Pablo Picasso’s “The Swimmer”: How to Take the Model out of the Drawing
Oh Picasso. What even to say? What can I add to criticism and art writing that hasn’t already been said? Well, I haven’t actually read any criticism or art writing. Ergo, anything I put down on the page here is an echo from virgin chasms, impressed like a wet salami hank with the crooked dentils of Mr. Art himself: P-a-b-l-o.
Prodigious sex abuse and misogyny notwithstanding, Picasso is a big deal in the art world. So, like Shakespeare, his output has largely been carved through by indulgent butchers down to bone and brass and at last a carcass good only for insipid broth. But by god if every art major isn’t just drenched about the maw with it and raving just the same. Such is the beauty of art that there is always dispute; like philosophy, art is a bunch of beta fish in a bag and consensus a four-letter word signifying defeat which is itself a four-letter word meaning you’ve tapped out on your anointed quest for truth and beauty. Anyhow, let’s dip in. The broth is nice and tepid now, but it’ll be livened by our throbbing bods asoak and grinding like teeth.
A different painting also titled “The Swimmer” is the better known of Picasso’s and, while I really like it, I’m more interested in the detail of the one in question. I happened upon it at the Reina Sofia after gawking awhile at the massively overrated “Guernica” (please don’t be offended). Immediately was I struck by a Picasso work that seemed to reveal the magician’s closely-guarded secrets. This was not just a weirdo painting, but a key of sorts to understanding a whole lot of weirdo paintings.
Take a second a look at the first drawing.
Have you looked long enough do you think?
The face contorts, sucking for air. The breasts, shaped like pears, are thrust about and buoy on the water. The strength of exertion ripples through the arms: they seem to heave, to push, all in conjunction, face, arms, breasts, together about a geometric cavalcade of water. The body contorts and here is the beauty. Sure, one could say that about any Picasso, that the body is wiry and beautiful, but I think this one stands out from the rest for how realistically, relatively, the abstract body is portrayed. One can almost imagine a swimmer in motion sucking for air just the same, their wild eyes fixed to the stroke side.
The body becomes the motion, the act, swimming. Other identities fall by the wayside as the activity overtakes the body, the face, the mind. In this way, Picasso’s ontology is Lamarckian. Just as Dolphins evolve torpedo-shaped bodies for their habit of swimming, so does the human body change to accommodate its task. Is it ugly? Picasso’s model is a known beauty and yet there is nothing arousing about his portrayal. He’s all but taken her out of the drawing.
When we watch people swim, fight, run, revolt against the autocratic regime and so forth, the act is often colored by knowledge or inquisition. What is the goal? Why are they doing this? Who is this person? As a viewer either I can answer these questions or I wonder about them. In this drawing Picasso captures not a person, but the act itself. swimming sans swimmer.