The Picasso Papers is about an artist's work, its meaning and its value. Unlike most writers on Picasso, Rosalind Krauss puts the south of France, friends, wives, lovers and children firmly into the final chapter, which she uses quite literally as background. Her foreground is his art. So there are no pictures of the artist posing his hands next to bread rolls or holding a sun umbrella over the beautiful Francoise Gilot or dressed as a matador. There is just one photographic self-portrait; Picasso stands in the glorious isolation of a bridegroom wearing his best suit, his paintings lined up around him as if they are relatives and guests.
The book opens with what I take to be a health warning: Krauss reminds us of Andy Warhol's remark that everyone in the future will be famous for 15 minutes. She then turns to the subject of collage, then via Felix Feneon, the journalist who devised "the news in three lines", to another collagist, Andre Gide. For a while Krauss involves us in Gide's novel The Counterfeiters, which was based on three newspaper cuttings that he carried in his wallet for ten years. One told the story of a school boys' suicide pact. The other two told the story of a coin counterfeiting gang. From this introduction the book opens out in a number of directions, but at first into just two: collage and gold.
Collage, a method of making that was central to Picasso's work and lifestyle, provides the solid internal frame of the book and allows a range of diverse ideas and subjects to be brought into play. Her second theme, gold, opens doors to ideas of alchemy, forgery and pastiche. The "papers" are elegantly assembled by Krauss and presented in the style of an interwoven pair of witness statements. One for the defence, the other for the prosecution. The defence relies heavily on her own close examination of the artist's work while the prosecution calls on some powerful human witnesses - Jean Cocteau who paints himself as the pied piper in his relationship with Picasso and says, "It was I who lead him." And Robert Delaunay, who accuses Picasso of systematically "pillaging" the work of Lautrec, Ingres, Daumier, Corot and Cezanne. Throughout the book the same question is asked, how good was or is he? In the final chapter, Krauss surveys the best of the field of writing on Picasso. In doing this she allows herself just one indulgence, that of digging into biography. For the reader it is an opportunity to evaluate her view of the competition: Norman Mailer with Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man, John Berger and The Success and Failure of Picasso, Fernande Oliviers, Picasso and his Friends and Souvenirs in Time, which was edited and published after her death by Gilbert Krill. Also mentioned are David Cottington, Tom Crow, Edward Fry and John Richardson - an impressive field.
Throughout the book Krauss writes with a virtuosity and wit that is unusual in art-historical writing and more often seen at the performance end of the legal profession. But what emerges in the final chapter is the author's pleasure at having got through the book without the need for anecdote and biographical tit bit.
While sifting through her pile of evidence, she calls the date of Picasso's first meeting with Marie-Ther se into question but we are not dragged through endless scholarship. Instead she suggests we consider alchemy and she puts forward the idea that an artist may be able to stimulate ownership of something, or in this case someone, by drawing it. Her proposition is that Picasso may have actually designed his Lolita on a drawing board some two years before they were supposed to have met. According to both Marie-Ther se and Picasso they met when she was 17, in January 19 outside the Galleries Lafayette when he approached her and said: "Mademoiselle, you have an interesting face, I would like to paint your portrait. I am Picasso."
However, according to Krauss's investigations, Picasso made drawings of someone who looked like her as early as 1925. But in the end, detail like this was not what made the book.
For me, it was the author's approach to writing about art that made it so special. By establishing a view-point midway between the forensic and the poetic she constructs a beautifully bonded collage that lingers on Picasso's work and worth. The Picasso Papers will be valued by art students and art historians, but it is a book that deserves a much wider readership.
Stephen Farthing is an artist and the Ruskin master of drawing at the University of Oxford.
The Picasso Papers
Author - Rosalind Krauss
ISBN - 0 500 23761 1
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £17.95
Pages - 2