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Picasso: The atheist obsessed with the Crucifixion

La crucifixion (1932), by Picasso, a master of enigma

Just before you reach the exit of the new Picasso exhibition at Tate Modern, you chance upon a space that is not filled with different visions of womanhood. Instead, there are 13 drawings relating to the Crucifixion. You know you’ve reached something unusual because the walls have been painted a sombre, penitential purple rather than the anonymous lighter shades of the rest of the exhibition.

Out of Picasso’s colossal output, numbering tens of thousands of works, only a few dozen have Christian themes. Not being much of a sentimentalist, he avoided angels, saints and Nativity scenes. From everything the Bible and his Spanish upbringing had to offer, he went straight for the Christian jugular of the Crucifixion.

Having made the pilgrimage to see the monochrome works titled La crucifixion, viewers might wonder if that’s what they are really looking at. Did the notorious atheist, communist and anti-religionist go soft in 1932, the year to which this exhibition is dedicated? It was a difficult year for him, but could he have felt sufficiently troubled to have another go at animating a scene that captured his imagination every few years? It’s a subject he came back to for most of his life, so intermittently that it seems like a remedy for artist’s block.

Although his earliest acclaimed painting – a young girl’s First Communion – had a strong religious focus, this subject matter did not establish a precedent for the 14-year-old prodigy. Crucifixions were much more up his corrida-obsessed alley. They shared many features with bullfighting, with lances, blood and sacrifice adding up to a sight that Picasso considered to be a spectator event; those watching a Roman crucifixion didn’t even have to pay for the experience.

Picasso’s visions of Christ’s death are as much about those watching as they are about the Son of God. Most important of all, for an artist whose output is overwhelmingly about women, are the females at the foot of the Cross. Much has been written about what is actually being shown in this series of drawings. The elegantly written exhibition catalogue admits that it is “impossible to resolve the images” when works are executed as rapidly as these.

It’s no easier to put together the jigsaw puzzle that Picasso created two years earlier in his only full-colour rendering of the Crucifixion. He must have understood the iconography himself as he kept it in his own collection and seems to have admired it. Just like the drawings in Tate Modern, there are many possible interpretations – none of which would have been verified by the master of enigma and marketing.

Picasso notoriously avoided explaining the symbolism in his work. A typical evasion would be: “A picture lives a life like a living creature, undergoing the changes imposed on us by our life from day to day.” His calculated vagueness has no doubt encouraged the proliferation of material about him. His Crucifixions present a real conundrum for art historians. The explanations for them are numerous, and the only missing one is religious fervour.

Picasso seems to have been more inspired by a painting of the Crucifixion than the event itself. Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, in Colmar, is cited by the exhibition’s curators as the eye-opener in his life. But it clearly didn’t open his soul to ideas of redemption through Christ’s sacrifice. The drawings on display reveal many different approaches to the subject, but none of them captures the grisly spirit of Grünewald, an artist who fully conveys the horror of the Passion. For Picasso, it appears to be Mary Magdalene who really aroused his interest. This was Picasso true to conflicted form. In the Isenheim Altarpiece, the Magdalene wrings her hands in an unparalleled gesture of despair; in the later artist’s imagination she is yet another means of sorting out the battle of the sexes that he fought for his entire life.

Isenheim Altarpiece (Wikimedia Commons)

Picasso managed to remove the sacred from all those works that have a religious appearance. There’s plenty of suffering on view in his Crucifixions, as there is in Guernica or his countless scenes of brutality in the bullring, without any trace of redemption.

Perhaps Matisse could see into his friend’s soul better than we can. In a famous exchange between the two, after Picasso had berated Matisse for hypocrisy in taking on a Church commission, Picasso did not deny it when Matisse said: “Yes, I pray, and so do you, and you know it.” But Matisse spoilt it when he continued: “When everything goes badly, we throw ourselves into prayer, to rediscover the atmosphere of our First Communion.” Picasso never showed any sign of returning to that theme, either in art or in life.

Lucien de Guise is a writer, editor and curator. The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy is at Tate Modern, London, until September 9

This article first appeared in the March 23 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here