“She’s big as a man’s fist,
Big as a black-pepper shaker
Filled with gris-gris dust,
Like two fat gladiolus bulbs
Grown into a burst of twilight.
Lumpy & fertile, earthy
& egg-shaped, she’s pregnant
With all the bloomy hosannas
Of love hunger. Beautiful
In a way that forces us to look
At the ground, this squat
Venus in her braided helmet
Is carved from a hunk of limestone
Shaped into a blues singer.
In her big smallness
She makes us kneel.”[i]
[i] Komunyakaa, Yusef; Talking Dirty to the Gods; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2000; p. 17.
It could have been a reference to an ancient or biblical theme, the good shepherd or the calf bearer. An image of a man carrying a calf or a sheep on his shoulders, having just rescued it, and returning it to the flock. Pablo Picasso used many such themes and ideas in his work, however, he usually denied it in reference to this particular piece. “The man could just as well be carrying a pig as a sheep! There is no symbolism in it. It is just something beautiful.”[i]
Shifting back and forth from serious to playful, perhaps he is being sly or evasive? Or surrealistic and poetic like his friend of more than forty years, Max Jacob? Picasso and Jacob met in 1901 and became fast friends. Jacob was the first Parisian to teach Picasso French. And, as an early art critic, he wrote enthusiastically about Picasso’s work. Jacob was also a painter, cubist/surrealist poet, bon vivant, homosexual and a Jew. As described by Roger Shattuck, the beginning of the 20th Century was an exhilerating time: “In its early demonstrations the avant-garde remained a true community, loyal to itself and to its time…. Painters, writers, and musicians lived and worked together and tried their hands at each other’s arts in an atmosphere of perpetual collaboration.”[ii]
“When you paint a picture, it completely changes with each brushtroke, turning like a cylinder, almost interminably. When it stops turning, it’s finished. My latest was a Tower of Babel made of lighted candles.”[iii]
Max Jacob was originally from Quimper in Brittany, France. A street, a bridge, a high school and even the courtyard of the house at 8, rue de Parc, in Quimper bear his name. The Musee des Beaux-Arts in Quimper even has a room dedicated to Jacob featuring his drawings, paintings, and manuscripts. It was there, during the summer of 1997 that I first learned about several details of his life. In Quimper and in Paris during the summer of 1994—the 50th anniversary of Jacob’s death, there was an exhibition documenting this almost lifelong friendship between Max Jacob and Pablo Picasso.
“All it takes is a five-year-old in pale overalls drawing in a coloring book for a door to open into the light, for the house to be built again and the ochre hillside covered with flowers.”[iv]
Picasso claims to have completed “The Man with the Sheep” in a burst of spontaneous energy in just one day. It was first in plaster, with the legs a bit too thin to support the upper half, so he and an assistant hoisted it up with ropes, he finished what needed to be done, and then had it cast in bronze right away. However, there are several drawings made as studies for this piece from the previous year. Not only was the position of the sheep not to his liking, but the head of the figure went through several stages: a younger man, then an older one; a clean shaven figure, then a bearded one, and so on.
At the end he, Picasso, modelled the face of his friend Max Jacob onto this figure. When the piece had been cast, Picasso placed it at the top of the stairs to his studio on the rue des Grands-Augustins. Often SS Officers would climb just to the top of the stairs in surprise inspections and be met by the “Man Holding a Sheep.” They looked quickly around and returned down to the street, not realizing that Jacob had been looking down on them. Max Jacob had been arrested by the SS earlier, and was in the process of being shipped to Auschwitz, however, he died from bronchial pneumonia while in one of the deportation camps at Drancy, France.
“The Yellow Star Again”
“Are those beets your dog’s eating?”
“No, it’s a Jew who fell in the snow.”
“They could find some other place to faint instead of my sidewalk.”[v]
[i] Bernadac, Marie-Laure; Picasso Museum, Paris: The Masterpieces; Reunion des Musees Nationaux and Prestel; Paris and munich; 1991; p. 162.
[ii] Shattuck, Roger; The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France 1885 to World War I; Vintage Books, Random House; New York, New York; 1968; p. 28.
[iii] Kulik, William, editor and translater; The Selected Poems of Max Jacob; Oberlin College Press; Oberlin, Ohio; 1999; p. 57.
[iv] Kulik, William, editor and translater; The Selected Poems of Max Jacob; p. 129.
[v] Kulik, William, editor and translater; The Selected Poems of Max Jacob; p. 122.
“Here is the test of wisdom,
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools,
Wisdom cannot be pass’d from one having it to another not having it,
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof,
Applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content,
Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things;
Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.”[i]
Our students at the Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art in 1995 and 1997 often asked us, having seen pre-historic sites for the first time: how did these people know that they could build something that would last over a thousand years? The site of the Alignements at Carnac in Brittany, France is possibly one or two thousand years older than Stonehenge and constructed by what we now know to be a pre-Druidic culture. Stone constructions known as dolmens are found throughout Brittany and in Carnac proper there are alignements of stones, as many as two or three thousand, always arranged on an east to west axis, which allows for each stone to annually throw its shadow on its neighbor at both sunrise and sunset during the summer solstice.
“That grosbois is oak, ash, elm,
beech, horsbeche & hornbeam
but of acorns tithe shall be paid
For every lamb a penny
time out of mind
one lira per sheep nel Tirolo
sale must be in place overt
not in a backe-room
& between sun-up & sun-down
ut pena ad paucos
metus ad omnes perveniat
of 2 rights the more ancient preferred
Following my teaching assignments in France in 1995 and 1997 we went on several family trips to Alaska and Canada and to the Four Corners area of the lower forty-eight. Near Moab, Utah there is the site known as Newspaper Rock, which contains dozens of images inscribed into the surface of the rock face over hundreds of years. There are examples of at least three successive Native American cultures, including Anasazi, Navajo and Ute. They are pictographs and petroglyhps: images full of meaning. Similar images seem to appear in several other cultures around the world. In Wrangell Bay, Alaska, there are stones containing petroglyphs which can be seen only at low tide. They are approximately 8,000 years old and carved by the ancesters of today’s Tlingit people.
“What do you think endures? . . . .”
“A great city is that which has the greatest men and women,
If it be a few ragged huts it is still the greatest city in the whole world.”
“Than this nothing has better served, it has served all,
Served the fluent-tongued and subtle-sensed Greek, and long ere the Greek,
Served in building the buildings that last longer than any, . . . .
Served the mound-raiser on the Mississippi. . . .
Served the Albic temples in woods or on plains, with unhewn pillars and the druids. . . .
Served those who time out of mind made on the granite walls rough sketches of the sun, moon, stars, ships, ocean waves,
Served the paths of the irruptions of the Goths. . . .
Served the long distant Kelt. . . .
Served the making of helms for the galleys of pleasure and the making of those for war,
Served all great works on land and all great works on the sea,
For the medieval ages and before the medieval ages,
Served not the living only then as now, but served the dead.”[iii]
Time out of mind.
[i] Whitman, Walt; Selected Poems; Gramercy Books; New York, New York and Avenel, New Jersey; 1992; p. 153.
[ii] Pound, Ezra; The Cantos of Ezra Pound; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1979; p. 769.