Recognizing the Face

Pablo Picasso’s 1907 Demoisselles d’avignon is ultimately all about the human face

This past August I found myself in Lucerne. A combination of jet lag, the weather (mountain sun followed by mountain storms, alternating at five-minute intervals), and the stunned, happy exhaustion brought on by two straight weeks of Carter, Boulez, and George Benjamin, had led me, gaze fixed and arms out like one of Romero’s reanimated minions, into the Sammlung Rosengart, the improbable Picasso Museum of Lucerne. A wondrous collection this, filled with the lesser efforts of several of the early 20th’s greatest seers. There’s something bracing about being surrounded by visionary works that happen not to be masterpieces, works which are merely great, and have escaped the notice of catalogues and textbooks. You feel free to see again, and to feel deeply what you see.

On the first floor I was captured by Picasso’s Femme au voile from 1923. One of his large canvases done in voluptuous outlines, it is simple, tender, and arrestingly intimate. And, save for its slightly exaggerated, almost monumental sense of proportions, it is entirely naturalistic. I was reminded that Picasso remained drawn to and fascinated by the human face fifteen years after the spectacle of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and ten after revealing the miracle of cubism, both of which had opened the modern eye to successively deeper levels of abstraction. A walk through the rest of the museum confirmed this impression and revealed it to be no local phenomenon, limited to the twenties, but rather a ritornello throughout Picasso’s long career. He loved the face and, after rethinking and redesigning it along lines mythic, comic, geometric, and hallucinatory, came back again and again to its gaze in the simplest of forms, treating it as a fundamental constructive element while through it providing a mirror for the viewer. There is no easy chronology here, no segmenting of Picasso’s work into periods that suggest any waxing and waning of this interest. Picasso always seems most fully himself when contemplating the face, whether human, animal, or minotaur.

These faces at the Rosengart made me happy, opening me in a new way to much of what I’d been hearing over the past two weeks. The consistency of Picasso’s devotion to the face-as-object in the presence of his ongoing experimentation with form at every level, with the inexhaustible sense of play at the center of his work, seemed to me a joyful dichotomy: fluid, chimerical transformation driven by a material constancy composed of archetypal elements. I realized this is what I want as an artist, what I want in life, and what I hear in all my favorite music. What it is is pure force, channeled and personalized, the great whole made visible through the view of the one, existing not in textbook perfection but in a fluid state of constant re-creation. It is always present in the best work, always free, authentic, and unwilling to be boxed in. It does not yield easily to taxonomy.

But we have to order our thinking somehow; we reach for lists and categories in an effort to find our way through a dizzying assortment of creative artifacts, each with its own range of uniquely affective experiences. Our efforts in this regard seem most fruitful when they are oriented chronologically. Much has been made lately, for example, of the prominence of melody in Carter’s recent music. The Cello Concerto, Clarinet Concerto, the Symphonia sum fluxae pretium spei, Of Rewaking, to name just a few, are all intensely melodic works, at times almost monodic in their privileging of long-breathed singing lines within sometimes hushed and spare textures. This is true, and yet I recoil from voicing it. Whenever I hear it I feel like I know what’s coming next, what always follows when a composer is perceived as taking even a halting step towards a more conventional kind of comprehensibility: “we find in this music composer X embracing traditional musical values”; “rethinking tonality”; “rediscovering intelligibility”; “reaching out to the listener”, etc. That all of these carry within them the seeds of their own eventual politicization (“X is rejecting dead-end radicalism”; “X is embracing the radical redefinition of the concert experience”; “X is selling out”; “X is rejecting ACADEMIC hermeticism in favor of the vitality of popular culture”) makes them that much more repellent. What is most troubling, however, is that they have nothing to do with actual music.

Listen to the Cello Sonata, or the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th quartets, or A Mirror on Which to Dwell, Triple Duo; and the Three Occasions (especially no. 2). You’ll hear melodic writing every bit as committed, sustained, and unabashed as anything in the more recent works. Does each instance represent its own isolated retrenchment, its own cultural moment, in which Carter seeks to tell us something about his values as an artist—seeks, in fact, to reassure us that his values are also ours? My hunch is no. No way. Listen to the works that surround these in the Carter oeuvre—the Double Concerto, Symphony of 3 Orchestras, the Third Quartet, Duo for violin and piano; Night Fantasies. These are among the works that have defined Carter in the public imagination, and obviously melodic they are not. Of course, go deep into the counterpoint, into the lines that drive these pieces and you’ll find that they are made up of the same melodic materials as their more cantabile cousins, but that the gestural sense—quixotic, agitated, fragmented, always in motion—yields a surface that is less given to singing and more to the dramatic interplay of short melodic bursts of activity. That the two approaches could coexist should surprise us no more than that Picasso’s Femme au voile, or his sweet, dreamlike Visage of 1928, could come in the midst of works like Le Peintre et son modèle or any of the Baigneuses from the same year.

