- Picasso, Comics, and Cultural Divides: Why Krazy Kat Is a Kubist Kat
Pablo Picasso had a weakness for comic strips. In Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein records a humorous incident in which Picasso and his lover Fernande quarreled over the latest Katzenjammer Kids strip, a comic featuring the rambunctious troublemakers Hans and Fritz who made constant mischief to the chagrin of a series of bumbling authority figures. When Fernande bumped into the painter on the street and asked him to share the supplement that The Kaztenjammer Kids appeared in, Picasso was having none of it. Fernande said that he “brutally refused” her the comic supplement and, according to Stein, Fernande “roused like a lioness defending her cubs” while relating these circumstances. Fernande called the affair “a piece of cruelty” she would “never forgive.”1 Poor Stein, the couple’s frequent hookup for American comics, hoped the pair would be reconciled “before the next comic supplements of the Katzenjammer kids” came out, reasoning: “if I do not give them to Pablo he will be all upset and if I do Fernande will make an awful fuss” (The Autobiography, 24).
This anecdote might amuse popular, academic, and high cultural audiences alike. For many members of all of these groups, the very name “Picasso” is and has been metonymical for high art itself. Lawrence Ferlinghetti writes “he’s no Picasso,” to characterize a personified version of the Spanish city Segovia as somewhat artless.2 Leonard Cohen’s poem “Kanye West Is Not Picasso” rebukes West’s frequent self-comparisons to the painter by calling its speaker Picasso, and it claims that speaker is “the Kanye West that Kanye West thinks he is / When he shoves your ass off the stage.”3 Even the hidden camera show Impractical [End Page 595] Jokers feeds into the narrative around the name, featuring the cast pulling pranks in a sketch called “Picass-holes” on the “future Picassos” shopping at Blick Art Materials.4 Picasso himself treated his own name as a metonym for artistic mastery, claiming “my mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.’ . . . Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.”5 In all of these disparate texts from different cultural niches, to be a “Picasso” is to be a high artist. To hear of Picasso behaving like a child over a newspaper comic strip called The Katzenjammer Kids, then, will surely register with some readers as nothing more than an extraneous factoid (albeit an amusing one) about Picasso’s reading tastes.
I will suggest another reading: that this anecdote is one nugget to be found of a mineful of contextual, thematic, and formal evidence that indicates Picasso was inspired by American comic strips. His most prominent influence was George Herriman, the cartoonist behind the bizarre anthropomorphic animal comic Krazy Kat and a contemporary of Katzenjammer Kids creators Rudolph and Gus Dirks. As comics and cubism stumbled through their early days at the beginning of the twentieth century, they played together in a sandbox of paradoxical visual temporalities. Michael Tisserand, Herriman’s biographer, claims that Marcel Duchamp’s landmark cubist piece Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was “in many ways . . . just catching up” to the innovative techniques for simulating motion and interrogating the fixity of images that newspaper cartoonists like Herriman experimented with.6 The two art forms shared a collective sense of new possibilities for the visual still image to do what the photograph could not: offer a multiplicity of perspectives on the same physical plane of the flat surface.
I argue here, then, that the most responsible reading of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat is as a narrative not only indebted to the work of Pablo Picasso and the members of his social circle, but inspirational to that company. That Krazy Kat ultimately casts the comics form itself into the central logic of cubism and of Picasso’s work (predominantly through its consistent presentation of the dissonance between signifiers and signified) will be crucial to my historical re-reading. This weaving together of the comics form and cubist...