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Mike Gonzalez

Introduction to John Berger on Picasso

(Autumn 1988)

From International Socialism 2 : 40, Autumn 1988, pp. 105–110.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Even dead, Picasso provokes controversy. The public argument about the recent exhibition of drawing and paintings from Picasso’s last twenty years, has driven some critics to near apoplexy. One writer, for example, described the collection as ‘incoherent doodles done by a frenetic dotard in the anteroom of death’. [1] Why such frenzy? In the comments that follow, John Berger offers an incisive insight into Picasso’s work – a sort of postscript to his fine longer study Success and failure of Picasso. [2] And indirectly, it might explain some of the reactions the exhibition has provoked. Perhaps it is no accident that Berger’s own work has drawn only slightly less venomous denunciations from some quarters in recent times. [3]

Berger and the critics

Picasso embodies some of the contradictions that have been the constant themes of John Berger’s work. [4] For Berger has been centrally concerned with the way in which art is transformed into a commodity; the painting both represents a propertied class to itself and is itself property. What start as creative products of an individual imagination are given their social meaning, their status as ‘art’ under capitalism, at the moment when they are priced, given market value. The same process makes the artist a commodity too, and his or her lifestyle the object of a different but connected network of commercial institutions – publishers of memoirs, sellers of objects magically transformed by the artist’s touch.

This is the other face of that general process whereby human beings under capitalism confront the fruits of their own labour as alien external things. This creativity that art contains, this exercise of the imagination, is turned into a mystery, an abnormal response on the part of a small and isolated group of peculiar and unreal people. The liberating potential of the combination of consciousness and practice is caricatured in the figure of the artist as a kind of bizarre outcast.

These are some of the processes that John Berger explored in an incisive body of work which reworked and ‘made new’ a complex Marxist theory of art. In the sixties and seventies many people took up those ideas, though often distorting or abusing them in imitation. For Berger never fell into the trap that many of his disciples fell foul of, whereby the theory of art became a separate discipline from dialectical materialism, so that there came to be a kind of class struggle in art that bore no relation to the class struggle in the material world.

In the eighties, of course, many of those fairweather friends have disappeared, as Marxism has suddenly ceased to be the vehicle for an alternative academic career. Peter Fuller, for example, Berger’s erstwhile acolyte, has now become his most bitter critic. Fuller argues that the analysis that sees art in its complex relationship with society ‘reduces’ art and denies ‘artistic’ value – that ineffable something which is intrinsic to the work and makes art timeless and ‘true’. Fuller acknowledges that the search for that essential ‘aesthetic’ core of art arose from a deep discomfort with an art of political commentary, and from a kind of yearning for eternal truth. Because he has a background, or rather a past, on the left, Fuller attempts a sleight of hand to show that Tories and Marxists are equally reductionist and that only he is willing to defend ‘connoisseurship and spirituality in art’ (whatever they might be!)

The slander on Berger has a deeper core. Fuller corresponds to the Thatcher era, however vehemently he insists on his voting record as a Labour supporter. For it is the characteristic assertion of the intellectuals of Thatcherism that there is no connection between the different areas of human activity; that the perception of totality is a left-wing myth; and that the prevailing values are natural, given and inescapable. Here there is certainly a curious coincidence between the right and those left theorists whose obsession with ‘Thatcherism’ has led to similar despairing and desperate conclusions. [5] If change cannot result from conscious transforming activity, then there can of course, be no imagination, no exposing of contradictions nor dreaming of an alternative society.

What role can art have in the face of such global pessimism? It can become again a refuge from reality – a ‘place’ free from the awful but inescapable ravages of reality. It is incorruptible because it says nothing, it offers no response, it simply exists in its own time and space. Berger insists on the connectedness of things, locates art within the double realm of ideology and property relations, and sees in it a liberating potential. But he also explores, especially in Ways of Seeing, the mechanisms whereby the elaboration of ‘eternal truths’ about art corresponds in turn to the need to confirm existing social relations and to inhibit and colonise imagination itself. Fuller’s is only the latest version of a determination to cast a veil over the world.

Picasso and the critics

The history of Picasso the painter is an exemplary one. As a young highly skilled artist in the Paris of the first decade of the 20th century, he was a key participant in an artistic revolution – an ‘art of dynamic liberation from all static categories’. [6] There is no evidence that he saw any connection between avant-garde art and the political vanguard, no evidence of any political involvement at all. He seemed unable to link the particular experience to any collective reality. Yet his challenge to the bourgeois world was encapsulated in a manner of painting – Cubism. It responded to Engels’ appeal for an art that ‘shatters the optimism of the bourgeois world and instils doubt as to the eternal character of the existing order’. [7] The landscapes and portraits of late 19th century Europe oozed the optimism of a once-revolutionary class now become master in its own house. The ordered world of those paintings offered the required image of a controlled and organised society where technology discipline and order were partners in an inexorably progress whose fulfilment required no human agency.

Cubism was part of a wider artistic and philosophical movement that frontally challenged that complacency at many levels. It re-introduced the idea that the world was dynamic, tense, a battlefield between conflicting forces where reality was dissonance, confusion and struggle. And at the centre of that clash there was a human core, the seer who actively shaped the world.

