Picasso & Co.
Success and Failure of Picasso
Picasso, Shakespeare, Aragon
By the time Picasso’s eighty-fifth birthday year is over, major exhibitions will have taken place in Basel, Dallas, Fort Worth, Los Angeles, London, New York, Paris, and lesser ones will have cropped up all over the world. Meanwhile, every Picasso dealer is putting on a show to promote his holdings, and publishers are announcing new titles or revamping old ones. The irony is that all this public acclaim, unprecedented in the life of an artist, should come at a time when the more thoughtful young artists and critics have turned to new gods—just as fifty years ago they rejected the work of the aged Monet and supported cubism. But more of this later.
French recognition took the form of two vast retrospectives—284 paintings at the Grand Palais, 508 drawings, collages, sculptures, and ceramics (virtually all from Picasso’s own collection) at the Petit Palais—which were seen by a record total of 850,000 people. The figure is probably nearer a million, as the city of Paris organized an exhibition of the artist’s graphic work at the Bibliothèque Nationale. However, the less said of the latter show the better; the Bibliothèque seemed only out to disclaim its ownership of the largest public collection of Picasso graphics.
How disappointing, after so much tam-tam, to find that Malraux’s sense of ceremony should have failed him! The Grand Palais appeared to be making do with decor left over from the Salon des Arts Ménagers, but in fact the poky corridors, cramped nooks, and hazardous crannies had been specially devised by Malraux’s protégé, Reynold Arnould. So proud was Arnould of his handiwork that he exhibited a model of his lamentable installation in the middle of the show, thus compounding the felony. On the other hand, the exhibition at the Petit Palais not only looked better: it included a higher percentage of unpublished or unfamiliar things.
Picasso refused to come to Paris to hang—or see—the exhibition. “Why bother to arrange the pictures,” he snorted, “just stick them on the wall the way they come out of the truck.” If the artist had had his way, we would at least have been treated to some eye-opening confrontations. As it was, important and less important pictures of the same period or series were jammed together so that they clashed or canceled one another out. Not only did the hanging fail to make sense historically, stylistically, and aesthetically, but traces of scotch tape on the glass gave some of the pictures a Vaserely-ish veil. In the circumstances, my sympathies went out to Professor Jean Leymarie whose carefully chosen groups of pictures—they did justice to every phase of the artist’s work except, predictably, the Françoise Gilot period (1945-53)—were made to look less coherent and representative than they really were. Leymarie’s fully illustrated, if hastily compiled, catalogue provides a tantalizing record of what should and could have been a real apotheosis.
SO FAMILIAR are Picasso’s achievements that it would be vain to expect a retrospective to provide any very fresh revelations. To the student of Picasso, therefore, the Paris show was primarily an occasion for testing or reappraising his feelings about the artist’s work in the light of new criteria or concepts. This opportunity was the more welcome, given the recent wave of coolness and anti-humanism that has hit the art world on both sides of the Atlantic. This development has, I am sure, influenced us more than we realize, in particular in our reaction to an artist as warm and quintessentially humanistic as Picasso.
Right or wrong, many of the younger generation find Picasso’s affective qualities an unsurpassable obstacle to understanding, let alone appreciating, the artist’s work. Others with warmer blood continue to revel in Picasso’s blend of torrid paganism and Spanish duende. Yet others—myself included—find that coolness or alienation makes for a more dispassionate and therefore more discriminating approach to visual experience. Thanks to it, things fall more easily into their true place. For instance, in the Paris show I was at last able to understand the vital function of expressionism in the artist’s work. (Why are writers shy of applying this term to Picasso, when his later pictures abound in expressive distortion?) For instance, on the rare occasions when the artist is flagging, he uses expressionistic devices to ginger things up or to counteract a tendency to sweetness, as in portraits of his children. And when this dawns on one, quite a few strong-looking pictures begin to wilt.
On the other hand, when Picasso is at the height of his form, as in the Dora Maar portraits, the distortions always appear to stem spontaneously and organically from the nature of the image. Indeed, the Paris show demonstrated that Picasso, like Cézanne, works best under the pressure of extreme anxiety—anxiety lest he fail to make yet another formal or technical breakthrough, anxiety resulting from public or private miseries. The first kind of anxiety helped to generate cubism, the second sparked the agonized paintings about the artist’s conflict with his first wife, also Guernica, the Dora Maars and more harrowing portraits of Jacqueline, his present wife. Pictures such as these are acclaimed with some justice as the most moving Picassos ever painted. However, if you dissociate yourself from their emotional demands, you will discover that they have a much wider field of visual experience to offer. Likewise Picasso’s sculpture: the fact that this is mostly free of the artist’s Sturm und Drang tendencies made the section devoted to it the most acceptable to cool taste. Then again it was clear that Picasso had anticipated many of the more interesting developments in contemporary sculpture and assemblage, from Smith to Samaras, Nevelson to Oldenberg. But will New York think so when this, the first almost complete showing of Picasso’s sculpture, comes to the Museum of Modern Art later this year?
