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Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man: An Interpretive Biography

by Norman Mailer
Atlantic Monthly Press, 400 pp., $35.00


The twentieth century in Paris opened with a curious lull, almost a whimper. During the previous century, each generation had staged at least one political upheaval, culminating during the 1890s in a spate of anarchist bombings and the near revolution of the Dreyfus affair. By organizing their own exhibits, the Impressionist painters had found a detour around the Beaux Arts-Salon system. With their recently developed prose poetry, free verse, and stream-of-consciousness style, writers had abandoned the authority of the Académie Française in literature. But the seething activity designated by the loose term “avantgarde” seemed to slow down as the new century opened.

At the first Salon d’automne, in 1905, one central room housed the color-saturated works of Matisse, Derain, Braque, and Vlaminck along with a huge predatory jungle scene by the Douanier Rousseau. A journalist named it “the wild animal cage,” la cage aux fauves, and the movement known as Fauvism came into being. But it flourished for only two years before it flickered out. Scores of talents were hard at work in the Latin Quarter and on the slopes of Montmartre. But in literature Zola’s Naturalism and Mallarmé’s Symbolism appeared to hold everything at a standstill. In painting, the unprecedented work of Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, and even the aging Monet would fall awkwardly into the makeshift category of post-Impressionism. It was Virginia Woolf who, on seeing their paintings in London, wrote: “On or about December 1910 human character changed.” What was happening in these years? Were the first two decades of our century an intermission or a turning point?

A bold simplification would focus on three forces affecting the cultural life of Paris during this period. The new technologies of automobiles, airplanes, electricity, telephones, phonographs, radios, cinematography, and bicycles led to an ethos of speed, belligerence, and scientism to be proclaimed in Paris by a group of Italian artists as Futurism. The best self-promoters and publicists in Europe, they persuaded the Paris daily Le Figaro to publish their manifesto in 1909.

At the same time other artists, writers, and musicians were discovering the appeal of African and Oceanic masks along with children’s drawings, the art of the insane, jazz, and folk music. No one wrote a counterpart manifesto of Primitivism, but the ingredients were there for the taking. Many of them became associated with the amorphous movement soon to find a name: Cubism.

A revived spirituality tending toward occultism and exotic religions ran even deeper through these years than Futurism and Primitivism. This was the era of a revived Rosicrucianism, Mme. Blavatsky’s theosophy, cosmic consciousness, and similar doctrines, many of them considered in William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). In Paris, as all over Europe and America, these spiritual currents left a deep mark on the arts.

Today, because of founding works by Stravinsky, Debussy, Schoenberg, Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, Proust, Apollinaire, Lawrence, Joyce, Chekhov, Mann, and Rilke, we see this pre—World War I interlude not as a lull but as an astonishing new beginning. Its impetus was only temporarily interrupted by World War I. Then it assimilated a disciplined rappel à l’ordre in the Twenties and projected its energies up to the Thirties, until stopped by the stultifying directives of socialist realism.

The opening decades of the twentieth century in Paris remain an alluring period, often explored, still not definitively mapped. But why would Norman Mailer, contender for the heavy-weight fiction title and journalist of contemporary events, take it into his head to devote a full-length book, neither novel nor journalism, to this century-old period? He does not hide the answers, and they give us a certain insight into the present state of mind of one of our most ambitious writers, who likes to alternate between the roles of Old Testament prophet and New Age Confidence man.

In an imaginary interview of 1960, “The Metaphysics of the Belly,” Mailer speaks of how looking at Picasso reproductions relieved the severe eyestrain from which he was suffering. As Ancient Evenings grew out of studying ten volumes of Egyptian hieroglyphics at the New York Public Library, he wants us to believe that Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man grew out of eight weeks spent at the Museum of Modern Art turning the pages of Zervos’s thirty-three-volume catalog of Picasso’s work. In both cases the pictures communicated a magic spell. Years later, Mailer translated the Egyptian spell into a thousand-page first-person narrative, and the Picasso spell into a medium-size illustrated monograph. So much he tells us.

The dust jacket Mailer must have approved suggests a slightly different tale. With this book Mailer wants to pin his tail on Picasso’s donkey. He cannot contrive to make the name “Picasso” mate cabalistically with the name “Mailer” (as he mated “Marilyn” with “Mailer,” thus displacing Arthur “Miller“). Instead, he and his publisher display on the jacket the photograph of a young man framed top and bottom by poster-size lettering of the two names. And, lo, the level-gazed likeness could belong to either contender. A photograph of Mailer at twenty-six shows an almost spectral resemblance to the picture actually printed of Picasso aged twenty-three in his corduroy suit. In writing about eight critical years out of Picasso’s lengthy career, Mailer is creating another opportunity to write about himself.

