I just don’t get Picasso – but not for the want of trying.
So this Monday, as Jacqui with daughter Sharon went round the Matisse exhibition at Tate Modern, I parked myself in front of his seven by five foot painting “The Three Dancers” for half an hour to see what would happen.
I learnt this way of looking at paintings from Henri Nouwen, which he recounts in his fascinating book “The return of the prodigal,” his response to the Rembrandt painting of the parable of Jesus. You just look.
It certainly took some time to get into this strange and distorted representation of three figures locked into a passionate dance of some menace. It took me a while to realize that they were actually holding hands.
The short description alongside certainly helped. “The image is laden with Picasso’s personal recollections of a triangular affair, which resulted in the heart-broken suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas.”
Forget rationality, this artwork painted just seven years after the Great War is meant to disorientate. Maybe the central figure refers obliquely to the cross. After all – as Pablo would see it – we are locked into a disturbed and disturbing world with no fixed points and no meaning. “The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?”
As it happened that morning I had been reading from the Old Testament book of Lamentations, following my BRF Guidelines. Not a popular book, it appears profoundly depressing Everything which the people of Judah had taken for granted had been wrenched from them when the Babylonian army sacked Jerusalem in 587 BC.
The writer is traumatized. Everything (i.e. everything) which he held of value has been completely destroyed. Not just his home and networks, not just the entire political and judicial structure, but the complete religious culture – the festivals, the Sabbaths, the priesthood, the prophets, and above all the temple in Jerusalem. All gone.
“How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave.” And that’s just the opening verse – 1:1.
Where is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in all this? For what is even worse, it would seem that the gods of pagan Babylon have come up trumps.
However, here the writer of this painful book parts company with Picasso when faced with such dislocation. True, he sees it as it is – a land brutalised and abandoned. But even as his faith is rocked to its very foundations, he shares this with the God who made all this to happen. And he holds nothing back – for he knows that despite all appearances God is listening.
“The Lord is like an enemy; he has swallowed up Israel. He has swallowed up all her palaces and destroyed her strongholds. He has multiplied mourning and lamentation for Daughter Judah.” (2:5)
For even as his faith in God’s provision and protection is rocked, he is able to share his suffering, his anguish, with God himself. And if God wants to act like this, well – he is God. The writer does not even presume to presume on God’s grace. If God has chosen to punish his people like this, then we have no claim on him.
And here is 3:16. “God has broken my teeth with gravel; he has trampled me in the dust. I have been deprived of peace; I have forgotten what prosperity is. So I say, ‘My splendour is gone and all that I had hoped from the Lord.’
Then suddenly, out of the blue, comes the famous verse, which we quote usually oblivious of its context. “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (3:22)
Even as his whole world is falling around him and worse, all the old certainties and accustomed teachings lie crushed amongst the ruins of a once great city, the writer (it could be the prophet Jeremiah) grits his teeth and praises God for his faithfulness.
It is not that he is holding onto God: the reality is that God is holding onto him. Our faith may fail but not the faithfulness of God.
Two men – Picasso and Jeremiah – living in the same disjointed world. But two totally different responses to life’s anguishes. And this has huge implications for the world of art.
As Tom Wright observes: “It is central to Christian living that we should celebrate the goodness of creation, ponder its present brokenness, and, insofar as we can, celebrate in advance the healing of the world, the new creation itself. Art, music, literature, dance, theatre, and many other expressions of human delight and wisdom, can all be explored in new ways.” (“Simply Christian” page 201)