Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sacrificial Rites in Picasso and Stravinsky: Part 4 (Minotaur)

What is being sacrificed and why? By the early twentieth century, ritual sacrifice had obviously been long absent from mainstream religion. The concept of the animality of man and the supremacy of the baser portions of human character, as enumerated by Darwin and Freud, led to a fascination with the primeval and the "ugly." Many European artists turned to non-Western sources, such as African totemic art, in an attempt to find a primal means of expression not tainted by hundreds of years of repressive civilization. Frazer's incredible study, The Golden Bough, transcribed primitivism into the turn-of-the-century intellectual scene. The Minotaur figure is an example of the human monster as portrayed by Picasso. He is literally half man and half beast, and often possessed with a violent energy. Here, the left side of the work depicts horse legs and human legs, while the right side swaps to a bull's head and a human head. The Minotaur himself is animated with a dangerous vitality--the "perversity of man's passions" that Mellers has pointed out as an element of heroic opera. The monumental thick lines offset by the frenzied tufts of hair create a surging strength that is outrageous in its intensity. The Minotaur struggles to break through the confining boundary box of the image, the restrictions of society. This is the animal drive, a raging possessiveness, aggressive and sexual, which thrashes through a being; and this being is the sacrifice required by the gods. It is only by annihilating this chthonian aspect of Nature that human civilization can hope to exist. Order must overcome the chaotic subterranean forces so that people may continue to live with each other. Through the purging of base and aggressive tendencies, mankind is able to free itself into the world of moderation and clear skies so dear to the Classical mind. This objective makes ritual sacrifice comprehensible and perhaps inevitable. Internal sacrifice in the modern world becomes a necessity in order to obtain deliverance from the flailing forces of nature.

Picasso characterized his own work in sacrificial terms: "In the old days, a picture went forward to completion by stages. Everyday brought something new. A picture used to be a sum of additions. In my case, a picture is a sum of destructions." The sacrifice and its aftermath in Picasso's Vollard Suite clearly take place in the plates depicting the Minotaur. Picasso explicitly identified himself with this mythical beast: "If all the paths I've taken were marked on a map and joined up with a line, it might represent a minotaur." Picasso acknowledges his affinities with the brutality of the Minotaur and this brutality will have to be surrendered in order to achieve classical serenity. When we first meet him, the Minotaur is confident and rammed full of vitality. In images like plates 84 and 87, the Minotaur is at the height of his strength. His brawny supremacy controls all around him in a possessive manner, and he dominates his scenes with a rugged power. Like Oedipus, he is confident in his prowess and unashamed to demonstrate it.

In plates 89 and 90 the sacrifice takes place. In Plate 89, the Minotaur has been stabbed and is in his final throes. His figure is still vital but is now desperate and despairing. The wound, significantly, is in the heart, a traditional site of passion.

Plate 90 depicts the performer of the sacrifice: an Apollonian young man kneeling beside the awkwardly crumpled Minotaur. The raging Minotaur is at rest only in death, and his powerful limbs contort pathetically, limp and lifeless in contrast to his earlier energy. The Apollo figure bears the sacrificial blade in his hand and appears to have just pulled it from the death wound. This shining young bringer of light, order, and harmony has slain the vertiginous passionality that threatened to destroy his orderly existence. Also significant is Picasso's setting for the sacrifice--publicly enacted in an arena, or theater, rather than in the darkness of the labyrinth. Civilization has made an offering to appease the gods, and the artist has sacrificed natural impulsiveness for controlled serenity, with Order as his muse.

Another version of the sacrifice, clearly relating to the Oedipus myth, is poignantly depicted in the image of the blind Minotaur. Here, rather than a blood sacrifice, a blinding and exile has been required, and a little child leads the blinded Minotaur-Antigone to the Minotaur's Oedipus. The ritual of sacrifice is still present, however. On the wall to the left of the figures hangs a painting, which is an earlier work by Picasso flipped upside down. It is a picture based on Jacques-Louis David's Death of Marat (a neoclassical work) and depicts a figure holding a large knife over a prostrate victim. An overpowering sun-eye-god symbol explodes through the window, looking down with approval. The Minotaur himself is at once pathetic and transcendent, like Oedipus as he dies at Colonus, in Sophocles' version of the myth. His head is raised in a simultaneous expression of anguish and mystic fulfillment. The Minotaur here is no longer that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, but he is nonetheless a figure of dignity. He stands straight and erect, and does not appear to rely on his feeble staff for any support. His head is proportionally enormous, emphasizing reason over bestial nature. The Minotaur has sacrificed animal drives and is led now, not by them but by a personification of innocence and purity. This achieved innocence is what Picasso sought to attain to in his long and diverse artistic career. Like Stravinsky, he was interested in casting aside the violence of modernism and liberating the restraint and purity of the art of the past, an art beyond self-aggrandizement and marked by an acknowledgment of divine necessity.

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