OF THE BOOKS ON PICASSO to appear here this anniversary year the best is the one by Brassaï, largely because it always relates the pattern of the man’s life to the pattern of his art—a sine qua non with Picasso. In addition the tone is neither too unctuous or flip, but as dry and deadpan as Brassaï’s best photographs. What better antidote to the poisonous chitchat that one of Picasso’s ex-mistresses, Françoise Gilot, published in 1964? Unlike the self-righteous Gilot who gave free rein to an abundantly creative memory, Brassaï has drawn on detailed notes made over thirty years (1932-1960). But he has done some wise cropping and concentrated the greater part of his book on three crucial years (1943-46), every bit as crucial for Picasso as they were for the rest of the world.
Picasso & Co. starts and ends with a commission to make a photographic record of Picasso’s sculpture. Brassaï had begun work in the early Thirties, but most of his photographs date from the middle of the war when Picasso embarked on some sizable heads and figures (the giant head of Dora Maar and L’Homme à l’Agneau). These had to be done in darkest secrecy, for the Germans had commandeered all supplies of bronze and were melting down public statues and even café zincs. Not all the bronze, according to Brassaï, was destined for cannon; much of it had been pre-empted by Hitler’s (and briefly Cocteau’s) pet sculptor, Arno Brekker, creator of muscle-bound colossi. Thanks to saboteur friends, Picasso was able to divert some of this bronze into his own moulds and give himself the satisfaction of making “entarte kunst” at Brekker’s and the Wehrmacht’s expense.
Henry Miller once said of Brassaï that he “was always sniffing the air, always ferreting things out…Everything, literally everything, was interesting to him. He never criticized, never made a judgment on things or events. He related simply what he had seen or heard.” These words were written about Brassaï’s photographs, but they apply equally to his writing. His curiosity and detachment, his sharp focusing and editing, his instinct for anecdotal details and moments justes make his word portraits of Picasso, Matisse, Michaux, and Sabartes as unforgettably gritty as his photographs. This is the only book to have evinced a public word of praise from the artist: “If you really want to know about me, read Brassaï’s book,” he said.
ANOTHER USEFUL addition to the Picasso literature—this time a picture book—is Edward Quinn’s Picasso at Work. A free-lance photographer living in the south of France, Quinn has been keeping a record of the artist’s activities for some fifteen years. His work is unpretentious and honest—a welcome change from gossipy albums which portray the artist as an old clown forever dressing up in whimsical finery. (Quinn deals with this aspect in one mercifully short section.) True, Picasso has a penchant for disguises, but he dons them out of a mixture of shyness, self-mockery, and boredom, also to hide his chronic desperation, for Picasso is nothing if not serious when he sees himself “a convict,” a martyr to angst and genius. Life around the artist is far from being the frolic that some of Quinn’s colleagues have tried to suggest, as witness many of Picasso’s recent pictures. Seemingly light-hearted studio bacchanalia turn out to be sour and ironic comments on feelings of inadequacy and other preoccupations of old age. Everything, even the bouncy nudes, has a taste of ashes. This is what is moving about them. One of Quinn’s merits is that he senses this and instead of capitulating to the false charm of Picasso’s photogenic masks, lives up to his title and concentrates on the artist’s activities in the studio.
An altogether less worthy pièce d’occasion is the Picasso-Aragon Shakespeare, which sums up between four covers most of the shortcomings of the modern illustrated book: king-sized format, pretentious lay-out, fatuous texts, and scrappy illustrations (these are made to seem the more scrappy by being mounted in a separate scarlet portfolio). In a silly Preface, “Shakespeare, Hamlet and Us,” Aragon creates mysteries where there are none. Why, he asks, is Picasso obsessed with Balzac’s face? (Picasso is not.) Why is it that “suddenly William Shakespeare appears in [Picasso’s] drawings of 1964, that he has, if I may say so, shown up there with his ruff. Let him who can find a meaning in the apparition of ghosts and determine the reasons for it.” For Aragon’s information, 1964 was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, in honor of which Picasso had been asked to contribute a drawing to the disastrous jamboree at Stratford-on-Avon. More of a mystery is why Aragon’s feeble story, “Murmur,” was ever chosen as a text. The coincidental fact that it was dashed off while Picasso was simultaneously dashing off his drawings, and that it concerns Denmark—the story evokes Queen Caroline Matilda’s affair with Struensee—is too trifling to justify this portentous collaboration. I had hoped that the book would turn out to be another of Picasso’s attempts to bring the past up to date, that he would insinuate himself into the company of great writers just as he has painted his way into the pantheon of old masters. But Picasso’s ten sketchy portraits convey no strong feelings about the Bard; his Shakespeare could just as well be Montaigne—or Bacon.
Lastly a book that denigrates rather than commemorates: John Berger’s Success and Failure of Picasso. That a serious critic should question Picasso’s, or any other great artist’s, achievements is all to the good. How can someone’s impregnability be demonstrated if it is never put to the test? And in any case, Picasso is the last artist who wants, or needs, to be treated as a sacred cow. So let criticism ring out, provided of course, that it is based on ascertainable facts and solid premises.
