Animality & Tragic Affirmation in Picasso’s ‘The Three Dancers’

The Three Dancers  - 1925

There is no outside to which we can consign wildness, no door to slam shut against the inevitability of otherness. Picasso’s three figures materialize from the shards of a room whose surfaces disrupt them, their joined hands uniting them in a circle that drives the viewer’s eye in a tangled continuum. As they participate in a colorful union and dissolution with the space they inhabit, they are reminiscent of the three Fates, spinning, weaving, and destroying the fabric of life; their wildness becomes indistinguishable from the exhilaration of their communion. The dancer on the left, who many call the maenad, rears back, her face split in an expression of terror, or perhaps of ecstasy, as the subtle animal in her body emerges. The extraordinary blues of the exterior trespass on the three dancers, erasing depth and engendering a sense of uneasy delight, or perhaps of terrifying exuberance. That all of this can be read into the collection of distorted shapes that unite to form The Three Dancers is a testament to Picasso’s grasp of the workings of the human eye, and how it might interact with form, color, and space in order to give rise to a new understanding of human nature.

When T.J. Clark claims that the blues in The Three Dancers draw the outside in, he essentially posits, via Nietzsche, that Picasso’s painting is a study of the human as animal. Invoking a Dionysian rhetoric of the body in the context of a painterly project, the painting sets in motion a maelstrom of spirits in order to reconcile two historically oppositional worlds conjured by way of a language of light and dark, high and low, bright and obscure, intelligible and arcane. Clark summarizes the painting’s vital thesis using a language of space: “Things in the world have more than one aspect; but no one aspect is a hidden or repressed truth of the other, coming out from behind or underneath the ordinary” (141). In other words, the wild is always inextricable from the plain, the inconceivable entwined with the factual, and the animal irrevocably tangled with the human body.

As Picasso establishes a new kind of interior, the warm, comfortingly bourgeois sitting room of the past gives way to history. However, something much more radical is required of the modern painter than simply securing another form of interiority; rather, Picasso knits together inside and outside, each engaging in an evasive dance with the other until, as Clark writes, depth becomes an impossibility. This is the “Untruth” conceived by Picasso in terms of space. “Is this what the maenad is dancing?” Clark demands, “Isn’t she the lie personified—the lie hallowing itself, the untrue (the made-up) unfolding itself as the way things are?” (132). The relegation of wildness to its dark corner is made impossible. That which is savage in the world is made visible in its ubiquity. It is not a lightening of the dark or a darkening of the light, but rather an emergence of color, of shapes, of space determining presence and presence determining space.

This, according to Clark, is what Picasso’s blues are telling us as they reveal themselves through and around the three dancing figures. His is not a violent thesis, but a thesis about the human-as-animal, acknowledging savagery, otherness and discord as part and parcel of vision rather than as shadows loitering at its dark and squalid sidelines. For “untruth in Picasso is always terrible. It is a pressure from elsewhere—collapsing space, producing disfigurement” (136). The ulterior space invades every recess of the overt so that it draws acute attention to itself and can no longer quite fully be differentiated; The Three Dancers, contrary to others of Picasso’s works like The Bird Cage wherein “inside and outside have fused, or folded neatly into one another,” lets its horror be known intimately. It is a terror that “has to do with the world [the painting shows] being believable—counterfactual—but nonetheless (one is tempted to say, therefore) unavoidable, inhabitable, apt” (130). By folding the terrible in with the interior, by bringing the horrors of nature into the room, Picasso’s dancers’ disjointed limbs bind with the space itself; their dance is the internalized acknowledgement of the necessity of ugliness as it is rendered visible.

Thus human life is revealed as monstrous; that is, the human is exposed as monster. And what is a monster but a creature, an animal? The existing vocabulary used to describe the perversion of human features all lies in the realm of wildlife, for there exists in the animal both the possibility and the difficult reality of unmitigated aggression. Dionysus, deity of feral enjoyment, is most often invoked by the image of the satyr, bearded half-man half-goat. In a world where the cerebral is associated entirely and fully with the rational, the body is relegated to a position in outside of thought, its fleshiness relying on a pure instinct supposedly untouchable by judgement and therefore in some way dangerous in its untamable externality, in its distinct promise of untempered barbarity. This potential manifests in the everyday as a generalized anxiety directed toward the animal being—its otherness and its simultaneous familiarity are generally either anthropomorphized or feared to the point of hatred. Indeed, language of animality pulls at Dionysian tendencies to revel in ferocity, to unwind social boundaries and, like the maenad to the left of the three dancers, throw back the head in a feral cry utterly divorced from any attention to the parameters of human behavior. Freud spoke of the loss of nature from the civilized world as humanity’s process of mourning its primitive, pre- egoical self—the self inclined toward a pure movement inaccessible by means of language—which results in a marked hostility toward that self as represented by its visible remains in the natural world: the animal.

Moving to Clark’s claim that for Picasso, untruth is “a here in which all possible theres are suspended” (135), the maenad’s animal cry seems to preempt not only a here, but a now. Nietzsche wrote about the animal in On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life a few years after the publication of The Birth of Tragedy:

“The man says ‘I remember’ and envies the animal which immediately forgets and sees each moment really die, sink back into deep night extinguished forever. In this way the animal lives unhistorically: for it goes into the present like a number without leaving a fraction; it does not know how to dissimulate, hides nothing, appears at every moment fully as what it is and cannot but be honest.” (61)

It naturally follows this that the animal is intimately acquainted with death. Its existence is tied to a continual dying, and its unceasing forgetting allows it to persist without pretense, without past, and without future. Akira Lippit writes in Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife that “animal being forces humanity to acknowledge the finitude of world: that is, animals tear humanity away from the imagined totality of world” (71).