But surprise us it often does. We tend to adhere to the “creative periods” model of artistic biography and so are conditioned to expect some kind of linear progress through an artist’s life, each period leading inexorably to the next. But the work itself forces us constantly to rethink our sense of that progress and, most importantly, what it means to us; this experience of meaning changes depending on where we are in our own journey. This is what renders a body of work especially susceptible to politicization, to serving as exhibit A in any number of ongoing cultural polemics. Stravinsky, for example, was claimed by both the left and right according to shifting cultural convenience. After having been excoriated by Adorno for being decadent and bourgeois, his eventual canonization by serial partisans came finally in the 1980s with the rehabilitation of the earlier works as somehow “proto-serial”; this was achieved through their being crammed into a sort of reliquary of octatonicism. The point here was to say, “You see, Stravinsky was really concerned primarily with pitch organization all along, and so it was a simple step to move from octatonic set to tone-row.” Never mind that many of these works are only nominally octatonic, and that when present the set is mined more for its harmonic color than for anything else. The focus of our gaze—whether on pitch sets or on inherited formal types—allows us to make of Stravinsky whoever we need him to be. (This is perhaps fitting in his case, given the ideological shape-shifting he managed repeatedly over the course of his public life. Fitting, that is, if we confuse the man with the music.)

It is difficult not to hear the newfound appreciation of Carter’s melodic sense as, in some way, evidence of the same phenomenon: after twenty-five years of “neo-romanticism” apparent changes in style have come to be viewed in kneejerk fashion as evidence of a change of heart, aesthetic criteria, judgment, or dogma on the part of the artist in question, usually posed in terms of a renunciation of some past—now read as discredited—ideology. Consider Boulez, for example. No longer the young lion renouncing the whole of the French cultural establishment or jumping up on the table at the ISCM, setting fire to the program, and pronouncing all of the music to be “obsolete”, Boulez is now the world’s great elder statesman of contemporary music, a tireless advocate for young composers and performers, an indefatigable conductor, a committed teacher, and a widely revered and even beloved figure. With this public transformation has come a reappraisal of his music, such that even the most demanding scores are reviewed with glowing admiration and—in some cases—a measure of understanding. This shift owes much, of course, to Boulez’s extensive concertizing, but I think even more to the fact that he rarely says things anymore quite on a par with, “You may well object—as many others have done—that music is not a science. It is indeed a purely individual means of expression, not just a putting together of mathematical structures. But, as I say, the language has not really been investigated for almost two centuries, and it is high time that this should be done.” (“Where We Are Now”, 1968/78; published in Orientations, 1981). The rhetoric no longer seems to throw down the gauntlet in front of the entire classical tradition, and the man is seen in something like more of his totality (moreover he now even conducts Bruckner!).

But Boulez has renounced nothing: recent interviews, while less openly confrontational, reveal the same sensibility, the same likes and dislikes as ever. And, most importantly, the music is just as beautiful, bewitching, and confounding as ever. Of course, few of Boulez’s recent works match the level of seemingly alien abstraction as the Third Piano Sonata, but very few works even from that time in his career do either. One can trace over the last forty years the rejection of rapid pitch turnover in favor of the projection of a kind of luminous, vertical steady-state in his music, but this is not a recent development. Boulez’s music has certainly evolved with several signal works marking important points of arrival (Répons comes to mind), others seeming to refer only to a specific and unique cultural and personal moment (Rituel). Like Picasso’s faces, however, the materials remain consistent, and the progress of the work as a whole moves in expanding circles, looping back on itself like a strange attractor.

All well and good. But do received cultural taxonomies, with their categories and endless lists of dates and important works, really prevent us from seeing this? I pose the question to myself, and it immediately takes another form: why was I brought up short by the apparent figurative simplicity of the Femme au voile? I’m not a complete ignoramus when it comes to visual art. I do not confuse Picasso with Rothko, or later Gorky, or any other non-representational painter. What’s funny is that I’ve had this experience with Picasso several times over the years, always with bodies of work that, while celebrated and well-known to those whose literacy extends beyond Art Appreciation 101, remain in the shadow of the epoch-making Demoiselles and Guernica. I had it ten years ago at the Musée Picasso in Paris, with my first face-to-face encounter with his etchings—those masterful, dreamlike minotaur scenes, violent, sensual, and jubilantly figurative, often with a high degree of naturalism. What is really significant in this work, of course, is that there are not two Picassos, one devoted to pure experimentation and the other to pretty pictures; every work in some way advances a formal idea, a way of dealing with proportion, with color, with thematic elements. The same holds true for Boulez and Carter, and for anyone deep in the work.

