Picasso and Derrida:
Deconstruction and Negative Theology
by Samantha Curley
“Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”
“Those who set out to explain a picture usually go wrong.”
“No, painting was not invented to decorate houses. It is an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy.”
“You are always misunderstood.”
A guy is riding in the first-class cabin of a train in Spain and to his delight, he notices that he’s sitting next to Pablo Picasso. Gathering up his courage, he turns to the master and says, “Señor Picasso, you are a great artist, but why is all your art, all modern art, so screwed up? Why don’t you paint reality instead of these distortions?” Picasso hesitates for a moment and asks, “So what do you think reality looks like?” The man grabs his wallet and pulls out a picture of his wife. “Here, like this. It’s my wife.” Picasso takes the photograph, looks at it, and grins. “Really? She’s very small. And flat, too.”
Prodigy. Genius. Seducer. Womanizer. The life and work of Pablo Picasso remain unparalleled in both quantity and quality in the canon of great art. His resume includes countless paintings, sculptures, etchings, ceramics, posters, and even children’s book illustrations. He dabbled in various artistic forms across both old and new historical and stylistic spectrums. He created art that fundamentally changed the way the world would see. He was a public figure who was consistently involved with more than one woman. And he managed to make money while doing it all.
More so than most great artists whose work reflects the cultural or religious context of their day (and/or perhaps because we know more about Picasso’s life than many other artists), Picasso translated his personal life to art. For example, his Blue Period – “the first and unmistakable trademark of his art” – began in 1901 with the piece, Evocation – The Burial of Casagemas. Carlos Casagemas was a dear friend of Picasso’s who had committed suicide because of an unrequited love. Picasso’s Blue Period was his response, the direct result, of his friend’s death. When he fell for his first romantic love, Fernande Olivier, Picasso moved away from the loneliness and sadness of his Blue Period to explore the beautiful side of life, and even of poverty. His Rose Period introduced a new set of stylistic devices and a distinct change in subject. In just these two phases of his painting career, it is apparent that Picasso’s work can be ‘read’ as quotations from his biography. How does Picasso’s work read not only his life, but a theology as well?
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon signals the next period of Picasso’s art. Cubism was a distinct and profound turning point for Picasso as a painter and the world as a whole. With the dawning of film and the rising popularity of the cinema, Picasso found a way to play with and capture movement in the traditionally static, two-dimensions of painting. Magician turned filmmaker Georges Méliès inspired Picasso with his constant rearranging of body parts and his unsettling ability to mediate between stasis and movement on screen. Competing with the burgeoning of a new artistic era, Picasso embedded the history of art into his paintings. He revised the structures of his painting according to the then modern principles of moving photography, animation, and the elusively seductive third dimension. Picasso heralded Cubism as art on cinematic terms.
Cubism was a revolution; a radical change in vision itself. It is painting that operates like film – you have to see it with motion or you won’t see it at all. It is also an artistic form that closely resembles deconstructive theology. In his artistic deconstruction of a subject, Picasso discovered that not only the process, but the subject itself could become his. Meaning was shattered, scattered, and left to him (or the audience) to put back together according to his (or their) ability to see. This became a tangible, perhaps even therapeutic outworking for Picasso as he hid a heavy weight and deep loneliness regarding his own life. Cubism provided him the space to dissect and reframe not only how he saw his own life, but also what his audience would see in his work.
To accomplish this new kind of seeing, Picasso confronted them with everything at once. To see one of his Cubist paintings is to rebuild what is there, while simultaneously trying to see what is missing. This is why the four African women in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon shocked the world. They represented more than a deformed gathering of monstrously depicted African whores that offended the imaginations and sensibilities of a particular artistic worldview. To the provocative, unsettling contrary, these women stood for a completely new way of seeing and creating meaning, in art and in life.
While often, “the avant-garde works of Picasso put viewers off, hinting that they are too stupid to understand why such art is important…,” Picasso had this to say about Cubism: “What matters is what you do. That is the most important thing. And what was particularly important about Cubism was what you wanted to do, your intention. And you cannot paint that”. Wanting to destroy “absolutely everything,” Picasso used Cubism to rebel against the myths of the world: beauty, femininity, relationships between objects, even something as seemingly straightforward as the shape of a bowl. With the boundaries of form deconstructed and the impossible inability to paint intention, it was left up to the audience to create, to rebuild, and to see the whole of whatever Picasso created in his work.
This left many feeling ignorant, frustrated, or unwilling to accept Picasso’s new art form. Usually it also meant they were unwilling or unable to do the hard work of really seeing. Regardless of those put off or intrigued by Picasso as a painter, Cubism initiated a distinct change in how the world saw and understood itself. It was a significant move for meaning making and creation in art and, as we shall soon discover, in theology as well.
