Picasso and the Portrait

By Danto, Arthur Coleman | The Nation, August 26, 1996 | Go to article overview

Picasso and the Portrait


Danto, Arthur Coleman, The Nation


I have been reading Ray Monk's forthcoming biography of Bertrand Russell, and find that I cannot help but think of parallels between the great logician's life and that of Picasso, whose portraits are the subject of a remarkable exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art until September 17. Both men lived into their 90s. both transformed their respective subjects in ways that helped define the twentieth century, both were driven by immense sexual energies and a terrifying need for love. Russell's greatest work, the colossal three-volume Principia Mathematica (1909-13), was achieved with the collaboration of Alfred North Whitehead, whom Gertrude Stein regarded, with herself and Picasso, as the only true genius she had known. Picasso's greatest achievement, the invention of Cubism, was also a collaboration (with Georges Braque) from about 1909 until 1914. My dictionary defines Cubism as "the geometrical reduction of natural forms," while the aim of Principia Mathematica was the reduction of mathematics to logic (there was to have been a fourth volume on geometry, but Russell wrote that he and Whitehead turned away from the project with a feeling of nausea).

"Assessing what was achieved by the Herculean labours involved in writing Principia Mathematica is difficult," Monk writes, and as much could be said of the labors involved in rewriting the natural appearances of the world in the Cubist script. To be sure, Russell saw mathematics as beautiful, and Wittgenstein compared Volume II explicitly to music. Would these exalted assessments survive the discovery that the reduction failed, or that the entire project was somehow false? Are there parallel pitfalls for Cubist analysis, or do the questions of truth and adequacy simply not arise for art? These questions notwithstanding, logic, which had been regarded as a finished science late into the nineteenth century, was reopened as a field of investigation and adapted as a model for doing philosophy in the twentieth. Picasso opened radical possibilities for painterly representation never dreamt of before, and became the model against which painters sought their own measure until sometime in the 1960s. A.J. Ayer described Russell as "the Picasso of modern philosophy." I am perhaps the first to call Picasso the Russell of modern art.

Russell's first philosophical masterpiece, "On Denoting," was published in 1905, the year of Picasso's first masterpiece, Family of Saltimbanques, in which he portrayed himself and his mistress Fernande Olivier as street acrobats, a beautiful metaphor. It would be difficult to see the slightest reference to himself or his own life in Russell's brilliant demonstration, in "On Denoting," that the logical form of propositions is distinct from their grammatical form. My sense is that Picasso lost his virulence as an artistic threat for later artists when it became possible for an appropriationist, Mike Bidlo, to paint up a show of all the major Picassos. There is no such thing as appropriation in philosophy, but Russell's daunting stature also lost virulence as analytical philosophy became a mere style and the philosophical bearing of mathematical logic as obscure as the point of Cubism.

Russell did write a magnificent autobiography, but it would be difficult to deduce much about his life from just his philosophical writings, which are technical and professional, whereas with Picasso the situation is the reverse: His artistic oeuvre is one vast pictorial autobiography, though it would be hard to infer from his life much if any understanding of his formal achievements as an artist. Because of this, critical scrutiny of these achievements has tended to treat them autonomously and in abstraction from the life, fascinating as the latter has been in terms of the artist's loves and friendships. The great issues raised in Russell's work--the theory of descriptions, the theory of types, the semantical paradoxes, the virtues of logical atomism, our knowledge of the external world, the analysis of mind and the plausibility of Neutral Monism--pretty much specify the curriculum of professional philosophy, and call upon structures of thought that have nothing to do with the farces and tragedies of Russell's long and bumpy life. …

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