How a Picasso Painting Helped Me Move Past Numbness After Trauma
I had not been erased by the violence I’d suffered, but was changed by it. A new, difficult layer had been added to my life.
The Tragedy. La CorridaBullfighting Scene (The Victims)
This layering speaks to the nature of tragedy itself: Tragedy never exists in isolation as a single, frozen event. Suffering is not only in the moment of trauma, but in reconciling and accepting the change that has taken place. The layers beneath The Tragedy give a sense of the time before, while the image we see is a glimpse of the aftermath. Taken as a whole, we are given an opportunity to view the transformation from before to after, the evolution caused by tragedy.
While these layers were not obvious to me when I first encountered The Tragedy, there was a sense of their truth bubbling up under the surface. Before that critical moment in the gallery, I had spent months living in the aftermath of the trauma of being raped and abducted by my ex-boyfriend. While other people my age were starting college and tasting freedom for the first time, I was isolated in a nightmare. I could not easily fall asleep or stay asleep for long before bad dreams would have me jolting upright in bed, heart racing so fast I could hear nothing but its beats in my ears. I couldn’t bear to be touched, my skin had grown too thin and fragile. Flashbacks of the assault would swell in my mind at random, unexpected intervals. My appetite had vanished, and I could barely eat; food, like other previous pleasures, brought no joy or satisfaction.
The relentless cycle continued for months until, overwhelmed, I became exhausted and emotionally numb. I remember waiting for the bus and then the metro all winter that year, exposed to the cold. Why did I not buy myself a coat? I don’t recall even considering it. Warmth, like all other feelings, was entirely unattainable and lost. It felt as if my whole self, every layer of my identity, had been erased.
The Tragedy showed me that the shape and pattern of my previous self still existed beneath the surface, and had only been covered over by my experience. I understood in the process of breaking open from numbness that I was not in fact dead. I had not been erased by the violence I’d suffered, but was, instead, changed by it. A new, difficult layer had been added to my life.
Layering speaks to the nature of tragedy itself: Tragedy never exists in isolation as a single, frozen event.
Eventually, I went back to the museum seeking another glimpse of The Tragedy. I analyzed the work as if it were an equation that could explain the secret that unlocked my numbness, the magic that allowed complex, bottled-up emotions to flood my mind and overwhelm my body. On this second viewing, I was able to pinpoint something in the mother and father—their demeanor and the fact that they cannot bear to look at each other or their surroundings poses an important question: How would it feel to suffer a loss and not feel, in some way, responsible? Like the boy, no doubt. In the faces of the mother and father is the shadow of the question they constantly ask themselves: Am I responsible for this terrible event?
I had been asking that same question of myself. The question built upon the questions asked of me, starting the night I was rescued from my ex-boyfriend’s car more than two hundred miles from my home—and then in the police station, and the hospital, and later at the trial. All of these questions implied my role as co-conspirator in the crime I’d suffered: “You dated him?” and “What were you wearing?” and “Did you fight back?”
Most scholars agree that Picasso’s grief following the suicide of his friend Casagemas inspired his blue period, which stretched from late 1901 to 1904. This traumatic event in young Picasso’s life dredged up the unresolved grief from his younger sister’s death from diphtheria in 1895. The blue period, by Picasso’s own account, is autobiographical in nature; in his art, he wrestled with his complicated feelings brought on by these losses.
When his sister was on her deathbed, Picasso offered a bargain to God: If he would save his sister’s life, Picasso would give up art. This was not a promise Picasso truly intended to keep, and when his sister died, Picasso felt responsible, like God was punishing him for his lie. Casagemas and Picasso were intimate friends; they’d shared living quarters and a lifestyle as emerging artists during Picasso’s first stay in Paris. When Casagemas fell in love with a woman who did not return his affection, his feelings turned to obsession. Picasso sought to distract his friend with a trip to Barcelona and Malaga during the Christmas holiday, but when this trip failed to bring solace to Casagemas, Picasso abandoned him to his dangerous brooding and fled to Madrid. Casagemas returned to Paris alone, and in February 1901, he took a gun to a cafe and accosted his beloved. Failing to kill her, he turned the weapon on himself.
The feeling of guilt, no matter how irrational, is like a poison. I felt the guilt radiating out from The Tragedy because I had been steeped in it every day since I’d been assaulted. The aftermath was an endless loop of wondering: Could I have made a different choice and altered the outcome? The woman and the man in The Tragedy felt this burden of shame, of an impossible responsibility. They were trapped inside of it, isolated and alone. But the young boy felt the sadness and loss without the guilt. The painting was like a mirror of my frozen self, and by looking at it directly, I was able to break open that part of me that had been imprisoned by guilt.
I had not been erased by the violence I’d suffered, but was, instead, changed by it. A new, difficult layer had been added to my life.
Picasso once said: “Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it is a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires.” He created The Tragedy as a means to embrace and transform his own loss and grief. Part of The Tragedy’s poweris rooted inthe process of creation, using layers of color, emotion, and memory that resonate through to the surface. While each image of The Tragedy can now be isolated and examined, it is only as a collective where the work achieves true beauty. The layers of trauma can never be covered over completely.
Encountering The Tragedy didn’t heal me, but it opened the way to feeling again. Feeling became the first step to reconciling who I’d been before with who I’d become, and to start along a path to find meaning in that change. This painting is imbued with a magic that reveals to me all the versions of myself bound together. Once I stumbled through my life numb and partially dead, unable to observe or escape the landscape of violent blue. Then, one day, I stood before a powerful work of art that opened my eyes, unlocked me from a loop of pain, and fueled my imagination for a world beyond a single color and layer.
Jennifer Marie Donahue’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts, The Rumpus, Pidgeonholes, Yalobusha Review, JMWW, So to Speak!, and other fine places. She currently lives in Massachusetts. You can find her online at: www.jmdonahue.com.