BY Charles Palermo

University of California Press. 251 pages. £41.95. ISBN 978-0-520-28246-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

ON February 17th, 1901, a young Spanish poet and artist, Carles Casagemas, organised a dinner party at a café on the boulevard de Clichy in Montmartre. Among the guests was a model, Germaine Pichot. Casagemas had become infatuated with her, but she had not reciprocated. At some point during the dinner, Casagemas stood up, handed several letters to Germaine, then took out a pistol and fired at her. Luckily, she had noticed that one of the letters was addressed to the Chief of Police, and she seems to have intuited that something was about to happen and ducked under the table. Casagemas, perhaps assuming that the bullet had hit her, turned the pistol on himself. Shot in the head, he was taken to a hospital but died shortly after.

Casagemas had been a close friend of Picasso and had shared a studio with him for a time. When the café incident occurred Picasso was still in Spain, where the pair had gone for Christmas, but only Casagemas had returned to Paris following the festive season. When Picasso finally got back to the French capital he had what William H. Robinson, in Picasso and the Mysteries of Life: La Vie, referred to as a “sexual liaison” with Germaine, and he also started to produce a series of paintings which related to Casagemas’s death. This was near the start of what is usually referred to as Picasso’s “blue period.” Picasso, in fact, was later quoted as saying that “It was thinking about Casagemas that got me started painting in blue.”  Some earlier Picasso sketches, when Casagemas had still been alive, had been slightly satirical, but the new work was much more sombre. Robinson says that “Haunted by memories of his dead friend, perhaps compounded by guilt over allowing him to return to Paris alone, Picasso painted a series of posthumous images in which the mocking humour of his earlier portraits was replaced by a compassionate, tragic tone.” Casagemas had mental problems, and was an alcoholic who also used drugs. Picasso’s “guilt” probably arose from his awareness that Casagemas was likely to get into trouble if left on his own in Paris.

It’s interesting to look at some of the paintings that Picasso produced. One shows Casagemas with the bullet hole clearly evident on his head. Another, Evocation: The Burial of Casagemas, is more allegorical and has Casagemas in what can be interpreted as a religious setting, with dark-clothed mourners gathered by the shrouded corpse and with a tomb nearby. Some commentators have interpreted the scene as a reference to mourners contemplating Christ’s corpse. But elsewhere in the painting, two naked women are embracing and some other women are shown with their bare buttocks facing the viewer. Picasso, it seems, wanted to debunk religious interpretations of the picture, and instead draw attention to his ideas about the situation of the artist in the modern world. Robinson points to two figures in the painting which show a naked woman kissing the dead Casgemas as his body rises into heaven, and adds: “Here the suffering artist finally triumphs over the world’s sadness and pain.”

Probably the most well-known painting associated with Casagemas is Picasso’s La Vie, which shows a near-naked man being embraced by a naked woman. The man is clearly Casagemas, and the woman has been identified as Germaine Pichot. There are some other figures in the painting, most prominently a barefoot woman holding a baby. Charles Palermo says that, “Given the presence of Casagemas and of a baby, the picture seems inescapably to oppose the two figure groups as embodiments of life and death, or some similar and similarly allegorical pair of meanings.” But developing his analysis further, Palermo refers to being unsure about the overall meaning of the painting. Picasso clearly meant to be ambiguous.

Palermo suggests that Picasso may have been “practising a strategy of evasion” so as to “protect himself and his work from subjection to literature and literary notions of meaning.” Do we need to know about Picasso’s “historical situation,” or who Casagemas was, to full understand the picture? Palermo says that he has to admit that “Casagemas the historical person means nothing to me,” and seems to suggest that if we do need to know about Casagemas “we may find ourselves narrowly limited in our effort to respond to the picture – to bring to it or to allow it to compel from us the quality of feeling appropriate to it.” Perhaps, but my own feelings are that I do want to know about Casagemas and what happened in Paris in 1901. It adds to my enjoyment, and understanding, of the picture to have that information available to me. This may, of course, may not impress those who like to consider works of art as standing outside their immediate contexts, and want to talk in terms of pure aesthetics. And my use of the word “enjoyment” may likewise be out of step in the eyes of those who like to see significance in what they view as important art. I occasionally have the impression that enjoyment is not a priority for many critics and/or academics.  Some of the  “significance” they deem of more importance may take on a religious aspect, in their eyes.

It is the religious aspect that appears to be behind Palermo’s assertion that “The painter claims the authority of one with something compelling to reveal who is in a position to reveal it.” It sounds dogmatic, and possibly points to art taking over from religion in some ways? There have always been religious artists in the sense of them portraying scenes from the Bible and other religious tracts, but modern artists laid claim to a broader definition of what art is for. And the development of modernism did bring a reaction from the church. As Palermo says, “All the verities involved by religion, authority, style, are thrown into question, and the writer or artist is no longer able to estimate the response of his audience to the symbols and references with which he works.” It’s easy to see why the church would suspect modernism of encouraging the doubts and ambiguities inherent in its development. The challenge to the authority of the church was implicit in such a situation. 

