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Picasso and the Vital Order

Christopher Green, Life and Death in Picasso: Still Life/Figure, c. 1907-33 (London: Thames and Hudson, 2009); originally published as Objetos vivos: Figura y naturaleza muerta en Picasso (exh. cat., Museu Picasso, Barcelona, November 20, 2008 to March 1, 2009).

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We see two figures, entwined. What appears to be a woman, at left—tall and hulking, her right, striped pant leg forcefully set down—puts her arms around a smaller figure at right, probably a man, who responds with a kiss. Perhaps the kiss is joyous, enough to have the man raise what looks like his left foot, a kick in ecstasy. But something else is apparent. The man seems troubled by the woman’s smothering embrace. Now that left foot braces against the left edge of the canvas, as though stabilizing for dear life. Any attempt at groundedness, at earthly stability, seems misguided, for what riles this man must surely be a tension that is altogether more psychic and sexual. Soon colors appear not to clothe but to seep out of these bodies, this body, as though revealing some primal disturbance underneath. The man’s tablecloth suit has turned into a metallic netting of death.

Fig. 1 Pablo Picasso, The Kiss (Musée Picasso, Paris; 1925)

Christopher Green begins his long and fascinating essay Life and Death in Picasso with a strange motif that appears twice in this painting, The Kiss of 1925 (fig. 1)—once near the mouth, a second time at the anus. The motif reads as both sun and vagina, the solar and the sexual, the life-giving and the deathly. Green traces this motif to two drawings by Picasso of 1907 (reproduced on pages 52 and 53 of the catalogue), one of which enacts a similar transposition, but between head and leaf. In several short chapters, Green traces the appearance of this motif in Picasso’s imagery within a larger problem of life and death, over the course of the years 1907 to 1933.

Green’s central insight is that these moments of living-dead ambiguity remain, crucially, unresolved. He pauses before Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), which in the end gave up the dialectic between Eros and Thanatos, and says: “I shall not allow death a dominant role in my analysis. I am not concerned to uncover in Picasso’s repeated invention of dead-alive objects and figures the symptoms of anxiety and thus a compulsive manifestation of the death drive. I want instead to bring out his images’ openness to often unresolved, contradictory responses, where the dead and the live confront each other without a winner, and where, too, an invigorating wit often supervenes on the side of life and the pleasure principle”1. Green cautions against a too-easy assimilation of Picasso’s work to Bataillean surrealism: any resemblance to Bataille’s burning sun, for instance, needs to be tempered by a complementary attention to Apollinaire’s life-giving sun. These judgments are altogether precise, and feel like they have been arrived at after a careful sifting-through of the visual evidence.

At a minimum, the essay does two things: first, it shows the enormous generativity of Picasso’s art, especially of the 1920s, much of which is still being actively debated by art historians. Part of this has to do with the relation between the work of the 1920s—in all its diversity—and the phase of “analytic” or “hermetic” Cubism of 1910-12. It might be that the 1920s has been marked, above all, by the failure of that 1910-12 Cubist moment, for which the 1920s constitutes a long, but brilliant, aftermath. Second, it shows the startling unity of Picasso’s art. For the life-death problem that Green raises cuts across the genres of figurative painting, still life, and landscape. We also see the artist moving quickly between two kinds of illusionism: one more literal and descriptive of reality, the other, more comic and playful, full of deceptive trickery. Many of the still lifes pose and pirouette like the best trompe l’oeil. But the question arises as to what lies beneath this ”surface” illusionism, which we might call the motive force of Picasso’s energetic art.

