Orange. The orange makes me stagger. I see a blocked swarm of figures, clustered at either end of the piece of plywood. Grey, green, orange, orange and orange jump out at me. I am in the new Picasso Museum in the Marais distract of Paris. Or at least I was just a moment before. Now I stand in a world of rigid diagonal forms, irregularly cluttered in two blocks with a division of receding space between them. Behold, all you non-formalists; Picasso’s 1951 ‘Massacre en Corée’.
Despite depicting a brutal episode in Korean history, the attention this kind of painting elicits is, to me, to be moved over the picture surface, piece by piece, paradox by paradox. The figures and objects on the plywood are reduced and fractured into geometrical forms and then realigned within a shallow, relief-like space. The more I look at it, the less convinced I am that Picasso wanted the world to see a massacre at all, and that what he was displaying instead were the most perfectly arranged forms on a piece of fitting plywood. But then again, to a formalist, what Picasso wanted isn’t important.
I glance over at some of the other people in the room who go almost immediately to the plaque on the wall to see the date and perhaps glean some contextual information on the painting. I wonder if it is first and foremost the interest in the formalistic qualities of the painting that has led them to seek a contextual explanation, or if the first thing they see when they look at the painting is a group of American soldiers pointing their weapons at a group of naked, innocent women and children.
Wouldn’t it be a shame, I think to myself, if people allow this contextual analysis to wash over the formalistic qualities and to taint the interior style with exterior darkness. What they would see would be an explanation of what is both happening and about to happen in the painting. They would only see the content of the painting. Their mode of vision would unconsciously adapt to cubistic form, and they would read the painting as a photograph, a snapshot into a historical moment that would entirely abandon the lines, shapes and colours that have formed it.
Yet this, dare-I-say, touristic contextual approach is only important if you want to treat the painting as an object, a political pawn, a project of Picasso’s personal views. If you forget everything that the painting has become since its formation in the mind of others, and look instead at its abstract qualities, this contextual information is of no relevance.
To a slight extent, perhaps it aids the formalistic qualities. The shades of grey, sliced by dark outlines into separated forms of intertwined limbs, certainly inspire a cold, metallic sentiment to the picture. There is something very clinical, about it; something detached, yet desperate, tortured, empty, sad.
A contextual reading to the painting might help us to understand why the forms make us feel this way. But the painting has everything you need to know within its form, within its lines and space and colour. All you have to do is allow yourself to feel them.