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September 12, 2003

Religion, Mud Wrestling and Art


If the French in the first decade of the 20th century could create Modern Art that accurately mirrored their social anxieties and burning issues, why has most Modern and contemporary American art has turned out to be so emotionally distant, muffled and, well, wise-ass? I can only suspect it’s because Americans naively believed the academic line that Modern Art was a self-contained, largely formal exercise in which the only subject matter was an ever-purer understanding of Modernity Itself (generally conceived of as an extended acid bath of Marxist alienation). Alternatively, if they couldn't handle such austerity, they embraced the Duchampian notion that what made a something “art” was the privileged (and presumably superior) consciousness the artist brought to contemplating it.

To illustrate how damaging both these theories of art have been to American art, I’d like to highlight just how differently one artist responded to all manner of real-world human preoccupations in Modern Art’s country of origin. To give you a sense of the social context this artist was working with, I’m going to be sketching out a little history of religion in the Third Republic. Then I’ll show how in 1907 several issues that were either directly religious or bound up with religion were successfully incorporated into an iconic modern painting, Picasso’s “Demoiselles D’Avignon.”

P. Picasso, Les Demoiselles D'Avignon, 1907

The Third Republic was born in 1871 as the result of the collapse of the authoritarian Second Empire of Napoleon III. After a decade or so of political infighting, the Third Republic came to be dominated by France’s rising “new class,” the urban bourgeoisie. However, powerful groups—the Catholic Church, the large rural landowners and the army, among others—were never reconciled to the largely secular, religiously pluralistic and democratic views of the urban bourgeois republicans. Bourgeois republican politicians reciprocated this hostility. They retaliated by attacking what they felt was the most vulnerable symbol of the unreconstructed right—the Catholic Church.

These bourgeois republicans figured they’d go after two birds with one stone. The first bird was a religious “gender gap”: the Catholic Church in the latter 19th century was far more popular among the women of France than among the men. The second bird they aimed at was the Catholic Church’s almost complete control of education in France. In 1880 the bourgeois republicans passed a law that established a system of secular public secondary education for girls. In 1882 they passed a law making elementary education free, compulsory and notably lacking in religious instruction. In 1886 republicans passed a law that prohibited Catholic priests or nuns from teaching in the public schools. Combined with the 1884 passage of a law permitting divorce—which, after being legalized during the Revolution, had been banned again under ecclesiastical pressure since the restoration of the Monarchy in 1816—the republicans were determined to pry the fingers of the Church away from their children and, especially, their women.

These reforms however, had unintended consequences. Women didn’t merely use their secondary and, eventually, university educations to “take an intelligent interest in the intellectual preoccupations of their husbands” (as the original legislation suggested), they began invading the professions and took up an increasingly large role in the business world. David Cottington, in his book “Cubism in the Shadow of War” points out:

These developments placed what was termed ‘the woman question’ on the political agenda in the 1890s. The response, by men of all classes and political persuasions, was primarily to reiterate…a family-centered vision of gender relations…[that] led both to proposals for fiscal reform to reward motherhood and sharper condemnation of the femme nouvelle who sought other kinds of fulfillment.

The ‘woman question’ was even more stressful for French men because French women continued to sharply limit their fertility. This limitation was so extreme that the French population was barely growing (France’s population increased a mere 8% in the 40 years after 1871.) This tiny rate of increase had significant, and negative, military implications given the much higher rate of population growth in Germany. The mismatch in population growth rates became increasingly ominious as Franco-German military tensions rose after the turn of the century. A number of “pro-family” policies were adopted in response to ‘the woman question.’ These included the first restrictions on prostitution in French history. Passed in the first years of the new century these measures were intended to stem the spread of venereal disease, especially syphilis (at this time untreatable), and to limit prostitution’s other negative impacts on family life.

Another unintended consequence of the Republican campaign was the Catholic religious revival it provoked among the intelligentsia. As Peter Gay notes in his study, “Schnitzler’s Century: The Making of Middle Class Culture 1815-1914”:

From the 1880s, a notable number of French novelists and poets, by their very vocation only too willing to share their religious pilgrimage with the public, converted, or intensified their commitment, to Catholicism…The religious history of these French writers [Paul Bourget, Paul Claudel, Leon Bloy, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Charles Peguy, etc.] was not an isolated phenomenon. It was used by publicists of a conservative, royalist, often anti-Semitic cast of mind.