What may have clinched the deal after Mailer reneged on his first contract for a Picasso book becomes clear when one wakes up to the fact that Mailer fell in love—both literally and literarily—with Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s first mistress, la belle Fernande, who wrote two books about that heady period. A couple of photographs of her clothed and hatted plus scores of drawings of her in nude poses make her charms convincingly real. And she writes about bohemian life and art and sex with an economy and a directness that must have impressed Mailer as often surpassing his own rodomontades on the same subjects. He quotes close to twenty pages of his own translations of her second book, Souvenirs intimes (1988). She was also the first to use the phrase “White Negro” when she described Braque in her first book, Picasso et ses amis (1933). Mailer’s most succinct statement of his story line gives Fernande an essential role.

In the face of such inner peril, this Spaniard, of weak and intermittent machismo, drenched in his own temerity, full of sentiments of social and intellectual inferiority, short in stature, was possessed of the ambition to mine universes of the mind no one had yet explored. His female companion for these most creative years of his life was a woman who is not without interest in her own right. While their love will suffer the fate of most passionate relationships…she is, nonetheless, the first of those women who will love him for all of his life. Since it is more than likely that she gave him the dignity to believe in himself as a man, so too did he acquire that indispensable buttress to extreme ambition, a measure of self-respect in the social world. Of course, she is worth our close attention!

A less narcissistic author might have used a different photograph on the jacket—one showing two figures—and called the book Pablo and Fernande.

I shall have a good many criticisms to make of the prose, the lazy assumptions, and the tangled purposes of Mailer’s book. But it remains the serious, sometimes impassioned undertaking of a major writer who wishes to restage events that took place almost a hundred years ago. We cannot dismiss this book because Mailer has moved out of his lane or because he has no eye. He offers a fast-moving synthesis of views on a subject that naturally and inevitably includes him.


Mailer’s “interpretive biography” does its duty by Picasso’s early years in Spain and his three preliminary trips to Paris. He traces the depression and dread of the Blue Period compositions primarily to Picasso’s sexual uncertainties lurking beneath the macho exterior, including the possibility of impotence, homosexuality, and syphilis. Thus preoccupied, Mailer pays disproportionate attention to Picasso’s running output of small erotic drawings, particularly of vulvas and penises, and he barely looks at the large allegorical painting La Vie (1903) on motifs of maternity and fidelity. In this regard Mailer should have borrowed even more heavily from one of his principal sources, John Richardson’s A Life of Picasso, Volume I, 1881-1906 (1991). Richardson’s fine chapter on La Vie examines the multiple symbols consolidated in the composition, including Tarot cards, Gauguin’s D’où venonsnous?, and exorcism by magic imagery.

Mailer’s story gets fully underway only in Part III (of eleven) called simply “Fernande.” On his fourth trip to Paris, Picasso settled into the Bateau Lavoir, a building that resembled a Seine barge for washerwomen grounded on the high hill of Montmartre. (Recently it was destroyed by fire.) Some months later Fernande, an artists’ model, moved in with him. Mailer reproduces the lovely lyric watercolor The Lovers (1904), which celebrates “the profound beginning of an affair.” He fails to observe that this most fully erotic work in the whole book—two lovers “floating away on a sea of peace”—finds no need to display penis or vulva or the male visage. Starting a new life with Fernande, Picasso learned French, made Parisian friends like Max Jacob, Apollinaire, and André Salmon, and distanced himself somewhat from his Spanish past.

Almost all Mailer’s comments on the paintings are anecdotal and fall within the confines of his biographical narrative. Writing about the works in themselves is not his forte. His one painterly preoccupation is to remark on the resemblance of one shape to another. When a painter renders an object,

he transfers it to another existence, he initiates a line that becomes a particular form. Soon enough, the painter is aware that one form can often represent more than one kind of object. The figure 7 can always be seen as a nose upside-down.

For Mailer, these natural resemblances provide more than amusing visual puns. They make magic, and “Magic offers priceless energy.” Mailer woefully overstrains his theory of mimetism when he relies on it to transform both a Baroque wall mirror in Science and Charity (1897) and a candle flame in Head of the Dead Casagemas (1901) into vaginas. On the other hand I believe he is not far off the mark in finding this magic mimetism in early Cubism. “Now [Picasso] will try to interchange torsos and trees.” By 1908 “Picasso will demonstrate that one form can turn into another as soon as one uses a moving source of light.”1

Ever since he wrote Marilyn in 1973 on commission against a crushing deadline, Mailer has at times faced allegations of excessive borrowing and quotation to the point of plagiarism. As in the case of Marilyn, threats of legal action arose over earlier versions of this book. It changed publishers more than once before the threats were allayed. Precautions have been taken. The preface lays claim to “no original scholarship,” and Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man, complete with a title lifted from Joyce, arrives fitted with dutiful acknowledgment of “quoting other authors at greater length than is customary.”

  1. 1

    Twice Mailer alludes to the revelation of looking at a composition on its side or upside down. On page 257 he inverts an early Cubist figure to make his point about the interchangeability of torsos and trees. In these passages it would have helped if Mailer had more background in the history of art. Turning a painting has long been a traditional device for testing its formal composition more than its representational powers. And in the case of Kandinsky as told in his Reminiscences (1913), his failure to recognize the objects first in a Monet haystack and then in one of his own paintings standing on its side encouraged him to eliminate objects altogether from his work.

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