Picasso’s Transfiguration.

Picasso once said that any artist coming after him would have to step over his dead body. He was of course the greatest of iconoclasts and his influence is so profound as to be almost immeasurable. A show put on this year at the Tate Britain: Picasso and Modern British Art was clearly designed to demonstrate just how great  was the debt owed to Picasso by such British artists such as Duncan Grant, Wyndham Lewis, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland and David Hockney. These few of course join the whole host of modern and contemporary artists who have tried to swim in Picasso’s turbulent wake.

His magnetic sway is irresistible and is felt no more so than in his radically deformed and fragmented depictions of the human form. But despite the often violent and sadistic distortion in much of his figuration and portraiture, he nevertheless seemed able to magically conjure up an uncanny resemblance of his subject and to somehow encapsulate their inner nature and character. Picasso seems capable of revealing the very soul of the individual depicted and to filter their emotions through his creative process. But how can this be possible? How did Picasso really achieve it?

Picasso’s breakthrough appears all the more revolutionary coming as it did after a long period of stultified academic studio mannerism where nineteenth century portraiture became ever more lifeless. It was Picasso’s genius to fully understand the true and archaic function of the artist in the shamanic role as ‘spiritual intercessor’, to use his own words. Deeply influenced as he was by Archaic Oceanic and Iberian art and by African tribal sculpture stretching back centuries, Picasso could not have been unaware of the simple fact that phases of naturalism in art throughout human evolution and history are actually far and few between. There was of course Greek Classical art in the 5 or 6 centuries before Christ and the Roman art that followed. Then there was the later European recourse to naturalistic and realistic representation in the Renaissance of the sixteenth century. But the overwhelming history of art is a history of distortion, fragmentation and abstracted figures and artefacts, whose roles were not simply just to represent but to unearth the soul embodied within the very creative process underpinning the object.

The art of Picasso as the great eclectic inevitably displays his deep empathy with this true state of art history. Crucially it would also seem by all accounts that Picasso did have some sort of revelatory experience in the Trocadero Museum in 1907. As a result he was the first to really see what abstracted and disfigured African tribal sculpture really was and critically also, according to Francois Gilot, Picasso ‘saw what painting was all about’. It is well documented how this fundamental insight led Picasso to alter the mould-breaking painting The Demoiselles d’Avignon and on to cubism and a path that forever altered the course of Western art. But what was this seminal insight? What did Picasso see that changed his attitude to art from that time onwards and freed him to completely subvert and reinvent the very protocols of human figurative representation?

African tribal sculpture evolved over many centuries and was predominantly figurative. These representations of the human form were indeed generally de-formed, stylised and abstracted, certainly through Western eyes to which they were often perceived as savage and barbarous. The anthropologist in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, was in a unique position to encounter isolated communities that had evolved for many centuries free from any real external influence. From such a position it was possible to examine the real social function of art in a pristine quarantined microcosm of a biologically adaptive and evolutionary role. In other words it was possible through an unparalleled perspective to see in a natural authentic environment what art really did and to analyse why a social group needed it and wasted precious time and energy in the life and death struggle of a hostile environment to produce it.

I mention the word ‘authentic’ in this context and it is very interesting indeed that dealers in these exotic objects through the nineteenth and twentieth century were concerned for financial reasons to reach a generally accepted consensus on what actually constituted an authentic piece. This was of course against the ever present backdrop of the mass production from the late nineteenth century onwards of tourist pieces, curios and so-called ‘airport carvings’. A classic example is the Marxist frelimo control of Mozambique in the 1960s where they set up workers’ co-operatives churning out Makonde sculptures for Western consumption, specifically designed to meet Western tastes. Many of these sculptures can be found in European museums even today.

However, the dealers, along with those anthropologists and art specialists who recognised the true significance of the original art form arrived at the critical definition that an authentic tribal sculpture was exclusively one that had been intrinsically linked to tribal ritual. I have long argued that the authentic figurative artefact embodies within its formal structure the essence of the emotion generated in the ritual activity, just as Picasso’s portraits in their deformed style encapsulate the emotional soul of the subject. So the two processes are identical because Picasso was the first to brilliantly comprehend how the creative process truly fulfils its eral objectives.