In the mid 1920’s – verging on enough success that the public applauded whatever he painted, to a stifling extent, and now married to a Polish dancer, Olga Koklova – Picasso found himself again in crisis. Feeling no support from his wife, and the loss of individuality that came from his seemingly blind, ignorant, and lazy audiences, this marked a new era of Picasso’s life and art; a time when the theology of his art began to take an interesting turn. We’ve already seen that what Picasso spent his time doing, who he loved, and how he was feeling about the people in his life was captured by each brushstroke. As Francois says in Surviving Picasso, “his paintings were the surest expressions of his emotions.” Picasso himself said it this way:
“It is my misfortune – and probably my delight – to use things as my passions tell me. What a miserable fate for a painter who adores blondes to have to stop himself putting them into a picture because they don’t go with the basket of fruit! How awful…I put all the things I like into my pictures. The things – so much the worse for them; they just have to put up with it.”
It is no surprise, then, that the many women who filled his life made it into his paintings, in one way or another. Unsatisfied in his marriage to Olga, Picasso met and seduced a young, naive blonde woman named Marie-Therese Walter. In 1931, he began a series of paintings of her, the first of which is called Seated Woman in a Red Armchair or The Red Armchair. This was not his first (or last) time painting women or red armchairs. In fact, the scene itself seemed to fascinate him as he returned to it throughout his life in well over ten paintings done in varying different styles. Not too long after meeting Marie-Therese, the young and beautiful blonde mother of his first daughter, Maya, Picasso met a darker woman named Dora Maar. On canvas Marie-Therese was light, blonde, and happy and Dora was her dark, elusive, and disturbed counterpart.
Still married to Olga while engaging in affairs with both Marie-Therese and Dora, Picasso invented a new motif for his paintings – a face revealing both a frontal and a profile view. While he had been including profiles and frontal views of his subjects for many years, Picasso was “now introducing a far more progressive variation – at the same time containing both eyes, thus anticipating the frontal view and reversing, as it were, the old principle from his cubist days.” As we saw with the dawning of cubism on the heels of cinema, Picasso’s depth, brilliance, and craft was in his ability to anticipate what was coming and capture it on canvas. He was at it again.
Playing with multiple perspectives and profiles became a form – a theme – Picasso returned to again and again over the next few years, self-admittedly the worst of his life. Marie-Therese was pregnant and for financial reasons Picasso was unable (or unwilling) to divorce Olga. Once a beautiful dancer, Olga became an ugly monster on Picasso’s canvas. He unleashed a new arsenal of artistic weapons in the form of bulls and his double face captured the joy and pain of this part of his life. Picasso’s simultaneous rendering of frontal and profile views captures the tension of orderliness, disrepair, and multiple viewing angles; all within only two dimensions. It’s as if Picasso is trying to capture the totality of his life in flat image. And he returns to that image over and over again, with new style, new armchairs, and new women. Art theory posits that “when an artist has any thought or feeling that shows up in a work, it is usually important to know about that to understand the work better.”
To better understand this theme, we must turn to theology.
As we put Picasso’s armchair paintings alongside his personal life and artistic movements, what emerges is an astonishing lens into the purpose, meaning, and need for a negative, deconstructed theology. Moving between Cubism, Surrealism, and abstraction, experimenting with perspective in two dimensions, capturing movement in stasis, Picasso used his canvas to furiously deconstruct life as he was experiencing it. Just as “the Scriptures do not reduce God to a single perspective,” neither does Picasso allow room for one perspective or a single, fixed meaning in his art. This is a striking analogy for the deconstruction theology popularized by Jacques Derrida. In The Red Armchair, Picasso paints what it means to be human; to live as flat images inside an infinite story that we cannot get outside of and one we cannot reduce to a single meaning. To see a Picasso is to train our eyes to see the world and our own humanness as we exist inside of it, searching and waiting and hoping for final fulfillment. This is good theology.
Picasso’s abstraction in Cubism and Surrealism was not nothing. This is where his art bears resemblance to a nonnegative, negative theology – a nothing that is not something or a something that is not nothing. He himself said: “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all traces of reality. There’s no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark.” Picasso would agree, I think, with Mark Taylor as he writes, “Art, like God, can become so abstract that it loses all relevance for the world it is supposed to transform.” Picasso’s work and negative theology are ways of seeing in the absence of seeing, of finding God in the absence of God. In absence there is always something because you cannot remove the mark of what once was. In this way, negative theology and cubist art is not simply deconstructive, it is actively transforming how we see what is readily present now by what has been fragmented, destroyed, or reduced.
But Picasso does not merely destroy or deconstruct. James Elkins affirms Picasso’s own claim as he points out that lovely art – art that flows and invites awe and wonder – cannot be merely deconstructed or negative. There is doubt, yes. But doubt is necessary in a world in which we do not know what is not known. Picasso’s response, and the response of our theology, must be an apophatic or negative one; a “paring away the positive attributes and their opposites until nothing remains except an unknowable negative term.”