BERGER’S BOOK IS NOT. Sad, because at his best Berger is a persuasive and provocative writer—illuminating even when he is traducing history. Very roughly Berger’s thesis is this: everything in Spain, even Spanish revolutionary energy is regressive; Picasso’s development reflects this taint; as he has grown older he has taken refuge in his innate virtuosity, indulging a nostalgic classical vision instead of committing himself and his art to the modern world. Some of the accusations stick, but Berger fouls up his case by overstating it and castigating Picasso with anything that comes to hand for offenses that are often imaginary. For instance, he claims, on no evidence at all, that the young Picasso suffered from venereal disease and that this explains the pessimism and obsession with blindness in Blue Period pictures.
Berger is presumably a Marxist, but a Marxist of a most ambivalent kind. He is by turns astonishingly naive and disingenuous, alternately fanciful and polemical. He will follow the Marxist line up to a point and then suddenly maintain that “[Cubism] is the only example of dialectical materialism in painting.” This is as much a misunderstanding of Marxism as it is of cubism. With slightly more justification Berger singles out Picasso’s classical period for Marxist attack: “When Picasso came to London he stayed at the Savoy Hotel. He no longer saw couples at a café table beyond hope or redemption. And the place of acrobats and horse-thieves was taken by waiters and valets.” Here I would only cite that Picasso one told me he was so bored by the social demands of his wife at this period that he wanted to hang a sign on his studio door saying, “Je ne suis pas un gentleman.”
Berger forsakes his Marxist tack when he singles out for praise some of Picasso’s softest pictures—the voluptuous portraits of his blonde mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter—“because they make us aware of sensation” and are an expression of “the sexually most important affair of his life.” How does Berger know? He is on equally dangerous ground when he says that “no other person dominates Picasso’s collection a quarter so much [as Marie-Thérèse].”
Ironically, Berger saves his ire for the years since 1944, the years of Picasso’s maximum involvement with communism. The artist’s “tension begins to go”; he becomes “sentimental,” “a victim of success,” “a national monument [who] produces trivia”—worst of all someone who “does not know what to paint,” because he has “run out of subjects.” This last, the crux of Berger’s objections, is hard to understand, since for the last fifty years Picasso’s work has been mainly autobiographical, and to the extent that his life continues to be passionate, involved, and eventful, the artist is assured of an ever-replenishing reservoir of subject-matter that is relevant to our time. The trouble is partly that Berger insists on seeing Picasso’s recent variations on other artist’s themes as evidence of an impoverished imagination: “exercises in painting—such as one might expect a serious young man to carry out, but not an old man who has gained the freedom to be himself.” Blinded by priggishness, Berger fails to perceive that the indomitable old painter is pitting himself against the masters of the past in the most courageous and imaginative way. Far from merely interpreting other people’s pictures, Picasso fights to make them his own property, just as he does with women, friends, animals, not to speak of inanimate things he includes in his work. With good reason Picasso called these paintings “a battle to the death”; if some of them represent a desperate rear-guard action, each series includes at least one major victory.
I have little faith in Berger’s diagnosis, even less in the quack’s panacea that he suggests, a change of air:
Picasso should have left Europe, to which he has never properly belonged…. The world communist movement with its internationalism and (at least at the rank and file level) its true fraternal sense of solidarity, was ideally suited to enable Picasso to travel on the terms he needed…. He might have visited India, Indonesia, China, Mexico or West Africa, Perhaps he would have gone no further than the first place.
And yet, as Berger well knows, Picasso loathes traveling—“I can do all the traveling I want in my head,” he once said—a statement which would probably be construed as yet another symptom of the artist’s escapism.
Berger’s fundamental mistake is to berate Picasso for what he is not (he is not, after all, Guttuso) and, given his circumstances, never could have been. Still Berger emerges as one of the few writers equipped to make a constructive case for the prosecution. He is certainly better placed than Clement Greenberg, whose recent attack (Art Forum, October, 1966) on Picasso’s late work was based on the author’s ipse dixit, or the new formalist critics who are on the whole loath to involve themselves, since except for cubism, the positive issues raised by Picasso’s art are of little or no concern to them. This lack of rapport is reflected right on down the line. To a generation fascinated by the McLuhanite doctrine of “the medium is the message,” it is inevitable that Picasso’s qualities should be anathema, and that an artist who produces each work to stand for itself and nothing else should be the new Messiah: Jasper Johns.
Is this change of attitude so surprising? After all Picasso has developed into the most formidable father figure in the history of art, and like all father figures his ultimate fate is to be rejected. In view of Picasso’s fifty years of supreme authority, his lifetime of unparalleled fecundity, and his virility, which makes Hemingway’s look decidedly factitious, it is only surprising that this reaction did not come earlier. Like most admirers of Picasso and his work, I find this turn of events painful to accept. On the other hand, I am convinced that the eclipse, such as it is, is partial and only temporary. In the last resort the resentment of the young is more of a testimony to Picasso’s powers—and certainly more healthy—than the deadly deference I observed on the funereal faces of the Paris crowds squeezing into an exhibition which only convention and guilt obliged them to attend.