Sunday, 18 April 2010

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973): The Charnel House

Lee R. Kendall

In his review of the 1999 Guggenheim Museum Picasso exhibition which focused on Picasso’s World War II output (a show that in many respects can be said to anticipate TATE Liverpool’s Picasso: Peace + Freedom), art critic Mark Stevens writing in New York Magazine, describes The Charnel House (1944-48) as having something of “an unfinished air”[i]. This is hardly a groundbreaking assertion. In fact ever since the influential art writer and theorist Clement Greenberg first voiced his opinion way back in 1966 (by way of Alfred H. Barr) that in The Charnel House Picasso left substantial portions of the upper surface of the canvas “unfinished”[ii] i.e. un-painted, critical orthodoxy has largely refused to challenge or consider why this should be so. Partly this is because for all its formal power, The Charnel House as an anti-war statement has always been overshadowed by and compared (unfavourably) to its massive cousin Guernica (1937); and partly because unfinished works by artists of any standing are generally deemed to be less important than finished ones. But the so-called unfinished aspect of Picasso’s second major anti-war painting just happens to be its chief focal point.

Whereas in Guernica Picasso had utilized all his gifts as a storyteller to symbolize (I hesitate to use the verb universalize) atrocities ostensibly taking place in one specific location, and at one specific time, in The Charnel House the narrative thrust is by contrast mutely undefined. A mangled pile of bodies shown dumped, chattel-like, on the floor of a sparsely furnished room – the interior of the titular house[iii] – comprise the slaughtered remains of an entire family: mother, son, father, daughter. Above, and to the left of this macabre family grouping, seemingly suspended in mid-air, soars the bare outline of a dining table laid out with an arrangement of cubist pots, food and utensils. The table cloth unwinds across the top of the picture plane in the guise of a curtain coming down (or rising up) upon the scene; but the unpainted nature of this ‘still-life’ poses a number of intriguing questions: What is the connection between the table and the terrible scene depicted below? Why is it floating nonsensically above the floor, and where are its legs? Is this image secular or is it perhaps religious?

For the moment, such questions must be set to one side because before we can arrive at a convincing explanation for this mysterious table, we must consider the circumstances that led Picasso to confront the terrifying reality of Nazi genocide in the first place. It may not be instantly apparent on first viewing that The Charnel House is an explicit homily upon the evils of Nazism and the Final Solution; but nevertheless Picasso developed the project from earlier ideas[iv] with the sole intention of expressing his outrage at the news stories filtering through to him in occupied Paris throughout the summer of 1944, of the incarceration and murder of thousands of Jews in Hitler’s concentration camps. In July 1944 the Russian army first liberated the Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin in Poland. Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka soon followed. Stunned by the scale of what they were seeing, Russian troops began photographing and recording on film evidence of every Nazi atrocity. It was not long before unforgettable images of thousands of emaciated bodies littering mass open graves and industrial sized incinerators (‘charnel houses’) for the disposal of bodies; as well as the eyewitness accounts of the very few survivors fit to speak of their ordeal began to spread all over the world; but before that, as he first learned of the reports about the sufferings of innocent victims inside the ‘death camps’ via underground radio transmissions, and later, through the newspapers[v], Picasso seethed with anger and disgust.

It is important to remember that Guernica, Picasso’s first major anti-war painting was a commission, albeit one close to his Basque heart and origin. He began work on The Charnel House of his own volition. In a sense this makes the latter work a much more personal affair, especially as it is known that, atypically, he continued to work away at the canvas for an extended period of time, during which he became aware of the deaths of a number of old friends – amongst them Max Jacob, at the concentration camp at Drancy[vi]. It is most likely that Picasso began sketches for The Charnel House as soon as the concept struck him but, as Tim Hilton has shown[vii], the painting soon presented the artist with a number of pressing and urgent problems. For one thing, how was Picasso to sum up his feelings about the Nazis and what they had done, when he himself was still living under the threat of the Nazi occupation? Whilst thus far the Nazi regime in Paris had left him pretty much to his own devices (principally, it must be said, because of his international standing and reputation), Picasso well knew that any overt statement on his part would attract unwanted attention from the authorities[viii].

Picasso’s close friend, the photographer Brassaï, visited his studio regularly during the period at which he was at work on The Charnel House. It is to Brassaï, that we owe an unprecedented insight into Picasso’s working method in the form of a number of photographs taken over a period of months between 1944 and 1945, documenting Picasso’s progress on the work. The significant point to note about Brassaï’s images is that whilst the central group of corpses remains essentially the same throughout the genesis of the painting, the space that the still-life and table occupy at top left remains blank for almost the entire length of time that Picasso spent on the composition. It seems clear that Picasso initially felt that the depiction of the heaped family of corpses should stand as a symbol for the much greater human death toll of the concentration camps. In this Picasso did no more than expand upon the example of his great Spanish forbear Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828), focusing his rhetoric upon the ancillary world of war in order to draw attention to much greater significances. There is an unmistakeable echo in The Charnel House, in the stark distribution of the bodies across the plane of the canvas, of a number of key images from Goya’s Disasters of War print series[ix] of 1810-12, and of course, the corpses in Picasso’s painting also invite comparison with the pile of bodies strewn to the left of Goya’s highly politicized painting of The Third of May, 1808 (1814).

