The macho maestro

Picasso and Portraiture - A Life of Picasso - Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man
February 14, 1997

There is no question of his genius. I suggest, however, that changing the course of European Art does not ipso facto improve that course and that, whilst to have done so compels admiration, it does not necessarily command veneration ... The whole body of Picasso's work amounts, in my opinion, to a vast series of brilliant paraphrases on the history of art."

Thus Michael Ayrton, aged 23, in 1944. While, over three decades, he modified his views, he did not entirely abandon them and, after half a century, these are questions which should still be addressed, particularly in the face of these three substantial books, the great exhibition which spawned William Rubin's volume, the Merchant Ivory film starring Anthony Hopkins and the revelatory late Braque show at the Royal Academy.

Norman Mailer's book is a brisk canter over the same ground as Richardson's two volumes, ie from birth to 1917, and is very much the tribute of one short macho maestro to another. Inevitably, as the work of a distinguished novelist and essayist, it has its apercus: "No man ever loved and hated women more", "Cubism was easily as complex as three-dimensional chess". But for all its massive annotation, this is not a valuable book. Replete with the great names of early 20th-century culture it, quite amazingly, has no index. Nearly three perfectly pleasant chapters are based on the memoirs of Fernande Olivier before she even met Picasso. Juan Gris, the third man of cubism, protege and worshipper of Picasso, who used the same dealer, etc, gets only one brief mention on page 366. On the other hand, Mailer takes a crack or two at Roland Penrose, author of the best English language book on Picasso before John Richardson's, and actually quotes himself on Henry Miller to make a point on Picasso. Furthermore the author of The Prisoner of Sex manages to see a vagina in a heavily ornate square mirror in an 1897 oil painting yet fails to see the point of a drawing of a woman masturbating, which he reproduces as "Untitled (Nude in a Hammock)". One does not need to be sex obsessed to see that, like an erotic Russian doll, the lady in question is performing inside a wonderfully explicit giant vagina, clitoris, luxuriant pubic hair and all. Significantly, Richardson's book also reproduces this miniature erotic masterpiece of 1903 in his book simply as "Erotic Drawing".

Rubin's collection of essays to celebrate Picasso and Portraiture is the kind of art book ordinary book publishers used to dream about and occasionally produce, but which are now impossible unless in the form associated with a great exhibition. This book is, however, no mere catalogue of the New York Moma show. It contains a number of deeply researched essays on many aspects of Picasso's prolific portraiture. One of the best is Robert Rosenblum's "Picasso's blonde muse: the reign of Marie-Therese Walter". In it, Rosenblum sets out one of the cruxes of understanding Picasso: "I heard a startling comment about Picasso from Charles Seymour I Confronted with the recurrent problem of how to explain to undergraduates the bewildering sequence of periods and 'isms' in what was then only a half-century of Picasso's art, he threw out the whimsical idea that perhaps the master's rapid succession of changing and often contradictory styles might best be defined by the names of the women who, one after another, had dominated his private life. At the time, the suggestion seemed naively off the mark I But today, almost 50 years later, the visible connection between Picasso's art and love life is ... taken for granted."

There are other absorbing chapters by various hands including Marilyn McCully, Richardson's properly acknowledged collaborator. Given Seymour's analysis, it is perhaps surprising that there is no separate chapter in Rubin on Fernande Olivier and Marcelle Humbert/Eva Gouel, the two principal mistresses of the period covered by Richardson's second volume. But their images still pepper the book along with Walter, Olga Khokhlova, Dora Maar, Francoise Gilot and Jacqueline Roque, all of whom lived with or married Picasso and made their own unique contributions to his changes of style and imagery.

Not that this book is so simplistic as to be a mere anthology of Picasso's sexual muses. One of the most interesting chapters is devoted to the three poets and critics who so influenced him in the first quarter of the century: Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire and Andre Salmon. Ann Baldassari's view of Picasso's use of photography is particularly helpful, although we could have done with rather more of Picasso's fairly obsessive self-photographs. (Happily, Richardson includes a generous selection of these often cheerfully - or gleefully - somewhat priapic snapshots.) One of the particular joys of Rubin's book is its lavishness, not merely in terms of size or quality of paper, printing and binding, but in the possibly unique repetitiveness of the illustrations. Inevitably, among such authoritative contributors, several of them will remark upon the same painting or drawing. Instead of referring the reader backwards or forwards to the illustration in another chapter the item is simply reproduced again, exactly where one wants it to be. May the profligacy of the Moma never diminish!

