The Song of the Dead (Meditations on Mortality)
Picassso: The Song of the Dead (Meditations on Mortality)
The French poet Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960) wrote some 43 poems entitled “Le Chant des Morts” (The Song of the Dead) in 1945 just as World War II was coming to a conclusion – “the poems are meditations on human mortality, filled with the imagery and trauma of the recent war.” Teriade (Stratis Eleftheriades), the critic and important publisher of livres du peintres, asked Picasso if he would contribute illustrations. Teriade wanted to preserve the visual quality of Reverdy’s handwriting and decided to “print the poems using lithographic autography. He sent a sample of the poet’s handwriting to Picasso, who apparently remarked that it was ‘almost a drawing in itself.’ Consequently the artist decided against figurative illustrations, which might repeat the curved quality of the artist’s hand, in favor of abstract decorations in the manner of medieval manuscript illumination….. In 1950, the critic Jules Rene Thome wrote ‘that Picasso’s illuminations were an apt counterpart to Reverdy’s texts of suffering, misery and hope,’ and further that the vivid red marks ran across the pages ‘as if a stream of blood – the blood of the dead – had poured forth over the sheets….’
“This tragic reading of the illuminations corresponds to the somber mood and war imagery of Reverdy’s poems. But Picasso’s curving lines and flourishes also have a whimsical quality that, combined with the gradual repetition of elements, suggests the development of an idiosyncratic formal vocabulary perhaps more than the mimetic rendering of blood. If one follows the course of the illuminations from beginning to end, it becomes apparent that the circles, lines, and dots introduced at the beginning of the book quickly coalesce into a distinct repertoire of forms.
“Picasso’s swirling lines and punctuating blobs re-create the inkblot, the stain, and the scribble, the characteristic signs of the handwriting while thinking, its pauses documented in the pooling of ink upon a page.”* In 1938 Gertrude Stein in her book Picasso commented on Picasso’s calligraphy, saying “he had a certain way of writing his thoughts…that is to say of seeing things in a way he knew he was seeing them.”
In the surrealist tradition, Reverdy’s poems make no direct narrative sense. However, they clearly refer to a state of mind, a state of being, somewhere between hope and despair. The imagery is so fresh that it kind of jolts you awake. The music and the dance are not intended to literally illustrate the poems or Picasso’s calligraphy for that matter. Initially, composer Mark Scearce and I were drawn to Picasso’s very present red images, but once we had read the translations of the poems, we were equally drawn into the world that Reverdy creates. I decided to make a six movement ballet for 14 dancers. Mark and I chose six of the poems as the basis for the six movements but we were equally inspired by the imagery of the entirety of the poems as well.
The poems have been translated into English by Mary Ann Caws, but they have yet to be published. With her kind permission, we have included some of the lines from the poems in English as an introduction to each movement of the ballet in the program —Robert Weiss
*excerpts of text by Irene Small in “Picasso and the Allure of Language,” (Yale University Press, 2009) catalogue of the exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University until January 3, 2010