This same tendency was observable in the visual arts as well, where it infuriated secular-minded progressive artists. As Philip Nord recounts in his book “Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century”:

Pissarro, as a committed anarchist, was certainly a man of powerful antipathies. He detested artworld poseurs like Paul Gauguin and Maurice Denis, “catholico-primitive ‘symbolos’” who conjured imaginary worlds of mystical transcendence…Pissarro had a diagnosis for the sorry state of contemporary France, and he pointed the finger at decadent art, top-hatted bourgeois, and the intrigues of the Catholic clergy. Monet and Cassatt were inclined to agree with him on the latter point.

One of those visual artists returning to the bosom of the Catholic Church was a painter who would be of special significance for Picasso—Cezanne. The older master had essentially abandoned Paris for his childhood home in Provence.

P. Cezanne, View of Mont Sainte-Victoire from Les Vauves, 1904-6

There, as his art became more abstract and radical, the once deeply secular Cezanne found increasing spiritual nourishment in religion. Philip Nord explains:

[Cezanne] relied for spiritual guidance, he told Vollard, on his sister who took her lead from a Jesuit confessor who in turn took his from Rome. Under such influences, Cezanne’s reading habits began to change. He took to buying La Croix, soon to distinguish itself at the time of the Dreyfus Affair for the virulence of its anti-Semitism. Cezanne’s circle of acquaintances began to change as well. He found the hard-headed atheist [republican politician and close friend of Monet] Clemenceau too difficult to take. As he explained…”It’s just that I’m too weak!…And Clemenceau couldn’t protect me!…I can only find protection in the Church!”

Such changes in both Cezanne’s religious life and in his (increasingly abstract) art were not coincidental. Cezanne, in fact, explicitly declared the link between his religious views and his aesthetic practice:

Nature, Cezanne explained to fellow painter Emile Bernard, was God’s creation, a “spectacle laid out before our eyes by the Pater Ominipotens Aeterne Deus.” The divine resided in the grand sweep of a landscape, in its expanse and surface….[The artist] “had to look on the world as a catechism,” to submit to it “without discussion,” and through such contact, direct and naďve, he might feel stirring within himself a “personal truth.” It was that moment, “half-human and half-divine,” when nature seen and nature felt co-mingled, that the painter set out to translate into a work of art.
P. Cezanne, Nudes In Landscape, 1900-5

In the 1890s, as Cezanne’s art became more and more abstract, the French Right coalesced around a platform of blood, soil and old-time-religion. Its brand of extreme nationalism, emphasizing the historical uniqueness of Catholic France, provided comfort to tradition-minded souls troubled by anticlericalism, industrialism, feminism and socialism. When it was discovered in 1894 that French secret military documents had been handed over to German military officials, the Right—including the Catholic revivalists—went through the roof. The investigation concentrated on a Jewish French Army officer, Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus was convicted and sent to Devil's Island, sending France’s anti-Semites into a frenzy of excitement. Subsequent information suggesting Dreyfus’ innocence and the guilt of another party was suppressed. When famous French novelist Emile Zola published the letter J'accuse to point out the miscarriage of justice, Zola found himself the target of an anti-Semitic mob. However, over the next five years the suppressed information gradually came out and anti-republican army officers were forced to resign. In 1899, Alfred Dreyfus received a pardon.

Feeling ambushed by the anti-republican elements in the Army, the republicans—long noted for their religious toleration of, and support from, Protestants and Jews—went over on the attack. Anti-clericals, radical (i.e., free market) republicans, and socialists formed a ‘government of republican defense’ known as the Bloc des Gauches. As David Cottington explains, the Bloc des Gauches administrations of the next six years had two overriding goals:

…anti-clericalism, or a commitment to the separation of church and state, which in private meant a weakening of the political power and social authority of the church and the dissolution of those religious order that had been most openly anti-dreyfusard; and republicanism, which entailed the persecution (or at least removal from positions of influence in the army and elsewhere) of those supporters of the political right who had sought to undermine the republic by means of the [Dreyfus] Affair.

This essentially religious battle came to a head in 1905 when the republicans passed a law separating the Catholic church from the French state. Since the days of Napoleon the French government had financially underwritten the church. Now that support—budgeted that year at 47 million francs(!)—was abruptly cut off. Moreover, France’s departments and its cities were forbidden to make any appropriation for “public worship.” This shocking development (after all, France had been a piously—and officially—Catholic country for over 1,000 years) only increased the steady stream of intellectuals and students converting or returning to the Catholic Church.

That same year, the Morocco Crisis further inflamed the religious and nationalist passions of the Right. Worried that France’s colonial initiatives in Africa would pre-empt those of Germany, the Kaiser tried to block them in Morocco and throughout the continent. Although he failed, the Crisis alerted the French population to the very real possibility of war with Germany.