Picasso’s pre-1914 work, therefore, asked critical questions of the world and asserted a proud creativity against the uniformity and narrowness of the market. Of course, the paradox is that those statements of creative independence became in their turn hugely expensive commodities. In a way, it is hardly surprising that, after the containment of the revolutionary upheavals after World War One, capitalism should successfully incorporate expressions of individual radicalism into commerce. And Picasso in particular acknowledged no responsibility or relationship to the revolutionary class.

As the paintings themselves became commodities, so too did the artist himself. His life, from the 1920s onwards, became saleable. In the whirl of the ‘lost generation’ of the twenties, Picasso’s art was progressively separated from its historical moment. In the thirties the self-absorption that was the central feature of his work produced a series of joyful sensual paintings and drawings of Marie-Therese Walter [8], a celebration of sexuality and a joyful assumption of a kind of isolated individuality.

But individuality is not a continuously self-generating thing, complete and self-contained. Our individuality is the complex produce of an interaction with and response to shared social experience in specific material circumstances. We are individual because we are social; even our most intimate desires are shaped in history. [9] Picasso’s own life is the proof. Cut off and insulated from the social reality, worshipped and trapped in a marketable individuality, Picasso simply drained his inner world of all its possibilities he ‘ran out of subjects for his painting’, as Berger said. Outside, as the world lived through the decade of the forties, massive transformations were taking place, and both destructive and creative possibilities were worked out on the stage of real history. Yet Picasso kept on looking into his mirror (even Guernica is an expression of personal anguish rather than a recognition of the social forces in struggle in the Spanish Civil War). But the mirror told him nothing. Emptied of content and social experience, Picasso himself had become just another object, a property to be traded.

From then on, Picasso sought to rediscover something called ‘the artistic experience’, something that could be isolated in art itself. He looked for it in the paintings of others [10] (as distinct from other people, other lives). He began to repaint other painters’ work. It was skilful, but only in a technical sense; it was without imagination.

‘A sad entreaty’

This is how John Berger describes the drawings and paintings of Picasso’s late phase. For one critic they are ‘sad, crude, tedious and obsessive’. [11] For the reactionary Ms Huffington they are exhibits in the prosecution of Picasso for misogyny, sexual tyranny and systematic exploitation of everyone who shared his life. [12] There is no particular reason to doubt his less than exemplary conduct in these areas. But if we judge the paintings in this way then we have accepted that all art is merely self-expression and has no social content at all, even a social content mediated through individual experience.

In these final works, in their imagery of a lost or distorted sexuality and their terror of impotence, there is much more than a kind of sad pornography. They are about women and about sex. But they seem also to have a real sense of irony, stabbing at that paradox which turns the liberating imagination into a prison, and offers a kind of feme and recognition which promises to indulge every desire. And yet to be an artist is to be a creature of a system that must destroy desire and flatten creativity. So in the drawings in particular the painting or the easel becoming both a way of expressing desire and an insuperable obstacle between the artist and the object of his desire. He becomes the spectator to human experience, but incapable of participating in it.

But why are those once so anxious to raise Picasso now so angry with him? Could it be that this confession of weakness and indecision has no place in this society which, even for the Labour Party, exists to ‘reward achievement’? Thatcher’s Britain is a pitiless place in every sense – and it easily discards those heroes who prove to have feet of clay. The more so when Picasso, that living example of a self-contained individualism, has found it to be such a lonely and sad place to be.

The emancipation of the self in isolation has returned in new clothes in recent years. We can read Picasso’s last poignant yearnings as evidence that the self can only be realised in the act of collective revolutionary transformation.


1. Quoted in Brian Sewell’s vitriolic review Doodles of a voyeur in decline, in the Standard, 30 June 1988, p. 36.

2. Success and failure of Picasso, Writers and Readers (London 1980, first published in 1965).

3. See for example Peter Fuller’s Seeing Berger, Writers and Readers (London 1980). Fuller is now the increasingly influential editor of a journal called Modem Painters.

4. Berger’s work includes Permanent Red, Selected essays and articles (including his marvellous essay ‘the moment of cubism’), Art and Revolution, his most influential work Ways of Seeing, and About looking. Significant too is his novel A painter of our time.

5. As exemplified by the writings of Stuart Hall in Marxism Today, and in particular the work of Ernesto Laclau who has recently announced that ‘society is impossible’.

6. Picasso, see pages 59-60

7. Engels quoted in Slaughter, Marxism, ideology and literature (London 1980), p. 84.

8. A series which has its counterpart and negation in Picasso’s late works.

9. ‘... in present-day society, man has lost his ideology, but at the same time he has not only acquired the theoretical consciousness of his loss, he has been driven by a distress no longer to be evaded, utterly imperious to revolt against this inhumanity – therefore the proletariat can and must free itself.’ Marx, The Holy Family (Moscow 1956), p. 52.

10. For example, Picasso painted at least 52 versions of Velazquez’ Las meninas.

11. Sewell, see note 1.

12. Arianna Stassinopolous Huffington’s Picasso; creator and destroyer is published by Weidenfeld.

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