And so the painting inevitably arrives at Death, though the word “arrival” mistakenly implies a stasis. “The painting, we know, is a dance of death,” writes Clark (141), a redundancy in terms because dance is death. Not only is it a form of expression predicated upon an absolute ephemerality wherein each moment immediately must give way to the next, but it is entirely reliant upon the body without speech—the body before speech. Writing about Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, Lippit claims: “By engaging the animals, Zarathustra—and by inference, humanity—plummets from the edifice of world (language and memory) into the immemorial open of a time before world. And this time before world, this prehistory of man, returns to humanity as the figure of the animal” (71).

Within this exploration of pre-human era comes arrives the pervasive sense of melancholy that necessarily accompanies embodied action. Marcia Siegel famously wrote that “dance exists at a perpetual vanishing point” (Siegel, 1), a statement which firmly relegates movement to a temporality whose history persistently erases itself. As dance scholar André Lepecki writes, there is a “subtlety in dance’s lament, and in its lamentable condition of being doomed to forgetfulness as soon as it is performed. . . . Under these conditions, the dancer is always already an absent presence in the field of the gaze, somewhere between body and ghost, a flash suspended between past and future” (Lepecki, 124-125). Picasso’s three dancers hang similarly suspended, their freedom limited by their space as it intervenes and intrudes upon their discontinuous bodies.

The atemporal quality that the dancing body possesses allows it to contribute to an expansion of the idea of the present beyond its traditional limits and towards an active invocation of that which is absent. According to Lepecki, this allows for the possibility of “an accounting of the ghostly that could dispel the morbid forces of melancholia, and propose a joy at the edge of the temporal abyss” (130). In other words, much like tragedy did for the ancient Greeks, dance supplies a retreat, or perhaps an emergence, into a sense of timelessness whose recognition of death is so complete that it no longer views presence and absence as opposites.

The idea of the animal described here, the human-as-animal, runs parallel to Clark’s thesis about Picasso’s exploration of tragic affirmation: even in the persistent and inexorable presence of brutality, decay, and death, life’s reducibility to mere tragedy is not ultimately pessimistic or optimistic, but forthrightly affirmative of the natural truths of the world. This corroborates Clark’s claim that “certainly Picasso is interested in the fearful, the inexplicable, and the incalculable. He thinks they are part of ordinary life. But that is the point. They are not background or opposite to existence; they are in the room among us” (141). Our untamable savagery, our “nameless wildness,” can be found in the very bodies whose animality our Apollonian tendencies attempt to reject. Death cannot be eradicated from vision because vision is death—the very possession of vision signifies the ability to die.

Thus, when Picasso chose to eliminate depth from his painting, he did so with what I see as a tacit consciousness of what Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus call “becoming- animal”:

“To become animal is to participate in movement . . . to cross a threshold, to reach a continuum of intensities that are valuable only in themselves, to find a world of pure intensities where all forms come undone, as do all significations, signifiers, and signifieds, to the benefit of an unformed matter of deterritorialized flux, of nonsignifying signs . . . . There is no longer anything but movements, vibrations, thresholds in a deserted matter. . .” (234)

While they acknowledge that the animal being has its own finality and is not exempt from framework or configuration, Deleuze and Guattari reach a crux of the complex notion of what it might mean to occupy the animal body. This a powerful space, and one that I believe Picasso’s Three Dancers, even given its static manifestation as a painting, manages both to inhabit and to acknowledge. It does so by virtue of its allowance of a marriage between Apollonian and Dionysian discourses, its clear-headed acceptance and portrayal of the terrifyingly beautiful reality inherent in dissonance. It is a pleasure or a discomfort that pulls at our senses by way of the animal bodies we all possess.

In a conversation with curator Helen Molesworth, choreographer Paul Chan remarked that dance is about “what it means to have a body and how it can fall apart—how it can all go wrong and we still have to go on” (40). This sentiment is particularly Nietzschean in its bold statement—the body can and does fall apart—but that there exists the possibility to go on, the hope of persistence in the face of collapse and without promise of fruition, is evidence of dance’s roots in a discourse of tragic affirmation. Chan continues: “Going on is a kind of dance wisdom, I suppose, and I think it’s a wisdom that warns against the idea that we can ever be whole” (40). The maenad’s fragmented body, her limbs invaded by space as it presses through and around her, her animal expression of hideous joy and her perpetual, improbable dance, illustrate a confident and palpable articulation of that same wisdom: the knowledge and acceptance of the “primal contradiction hidden within the things of this world” (Nietzsche, 50). But there is no need of a perfect reconciliation of disparate elements, as that would be loyal to a false unity that has no place in this discourse of the world as it is; for Nietzsche and Picasso, Clark argues, Truth is unknowable. But Untruth as a proposal “is only interesting (only persuasive) if it is made, in practice, in the face of Truth—in Truth’s aftermath” (133). By allowing this contradiction to meet and converse in a space whose exterior and interior have coalesced, Picasso proves that the two sides of a seemingly unbridgeable chasm have in fact been in the room together all along.
Works Cited

Clark, T. J. Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica. Princeton University Press, 2013. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1987. Print.

Lepecki, André. Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movement. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Lippit, Akira Mizuta. Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2000. Print.

Molesworth, Helen Anne. “A Conversation between Paul Chan and Helen Molesworth.” Dance/ Draw. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2011. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Birth of Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Siegel, Marcia B. At the Vanishing Point: A Critic Looks at Dance. New York: Saturday Review, 1972. Print.


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