To sum up, let’s review the burning social and artistic issues my little history of religion in the Third Republic has touched on:

1) The woman question, prostitution and venereal disease

2) Anti-clericalism and the severing of church and state

3) The Catholic cultural/religious revival generally and the specific example of Cezanne, who evolved a painting style that provided a formal treatment suitable for his spiritualized view of nature

4) Africa as a symbolic focus of French national ambition and military anxiety

Remember these issues as we shift focus and consider the artistic evolution of young Pablo Picasso in the middle years of the first decade of the 20th century. He had settled permanently in Paris (after visiting twice) only in 1904. A not-yet-established young man, Picasso was ferociously ambitious, terrified of ending up an artistic nonentity like his father. Although he managed to sell work in the Art Nouveau (i.e., Late Post-Impressionist) style he brought with him from Barcelona, he began to quickly wise up as he checked out the action in the Big City.

In Paris, Picasso found Matisse and the Fauves ruling the tiny kingdom of avant-garde art. However, he quickly noted that the even more radical painting of Cezanne threatened the Fauves’ status as the wildest of the wild men. This challenge was punctuated by Cezanne’s death in the fall of that same year paired with a posthumous exhibition that solidified Cezanne’s public reputation. Frantic to knock off the Fauves and take their place in the art-world hierarchy, Picasso immediately designated himself as the artistic heir of Cezanne. He knew he needed a significant effort to justify this stance, and he exerted all his powers for many months to produce a ‘masterpiece.’

Throughout the spring of 1907 he worked on a “Great Machine” based on the attraction and danger of having sex with prostitutes. The recent republican regulations on prostitution reinforced Picasso’s own persistent fears that his use of prostitutes either had infected him with syphilis or might yet do so, and he knew that millions of French men shared his anxieties.

P. Picasso, Les Demoiselles with Three Slices of Melon, 1907

Picasso’s studies (more exist than for any other artwork of comparable significance in history) confirm that the picture began as a sort of joke-y morality play about prostitution. They show a student, clutching either a book or a skull, enters a brothel in search of sex and finding a sailor surrounded by prostitutes. The skull carried by the student marks the picture as a Vanitas, a religious painting genre that illustrated the transitory nature of the flesh and urged the sinful to contemplate the ultimate realities of religion. However, as the picture evolved, Picasso realized he had to go beyond such a backward looking cultural strategy. To engage the religious questions he sensed were the subject matter of his picture, he lost the student and the sailor and focused on the heart of the matter, the prostitutes.

Picasso was profoundly anti-clerical in his outlook, but he was also profoundly, one might even say religiously, superstitious. He wholeheartedly approved of the French government’s efforts to de-legitimize the Catholic Church, but he realized that the stripping away of the Church’s “political” and “institutional” role had left a religious vacuum in society that needed to be filled. No religion, and certainly not the Catholic church, functioned strictly on an elevated, rational, theological level; Picasso knew from his provincial Spanish Catholic upbringing that at a lower level, a far less rational and mystical or magical element was also present—and at times of social unease, dominant.

Ceremonial Mask from the Ivory Coast, 19th century; F. Ortiz (attributed to), La Virgen de la Estrella, 18th century

He set out to provide what was lacking in contemporary French life. Using stylistic elements stolen from Cezanne and from African sculpture (that is, the elements that were explicitly intended to signal religious weight) he created images of women so powerful that they were simultaneously both emotionally threatening and magical.


Picasso’s accomplishment was to create modern religious icons that could be taken seriously in the world of avant-garde Paris and yet function as the equivalents of the sacred carved wooden figures, the imagen, carried in backwater Spanish Catholic festivals to ward off evil.

PIcassoPDemoisellesHead2.jpg PicassoPDemoisellesHead3.jpg

Using “advanced” and exotic imagery, he built his very own protective magical intercessors, able to keep the dangerous “dark side” under control. The dark side covered a lot of ground in contemporary France. Syphilis, reproductive rejection, war with a much stronger Germany, ending up an artistic failure like his father—those were just some of the anxieties his female icons could embody and thus neutralize for him and his patrons. He referred (many years later) to this as his first “exorcism picture” and he was right to do so.

Picasso used novel formal means to grapple with some of the root belief systems of his Parisian art audience—as well as his own beliefs. And I do mean grapple. He didn’t put scare quotes around them, or treat them ironically, or use them to show how much smarter he was than religious Frenchmen (or religious Africans); he jumped down in the emotional and spiritual muck, so to speak, and mud wrestled with their beliefs.