But learned categories can blind and deafen us. Useful inasmuch as they give us a way to place an artist in time in relation to others both past and present, and in a larger cultural context, they break down when they make it impossible for us to see and hear those artists apart from what we already think we know about them. That this is true beyond the arts should be obvious to anyone. Our obsession with recently drawn social and political categories obscured what turned out to be a much broader electoral consensus than one would have thought possible just a year ago. Books like The Great Sort proceed from an interesting premise—in this case that Americans are dividing themselves by cultural affiliation more rigorously than ever before—but they tell us less about the actual sorting that may or may not be going on than about our own need, at any time in history, to see our own position as being unique and unprecedented. A glance at the demographics can reveal no more about how actual people live and feel about the place in which they live and the other people with whom they share it than a textbook can tell us about the evolution of Carter’s mature style. (Take a glance at two recent and very influential such texts and you’ll find three pages on Carter in one and no more than one page in the other!) People just aren’t that simple, and attempts to draw a map of the nation based on cultural leanings seems as naïve as Pauline Kael’s remark after the 1968 presidential election that she couldn’t believe Nixon had been elected since she didn’t know anyone who had voted for him. This is not to say that the election of Obama or the fact that thanks to the recent wave of immigration into the heartland residents of the rural Midwest now have access for the first time to good, authentic Mexican food means that we live in a society without discernable categories; only that they shift, bob, weave, and crash depending on who’s doing the measuring and why.

What we gain by looking and listening beyond what we think to be true and trying just to see what is is the chance, for example, to see Boulez as Boulez, not as an agent in the screenplay we wish to write concerning the direction of musical culture in our time, but simply as an artist who responds to both outer and inner worlds as they touch him at any given moment. Of course, the only path to this is through engagement with the work, not with what we’ve heard or read about it. It means getting to know L’Ombre double as well as Explosante-fixe (pick your version), Dérive II as well as I. It means lesser works along with greater ones. Which brings us back to the Sammlung Rosengart and its vital collection of also-rans. Why is Femme au voile or the ingenious bird mask with Picasso’s photographed eyes behind it—also there in Lucerne—less valued than Les Demoiselles d’Avignon? Is it truly because that work had such a galvanic effect on the way Europe saw at the time, seeming both to inform and to be informed by the tectonic changes that were already gathering force in 1908? Or is it more that the work has come to symbolize that action for us, standing in at this point for the genuine exhilaration and forced realignment of our perceptual apparatus that is the authentic experience of art, an experience now more likely through an encounter with Femme au voile than with the much more familiar, much more discussed and celebrated Demoiselles? Categories, like stereotypes, keep us from experiencing art, just as they keep us from recognizing people, from understanding them as authentic individuals. They allow us to float on a current of preconception: Beethoven went from classic to romantic; Brahms and Schumann were “classicists” rather than true romantics (a funny notion, given the essential nostalgia and resulting reaction against modernity that is at the heart of German romanticism; Brahms, Schumann and Mendelssohn, in reaching back in spirit while expanding their own ranges of technical resources are arguably more romantic than their flashier compatriots); the Rite of Spring started a riot; Les Demoiselles ushered in abstraction; Carter is atonal; Boulez is a mad scientist of cerebral construction. Each is, in its own way, “true”, and yet each reduces complex phenomena to such absurd historical pieties that they freeze the observer who sees through them in a state of comfortable fatuity, unable to engage directly with what they experience, able only to gauge the degree to which the work seems to bear out a pre-ordained impression. This, though I hate to admit it, was my initial problem with Femme au voile.

Art is a thing of the world, and on some level must be understood as such, must be placed in the great display case alongside the wooden plow and the paper ballot. But right now I just want the Face; the Melody; the wonderfully recurrent, looping, transformative doubling back of the creative voice over time; the miraculous transmission, continuation, and further transformation of that voice through millions of others, through imaginations that receive and recombine voices and snippets of voices, along pathways not yet imagined and impervious to categorization.


Andrew Waggoner

Andrew Waggoner‘s music has been commissioned and performed by the orchestras of Los Angeles, St. Louis, Denver, and Zlin, in the Czech Republic, the Corigliano, Cassatt and Degas Quartets, Sequitur, the Empyrean Ensemble and Ensemble Accroche Note of France, among many others. He is Composer in Residence at the Setnor School of Music of Syracuse University and divides his time between Syracuse and New York City.

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