The liberation of Paris in late August 1944 meant that Picasso was free to roam the careworn streets that he loved once more for artistic inspiration. But, inevitably something had changed. Paris had become demoralised[x]. In fact, thanks to the effects of Nazism the effervescent and ebullient city that Picasso had known and cherished since his first visit in 1900 seemed to have vanished forever. Picasso kept on painting, but he ceased to work on The Charnel House. When the Allies finally liberated the Nazi’s largest concentration camp, Auschwitz in January 1945, so overwhelming had the subject of the extermination of the Jews in Europe become that Picasso despaired of ever finding the correct pictorial language to accommodate it. It was at this point that he hit upon an alternative idea: If his painting could not do justice to the magnitude and significance of the Holocaust – certainly not without descending into mealy-mouthed hand wringing or reportage, then why not turn it into a treatise upon the limitations, as he saw it, of art itself?

To achieve this, Picasso went straight back to the form and idiom that had first brought him artistic brilliance by working-in the cubist style still-life and table over the partially bare canvas at the top of the painting to emphasize the separation between art (his art) and existence. The planar form resembles that of the arrangement of objects in the 1922 Still-Life with Guitar (Galerie Rosengart, Lucerne) and had been repeated as recently as 1942 in the Still Life with Guitar housed in the Albertina Gallery, Vienna. Picasso hereby spectacularly reignited the debate about the power of art to mediate experience, to represent and to engage. For at what point does art become redundant in the face of human struggle, human violence and above all, human suffering? As is the case with all great works of art the protagonist provides no easy answer, but the question is all important.

To my mind, the still-life and table mark the clearest possible adjuncts between the world of art and the world of reality below. They also bring into play perhaps the most striking aspect of the composite group of charnel house corpses – namely the bound hands and arms of the father figure, thrust diagonally across the centre of the painting like an arrow, and leading the eye up towards the table. Symbolically the trussed hands denote impotence and helplessness. Metaphorically they represent Picasso’s intuition that in the wake of such an event as the Holocaust, the artist’s own hands are tied. One may protest – indeed The Charnel House is an outstanding example of such a protest – but art cannot prevent such atrocities from occurring. This is a devastating admission for an artist of Picasso’s standing to make; but it is an admission that fully justifies his decision to leave certain areas of the canvas unpainted. There can be no doubt that if the painting had been rendered completely, its power to provoke would have been completely lost. Although he subsequently added sporadic patches of blue to the painting, and continued from time to time to experiment with the greys and blacks that define the charnel house corpses, Picasso never felt the need to ‘finish’ the still-life in the upper reaches of the painting. Nor for that matter did he feel the need to ‘finish’ the rendering of the arms and the feet over on the right, or the face of the dead father at the bottom. This is because for Picasso, these areas were already finished. When he signed his name at the bottom of the canvas and affixed the date 1945, despite the fact that he continued to tinker with the painting until sometime in 1948, he was definitively recording the fact that his creative work on The Charnel House was complete.

“I paint… only because I’m seeking spontaneity, and, once I’ve expressed something with some success, I don’t have the heart to add anything to it.”[xi]

Picasso’s The Charnel House is on display at TATE Liverpool’s summer exhibition Picasso: Peace + Freedom 21 May - 30 August 2010

[i] Stevens, Mark, War Stories in New York Magazine, Feb 22, 1999:

[ii] Greenberg, Clement, Picasso Since 1945 in ArtForum Los Angeles, Volume 2, (October, 1966), p.29

[iii] Picasso’s biographer Pierre Daix records that the title of the painting was not one originally accorded to it by Picasso himself. During its composition, Picasso always referred to the painting as ‘the massacre’ or, ‘my painting’. It was only given the formal title of The Charnel House when exhibited for the first time in 1946 after Picasso had joined the Communist Party. See: Daix, Pierre, Picasso, Life and Art, London, Thames & Hudson, (1993) p.282 n.

[iv] Indeed, as Pierre Daix demonstrates, the nucleus of the painting was conceived as a response to photographs and film footage Picasso had seen of the massacre of a single Spanish family during the Spanish Civil War. See Daix (1993) p.281

[v] Walther, Ingo F., Picasso 1881-1973, Genius of the Century, Köln, Taschen, (2000), p.74

[vi] Amishai-Maisels, Ziva, Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts, Michigan, Pergamon Press, (1993), pp.57-59

[vii] Hilton, Timothy, Picasso, London, Thames & Hudson, (1975), pp.260-262

[viii] Irvine, Zoe, Painting the War: Picasso’s Genre Works During the German Occupation of Paris, (unpublished thesis, Haverford College, Pennsylvania, 2005), p.7

[ix] For example the bodies of the pile of soldiers arranged in a complimentary triangular axis in the print entitled Y no hay remedio (And it can’t be helped). See Plate 15 in Goya, Francisco & Hofer, Philip (ed.), The Disasters of War, a complete reprint of the 1863 edition published by the Real Academia de Nobles Arts de San Fernando, New York, Dover Publications, (1967)

[x] Spotts, Frederic, The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, (2008), pp.145-46

[xi] Picasso, Pablo quoted in Brassai, Gilberte, Conversations with Picasso, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, (2002) p.251

Citation for this article is as follows: Kendall, Lee R., Pablo Picasso (1881-1973): The Charnel House in Pieces... Occasional and Various Apr-Jun 2010, pp.1-4 (


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  2. Mindsets & Lifestyles have to change....or it will keep passing on to all generations...Praying that change will come.... Les Pauvres Au Bord De La Mer