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WWI Touches Pablo Picasso

By David Allen Sullivan


While award-winning poet David Allen Sullivan visited the Tate Museum Great War Art exhibition, he was most struck by a painting that seemed almost irrelevant to the other artistic representations of battle carnage in the museum: A Family by the Sea by Pablo Picasso. Sullivan, who has written poetry from the hard lens of the Iraq War in his book, Every Seed of the Pomegranate, contemplates WWI, Picasso, and the ethics of subtlety and beauty in the face of violence. For the poem, he recasts his visit to the Tate as one to the Paris Louvre exhibition, "Disasters of War 1800-2014," Read his poem, "WWI Touches Picasso," published for the first time on WWrite this week.


SullivanPaintingFamille au bord de la mer, by Pablo Picasso 

The art of World War I,

displayed on the grey walls

of the Louvre’s special exhibit

are numbing: ranked files

of death-masked soldiers,

faces crumpling into hands,

a brass general fashioned

from spent shell casing…

Sullivan17War (triptyque,1929-1932) by Otto Dix, included in the Louvre exposition, Disasters of War. Image credit:franceculture.fr


But in one eight-inch frame

beauty’s hung—three figures

frozen in a pastel-hued beach scene.

I want to live inside this painting:

hovering shawl of Mother,

inquisitive pudge of Son whose finger

probes the still neck

of sleeping Father’s sprawl.


The placard reads 1922,

says Pablo Picasso

was Spanish, so exempted

from France’s war,

but not the war from him.

He was spit on

walking the streets of Paris—

too hearty, too well fed:

Qu’est-ce que tu fous lá?

(Why the fuck are you here?)

What did he say?

What could he have said?


He painted cubist distortions

of women, painted

his need for them,

painted them in pieces

while bodies burned,

were bayoneted,

gassed, gagged,

bound, bled, evicted diarrhea,

held up hands to have fingers shot off

so they’d be sent home—drank,

shat into holes they used petrol

to burn, grew gardens by trenches,

grew lonely, gave each other

hand jobs, haircuts, porn cards—

wrote letters, poems, prayers.


Sullivan16Paris Louvre Museum presents exhibition called "Disasters of War," which includes paintings from all wars 1800-2014. This painting is entitled L' Oublié by Emile Betsellere, 1872. Image source: ouest-france.fr

But Picasso’s painting

is not about particulars—

its figures are statues

stolen from sun-baked Greece,

marbelized marionettes

on a suggestion of a beach.

Father’s eyes are closed,

but the warmth of his nipples

stare at us, pale pink

of sea anemones, drifting—

their quiet hunger, their need.


Picasso never learned to swim,

feared Marie Therese

might drown so depicted her

being rescued again and again.

I imagine Marie loved water,

the cascade of it over her limbs,

the way her hands cupped

and pushed it back to pull her forward.

She both feared and loved him,

and contracted a disease

from the dirty waters of the Seine.


Picasso eases us into

this beach’s simulacrum

of suffering. A dead body

washed up on sand—

or did someone drop it here?

Famille au bord de la mer,

is all his title tells us.

Blue grey sky layers down

to green metallic bullet sheen

of an ocean, then sand’s band

of orange. The three stripes

form a dulled-out flag.


SullivanDetail of fingerDetail of finger in Picasso's Famille au bord de la mer

Mother rises up monumentally,

capstone of the three,

white wrap half undone, her hand rests

on the back of the Son. At the base

is the prone form of naked Father,

hand cupped over genitals.

The Son’s arm, extends down

to press a finger

to the pulse-place of Father’s neck.

More detail here than anywhere else

in the painting, death-mask

laid over his form.

The man’s visage undoes

calm—Picasso’s face

from the self-portraits.


Father by dull sea—

pieta of nobility—

no marks mar his body,

no contorting

from mustard gas inhalation.

What he suffered

has been drained from his visage.

The storm

that took him has moved on.


The dead walked

the streets of Paris

on crutches, on

improvised limbs, dead eyes

burrowed in, burrowed

through him, and Picasso

could’t paint them into

or out of existence—

couldn’t touch them.


Sullivancombinedcombine imagesPoetry books by Sullivan. Top left: book translated by Sullivan with Dr. Abbas Kadhim

Author's bio

David Allen Sullivan 86David Allen Sullivan’s books include: Strong-Armed Angels, Every Seed of the Pomegranate, a book of co-translation with Abbas Kadhim from the Arabic of Iraqi Adnan Al-Sayegh, Bombs Have Not Breakfasted Yet, and Black Ice. He won the Mary Ballard Chapbook poetry prize for Take Wing, and his book of poems about the year he spent as a Fulbright lecturer in China, Seed Shell Ash, is forthcoming from Salmon Press. He teaches at Cabrillo College, where he edits the Porter Gulch Review with his students, and lives in Santa Cruz with his family. His poetry website is: https://dasulliv1.wixsite.com/website-1, a modern Chinese co-translation project is at: https://dasulliv1.wixsite.com/website-trans, and he’s searching for a publisher for an anthology of poetry about the paintings of Bosch and Bruegel he edited with his art historian mother who died recently.


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