Now a key question is this: if the genuine tribal sculpture is one that is connected to – or perhaps we should say evolves from ritual practices, then what does ritual give it that a manufactured object, looking for all-the world on the surface the same, doesn’t have? Anthropology can tell us much about ritual – as can a social history. However, anthropology or history can only deliver part of the story: the social and political context in relation to the evolutionary and historical backdrop. It falls rather to a psychoanalytic analysis of ritual process to really excavate its true underlying character and to make the link with the deformed figurative sculpture, which through a subtly evolving stylistic nuance becomes the carved embodiment of the creative ritual process. In other words the sculpture encodes the critical genetics of ritual energy and procedure within its dynamic stylistic tension, locking in the emotion of the event and recording it to assist re-enactment by future generations of the social group. This is why across a huge continent refined differences of style indicate the unique evolutionary lifestyle and mores of any individual group. But how can psychoanalysis know this?

In the 1950s and 60s in particular, it came to be understood through psychoanalytic research into aesthetics that the abstract creative process was firmly and squarely built on the earliest sequences of childhood development in the first few weeks and months of life. As Picasso understood, this is why children’s art in its deceptively simplistic distortion is so vital and authentic, because it is so much closer to this original template of the creative process and source of creative energy. In the final analysis, this is also why the tribal artefact is authentic, vivid and expressive. The adult, in effect, when engaged in creativity on its most fundamental level, inevitably must encounter these earliest developmental building blocks. But what do the stages that the infant cannot avoid passing through have to do with the creative process and what does this have to do with ritual and ultimately the transfiguration of human representation whether in tribal sculpture or in Picasso’s deeply influenced and distorted figuration?

The psychoanalytic recognition that the creative process in its essential characteristics is identical to the earliest human developmental sequences was a critical breakthrough, for it came to explain why art has a biologically adaptive role in human evolution and why it can be healing, cathartic and transformative and so why it became so pivotal to an isolated social group, who on the face of it ought to be spending its time on more productive and essential activities. These factors are key issues in Picasso’s creative process – bearing in mind the key factor that he regarded the watershed Demoiselles d’Avignon as his first ‘exorcism picture’.

The earliest human developmental sequences involve of course the infant’s inter-reaction with its mother. As psychoanalytic research reveals, initially there is an intense period of quite savage and barbarous emotions during which the infant feels overwhelming anxiety when confronted with the all-powerful and all-controlling godlike entity which is the mother. The infant’s absolute reliance on this unknown being does provoke resentment and anger and ultimately a type of paranoia. Resentment and anger because through the eyes of the infant the nourishment and nurture it demands might not always be there despite its protestations. The hatred that is engendered towards the mother during such absences in turn evokes anxiety, feelings of persecution and guilt. Guilt for the hatred and anger felt towards the mother is accompanied by a persecutory fear of retaliation and retribution by the all-controlling maternal presence for these feelings.

Of course, the infant must come to terms with this violent stew of emotions simply to develop and to be capable later of forming meaningful and mutually respectful relationships with others. A subsequent developmental phase assists the infant in this by periodically generating illusory feelings of omnipotence. When the screams and demands for nurture and sustenance seem to magically produce a supply, the infant can come to momentarily believe in its omnipotent power to summon up every need. Even lethal screams can seem to conjure a magical nurturing lullaby. This illusion can be further reinforced by the natural instinct of the mother to mimic the infant’s movements and eye contact, so again creating the sensation that the infant is directing events.

Again, this is further compounded by what psychoanalysis has designated the ‘mirror stage’. Human beings are, of course, the only animals who can really objectively detect and understand their reflected image in a mirror. The young infant on first discovering its reflected image can come to believe that the entity in the mirror can be made to move however it feels fit to manipulate it adding yet more feeling of omnipotent control.

These omnipotent phases become of crucial importance when the infant must confront the third basic stage of development where the realisation begins to dawn that the mother is not purely and solely concerned with the infant’s world and indeed has her own independent, autonomous and selfish needs. In other words, when the true nature of reality has to be faced. Not surprisingly such a state of affairs dampens any omnipotent euphoria into depressive moods of loss and deprivation.

It was the psychoanalytic analysis of aesthetics that first revealed the intrinsic relationship between infantile development and the creative process, especially as it was laid bare in modern abstract art. It was shown that the essential relationship between the artist and the art object followed exactly the same processes encountered during early human development. For example, abstract expressionist painting on one fundamental level clearly depicts the omnipotent phase where the artist’s absolute control over the integration of all shapes and their arrangement. This actually had the potential to trigger a kind of reciprocal and reactive euphoria, which in the extreme can even induce a trance-like state.

