Thursday, March 12, 2009

Sacrificial Rites in Picasso and Stravinsky: Part 2 (Questions of Genre)

In attempting to establish the genre of these works, we may begin an approach to their meaning. The genre of Picasso's Vollard Suite is ambiguous, as is that of Oedipus Rex, and scholars question whether Picasso's sprawling group of one hundred loosely related images can be accurately called a suite. The prints are so heterogeneous in terms of style, technique, process, and subject matter that it is often difficult to follow Picasso's train of thought through the series. However, consistent themes are explored throughout. The figures are similar to those one would find painted on an antique vase, though filtered through Picasso's own idiosyncratic personal style. The stylistic influences of past artists are as apparent here as they are in Oedipus, and range from Greek antiquity to Goya, with rest stops by Titian, Rembrandt, and Callot, among others. The hearkening to past traditions lends an air of authority and occasionally austerity that increases the hieratic quality of both works. The genre of both could be named, among other things, ritual.

The genre of Oedipus Rex is similarly disputable. Oedipus subtitled an "opera-oratorio in two acts," and is sometimes fully staged as an opera, and sometimes performed without costumes or sets, as an oratorio. Wilfrid Mellers calls it a "heroic opera" in the Handelian tradition, and goes on to say: "A real heroic opera. . . was simultaneously a ritual of humanism . . . and a drama dealing with the perversity of man's passions." In Stravinsky's work ritual and rawness are often combined into a modern vision of sacred drama; as in Le Sacre du Printemps and Les Noces. The secular and the sacred intermingle until they become virtually indistinguishable. Styles in Oedipus also shift and interact in bewildering ways-including Handelian da capo arias, Verdian operatic motives, Eastern Orthodox liturgical masses, and Italian operatic composers such as Meyerbeer and Verdi. Stavinsky does not imitate these various classical styles so much as he assimilates them to his own personal aesthetic. The regulations of these older styles contribute to the hieratic nature of the work. This ritual aspect is further underscored by setting the music to Latin texts, a language Stravinsky described appropriately as "a language not dead, but turned to stone." And the Speaker's introduction to the work could be used to sum up the entire effect of this neoclassical influence: "[it] preserves only a certain monumental aspect." This melding of diverse styles into a synthetic unity is a hallmark of Stravinsky's neoclassicism. Stravinsky's opera-oratorio is to be staged in a highly hieratic way, with monumentalized masked figures and little movement, resembling the solemnity of religious rites. The stage directions specify that "only [the characters'] arms and heads move. They should give the impression of living statues." Picasso's Suite can be seen as a literal illustration of this note, and both works are highly stylized and even archaic. The neoclassical formality allows both works to proceed in a ritualistic and even sacred manner to their final sacrificial climaxes.

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