It appears the thinness of our contemporary art may well be a result of the unwillingness of contemporary artists to do some serious cultural/political/religious mud wrestling. Of course, to do that they’ll have to stop playing to the critical and academic galleries and get themselves dirty. I hope they go for it.



P.S. I am indebted in this dicussion to Natasha Stiller and her book, “A Sum of Destructions: Picasso’s Cultures & the Creation of Cubism.”

posted by Friedrich at September 12, 2003


Can I take you to be saying that Picassso created avant-garde art that had actual religious power? That might be what's so enjoyable about a lot of first-generation modernist art -- it had the juju. And then it slipped away. So you're suggesting that present-day modernist-esque artists have lost (many times over) their connection with the juju? And, having no other purpose, modernist art perforce becomes whimsical, cynical, lightweight, wiseass, etc? Just a lot of nothing turning roccoco piroueettes in front of the mirror? Come to think of it, that's how a lot of contempo poetry strikes me.

What are your druthers? Would you like to see the fine arts connect back up with some religious impulse or urge? And how can you see that happening? Do you see evidence of it happening in the work of any contempo modernists?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 13, 2003 12:55 AM

I would pretty much agree with your comments, although I would stress that Picasso wasn't just plumbing his own innards for "mythic" subject matter. He perceived that French society, although it might have a hard time saying so publicly, was undergoing a sexual/religious crisis. Assured that he could actually have a conversation on this topic with French society, he then put forth his own ideas on this topic. And not, as I tried to stress, as a wiseass, but pretty much straight from the heart. I mean he was certainly opening himself up to potential criticism or ridicule, but he didn't let that stop him. (And if anybody thinks Picasso's ideas about religion are goofy, well, who's religious thoughts presented so directly wouldn't be just as goofy?)

I think things got thin on the ground because (1) subsequent generations of Modern artists failed to engage society in a conversation; (2) many of them failed to speak "straight from the heart" preferring either irony or by trying to maintain their dignity via portentous Marxism or rented mysticism.

As for contemporary Modernists who have this level of social dialogue and goofy sincerity, I'm going to have to get back to you on that.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 13, 2003 1:27 AM

There's a big difference between complaining that an artist is not engaging, and complaining that an artist is not engaged. If I've understood rightly, the logical endpoint of your argument would be a mystical, totemic version of "boy-and-tractor" Social Realists.

I'm not that good art -- or even great art -- has to be "engaged." In fact, Picasso's triumph in "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" was that he started with social engagement, then pulled away from it to a more formalist position. Nothing in the picture itself indicates that the women are prostitutes as such. Yet given their nudity and their unaverted, immodest eyes, it's clear that Picasso's application of the term "maidens" is meant ironically. Whatever these women are, they are not good little girls.

The painting has plenty of old-fashioned mojo to be sure. But is that the result of ongoing social dialogues, or is it a product of Picasso's emotional temperament? His famous drawing of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza isn't linked to any social issues that I know of, yet it seems to possess just as much life as "Les Demoiselles" or "Three Musicians."

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on September 13, 2003 2:04 AM


I believe the end-point of my approach would be modern versions of what were termed history paintings. That is, paintings which engaged the most serious intellectual issues of their society. (E.g., David's "The Death of Marat," Raphael's "School of Athens," Goya's "The Fifth of May." This is exactly what Picasso accomplished with "Les Demoiselles." I don't think such paintings in today's society would necessarily involve tractors, and I'm surprised to hear you repeat anti-Regionalist propoganda generated by pro-Modern critics (generally thrilled by all things European and chauvinistic about all things American) from 70 years ago. Such modern history painting might well have a mystic overtone to it, both because most powerful art does, one way or another, but especially if the artist's feelings on the subject under discussion, were mystic.

And as for Picasso's drawings of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza...well, they're nice, but if he hadn't painted "Les Demoiselle" you would never have laid eyes on them. Some accomplishments are simply more profound than others.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 13, 2003 6:35 AM

I can't contribute meaningfully to this (but thanks for it---this is fascinating), but I do have a genuine question: If Picasso was able, in real time, not hindsight, to identify a religious and social "crisis" in France, and then plumb his own ideas and feelings directly enough to produce art which was attempting to "engage in dialog"---he sounds like a pretty darn bright guy. I mean, how many people can correctly identify those kinds of social and religous trends and codify them well enough to dialog with their own original thoughts without any distance of time to bring clarity to what is going on? It doesn't seem to me huge numbers of people can do this from any walk of life. NOT to insult other modern artists, but, is it possible they just aren't acute enough to do this, or even to have identified that Picasso did it? Maybe they keep thinking that their work isn't turning out like his because of pure technique?