It is curious, given his sporadic use of the words “vital” and “vitality” (e.g., 40), that Green does not mention the long tradition of vitalism that underlies the period in question. Mention of vitalism in the early twentieth century is almost always accompanied by the name “Bergson,” and is often associated with Salon Cubism (Gleizes, Metzinger, et al.). Yet vitalism was broader than Bergson, however influential and culture-bound his philosophy.2 Art discourse of that period was suffused with the “mechanical-vital” or “mechanical-living” opposition—evidence of the deep permeation of the mechanist-vitalist debate into the culture.3 Beginning in the modern era in the seventeenth century, vitalism rose to prominence in the eighteenth (with physician-philosophers such as Théophile Bordeu, Paul-Joseph Barthez, and Xavier Bichat), lingered into the nineteenth (Claude Bernard), and crested again in the early twentieth century (Hans Driesch, Constantin von Monakow, Kurt Goldstein, Henri Bergson).4 Vitalism has often been accused of being insufficiently scientific—blasted for its supposed incoherence and outright mysticism—mainly because it seemed to revive what the mechanical and mathematical philosophy of the seventeenth century had put asunder: the intrinsic animation and motility of matter. Mechanical philosophers like Robert Boyle chastised proponents of vitalism for indulging in this “occult quality,” and placed their faith in the rigors of empirical experiment and inductive logic. Yet, as scholars like Georges Canguilhem have affirmed, vitalism was a powerful and coherent means of describing bodily function and organization, and for understanding the basic fundaments of biological “life”—against temptations of mechanistic reduction. Hence vitalists’ search for deep (and non-reducible) principles of biological activity: Blumenbach’s “Bildungstrieb” (or formative drive) and Barthez’s “vital principle” were two exemplary instances. Both were attempts to relocate animation, from its source in an external force or agent, to its presence in the body itself—in and as the principle of animation.5

Green’s life-death oscillation is, very much, this vital principle. The fact that Green laudably resists attempts to pin this principle down fits neatly within a vitalist resistance to mechanistic reduction. At a basic level, it reveals that Picasso’s art was driven by a search for this in-between biological state, this life-death principle, in and through aesthetic form (aesthetic form, because of its ability to analogize bodily behavior in and as a kind of phenomenology, might be the key site to observe such imperceptible phenomena). In other words, the question “what would be a work of art that kept moving, on its own?” was also very much a question of the body, whose intrinsic functions were capable of resisting death. Green’s account laudably avoids a narrower reading, which might have reduced the manifoldness of the visual—or indeed, the visualizable body—to verbal language, or might have drawn up a too-quick correlation between linguistic signs and politics.

Perhaps the most pressing question to ask of Green’s findings is whether any such life-death principle will always only be the effect of a bodily origin, an origin that is fundamentally obscure (by “origin” we mean not just the beating pulse, but the ultimate source of intrinsic movement and generation in and of the body). Bodily sensation, even as it was variously diced up in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, doggedly remained at a surface level of understanding. Leading terms like “uneasiness” and “irritability,” though providing the solution to short-term dilemmas, proved ultimately provisional. Yet, bracketing this question of foundations, we might nevertheless ask of the exact nature of this “exchange” or “oscillation” between the living and the dead, the human and the inhuman, as described by Green: does the living-dead oscillation have its own intensive temporality, not only within but across several images? Indeed, this appears to be exactly what Green has done for the 1907-1933 period (though he is not explicit on this). To me, his real thesis is how and why the vagina-sun motif recurs and returns—gets called up from a range of available motifs—at particular moments, as part of Picasso’s archaeology of vision. Compared to other living-dead moments in Picasso’s work, when that vagina-sun motif returns in 1925 in The Kiss, it seems to acquire a particular force and urgency, and turns away from its status as a piece of “dead” iconography—thus “vitalizing” his own process of production by tapping into something akin to Bergsonian duration.