This is the dance going on between Picasso’s art and any hint of theology we find in it or from it. Theology becomes art and Picasso’s art becomes theology. Drawing on the resources of deconstruction, Picasso’s art and negative theology develop a nonnegative, negative reality that seeks to think what has previously been left unthought. Picasso’s art informs our theology to consider not what is experienced, but how the experience happens. In their respective fields of study, Taylor and Freeland agree that both good theology and good art are about the how, not the what. It is not the red armchair or a dual-facing woman that captures and constructs reality, it is how those subjects inform and enter, deconstruct and reconstruct, Picasso’s life as it is unfolding. Or how a deconstructed relationship or reading informs a theology as it is in process of being lived. As Jacques Derrida describes deconstruction, “What is really going on in things, what is really happening, is always to come.” What is or what it means are futile questions to posit to art, life, or theology. Awareness of this allows Picasso to return to the same images time and time again with originality, uniqueness, and wonder because meaning is about the ongoing work of recreating and living the deconstructed experience of how.
Picasso’s work, even his woman and her red armchair work, is not repetitive or bored. It is the experience of movement in stasis; the experience of being creatures and creators. We see in one direction, yet also in two. We know even as we are fully known. None of these experiences can be separated or reduced and the Cubist, Surrealist art of Picasso shatters and deconstructs any contrary notions on which we are still tempted to cling. Through this active deconstruction Picasso captures reality the more he seems to reduce or destroy it. If we take this posture into how we understand God and the human experience we will find ourselves living into the lives of more human humans. As Picasso said: “Modern art [like modern theology] must be killed. This means that one also has to kill oneself, if one is to continue accomplishing things.”
Despite his talent, fame, and the multiple mistresses who accompanied him in overlapping seasons throughout most of his life, Picasso experienced his life to be a very public, yet desperately lonely existence. After Dora came Francois. After Francois came Jacqueline. He maintained relationships with the child from his marriage to Olga and with the family he made with Marie-Therese. Picasso died in 1973 at the age of 92. Until his death, he continued to paint the women in his life with two profiled perspectives, perhaps revealing the discontentment and loneliness he discovered in the mystery of life; a loneliness that never went away. If it was not his friends suicide, it was a maddening wife, or the threat of war. “You can really only ever work against something,” he said, “even against oneself…” Through his art, Picasso teaches us and informs our theology to say that death is necessary to create. We must first work against something in order to work for something. Deconstruction is necessary to find the meaning that has no meaning. And destruction is necessary for transformation of what is into what will be.
If nothing else, Picasso’s art must teach us this about the “ongoing labor of reading” our theology while we practice the ongoing labor of seeing his art. We return “again and again to the text” and to the canvas. This theory becomes illuminated by putting Derrida in conversation with Picasso. Derrida, “sees deconstruction as a way to keep the event of tradition going, to keep it on the move, so that it can be continually translated into new events, continually exposed to a certain revolution in a self-perpetuating auto-revolution.” Along a strikingly similar vain, Picasso says: “To me, there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot always live in the present it must not be considered at all…Art does not evolve by itself, the ideas of people change and with them their mode of expression.” Theology and art as dictated and practiced by Derrida and Picasso are both on the move – growing, expanding, and changing as we make new discoveries about life, ourselves, and God. While it may be tempting to dismiss Picasso’s Cubism and Derrida’s deconstruction as merely destructive, in practice and experience they both “affirm what is to come.” By deferring any notion of final meaning, both think, see, and create eschatologically. Good theology and good art will always inspire a revolution in how we see and in how we experience life as creatures and creators.
- Woman Sitting in an Armchair (1920)
- Woman Sitting in an Armchair (1932)
- Large Nude in Red Armchair (1929)
- Female Nude Sitting in Red Armchair (1932)
- The Red Armchair (1931)
 Ingo F. Walther, Pablo Picasso (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2001), 16.
 Walther, 15, 18.
 Ibid., 22.
 Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies, directed by Arne Glimcher, Cubists, 2008.
 Walther, 33-37.
 Cynthia Freeland, Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 121.
 Walther, 33.
 Surviving Picasso, directed by James Ivory, Merchant Ivory Productions, 1996.
 Walther, 58.
 Pablo Picasso, The Red Armchair, 1931, Art Institute of Chicago.
 Walther, 58.
 Ibid., 60.
 Freeland, 98.
 William Stacy Johnson, “Reading the Scriptures Faithfully in a Postmodern Age,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, edited by Ellen F. Davies and Richard B. Hayes, 109-124, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 117.
 Walther, 60.
 Mark C. Taylor, About Religion: Economies of Faith in Virtual Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 183.
 James Elkins, On the Strange Place of Religion in Comtemporary Art (New York: Routledge, 2004) 111.
 Ibid., 107.
 Taylor, 107.
 Ibid, 140.
 John D. Caputo, ed., Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997) 31.
 Walther, 68.
 Ibid., 80.
 Johnson, 119-120.
 Caputo, 37.
 Walther, 24.
 Caputo, 41.
 Johnson, 118 and Caputo chapter 6.