I am not surprised Fox has censored Picasso’s breasts. It is absurd and creepy to blur out the bosoms of his Women of Algiers in a report on the painting that set a new world record this week. But it is not completely impossible to understand, because if you were a puritan or a fundamentalist or just hated women’s bodies, Picasso’s breasts are the kind of breasts you might find shocking.
Picasso is definitely one of the all-time great artists of the breast. His only rivals are the 16th-century painter Titian, whose Venus of Urbino certainly has some nice nipples, and the 17th-century adorer of buxom wenches Peter Paul Rubens, who proudly portrayed his wife’s bouncy breasts.
But Rubens and Titian are painters of realistic flesh – they worked hard to create golden melting images of real, soft, living breasts. Picasso’s breasts are just black circles with big dots for nipples. It is a measure of his genius that he can convey all the roundness, fullness and touchability of a breast using this graffiti-like shorthand.
There are four pairs of breasts in Women of Algiers (Version O) by my count – painted in various stages of cartoonish crudity. The woman standing at the left has her bosom almost realistically contoured, while the others are far more abstract. Why is a dot in a circle so shocking?
Fox has noticed something basic – very basic – about Picasso. When he paints women without their clothes on they are always naked, not “nude”. He does not subscribe to any prissy idea of a somehow sexless image of the human body in art. He always imagines having sex with the women he paints (and usually did). His reductive yet evocative depictions of breasts are actually the images of his own enacted desire. He grasps those mammaries with his mind.
This is spectacularly apparent in his 1932 painting Nude, Green Leaves and Bust. In this painting of his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter the curving black lines that define her opulent body all seem to converge on the double curl that shapes her breasts. Picasso communicates the weight, softness and plumpness of these breasts and at the same time his intimate knowledge of them – with just black lines and pink colour he shows us his intense physical passion for his mistress.
Even before that, Picasso had shown how simply the human body can be defined in his 1925 painting The Three Dancers. Here too breasts are reduced to their simplest essence – but this is a nightmare painting of a dance of death, so instead of the opulence sensuality of Walter, one breast is a hole open to the sky, another harshly outlined with a nipple like a skull’s eye.
Picasso clearly had a phantasmagoric relationship with the female breast. It could be a dream or a nightmare. Like the man who is metamorphosed into one in Philip Roth’s story The Breast, he was possessed by this body part. In his 1922 painting Women Running on the Beach, colossal women flaunt their colossal breasts to the awestruck Picasso, who of course has imagined the encounter.
It is a cliche to see Picasso as a misogynist whose lust for women was aggressive and patriarchal. If he was a patriarch, he was a curiously ineffective one, for two of his lovers published frank books about him during his lifetime. Fox has done Picasso a favour. Not only has it proved his art is still shocking and dangerous after all these years, but it has also given food for thought to anyone who sees Picasso as an old sexist satyr. Sexual politics are complicated when it comes to art. Who hates women – Picasso who painted all those breasts, or the TV station that smeared them out?
That said, Fox missed the painting’s really dirty detail anyway: they did not censor the globular buttocks that are equally prominent. No one who has looked at many of Picasso’s paintings would think that ass was an innocent detail.
Text: The Guardian.