Picasso Shows the Origins of his “Hypertrophied and Excessive” Style

Pablo Picasso – “Massacre in Korea”, 1951

Of the 500 000 plus US servicemen and women who served in the First Gulf War some 325 000 are now on disability pensions suffering a variety of acute maladies generally attributed to the toxic cocktail of radiation and other chemicals they were exposed to during their tour of duty. Those who fight in Iraq today can scarcely look forward to a healthier future given that it is effectively twice as irradiated now as it was in 1991. Ian Buchanan – “Treatise on Militarism”, “Deleuze and the Contemporary World”, 2011

For us, Americans of the 21st century who swallowed two invented wars with huge casualties among our soldiers and humongous among the Iraqi and Afghani civilians and who after all of this haven’t lost the ability to watch baseball game or listen to pop-music stars, it is as unpleasant as it is important to return to Picasso’s “Massacre in Korea” to grasp the scope of the human suffering connected with modern warfare.

It is not difficult to figure out the plot of the Picasso’s painting – occupational forces came to a village searching for gorilla fighters, destroyed the homes, burned down the cattle and prepare to execute the women and children who they believed are connected with and hiding the enemy combatants.

Also, it is not difficult to grasp the basic metaphor of the painting – the terrorizing and eliminating civilians (the main function of today’s wars) is represented as war of men against women and children when the male reproductive organs are transformed into a weapon of intimidation and murder. Picasso shows war as war against reproduction of life itself and as such as genocide – not only as war against humanity but war against continuation of life.

But the real miracle of the painting is the transformation of the faces of women who will be killed in a second or two – into painted faces, into masks of art. At what moment is realism forced to transform itself into surrealism and expressionism? What is Picasso trying to express by literally transforming the faces of victims into painted faces, into painting?

Beautiful art tries to ignore suffering (beauty is a life that has died and resurrected as beauty). Realistic art tries to co-opt suffering, to balance it, to assimilate it into a general optimism of living. Picasso’s art transforms suffering into painting. The more intense, the more excessive, the more unbearable the human suffering is, the less it is able to express itself – the more it calls for art to help to express it.

Picasso’s art comes when suffering is too much for the human beings to bear. When human being can no longer tolerate life art comes to help – to express what is for us humans impossible to feel. Art puts its shoulders under the burden of overwhelming suffering. It takes suffering to itself.

For the teenage girl who is closest to soldiers-robots the situation is so unbearable that she psychologically disappears. To help her to go through the deadly ordeal her unconscious intuition makes her pretend in front of herself that she is not present, she is not here. This is the meaning of the transformation of her soul into a facial mask of apathetical indifference.

For the woman to the right of the teenage girl, perhaps her mother, the suffering is so excruciatingly excessive (she is too mature to emotionally disappear, her awareness of being a victim of a massacre is irredeemable) that it distorts her facial features into a painted archetype (the psychological map) of grief. The human face is transformed into an emotional archetype, and an archetype into a painting. She gives herself to murder because she understands that she cannot avoid it. It is her ontological triumph over the murderers that Picasso’s art registers, her ability to sustain even the fatal truth.

For the woman with small child the torment is even more agonizing. It is impossible for her to admit to herself that her baby will perish together with her. Her anguish goes outside of her, embraces the child as if her very suffering can have a protecting power; her agony puts deep convulsions to her face that no human being can express. The painter is needed to elaborate in art what a human being can only feel without expressing, what the human face is only capable of hinting at while simultaneously concealing it. Painting picks up where the human soul becomes mute and where the expressiveness of human face collapses before an indescribable torment of being violated onto death.

The pregnant woman close to the left margin of the painting with her preadolescent son clinging to her body – tries to appeal to the heaven for help, but behind this appeal her knowledge that they are beyond earthy salvation, that god will not intervene and will not stop the massacre – rips her face apart. Only in one of her eyes we feel that her mute call to God is still alive, but the gaze of her right eye asks only for a place in heaven for her dead boy. Her left hand as if became the hand of a giantess – with such power it is stretched in desperate desire to be lifted with her son into God’s abode, as if her body still believed in salvation (belief which is already fading away from her eyes); while the child’s posture is as if he is already flying up.

The toddler on the ground playing with flowers doesn’t have a face yet which could notice or even react on the monstrosity of the murder. The elder child running from the soldiers already reacts on danger – he is running from the danger: he still feels that his family can protect him from the armed violence. The small baby mother presses tightly to her breasts looks at the sky – he is already emotionally separated from her by the power of death. The elder boy on the left of the painting already got that there is no earthy protection for them. He is too young to face this truth and is hiding his eyes on mother’s helpless body. All eight figures of victims (four women and four children) represent the emotional polyphony of human face in front of the ultimate destruction – the imposition of death.

A hasty acquaintance with the painting produces the impression that the women and children look universal – they can be from any nation. It’s only step by step the feeling comes that their faces are indeed Korean faces and that it wouldn’t be appropriate to dissolve them too quickly into universality. The faces are of a particular nation, suffering a concrete act of aggression, and only after the recognition of this particularity the feeling of their universality, of these people being all of us, should come. It is like the Iraqi and Afghani bodies mixed with the bodies of our American soldiers in a giant graveyard of the war. We all belong, Picasso suggests, to a particular race and nation, and at the same time to all humanity and to life on Earth.

Picasso's "MASSACRE IN KOREA" in metal coloration
Pablo Picasso – “Massacre in Korea”, 1951