Picasso is My Rabbi

There are moments when art and religion come together perfectly. This happened to me recently, after returning from the wonderful Picasso show at the de Young Museum, all tanked up on the cubist view of the world. Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris foregrounds the autobiographical dimension of his work, which is appropriate since Picasso held onto this collection until he died, expressing as it did something essential about his vision of the world. Curator Timothy Bugard in the audio guide, describes Picasso’s understanding of art as a kind of magic, with the artist—through the hocus pocus of oil, pencil or metal—creating life out of inert objects.

How is all this Jewish? Last week’s reading from the Torah (in Hebrew, parsha Re’eh) focuses on the power of “vision” just before Moses lets the Jews enter the land of Israel on their own. God asks the people to see the possible futures in front of them—one based on moral rectitude, and therefore of communal success; the other based on impulse and paganism, leading to downfall. The vigor of the biblical language asks the reader, as God asked the ancient Jews, to keep in mind the different futures that simultaneously existed.

The “magic” of God here (so to speak) is the ability to see all possibilities simultaneously. This is also the magic of Picasso. His presentation of people and objects from multiple points of view has transformed our understanding not just of art, but of time and space, which Picasso conflated much the same way Einstein did with his theories of relativity.

My favorite piece in the show? A sculpture of Picasso’s mistress, her head sporting outlandish ridges evoking the folds of her brain, suggesting that her essence must be understood as a unification of inside and outside. Similarly, Jewish liturgy describes God as having the power to see inside of us as easily as we see the skin of our neighbors. Picasso’s authority in twentieth-century art rests, among other things, on his pointing us into the promised land of modern art, telling us what we will see long before that future will arrive.

Dan Schifrin in writer in residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.


This also makes me think of the Hebrew word for face, "panim," which is curiously a plural form, implying we can only see someone's face if from multiple viewpoints, i.e. cubism.

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