One way, then, to productively read Green’s essay, is to keep alive the differences between the various life-death motifs between 1907 and 1933. For, once we perceive this “ambivalence of the dead-alive” (50), there is a way that every other similar motif becomes leveled, flattened. We start seeing that ambivalence everywhere, a case of vision getting locked into a repetitive pattern, deadened. This tendency makes us less aware of the way that the living-dead motif (less a motif than a tension, actually) variously appears in these images. Is the tension the result of a search or working-through of a visual problem for Picasso, or does it have the character of an assumption? (The question seems particularly apt for the 1925 paintings The Kiss and The Dance—both major pictorial statements, done with a considerable degree of meditation, reflection, and reworking.) Does the motif or tension appear early or late in the genesis of a painting? One wants to know if the motif is more cancellation than easy conflation. Such an assessment of these images would provide us with evidence that the vagina-sun motif reappeared in 1925; some kind of urgency or deep anxiety haunts The Kiss—gleaned in part from the painting’s colorful ”exterior”—that differs from Picasso’s smaller works. What to make of this? Is the painting a response to the environment closing in on the organism, the life-death principle finding expression because of exigencies in the socio-biological milieu? Possibly. In any case, the life-death principle will dive back inward, and lead to a new cycle of intensification—as though the body relies or paradoxically ‘grounds’ itself on repeated phases of expression-involution. We can conclude, at least, that while the life-death principle might be consistently undecidable or ambivalent between 1907 and 1933, it is not unitary.

Another question for Green’s thesis: how does the living-dead tension square with other tropes of reversibility in Picasso’s art—for example, the “reversible cube” on the head of Woman with Pears (Fernande) (1909), or his frequent reversals between figure and ground?6 At some level, the life-death principle is none other than dynamism in Picasso’s art as such. But let us close in on reversibility: when Green reads The Dance from left to right, with “sexualized life in motion turning into the dead geometry of the inanimate,” he quite rightly states that the direction is then “reversed” (48). The right-most figure has us double back to the left. Yet, though similar to our vagina-sun motif, in that it seems to invoke an origin or terminus (the darkened profile head has often been explained as referring to Picasso’s recently-deceased friend Ramon Pichot), this reversible turn seems like a more literal recoil from something deep and unknowable.7 The reversible cubes of Picasso’s 1910-12 period, in contrast, came out of a concerted attempt to undo the classical system of perspectival representation8; reversibility was built into mind or vision, as it were (akin, perhaps, to Kant’s “epigenesis of pure reason.”9) As for The Kiss, it is difficult to tell if reversibility, notably in the vagina-sun motifs, is striving for something deeper: to dwell once more in the nether regions of matter, to return to that hazy realm of noumena. And what if we still don’t know enough about reversibility as such in Picasso? Does the life-death oscillation help us understand this deeper generativity of Picasso’s art? What if analytic cubism—the Cadaqués push—was just one line of flight out of a deeper, formative matrix?

There is a way that what looks like identity (vagina = sun) is actually a pair of aspects (vagina or sun): the different perception of a figure or face, even as the physical properties of the image have not changed.10 In many ways, aspect seeing is perpetual reversibility—cyclical yet discontinuous. Green’s weaker life-death motifs, I suspect, are non-aspective: for example, the particular turning or flipping that occurs between the guitar and grapes in Juan Gris’ Guitar and Fruit Bowl (1919) that Green describes as “rhyming” (“the guitar seems to have generated the bunch of grapes…” [66; emphasis mine—notice the biological metaphor]). Because they are two separate and unconnected identities, it is not an aspect. In Gris’ painting, we remain in empirical realism, however beguiling the oscillations. Aspect seeing, in contrast—what is present in Picasso’s The Kiss—discloses something fundamental about ontology. (And isn’t it the task of still life to bring us to this realm of ontological awareness?) The dawning of an aspect is ontological; we see an object differently, not necessarily but contingently. Aspect perception need not happen. Perhaps what this means is that we see not degrees of life and death in a particular organism, but life or death, aspectively.

Certain life-death analogies in Green’s essay can be questioned. All mention of automata, for instance, have them exhibiting merely repetitive behavior (e.g. “clockwork movement of an automaton” [63]). Yet before the nineteenth century, before automata were Hoffmannesque scare objects, they were seen as potent models of human life, capable of analogizing the intricacies of organic behavior.11 In the eighteenth century, automata were considered an advance over the rather static, mechanical devices of the seventeenth century. How might we rethink early twentieth-century automata in an age of accelerating technology and industry, with machines prosthetizing the body, and analogies made between machines and organisms that stressed the lifelike as much as the deathly? How do we think of the machine as trickster, as ruse? Picasso’s strange dot-and-line drawings made at Juan-les-Pins in the summer of 1924 look differently in a reconfigured biomechanical, even cosmological, light.

