At the beginning of the 20th century, the machine age and the perfection of the photograph had reduced the prestige of art as a unique form of expression. In reaction to the concept that art offered no greater means of expression than the simple representation of the external world, artists such as Pablo Picasso launched into abstraction as a means of representing the idea that there remained an element that defied definition. It was a concept they referred to as the sublime – an idea that remained just out of reach of definition and, therefore, could only be suggested, never represented (Penrose, 1985). This element has also been referred to as the meaning of an image which these artists were trying to suggest was as much the result of the audience’s understanding of it as it was the result of the artist’s conception or his ability to transfer this into visual images. “It is worth emphasizing that there is no single or ‘correct’ answer to the question, ‘What does an image mean?’ or ‘What is this ad saying?’ Since there is no law which can guarantee that things will have ‘one, true meaning’, or that the meaning won’t change over time, work in this area is bound to be interpretative – a debate between, now who is ‘right’ and who is ‘wrong’, but between equally plausible, though sometimes competing and contested, meanings and interpretations” (Hall, 1997: 9). After visiting the exhibition Poetry and Drama at the Tate Modern and viewing Picasso’s painting “The Three Dancers” (1925), I have a greater understanding of what this means.
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The approach Picasso took in this piece was to portray his understanding of the realism of his subject by exploring images or visual means of portraying the result of reflections of pure emotion associated with the subject’s elemental or primitive shapes and forms. Lyotard describes this process as an attempt “to make visible that there is something which can be conceived and which can neither be seen nor made visible” (Lyotard, 1984: 78). This “something which can be conceived” but not “seen nor made visible” is called the sublime, a quality of transcendent understanding. Its significance to this discussion is in the way in which the concept of the sublime brings attention to the uncertainty of meaning inherent in the image. As it is applied in Picasso’s work, he provides just enough detail to make the subject accessible, but no clear resolution makes itself apparent, so the viewer is forced to come to an understanding of their own. This approach forces communication between the artist, the art and the viewer, which goes well beyond the representative images on the canvas and thus remains individual for each viewer. “What soon emerged as the dominant strand was that theorized by Clement Greenberg as art’s self-interrogation of its own practices and materials, as calling attention to itself” (Lapsley, 1989: 190). Within this context, this artwork ‘speaks’ and helps to illuminate Picasso’s society as well as our own only as much as we are able to interpret our own responses to the forms we find in the image.
The title of the painting gives the first clue as to what the artist had in mind when creating this image – one expects to see three people clearly engaged in some form of fluid synchronized movement. Instead, one is confronted with hard lines, jagged angles and bold colours but no realistic forms, no easily understood movements. The Tate Museum tells us, “The jagged forms of Three Dancers convey an explosion of energy. The image is laden with Picasso’s personal recollections of a triangular affair, which resulted in the heartbroken suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas. Love, sex and death are linked in an ecstatic dance. The left-hand dancer, in particular, seems possessed by uncontrolled, Dionysian frenzy. Her face relates to a mask from Torres Strait, New Guinea, owned by the artist, and points to Picasso’s association of ‘primitive’ forms with expressiveness and sexuality” (2004). This combination of historical background and interpretive definition helps the viewer to see many of the things the museum sees in the work.
After reading the museum’s description of the work, it seemed clear that they must have found the correct answer as to what the painting means. After all, the bent and crazy figure to the left is easily associated with the idea of death – it has black accents, and it is unnatural in its shape. Knowing Picasso’s philosophy regarding the sexuality of the primitive figure, it is then possible to interpret the figure to the right as that of sex, leaving the role of Love for the figure in the centre. The idea that the painting is portraying a love triangle between three lovers is also discernable as the hands seem to be all interlinked with each other. Even the idea that the love affair was disastrous seems clear in the jagged lines of the piece, with almost nothing available to soothe the eye or offer comfort and rest to the viewer. Finally, the interpretation of the piece offered by the museum is supported by interpretations offered by others, such as Jonathan Jones, critic for The Guardian, “the final horror lies in the way windows, sky and wallpaper constitute a flat plane across which the dancers are splayed, flattened against the surface like butterflies under glass” (2001).
While there are many reasons to believe that these historical interpretations are accurate, it must be acknowledged that a correct interpretation of the artwork does not need to depend so strongly upon a historical understanding of the life of the artist. For example, the painting bears a strong resemblance in its figural composition to many other famous representations of the Three Graces, who are often seen in a similar interlinked dance. This image was used throughout time to illustrate the idea of the perfect balance of joy, charm and beauty in a harmony that leads to all happiness in life (Manning, 2003). In deliberately altering this image in this somewhat violent way, it is clear to anyone familiar with the popular image of the three graces would interpret this painting as a breakdown of joy and beauty in the face of the modern world of hard angles and sharp turns. “The Three Dancers eloquently dramatizes the continuity and fracture between traditional art and the new spirit that informed culture in the early twentieth century” (Hickman, 2004: 44). This is at least as accurate an interpretation as that offered by the Tate Museum. What is interesting about this is that neither interpretation necessarily negates or contradicts the other. This suggests that there are numerous ways in which an individual might approach the painting that will have an impact on how they understand its meaning.
This examination reveals the way in which art is not static but is instead interactive with its audience. This includes the political and social ideas of the audience’s present as well as the symbols they recognize in the particular forms used and what they understand of the art and artist’s history. The postmodern movement, with its emphasis on revealing the sublime, brings these ideas forward. The “only definition” of realism is that “it intends to avoid the question of reality implicated in that art” (Lyotard, 1984: 75), while work such as Picasso’s directly addresses the reality that all meaning is subjective.
Hall, S. Representation: Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1997.
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Hickman, Richard. Art Education 11-18: Meaning, Purpose, and Direction. Issue 350. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004.
Jones, Jonathan. “The Three Dancers, Pablo Picasso.” Guardian. (2001). Web.
Lapsley, Robert & Westlake, Michael. Film Theory: An Introduction. Manchester University Press, 1989.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Manning, J.F. “The Three Graces.” Classical Mythology. Tower Web Productions, 2003. Web.
Penrose, R. Picasso: His Life and Work. London: Granada, 1985.
Picasso, Pablo. The Three Dancers. Presented by the Tate Modern: London. Display caption, 2004.