Posted by: annette on September 13, 2003 11:17 AM

A semi-reflection that's knocking around my brain is this: kitsch. Modernists demonize a lot of tradtionalist things, yet aspire to grandeur and significance anyway. And they use the word "kitsch" very aggressively. To my mind, to cut off the possibility that any other approach to art might have something to it. History painting, for instance, as you say. I've thought for years that people really have to get over their fear of kitsch. Not that some things aren't kitsch, but that we've let the modernists run the conversation and dictate the terms much too much. What's wrong with history painting? What's wrong with allegories? Per se, I mean. Why can't it be ten times more daring to assay a history painting these days than yet another po-mo media-appropriation thing? Anselm Kiefer, it seems to me, has some of this daring. Do you like his work? I find some of it bombastic, some of it pretty great. But at least he's got daring.

On the other hand, sigh, I do love a lot of minor art...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 13, 2003 11:24 AM

I suppose I should really write a posting on what happened to history painting after around 1850 (when it started to seem old fashioned and beside the point.) But let me make one point in passing: I think Picasso's painting is less legible (and probably seemed, to later generations of Modernists, more of a formal exercise), because he was working to reinvent a dusty, long-unused art tradition. Some of the formal razzle-dazzle in the painting is clearly intended to make the whole thing seem up-to-date, hip and happening.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 13, 2003 12:14 PM

Outside of his weird "me-as-Hitler" bent, Kiefer is wonderful, in much the same way Picasso was when he tackled historical or social subjects. The power of "Demoiselles" and of Kiefer's landscapes is they way they use modernist or formalist elements to suggest historical resonance or social criticism without bludgeoning the audience with it. Sometimes you can accompish more thematically with a gesture than with a

Posted by: Michael C on September 13, 2003 12:27 PM

Oops. That was "with a knockout punch."

Posted by: MIchael C on September 13, 2003 12:28 PM


Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 13, 2003 12:29 PM

I think you've really got a point about the modernist use of the word "kitsch" as a surefire argument-killer. It seems like they wield it the same way student leftists do "fascist". I remember the conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi in an interview about some unfashionable piece of music by Richard Strauss being asked, "Don't you think it's kitsch?" IIRC his reply went something like this: "Well, no, I don't. What does kitsch mean anyway? I've asked all the people who use it and not one of them has given me a wholly satisfactory answer". Of course, as you say, kitsch exists, it's just there's a lot less of it around than modernist scaremongering would have us believe.

Posted by: C.Bloggerfeller on September 13, 2003 12:38 PM

Damn! Excellent post!

Posted by: Yahmdallah on September 13, 2003 3:24 PM

I'm surprised to hear you repeat anti-Regionalist propoganda generated by pro-Modern critics (generally thrilled by all things European and chauvinistic about all things American) from 70 years ago.

Well, I like Modernism. I don't think it's the only story in American art, or even necessarily the most interesting, but I still appreciate its values. Plus, I happen to enjoy ahistorical, formalist artwork which doesn't engage with social issues. (Calder's mobiles are the best example I can think of.)

Quite frequently my problem with contemporary artists is that they can't keep their distance from social dialogue; modern art is always "engaged," but seldom engaging. The spate of "We-hate-America" and "Bush-is-Hitler" artwork flooding highbrow museums at the moment strikes me as no less hideous that the "boy-and-his-tractor" paintings of Soviet Realism. (See Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word for a more thorough indictment than I care to muster.)

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on September 13, 2003 5:53 PM

Sorry, Tim, I thought you were dissing American Regionalism instead of dissing Soviet Realism. My mistake. The problem with most art produced in both schools, of course, is that it skates, content-wise, on a surface of ideology or cliche, rather than boring into the depths.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 14, 2003 1:09 AM

In re kitch: Years ago, I asked an artist whether there was any way she could do a painting of kittens playing and have it be respectable, and she said no. Assuming she was right, I think there's something broken about an approach to art which makes it impossible to portray an ordinary pleasant part of experience.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on September 15, 2003 6:58 PM

Picasso made this powerful work as he wrestled with the historical forces so ably outlined by Friedrich; Matisse made much of his most powerful work while ignoring current events as if they were a bad dream. "Serious cultural/political/religious mud wrestling" could only beef up the art of artists for whose temperment that was appropriate. Here's the key: "[Picasso] knew he needed a significant effort to justify this stance, and he exerted all his powers for many months to produce a ‘masterpiece.’" That's what's missing from contemporary art, and the reason for its thinness - an unwillingness to produce masterpieces; to grapple with oneself and one's predecessors and work to produce an original art as powerful as any that has ever been made.

Posted by: franklin on September 15, 2003 9:47 PM

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