Another instance of problematic metaphorization occurs in Green’s discussion of crystals, where he writes of Picasso’s “persistence in infusing even the most crystalline of tables, musical instruments […] with vitality again and again” (93). While this is enlivening as description, it uses “vitality” in a weakly metaphorical manner, as though the artist were breathing spirit or energy into his works of art. What the history of vitalism makes clear, instead, is that the real problem in the work of art is not the exterior agent who gives it form, but the artist who is able to realize or reveal the autonomous, self-generative properties of the work itself. At its most compelling, vitalism was the search for generativity beneath the surface effects and behavior of an organism. Yet these few instances of ahistorical analogy and weak metaphor pale in the face of the rest of Green’s essay, which derives its conclusions inductively, carefully doling out rich description to open up new avenues of thought.

Both formalism and semiotics, even as they powerfully opened up cubism as a pictorial language, tended to affirm a Kantian transcendental idealism, in the sense of the sharp divide that was marked between phenomena and noumena.12 Cut off from nature, the transcendental a prioris were all we had. A whole realm of noumena became closed off to human knowledge and understanding. Both formalism and semiotics also enshrined a linear trajectory, from “analytic” to “synthetic” cubism13—originally Kantian terms, of course—that made a form of cognitive abstraction seem necessary to cubism. Semiotic thinking was seen as a higher and more elevated condition, by revealing the sophistication of Picasso’s language.14 One negative result, however, is that art historians have tended to look askance at the works of his synthetic phase and after (the papiers collés aside). The works of the 1920s have proven especially difficult to categorize, and have been negatively colored by the relative success of the works of the early, 1910-12 period. Even seminal works like The Kiss and The Dance appear like small sparks, occasional blips over the course of a long decline. Another result is that we have, because of the seeming imperative of cognitive abstraction, largely neglected the realm of temporality in cubism. In Bergson’s terms, we have been caught up in space, to the detriment of time.

On the side of the historiography opposite from the Kantian, one could argue that many Salon Cubist paintings, such as Le Fauconnier’s Abundance (1910-11), are not successfully vitalist (or successfully Bergsonian). In the way that they misunderstand, and literalize, the continuity of the vital order, these paintings might be instances of a “vulgar” Bergsonism. There tends to be a freezing of form, rather than an ongoing, yet indeterminate, sense of movement and genesis in such paintings. One of the errors of Salon Cubism was the way it clung to the old familiars of the rural, nature, and organic bodies—versus more complex pictorial accounts that could take into account city and country, nature and technology, organic and inorganic. All this matters as to how a vitalist philosophy might come to inflect Cubist painting of the 1920s—and allow us to arrive at Green’s life-death principle, from another direction. It is not an insignificant fact that Bergson’s thinking was still dominant in 1920s France.

What we do not need, of course, is a simple opposition that pits the “mechanism” of gallery Cubism (or analytic Cubism) against the “vitalism” of Salon Cubism (or synthetic Cubism). Rather, the mechanical-vital dialectic can (and should) be thought through all phases of Picasso’s work, and across the gallery-Salon Cubism divide. For example, is the faceting of planes in the background of many a hermetic cubist painting actually a depiction of the landscape or environment endowed with vitality? Why were there descriptions of a “Rembrandtesque” inner light animating these figures? One reason to re-ask these questions is that it acknowledges the persistence of vitalism, with its central insight that the temporality of the vital order comes before—is analytically prior to—the Kantian noumenal-phenomenal dichotomy.

