Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sacrificial Rites in Picasso and Stravinsky: Part 5 (The End)

Stravinsky's Oedipus is also an example of a character who has stepped beyond the bounds of the permissible. Mellers claims that Stravinsky's ritual is both negative and positive; Negative because the terror and violence in the ritual seemed directly to parallel the death-struggle of our deracinated civilization which was then erupting in the first of the World Wars; positive because this primitive vitality served as a reminder of the instinctive passional life that modern man had lost.

In Oedipus' opening aria, as he promises to deliver his people, he overflows with confidence in his own abilities as a hero and solver of riddles. The irony here is pointed, as Oedipus will, in fact, deliver his people by removing the cursed presence that causes the gods to plague Thebes. What he does not know is that this curse is he, himself. Oedipus' fame lies in his ability to see into dark riddles yet he is unable to see his own destiny until it comes howling down on him. Oedipus later laments as he lists his sins: "I was born of whom divine law forbade / have lain with whom divine law forbade / have slain whom divine law forbade / All is I now made clear!" The Speaker labels him "foul beast, incestuous parricide, and madman," and the chorus is hardly more encouraging as they drive him from Thebes: "Behold! Oedipus the king appears--a most foul monster, a most foul beast." Here the description would be equally apt for Picasso's Minotaur. Oedipus is a breaker of supernal boundaries and must be sacrificed, in this case not with blood but with exile, a scapegoat staggering with the guilt of Thebes on his back. In exhibiting the unacceptable behaviors of sexuality and aggression, Oedipus is unfit to live any longer with the companionship of his people. His very presence has brought the vengeance of the gods upon Thebes and his exile is a necessity that the civilization may continue. Mellers says that "Oedipus's final arioso is closer to liturgical chant than it is to the heroic music he has sung previously. Or rather one could say that at the end he rediscovers the music that was implicit in his first utterance, which is now purged of egoism and self-will." Through the sacrificial nature of Oedipus's horrific enucleation, the hero has achieved a kind of expiation for the guilt of his disgraceful crimes. But the Chorus's final driving away of Oedipus, while not necessarily forgiving, is not cruel either, but filled with a gentle pity. The music is calm and even tender as Oedipus, the self-sacrificed, stumbles off stage and into his long and lonely exile. Again, Mellers is insightful:

"The rite has always been, with [Stravinsky], an act of incarnation, it has been a historical necessity; the consequence of an agonizing awareness of the 'human predicament.' ... Stravinsky has shown us that, even in our bruised and battered world, the heart may still sing in the sustained lyrical period, the pulse beat in a rhythm that is not motorized, but fluid and compulsive as the sea."

Oedipus is a figure not only of pathos, but also of nobility. His sacrifice in Stravinsky's work may be viewed as a kind of spiritual fulfillment-the truth may not have made him exactly free, but it has allowed him to rise to a plane beyond egoism and personal heroics. He inhabits, alone, a visionary place of the blessed, comforted only by the knowledge that he has performed well what was demanded of him.

Picasso and Stravinsky explored the nature of sacrifice in modern life in their works. For them, it is a necessary component of civilized life, and while destructive in nature, is a vital aspect of creation and harmony. In rejecting the base and devouring it, a liberation, though limited, is attained. This liberation is what Picasso and Stravinsky yearned to achieve through their journeys into the aesthetic past. By stepping down from the forefront of the modernist army they came into a place where they could experience greater freedom through order. Both artists performed a sacrifice of the chaotic in order to find the solid ground of classical endurance.

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.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sacrificial Rites in Picasso and Stravinsky: Part 3 (Detachment)

Vollard Suite, Plate 57

The ritual of sacrifice as performance is also emphasized in both works. Picasso's suite contains an extraordinary number of spectator images, and this is one of its driving themes. In plate 57, for example, a couple watches serenely as a rampaging bull gores and tramples two horses. A closer inspection reveals that this wild scene is merely a sculpture in the studio, complete with its supporting base, rather like Oedipus' "living statues." Picasso firmly establishes the odd division between action and spectator. A ritual is a performance, and a sacrifice demands an audience. Classicism, emphasizing order and reason, prefers a philosophic, detached outlook, and the emotional disjunction between audience and enactment here well illustrates this stoic nature of classicism. Thus, in the Vollard Suite, it is very rare to find the onlookers in any degree of emotional excitement. The reaction, when it is not indifference, is more likely to be calm pondering. This concept of unemotional and removed performance is key to neoclassical expression. Picasso performs a ritual of his own in the creation of these pieces. Lisa Florman writes of Picasso's work that "the 'Blind Minotaur' series [is] less an illustration of a sacrifice than its performance or enactment. . . the Minotaur. . . [is] the equivalent of the 'sacrificed god' of mythology." The creation of Picasso's neoclassical art is in itself a ritual sacrifice.

In Oedipus, the role of the Speaker mediates the action for the audience in a similar manner, and causes the art to become similarly self-conscious. The Speaker has been compared to a dry sort of tour guide, reciting facts in a monotonous and detached manner rather than with a rush of poetic wordplay and visible emotion. After Jocasta commits suicide, the Speaker dryly says, "And now you will hear that famous monologue: 'The Divine Jocasta Is Dead.'" This neoclassical distance between action and reaction is realized in the Speaker's disinterested lecture. Ritual performance here, as in Picasso's listless onlookers, is emphasized, stressing classical impassiveness and aloofness. The drama is ritual and its creation involved a stylistic sacrifice on the part of Stravinsky.

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.

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.