In thrall to the Minotaur's art

November 9, 2001

Picasso's dazzling capacity for reinvention consumed many in its creative fire - not least the muses who ignited it. Henry Meyric Hughes writes.

Pablo Picasso dominated the international artistic scene for 50 years of his long creative life, until some point in the 1950s, when the focus of attention shifted from Paris to New York. To early collectors, such as Leo Stein, he was the natural heir of the post-impressionists, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. At the other end of the century, he was treated as an apostle of postmodernism, and the "bad paintings" of his final years were widely collected and displayed. His biography was inseparable from that of the modern movement, its birth, its heyday and its decline. Yet the reception of his work has been curiously uneven, and affected by the vicissitudes of his life as much as by the dictates of fashion and the market.

Picasso was an inveterate hoarder, and throughout his life hid away a substantial proportion of his own production, especially works such as the unfinished painting of Eva Gou ll, The Painter and his Model (1914), which held particularly strong personal or iconographic associations for him. Thus, the touring exhibition of "Picasso's Picassos" was a revelation to the public. So, too, were the successive exhibitions of works that had been separately bequeathed to the squabbling factions of his own family. The prize exhibit was, of course, the entire selection of Picassos from all periods acquired by the French government in lieu of inheritance tax and placed on display at the Musée Picasso in Paris.

Dora Maar once told Picasso's biographer John Richardson that, "at any given period of the artist's post-cubist life there were five factors that determined his way of life and likewise his style: the woman with whom he was in love; the poet, or poets, who served as a catalyst; the place where he lived; the circle of friends who provided the admiration and understanding of which he never had enough; and the dog who was his inseparable companion and sometimes figured in the iconography of his work... As a rule, when the wife or mistress changed, virtually everything else changed."

Picasso himself saw no contradiction between the different periods in his creativity, the styles he developed and abandoned and the wide variety of media in which he expressed himself. "Every time that I have had something to say, I have said it in the way that I felt was right. Different motifs require different methods," and "This implies neither evolution nor progress, but harmony between the idea one wants to express and the ways of expressing it." But freedom such as this was hard won, and his friends were often unable to keep pace with his own restless development. He himself was remarkably adept at covering his traces, with the result that a great deal remains to be discovered about one of the most discussed and written-about artists in history.

A semi-biographical treatment, in strict order of chronology, is the approach favoured by The Ultimate Picasso , a splendid, monumental 500-page compendium with a preface by Jean Leymarie, which has the singular merit of gathering between two covers more than 1,000 images of some of the most representative examples of work from the whole of the artist's career. The authors, three of the leading French experts on Picasso, offer a wealth of informative commentary on individual works, in line with the principle enunciated by the artist himself in conversation with Brassai: "It is not sufficient to know an artist's work - it is also necessary to know when he did them, why, how and under what circumstances..."

The first and shortest part of this tripartite division of labour is devoted to Picasso's early years in Spain up to the time of his effulgent emergence at the head of a new international avant-garde on the eve of the first world war. Much of this ground has been exhaustively covered elsewhere, and Brigitte Leal produces an intelligent synthesis of the complicated developments of these years, in which Picasso seems to have digested the entire history of western painting and a good many exotic and archaic influences besides. The second and third parts, by Christine Piot and Marie-Laure Bernadac respectively, cover 1917 to 1952, when Picasso's fame was at its height and he was closely involved with many contemporary artistic and political issues, and 1953 to his death in 1973. Piot faces with equanimity the daunting task of accounting, not only for the period of the 1930s, when Picasso was assiduously courted by the younger generation of surrealists, but also the intervening period of the "return to order" and of his marriage to Olga Khokhlova, when he seemed to many to have turned his back on formal experiment yet was still capable of producing cubist masterpieces such as The Dance (1925) alongside neoclassical portraits and monumental stage designs for the ballet. To Bernadac falls the unenviable task of covering the short but protean final period corresponding to the last 13 volumes of Christian Zervos's 33-volume general catalogue, in which Picasso engaged in a last frenzy of creative activity.

All in all, The Ultimate Picasso is successful at stitching together a coherent account of Picasso's career with references to the principal works and the necessary biographical explanations. But regrettably it allows no space for visual comparisons of any kind with the work of his contemporaries, not to mention the vast range of artistic and ethnographic sources on which he drew for inspiration. Up to a point, this may be a sacrifice worth making, but we lose from not having the chance to assess, for example, the strength of Picasso's influence on Braque during the development of cubism, or of his influence on surrealism.

Less easy to understand is the lack of selected images from the wealth of photographic documentation held by the Musee Picasso. We now know of the immense importance of photographic images (not to mention the cinema) at crucial points in his career. It would have been of the greatest interest to have seen his photographs of Gosol alongside his geometricised paintings of the same subject, or photographs of some of his models, from Gertrude Stein and Fernande Olivier onwards.

That there are many ways of carving a joint is demonstrated by the catalogue of the recent Paris exhibition "Picasso Erotique". The works cover some 80 years from the artist's first, precocious interest in the female form aged eight to the voyeuristic images of his final years. Although they are of varied consequence and quality, from light-hearted caricature to searching examinations of sexual desire, they all throw light on the act of artistic creation. The early scenes are notable more for their nonchalance and elegant draughtsmanship, in the tradition of Steinlen and Toulouse-Lautrec, than for their expressive intensity, though there is no mistaking Picasso's deliberate intention to push back the frontiers of bourgeois respectability in the bedroom as much as anywhere else. A far darker streak enters the work in the run-up to the famous brothel scene, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1906-07), where the painterly act of transgression is intended as no less of an offence to aesthetic good taste as to social convention.