The stronger moments in Green’s essay (for example, the careful pushing away of the Freudian death drive, in order to grasp the life-death oscillation in all its specificity) move beyond both formalist and semiotic methodologies. Analytic-synthetic or iconic-symbolic discontinuity is, however, not stressed (it is not a concern for the author). Green also does not engage the vitalism of Salon Cubism, perhaps because the connections do not seem obvious, or because of the constraint of the single artist focus in the context of this museum exhibition. One irony of these vitalist 1907-33 images is that Picasso might have been competing on the same quasi-Bergsonian ground as Denis or Delaunay. Perhaps he arrived at a different solution to what might have been a common problem (the intrication of the body, the motive or generative principle, etc.). What if Picasso, in the 1920s, dwelled deeply in nature and ontology, in an attempt to come up with a more powerful form of bioaesthetic regeneration? And yet Green’s life-death principle does end up tinged with a certain formalism—the achieved result over the course of a wide array of images, but with no real relation to a lived history. While there is no need to have recourse to a simple biographical explanation (relationships with friends and family, events that occur at the surface level of consciousness), there is the possibility that family life in the 1920s served for Picasso as refuge and retreat from the socio-political world.

Overall, I think Green’s analysis of the oscillation of life and death in Picasso’s art takes us far in moving beyond, on the one hand, a Kantian skepticism—given the “inability of radical linguistic doubt to sustain the demands of the everyday”15—and on the other, in Green’s sketch of what a vitalist pictoriality might be, efforts to reduce vitalism to some kind of weak, political conservatism.16

Perhaps the woman in The Kiss intends to deceive. This might explain why she is (or both of them are) so ugly—for is not beauty, as Darwin taught us, a biological ruse? John Richardson posits that the painting might have been a reply to Picabia’s own painting of a man and woman kissing.17 Yet Picasso also seems to have reached farther back in time and history: for does not the smooch resemble the kiss given by Judas in Giotto’s Arena Chapel fresco? A kiss of betrayal, but also a mark of death. Therein lies, I think, the picture’s sense of doubt, fear, and anxiety. (The crude, reductive explanation is that Picasso was working out his then-negative feelings for his wife, Olga.) What the Giotto allusion allows is an intensification, a deepening of the vitalist self/structure of the painting. The aspect and aporia is that we do not know whether the kiss is producing life or death, ecstasy or annihilation. Knowledge gives way to ontology. We move beyond the barrier of the transcendental a priori, which—like realism—was both feint and ruse. Yet recognizing that it is a ruse allows us to perceive that irreducible crack in our being, and enter into a deeper ontological relatedness of things. Green’s elegant and provocative essay allows us to look again at Picasso’s art, with fresh eyes.


