time for a man, who loves exclusively the sun, clarity, Italy, the Latin genius, the embodiment and crystalising aspect. Such a man would experience immeasurable sorrow over the irretrievable perishing of everything valuable within the world. And only in the depths of spirit could he find an antidote against this terror and discover a new joy. In German culture this crisis is sensed less, since the German culture always was too exclusively of spirit and did not know of such an embodied beauty, of such a crystalisation within matter. The world is changing its veils. The material veilings of the world were but a temporary attire. The old leaves and blossoms had to fade under the cosmic wind. The old clothes of being rot and fall away. This — is a sickness in the maturing process of being. But being is indestructible in its essence, not disintegrative at its core. Within the process of the cosmic crumbling of the clothes and veilings of being both man and everything genuinely existent has to persevere. Man, as the image and likeness of absolute being, cannot crumble away. But he is subject to the dangers of the cosmic whirlwinds. He ought not to surrender himself to the capricious whims of the wind. In the artistry of Picasso there is no longer man. That, which he uncovers and reveals, is already no longer human; he surrenders man to the whims of the crumbling wind. But the pure crystal of the human spirit is indestructible.

It is only that modern art is powerless to create crystals. At present we approach not a crisis within painting, of which there have been many, but rather a crisis of painting in general, of art in general. This — is a crisis of culture, an awareness of its failure, its impossibility to transform itself into a culture of creative energy. The cosmic distention and disintegration engender a crisis of all the arts, jolting the boundaries of art. Picasso — is a vivid symptom of this sickened process. But such symptoms are many. In front the pictures of Picasso I tended to think, that with the world was transpiring something inharmonious, and felt sorrow and grief at the perishing of the old beauty of the world, but then too joy at the birth of the new. This is a great praise to the power of Picasso. The same thoughts occur with me, when I read occult books, and communicate with people, living in this sphere of phenomena. But I believe, I believe deeply, that there is possible a new beauty within life itself and that the perishing of the old beauty merely seems so to us in regard to our limitedness, and because, that all beauty — is eternal and present at the deepest core of being. And the debilitating sorrow has to be surmounted. If one say it as a truth less than ultimate, that the beauty of Botticelli and Leonardo is perishing irretrievably together with the perishing of the material plane of being, upon which it was embodied, then as an ultimate truth one ought to say, that the beauty of Botticelli and Leonardo has entered into eternal life, since it always has abided beyond the unstable veiling of cosmic life, to which we give the name material. But the new creativity will be yet different, it will not be yet cut short by the pull to the gravity of this world. Picasso — is not the new creativity. He — is the end of the old.

© Translator Fr. S. Janos

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