Reading the reviews of the great Picasso exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, I was struck by the emphasis most critics gave to Picasso’s private life and by their implication that only his biography would yield the true meaning of his work, John Richardson, a critic whom I respect and whose firsthand knowledge of the subject is formidable, even suggested, in a brilliant review in these pages, that a special effort be launched to gather every scrap of intimate detail while there are some with living memory so nothing would be lost that might provide clues to Picasso’s leonography. He said that in the new art environment, the critic is now “a friend” of the artist who shares his style of life. Without intimate involvement of the critic in the artist’s life, the new art cannot be understood.
When I was young, in the 1940s and 1950s, such a view would have seemed blzarre, not only for the criticism of art but for poetry as well. Poetry was for the most part interpreted under the influence of the “new criticism” and modern art by the methods of formal analysis deriving from Roger Fry, Few serious critics wrote much about the sex lives of poets and painters, their homosexual leanings or unknown mistresses. We knew very little about T.S. Eliot’s private miseries and read his poems looking for meaning of another sort. Of course, there were useful biographies and important biographical criticism, such as Edmund Wilson’s essay on Dickens and Meyer Schapiro’s correction of Freud’s analysis of Leonardo da Vinci. But these were different from the collections of minutiae that have lately appeared, claiming to reveal, for example, the intimate secrete of Bloomsbury by reconstructing the sex lives of the Cambridge Apostles. The Scott Fitzgerald academic industry was in its infancy and the large apparatus constructed for Henry James was then concerned with the novels and stories, Lately, of course, it is his “secret life” that has been getting more attention than The Golden Bowl. Only the partisans of D.H. Lawrence seemed equally fascinated by his private life and work.
What excited us in the visual arts in those days was what we saw on Fifty-seventh Street at the galleries of Curt Valentin, Pierre Matisse, and Betty Parsons. Who knew or cared about Paul Klee’s private life? Or Mondrian’s? Or Matisse’s for that matter? Our idea of biographical information about modern artists was formed by the rather discreet accounts in John Rewald’s History of Impressionism and Alfred Barr’s monograph on Matisse, Reading those works, we did not, I believe, feel that we were missing any indispensable tool for interpreting the paintings. That the intimate life of the artist was somehow to be identified with the essential content of …
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An Exchange on Art and Biography December 18, 1980