When Health Is Stronger Than Strength, When Life Is More Powerful Than Power and Stubbornness Is Stronger Than Destitution

Homo sacer (Latin for “the sacred man” or “the accursed man”) in early Roman religion is defined as somebody who is “set apart” from common society, who is simultaneously “hallowed” and “cursed”. Homo sacer could simply mean a person expunged from society and deprived of all rights. In legal terms the homo sacer is defined as someone who can be killed without the killer being charged or regarded as a murderer, and a person who cannot be sacrificed. And who is considered as sacred may thus be understood as someone outside the Law, or beyond it.

Pablo Picasso, “El Bobo”, 1959
P. Picasso, “El Bobo”, 1959

In our time when there are more and more homeless Americans living on the street and, during nights – in homeless shelters, it’s very difficult and quite cynical to try to find “romanticism” in being homeless. Still, the tradition of homelessness is the habitual bastard of Western civilization. Picasso’s El Bobo is the shamelessly truthful incarnation of this fact. In 21st century US we are used to the panhandlers and drifters – we habitually pretend that we don’t notice them, our eyes go blind in front of homeless, dirty and smelly compatriots. We learn to see selectively. Humans are very smart – they are able to pick what to see, hear, notice and think about, and they are always very resourceful in finding “reasonable” “reasons” for ignoring the truth.

Picasso’s “El Bobo” is a satirical representation of our blind perception of the reality of our social life. But at the same time he cannot resist admiring El-Bobo. He looks at him according to historical perspective – as simultaneously traditional and modern type, orphan child and a marginalized adult, pauper and a giant of vitality, the one without any goal in life and someone who enjoys being alive in spite of everything. El Bobo has his admirers – from them comes the fry pan and wine. And he is free between the verdure and trees, with mountain in the background – with his landscape.

He is and isn’t looking at the world. He is and isn’t smiling at life. His gaze is as closed, as it’s opened. He looks at his feeling of being alive and smiles at the very instant of his life that Picasso has registered, probably, working by memory and imagination. El Bobo is the incarnation of historical type of a superfluous being, a homo sacer that while being put outside life refuses to disappear from people’s eyes – refuses to be obedient to the social pathology streak in the human spirit proud of itself. He “fries his balls” and he has learned to enjoy it. He survives eating his own vitality. He is a victim who refuses to surrender. Is he one of Christ’s incarnations?

El Bobo is refusing to play saint, he enjoys to stay just a bum, with all vitality of human humility, with his hair as flames and with his house-like hat.


A rag picker elbows his way through the crowd
Stumbling like a poet, head in the clouds
Ignoring the snitches who lurk in the seams
He pours all his heart into glorious schemes.

Charles Baudelaire (from his poem “Le Vin de chiffonniers/The Rag Picker’s Wine”, Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du mal” – 1857)

Edouard Manet, “The Rag Picker”, 1869
Edouard Manet, “The Rag Picker”, 1869

Manet’s rag picker is not only makes his life on rubbish, but he builds on it his dignity. And this is a kind of miracle – transformation (to use Octavio Paz’ expression) of what is worthless into what is priceless. Manet’s scrap merchant is not only a trash dealer, but a psychological alchemist – an artist transforming realities into its opposite. Isn’t art in its essence a scrap collection and combinations?

On trush signified in the painting by the piece of trash that we see on the ground in front of the rag picker, he makes his existential presence. And what about the piece of a back part of his shirt, which Manet has transformed by the painterly effect into the rag picker’s “anal penis” (still sublimated like a trash sublimated into personal self-respect)? Even the hole in the rag-picker’s pants can be read as an existential metaphor of exhibitionism, borrowed by today’s designers of jeans (who make profit on selling brand new holes). But the most important characterization in Manet’s painting is rag-pickers’ gaze at the world from the side, from, as if, the margin of the world, as we, the inhabitants of Earth look at our galaxy. Is he assessing a piece of scrap or just looking at the world from the vantage point of his personality, from the position of a person free from the idea of prestige, from people’s respect and fight for a place in the social hierarchy? Doesn’t he look at the world and people as a giant – at small poppies?

A rag-picker in Paris, 1899 – 1901
Rag-picker in Paris, 1899 – 1901