Richardson's second volume is also generously illustrated with, I would guess, close on 1,000 modest black and white pictures integrated with the text, making it one of the most user-friendly biographies of an artist ever published. From possibly the late 1960s and certainly from the early 1970s, Richardson's essays on Picasso in The New York Review of Books commanded attention rather as Robert Craft's Stravinsky chronicles did in the same journal. But, while Richardson knew Picasso, he was not, like Craft, a kind of amanuensis or recorder for posterity. Always his own man, he brought a special kind of astringency to his life with and of Picasso.

This volume begins with "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" and gives us a brilliant analysis of the birth, life and death of cubism and the symbiotic artistic relationship with Braque. It ends with Picasso going off to Rome to re-invent neoclassicism, or rather, despite Picasso's declared intention of becoming "A new David", and having "a go at painting the Horatii", standing it on its head. Richardson is wonderfully perceptive about "Les Demoiselles" after he has given a detailed history of its origins, conception, execution and almost endless alteration: "Familiarity has inured us to the horror that these dog-faced demoiselles caused when they were first unveiled almost a century ago. It was as if Picasso had unleashed a new race of Gorgons on the world ... In fact his masterpiece is not so much unfinished as unfinishable. Hence its everlasting, open-ended fascination."

Picasso does of course emerge as a genius, an artist of almost demonic energy and virtuosity. But he is also, with his tertulia, his gang of friends, cronies, hangers on and talented (but not so talented as to overshadow him) fellow painters, poets, critics and patrons, a mesmeric personality. As the ringmaster of the tertulia he was clearly one of the most dominant and charismatic of men. Although he was exclusively heterosexual, both men and women were sexually drawn to him. Homosexual poets like Max Jacob and Jean Cocteau were dazzled by him. Only fellow artists of equal stature could remain unseduced and even then, as in the case of Matisse, their intense rivalry for the post of unchallenged leader of the modern movement did not entirely quench either mutual respect or a moderately warm friendship. With Braque, as they invented and sustained cubism and, having accepted Juan Gris as one of them, fended off all the second-rate imitators, the relationship, while occasionally tense, was warm and affectionate. It lasted in close intimacy until the outbreak of war in 1914, when Braque and Apollinaire went off to fight and be seriously wounded while Picasso, as a Spaniard and an alien, avoided war and cleared his bank account in the form of gold francs.

Richardson is even-handed on Picasso's relationships with women and he shows with much enticing biographical detail what they did for him and what he did to them. Yet Picasso is far from being the sexual monster of myth. He dearly loved first Fernande and then Eva and, given his very Spanish superstitious horror of death, was deeply attentive to her when she was dying of cancer. He also had his failures, being turned down by at least two prospective wives, but in the end, like most great artists, he was totally ruthless in his personal relationships if art was at stake. Art always won.

One also learns much about Picasso's relationships with dealers - inevitably suspicious - and with patrons - inevitably manipulative. But Picasso was always very businesslike and, before the days when successful artists would not cross the road without legal advice, Picasso wrote admirably clear and tough letters about his artistic obligations and his prices. Interestingly, no doubt because his principal dealers were Germans living in Paris (Kahnweiler as professional and Uhde as semiprofessional), Picasso's main market was in Germany. Thus the beginning of war was a near catastrophe for him and he made poor innocent Kahnweiler, who was an enemy alien and had to flee to Switzerland, suffer dreadfully (his property, including Picasso paintings, sequestered).

During and after the war, Picasso's market shifted largely to America, led, as so often, by the indefatigable and far-sighted Irish American lawyer John Quinn. Shamefully, Picasso had few British patrons at this time and, at the outbreak of war, half the Picassos in England were hanging in the German embassy.

Throughout, Richardson gives wonderful sketches of Picasso's patrons and, unlike Mailer, who accepts secondary sources such as Fernande, Olivier or Gertrude Stein as gospel, does his own research and frequently exposes the accounts of Stein and others for the self-serving narratives they often are.

My only criticism of Richardson's great endeavour is that he constantly gives Picasso's prices in pre-1918 French francs with no pound or dollar equivalent so that we could at least adjust for inflation.

All in all, however, it is impossible to admire this biography too much. Richardson is wonderfully sure-footed in his narrative skill, moving the story ahead of the chronology if necessary, as in the Douanier Rousseau sections.

And how can anyone wedded to the culture of this country not admire a biographer who informs us that the fifth of Rilke's Duino Elegies was inspired by the Saltimbanques and that Richard Strauss's librettist for Der Rosenkavalier, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, used his royalties to buy the great self-portrait Yo Picasso?

Ayrton's 1944 reservations still have some force. But, as Richardson shows, the brilliant paraphrases have metamorphosed into brilliant originality.

Tom Rosenthal is a publisher, critic and author of The Art of Jack B. Yeats.

Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation

Editor - William Rubin
ISBN - 0 500 23724 7
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £55.00
Pages - 495

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