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Pepe Karmel. La matérialité du signe

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Pepe Karmel. La matérialité du signe

Pablo Picasso Les Baigneurs

Pablo Picasso, Les Baigneurs, Cannes, 1956, Bronze , fondu à la cire perdue. Paris, musée Picasso. MP352;MP353;MP354;MP355;MP356;MP357 © RMN-Grand Palais (musée Picasso de Paris) / Droits réservés

I propose, here, to read Picasso’s sculptures of 1949–56 from the point of view of Roland Barthes’s criticism, drawing on both his early semiological writing and his later distinction between the “pleasure” and “ecstasy” (or jouissance) provoked by a text or a work of art. Barthes turned to semiology to get away from biography, and this refusal of the biographical is especially important for works like the two Pregnant Women that Picasso sculpted in 1949–50 (figs. 1 and 2). The 1950 sculpture is usually interpreted in biographical terms as a “naturalistic” image representing Picasso’s desire to have a third child with Françoise Gilot. In contrast, the 1949 sculpture defies a naturalistic reading. It has been reduced to a linear image inscribed in a two-dimensional plane, like a sign drawn on an (invisible) piece of paper.

This sign-sculpture corresponds to an idea that Picasso frequently expressed in his conversations of the 1940s: that “painting and … sculpture … are forms of writing. The products of these arts are signs, emblems, not a mirror, more or less distorted, of the external world.” These remarks seem to have been stimulated by a late 1930s encounter with prehistoric engraved pebbles, bearing designs like those published in Hugo Obermaier’s El hombre fossil of 1916. Obermaier reproduced a series of geometric designs, some obviously evoking the human body, others more abstract (fig. 3). Indeed, there is a striking resemblance between Picasso’s Pregnant Woman of 1949 (fig. 1) and the drawing in the center of the top row of Obermaier’s diagram.
In 1948, Picasso told Françoise Gilot: “If I telegraph one of my canvases to New York … any house painter should be able to do it properly. A painting is a sign—just like the sign that indicates a one-way street.” The sheet-metal sculptures that Picasso made in the late 1950s (fig. 4) were in effect inscribed panels like those of road signs. By this time, the multiplication of billboards was transforming the urban environment. The sign was no longer a supplement to the real world; rather, the world itself seemed to be composed of signs. This transformation was a subject of lively debate among American critics.
During the 1960s, Roland Barthes often taught in the United States, and it was in this context that he developed his semiological ideas. Barthes emphasized the idea of a signifier that has become detached from its signified, so that it represents nothing but itself. This is crucial concept for our understanding of sculptures such as Picasso’s Bathers of 1956 (fig. 5). Obviously the wooden planks (later cast in bronze) represent human figures, but by reducing them to a series of rectangles, triangles, and circles Picasso transforms them into signs, arranged in space like a series of hieroglyphs, tracing the orthography of a sentence that remains untranslatable. The “pleasure” of reading (in Barthes’ sense) is frustrated, producing instead an effect of “ecstatic” encounter with the material qualities of the signifier.

Pepe Karmel enseigne l’histoire de l’art à l’université de New York. Son livre Picasso and the Invention of Cubism a été publié par Yale University Press en 2003. Il a organisé l’exposition « Robert Morris: Felt Works » au Grey Art Gallery, New York University, en 1989. Avec Kirk Varnedoe, il a été commissaire de l’exposition rétrospective de « Jackson Pollock » au Museum of Modern Art de New York, en 1998. Organisateur en 2004 de « L’Époque de Picasso : dations aux musées américains » à Rome et à Santander, en Espagne, il a également été commissaire de l’exposition « New York Cool: Painting and Sculpture from the NYU Collection » en 2008, et, avec Joachim Pissarro, de « Conceptual Abstraction », au Hunter College/Times Square Gallery en 2012. Auteur de nombreux essais pour des catalogues d’exposition, il a aussi écrit sur l’art moderne et contemporain pour des publications comme Art in America et le New York Times. Il travaille actuellement sur Abstract Art: Bodies, Landscapes, Architectures, ouvrage à paraître chez Thames & Hudson en 2018.

Pepe Karmel teaches in the Department of Art History, New York University. His book, Picasso and the Invention of Cubism, was published by Yale University Press in 2003. He organized the 1989 exhibition, Robert Morris: Felt Works, at the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, and was co-curator, with Kirk Varnedoe, of the 1998 retrospective, Jackson Pollock, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 2004, he organized The Age of Picasso: Gifts to American Museums, which was seen in Rome and in Santander, Spain. He was the curator of New York Cool: Painting and Sculpture from the NYU Collection, in 2008, and the co-curator, with Joachim Pissarro, of Conceptual Abstraction, seen at the Hunter College/Times Square Gallery in 2012. He has contributed to numerous other exhibition catalogues, and has written widely on modern and contemporary art for publications including Art in America and The New York Times. He is currently working on Abstract Art: Bodies, Landscapes, Architectures, to be published by Thames & Hudson in 2018.