1.  Green, 49. Green could have cited Jean Laplanche’s Life and Death in Psychoanalysis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), the classic treatment of Freud’s engagement with the vital order.
2.  What has hindered a proper understanding of the relations between art and vitalism in the historiography of Cubism has been vitalism’s frequent associations with forms of reactionary, political conservatism. For example, Maurice Denis’ Barrèsian aesthetics, in statements such as: “What makes a renaissance is less the perfection of the models one chooses than the strength and the unity of purpose of a vigorous generation.” Denis, “De Gauguin et de van Gogh au classicisme,” in Le Ciel et l’Arcadie: Textes réunis, ed. Jean-Paul Bouillon (Paris: Hermann, 1993), 170; originally published in L’Occident, May 1909; cited in David Cottington, Cubism and its Histories (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), 33. For the various “Bergsonisms” in the early twentieth century—variously using Bergson’s philosophy in more or less faithful ways—see Mark Antliff, Inventing Bergson: Cultural Politics and the Parisian Avant Garde (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993). For the Neo-Kantian/Bergsonian antinomy from the 1890s to the 1930s, see Suzanne Guerlac, Thinking in Time: An Introduction to Henri Bergson (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2006), 1-41. For Bergson and early twentieth-century painting, see also Todd Cronan, Matisse, Bergson, and the Philosophical Temper of Modernism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming).
3.  For example, in defense of his painting against that of the Futurists, Robert Delaunay asserted that his was “an art of simultaneous contrasts, of forms of colorline is limitation. Colour gives depth (not perspective, not successive, but simultaneous) both its form and its movement. The simultaneous vision of the futurists has a completely different meaning… Successive and mechanical dynamism in their painting, just as their manifesto makes plain. It is a mechanical, and not a living, movement [C’est une mouvement machiniste et non vivante].” Robert Delaunay, Du Cubisme à l’Art abstrait. Documents inédits publiés par Pierre Francastel (Paris: SEVPEN, 1957), 110; cited in Cottington, 101. Note that the “disegno-colore” opposition merges into the “mechanical-vital” binary by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
4.  The best defense of vitalism is still Georges Canguilhem, “Aspects du vitalisme,” in La Connaissance de la vie (Paris: Hachette, 1952; Vrin, 1980), 83-100; “Aspects of Vitalism,” in Knowledge of Life, ed. Paola Marrati and Todd Meyers, trans. Stefanos Geroulanos and Daniela Ginsburg (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 59-74. For the history of vitalism, see also Roselyne Rey, Naissance et développement du vitalisme en France de la deuxième moitie du 18e siècle à la fin du premier empire (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2000); Peter Hanns Reill, Vitalizing Nature in the Enlightenment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); also Osamu Kanamori, “The Problem of Vitalism Revisited: from Barthez to Bernard,” Angelaki 10.2 (August 2005): 13-26.
5.  See Peter Hans Reill, “The Legacy of the ‘Scientific Revolution’: Science and the Enlightenment” in The Cambridge History of Science, vol. 4: Eighteenth-Century Science, ed. Roy Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 23-43. These scientific debates impacted art and literature: think, for example, of the shared basis between Blumenbach’s Bildungstrieb and the Bildungsroman. For a preliminary attempt to write an entwined history of vitalism and art, see Kevin Chua, “Painting Paralysis: Filial Piety in 1763” in French Genre Painting in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Philip Conisbee, Studies in the History of Art 72, Center for Advanced Studies in the Visual Arts (Washington: National Gallery of Art, distributed by Yale University Press, 2007), 153-77.
6.  For this notion of reversibility, see T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes in a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 198-201; Margaret Iversen, “Review: Orthodox and Anamorphic Perspectives,” Oxford Art Journal 18.2 (1995): 81-84.
7.  It might be akin to the reversibility of mathematical equations, which served to uphold classical physics and its form of linear temporality.
8.  As argued by T. J. Clark in “Cubism and Collectivity” in Farewell to an Idea, 169-224.
9.  For elaboration of the phrase “epigenesis of pure reason,” see Helmut Müller-Sievers, Self-Generation: Biology, Philosophy, and Literature Around 1800 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), especially 48-64.
10.  For aspect seeing, see Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958), 193c: “I contemplate a face, and then suddenly notice its likeness to another. I see that it has not changed; and yet I see it differently. I call this experience ‘noticing an aspect.’” For discussion, see Stephen Mulhall, On Being in the World: Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Seeing Aspects (London and New York: Routledge, 1990).
11.  See in this vein, Jessica Riskin, “Eighteenth-Century Wetware,” Representations 83 (Summer 2003): 97-125. E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short story The Sandman (1816) was the locus classicus for all late nineteenth-century versions of automata.
12.  By formalism, I refer to the writings of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Alfred Barr, and John Golding; by semiotics, Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss. For references, and a full historiography of cubism, see Cottington’s excellent Cubism and its Histories.
13.  Cottington, 47.
14.  One way to unthink the linearity of the discourse has been to try and pay more attention to the discontinuities in Cubism, especially in Picasso’s career. Especially helpful in this vein is Clark’s argument that that linguistic transition (from iconic to symbolic representation) remains fundamentally incomplete. As I see it, the originality of his chapter on cubism lies in its relocation of the terms of Cubism’s failure. For him, the inability to fully purge iconicity from representation is analogous to the failure of the Picasso-Braque (social) collectivity. And, though phrases like “irredeemable obscurity” reinvoke the Kantian noumena, at some level Clark—intriguingly—seems to be ironizing Kant (e.g. “counterfeit of such a description” [215]).
15.  Richard Neer, “Reaction and Response,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 30, no. 2, Winter 2004, 476.
16.  See also Green’s longer book (which in many ways also pursues a dialectic without synthesis), Picasso: Architecture and Vertigo, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.
17.  John Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, New York: Knopf, 2010, 290.
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