Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sacrificial Rites in Picasso and Stravinsky: Part 1 (Introduction)


If civilization requires such sacrifices, not only

of sexuality but also of the aggressive tendencies

in mankind, we can better understand why it

should be so hard for men to feel happy in it . . .

Civilized man has exchanged some part of his

chances of happiness for a measure of security.

-Sigmund Freud, "Civilization and Its Discontents"

Mind's meat heart's blood

All that we've seen and known

Treasured up rejected

Will now become his body

Devour my life each prays.

-James Merrill, "The Minotaur"

Pablo Picasso and Igor Stravinsky each defined twentieth-century art in their respective fields. Almost exact contemporaries, their careers were both dizzyingly metamorphic and ceaselessly innovative. Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) shocked many and altered the history of art in revolutionary ways, while Stravinsky's radical Rite of Spring (1913) caused an infamous riot at its premiere and went on to become a touchstone of modernist music. In the mid 1920s through the mid 1930s, however, Picasso and Stravinsky explored worlds very different from the harsh revolutionary realms of their earlier works. During this time, both artists shifted to a more seemingly old-fashioned, "neoclassical" style, drawing on past achievements and synthesizing a variety of styles into an aesthetic unity. This looking backward upset many in the avant-garde and some perceived it as a betrayal of modern progress by blase bourgeois caution. These judgments now seem superficial--the "neoclassical" works of both Picasso and Stravinsky, while bowing to the traditions of the past, were in many ways unlike anything that had been seen or heard before. Picasso and Stravinsky became synonymous with their respective disciplines through a series of very personal, astonishingly protean metamorphoses, always with a countenance turned simultaneously to the time-honored past and the cutting-edge avant-garde--innovation through tradition. Both artists' excursions into the past came as a natural part of their aesthetic development and led them into innovative and fascinating new areas of exploration that would alter their art. A comparison between two characteristic neoclassical works--Picasso's Vollard Suite (1933) and Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex (1927)--is useful and instructive in examining the similarities and differences between the sea changes undergone by these two seminal artists. Both of these works deal with sacrifice, ritual, and performance. Picasso and Stravinsky each performed a stylistic sacrifice of their former, more primitive and "wild" avant-garde approach and replaced it with a more restrained and "civilized" style.

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