Picasso’s Apocalyptic Whorehouse

For too long Picasso has been seen as a French artist. Haven’t we been told, time and again, how a succession of French painters—Toulouse-Lautrec, Steinlen, Gauguin, Douanier Rousseau, Ingres, Cézanne—rescued Picasso from the questionable clutches of Modernisme (the Catalan art movement), and lured him from his native land to become a founder of the school of Paris. This view is finally fading. It is now possible to see that Picasso’s roots in Spanish art and literature, mysticism and religion, go far deeper than anyone thought: far deeper than Lorca’s romantic concept of duende—Spanish darkness and gypsy doom which John Berger promoted. For all that he came under the sway of French poets and painters, Picasso was as Spanish at the end of his career as he was at the beginning. By failing to make allowances for his Hispagnolisme, historians have failed to plumb the Mindanoan depths of the artist’s psyche. Even the Demoiselles d’Avignon—cornerstone of modern art—turns out to have a few more answers to give once we realize that the painting owes at least as much to El Greco as Cézanne.

True, in later years Picasso boasted that Cézanne was not only a “father” and a “mother who protects her children,” but also “my one and only master.” But these boasts don’t hold up: Picasso’s “one and only master” was in fact his real father: a terrible painter called José Ruiz Blasco. In the circumstances who can blame him for laying claim to more illustrious artistic parentage? This myth about his provenance is one of many that have crystallized over the years into historical fact. If Picasso invoked the impeccable Cézanne as a progenitor to the exclusion of everyone else, it was partly pour cacher son jeu, and because he saw him as someone who conferred status. A bit like claiming Charlemagne or King David or Mohammed as a forebear. Leo Steinberg was the first scholar to question the nature of Picasso’s relationship to Cézanne. By analyzing some of the most Cézanne-like Picassos in the light of the artist’s equivocal admiration, Steinberg declared that they “amount almost to anti-Cézanne manifestoes.” Cézanne, he concluded, was someone from whom Picasso had to arrange an escape. Insofar as this is true, Picasso could be said to have escaped from Cézanne, for a time at least, by taking up with El Greco.

Someone as perversely paradoxical as Picasso is dangerous to quote since he is apt to refute himself. How, for instance, does his claim that Cézanne was his “one and only master” square with assertions that Cubism was Spanish in origin? And Picasso did not merely mean that the Demoiselles was primitive Iberian as opposed to primitive African in inspiration: he was referring to Cubism’s debt to El Greco. As he said to Dor de la Souchère,

It is true that Cubism is Spanish in origin, and it was I who invented Cubism. We should look …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.