 According to Palermo it was far from coincidental that as Picasso was “devising his enigmatic allegories and plays on traditional iconography, Christianity was simultaneously at a critical stage in its own engagement with modernism.” The criticism of Christianity that took place in the 19th Century “struck at the heart of its authority and quite possibly put all other authority at stake along with its own.” I suppose this can be taken to suggest that, if one was free to believe whatever one wanted to, then the artist was free to do whatever he wanted to on canvas. Was modernist art an attempt to found a new authority? Art as a kind of religion? It has been suggested that, in our own time, galleries are the new cathedrals. And it may not be far-fetched to see the response to the death of a pop super-star like David Bowie as having some quasi-religious aspects as the Archbishop of Canterbury joined in the tributes to him, people held all-night vigils in his memory, crowds gathered at places associated with his activities, radio reports spoke of “pilgrimages,” and friends and others talked with almost-mystical appreciation of him as man and artist. They didn’t exactly suggest that he could walk on water, or cure the ailing, but some of the comments were not far from that sort of belief.

Discussing Apollinaire, poet and art critic, Palermo says that “a poet, like a prophet or a pope, lays claim to authority.” (Think of that opening line in Allen Ginsberg’s “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear:” “Poet is Priest”). I’m rather put in mind at this point of something that I read a little while ago where it was suggested that, as in the religious art of earlier times where it was often necessary for a priest to interpret the symbols for the benefit of the uninitiated, with modern art it became necessary for the critic (now more often than not also an academic) to decipher what’s on the canvas for the rest of us. We read and believe what we are told about what is, the critics say, great or significant art. And we duly attend the temple (gallery) to pay homage to it. Being someone who doubts all dogma, whether applied to religion or art, I’ve always found it hard to accept the idea that a poet is a prophet or a priest. And, in any case, I’m wary of both.

Palermo, at one point, refers to a “commonplace view of the so-called Blue Period as a collection of pictures of sad, alienated, marginal figures.” In both Barcelona and Paris he was firmly in a bohemian environment, and it’s probably true to say that it does often attract the alienated and the marginal. Casagemas, despite coming from a privileged background, could be said to fit into both groups. His suicide, and the way of carrying it out, certainly put him into special category, though he wasn’t the only artist to end his own life. But what of other Picasso paintings from the the early-1900s? I remember the exhibition, Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901, at the Courtauld Gallery, London, in 2013, and several of the paintings, such as Portrait of Bibi-la-Puree, being specifically bohemian in context. And around the same time I saw an exhibition at the Picasso Museum in Malaga which similarly showed him responding to his surroundings.  Like any artist, Picasso would have been influenced by what was in front of his eyes.

It’s intriguing, too, that one of Picasso’s friends, the artist and writer, Santiago Rusinol, was interested in the idea of the “wanderer,” and his play, “The Happiness That Passes,” concerns a troupe of travelling players and the effect they have on some of the citizens of a small town. Palermo draws parallels between the kind of wanderers Rusinol referred to and “the catalogue of figures Picasso painted in the early years of the twentieth-century: bohemians, clowns, musicians, those without a trade, and those without luck.” It’s easy to see Picasso’s affinities with anarchism at play here in his obsession with the marginal and the misfits.

I must admit to a liking for Palermo’s book when it concerns itself with such themes as this, rather than when he investigates 19th Century Catholic theology or goes into theoretical investigations of the religious relationship between modernism and authority. The latter has relevance, bearing in mind Picasso’s upbringing and background and his rebellion against religion. A similar situation applies to Apollinaire, also raised as a Catholic but later turning against it. But I sometimes had the feeling that there were two books battling it out in Modernism and Authority. Palermo is often astute when he analyses Picasso’s paintings or Apollinaire’s poetry and stories. He’s informative, despite at times giving the impression that he doesn’t want to be in case it shows him as more interested in the social side of Picasso’s life and work than he believes appropriate in the company he keeps. Perhaps it’s my own prejudices coming out that incline me to think this, because I do like to know about where and why and how painters and poets and others lived and worked.

Charles Palermo has written a provocative book in many ways. It does raise questions about the nature of art and the place of artists in the wider society. My thoughts about whether or not it does have two main strands which are not always easy to intertwine are, as I’ve indicated, shaped by my tastes and interests. Others will no doubt disagree. The book is appropriately illustrated, has extensive notes, and a useful bibliography.