So the creative process, not unsurprisingly, employs a template already provided by nature herself, a template which can provide the potential for transition and indeed an altered mindset – as the infant must develop to attain maturity. But what has this to do with Picasso and the profound influence exerted over his work by authentic African art? Well, I have already noted the fact that authentic and original tribal sculpture was defined as an art form intrinsically linked to ritual processes. Bear in mind that these rituals are phenomenon found in all cultures in all times throughout human evolution. They are absolutely universal and can be seen as being indispensible to a culture’s survival and wellbeing. What is of greatest significance here is that the generic ritual structure can be seen to have the same form as the creative process and the template of developmental sequences underpinning it.

The role of ritual and initiation rites, universal and cross-cultural phenomena, was basically to transport an initiate from one social condition to another. The initial sequence was usually one of deprivation, isolation, even barbaric conditions to induce disorientation and the ruthless undermining of any prior mindset or convention. In other words a paranoid phase of intense emotion parallel to the infant’s earliest experience, designed to instigate a type of mental breakdown to empty the mind of preconception and prepare it for a psychic transformation. In my own writing I have used the term ‘trance-formation’, for the role of ritual in its next phase, like that of infant development, was to invoke a state of omnipotent trance and flux in the mind to prepare for a new psychic imprint. Again, as in the infant’s development, the final phase involves a depressive recognition of the true nature of the new reality, whether this be more onerous responsibility or expectation of the group.

So the individual is transformed into another mental state to be psychologically prepared for another social level. The tribal sculpture linked to the particular ritual enshrines within its formal structure and style the emotional level of transformation encountered. The abstracted figurative artefact can be described as a transfiguration, or perhaps more aptly, a ‘trance-figuration’. Richard Kuhns who wrote a psychoanalytic theory of art on developmental principles defined culture as a tradition of interrelated art objects ‘whose functions and meanings depend on one another as well as their individual structures’. He says that they ‘share and induce affective force that finds deeply sympathetic responses in the audience trained in the tradition. Coordinate with the affective force is the formal structure of each object that can be learned, acquired, and passed on from generation to generation’. This formal structure he defines as style.

The ritual object, therefore, encodes within its style the emotional force of the procedure which is locked in for future generations. I also mentioned in respect of children’s art that it was more vivid and genuine simply by being in close proximity with the original source creative process. I indicated that this can also be said to be true of ritual. The anthropologist R.A.Rappaport says:

‘In light of the importance that psychiatric theory generally puts on learning taking place in the early years of life, it is of interest that rites of passage typically reduce the novice to a state of pseudo-infancy, or even to a pseudo-embryonic condition. The stages in which ritual learning is most concentrated, the second and third, are ones in which a variety of techniques are used to strip the subject of his everyday knowledge and to divest him of his previous identity. Between ritual death and ritual rebirth the novice may be held naked, nameless, silent. It may be suggested that whatever novices learn in this reduced or regressed condition they learn with a depth and grasp approaching that with which they learn fundamentals in their earliest years. This grasp is strengthened, this depth made yet more profound, by becoming the focus of the ritually induced neurophysiological processes…That which is learned in ritual may thus override, displace or radically transform understandings, habits, and even elements of personality and character laid down in early childhood’.

The figurative sculpture has its style and form distorted by the emotional force generated in the creative nucleus of the ritual and incorporates within its design levels of social cohesion, integration, anxiety and fear and develops new styles and symbolism to represent it. Picasso, I believe, instinctively empathised with this critical social function of art in which the artist has a shamanic role and tried to win it back for Western art. For the ritual in all its essentials is the abstract creative process laid bare and because its associated art object is dislocated from the process, the creative operation is all the more clear to see. Picasso harnesses the force he innately understood and similarly laid bare the creative process in his analysis through Cubism. Some have recently argued that Picasso’s cubist paintings induce feelings of vertigo and they certainly reconstitute the trance sequence at the heart of infant development and ritual. Just As ritual generates new symbols and art forms, so does Picasso’s cubist creative process precipitate trance-figured forms, distorted by the force of emotion and tension.


Stephen Newton Ph.D.  2012