Small wonder that the surrealists should have hailed Picasso as a precursor, as much for the daring of his formal experiment, exemplified by his papiers collés and constructed sculptures, as for his exploration of the individual psyche and collective myth. For them, he was the embodiment of the Romantic genius, whose creative and transformative powers were inseparable from the darker passions of the night. On the evidence of this publication, the apogee of Picasso's erotic and creative powers was reached in the extraordinary series of works inspired by the youthful Marie-Thérèse Walter, which peak in the paintings of beach scenes at Dinard, the etched illustrations to Ovid's Metamorphoses and the phallic sculptures of the early 1930s.

Loving Picasso : Private Journal of Fernande Olivier and Mary Ann Caws's biography of Dora Maar throw further light on Picasso's sometimes tempestuous relationships with women, and on his cultural milieu. The first combines a retranslation of Fernande's memoirs with excerpts from her private journal. "La belle Fernande", as she was known to her friends, was the first of Picasso's long series of live-in lovers, who laid full-time claim to his part-time attentions and, it would seem, the first to be accorded the treatment that Françoise Gilot described as progressing from pedestal to doormat. No single style or appearance is identified with Fernande in Picasso's art, unlike with his later mistresses, but she spent the greater part of eight years (1904-12) at Picasso's side and witnessed his meteoric ascent to fame. The familiar parts of the book are the descriptions of the " vie de bohême " in Montmartre; the experiments with opium (abruptly curtailed by the shocking suicide of the painter Wiegels); the banquet in honour of Douanier Rousseau; the affair of the theft of some Iberian statues from the Louvre, in which Picasso and Apollinaire were implicated; and Picasso's moods of self-absorption, when he ignored Fernande altogether, or of blind jealousy, when he locked her away, out of sight. But equally intriguing are accounts of her early childhood and her artistic milieu as artists' moll (and professional model) in the years before Picasso. Her private journal is remarkably candid on the tribulations of a single woman in Paris c .1900, whose options lay somewhere between prostitution and eking out an existence as a washerwoman or seamstress. There are fascinating descriptions of posing for some of the leading academic painters of the day (all of them now forgotten), and of the rich, the famous and the powerful who frequented these artists' studios in search of immortality or a pretty girl.

By the time Picasso joined up with Maar in 1936, he was at the zenith of his fame but in something of a creative trough, after the original fire had gone out of the relationship with Walter. The cosmopolitan Dora was a very different kind of muse from the easy-going and extroverted Marie-Thérèse. As her successor Gilot acknowledged, Maar was "an artist who understood [Picasso] to a far greater degree than the others". Dark-haired, intense, intelligent, opinionated and wilful, she has become identified in the mind of the public with Picasso's angular images of the Weeping Woman (1937) and with the violence and suffering associated with Guernica and other works of the time.

Otherwise she was a largely forgotten figure, at least until recently. Yet as Caws convincingly reveals, by 1936 Maar had already established a considerable reputation, as a creative photographer and as a free thinker with strong libertarian, leftist tendencies. Her previous lovers had included the writer Georges Bataille, and through him she had met many of the surrealists; Paul Eluard became a particular friend. As a commercial photographer, she worked primarily in advertising, in a style initially related to the sober matter-of-factness of Emanuel Sougez and "the new photography", but she developed an increasing appetite for technical experiment after her contact with Brassai, Man Ray and others. A happy outcome was her creation of a remarkable collection of "Rayograms" and clichés verre in collaboration with Picasso in 1936-37.

However, he seems always to have been jealous of her artistic independence. Their relationship turned into a sometimes violent struggle for domination, which she eventually lost and which was aptly symbolised by Picasso's bestial painting, Dora and the Minotaur . In time, he persuaded her to abandon photography in favour of painting, for which she showed some talent, though her concurrent appropriations of his images of weeping women illustrated in this book show his overwhelming influence. His subsequent rejection of her was sudden and brutal. After a nervous breakdown and two years of therapy with the surrealists' favourite psychiatrist, Jacques Lacan, Maar recovered her equilibrium, but never again her creative independence; in the last five decades of her life she was a religious recluse. Caws's book is an intriguing, readable and amply illustrated biography of an unjustly neglected figure, even if the narrative is sometimes uncomfortably divided between the two protagonists.

The poet Max Jacob said that Picasso would rather have been famous as Don Juan than as an artist. In point of fact he finished famous as both, though there is scant possibility of enjoying his erotic works in the way that Jean Clair, the editor of Picasso Érotique , suggests we might have done, "before feminism poisoned relations between the two sexes". For the modern spectator, there is something still more deeply disturbing about these images than the knowledge that many of their subjects were consumed by the very heat to which they were attracted: that is Picasso's fear, which he was forced to confront, of emotional sterility and death. What greater pathos could be imagined than the 156 brothel scenes that Picasso engraved, between January 1970 and June 1972 (the year before his death), in which the artistic persona is introduced one last time, no longer as an active participant but as a voyeur in a posture of resignation and despair?

Henry Meyric Hughes was formerly director of exhibitions, South Bank Centre, and is now an independent curator and writer on art.

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