Becoming Picasso

A Life of Picasso: Volume II, 1907-1917

by John Richardson, with the collaboration of Marilyn McCully
Random House, 500 pp., $55.00

So The New Yorker, like one of those ferocious patriotic ladies in the First World War, has handed Picasso the white feather. He was “a coward, who sat out two wars while his friends were suffering and dying,” although, the passage continues, less certainly, “he may have been right to do this in the First War, but he did it again, in the same way, in the Second….”

Picasso was born in 1881. To accuse a man of cowardice for not having joined up in 1939, when he was in his late fifties, strikes me as a complete novelty, and it would have been a novelty to those Allied soldiers who, on the liberation of Paris, flocked to Picasso’s studio as a place of pilgrimage. Picasso could have “sat out” the war in New York, but chose not to do so, even though he was one of the most famous antifascists of his day. Picasso was also a Spaniard and a pacifist. Whether you think that he should have felt obliged to fight for France in the First World War depends on whether you think he might be entitled to his pacifism—whether you think that all pacifists are cowards.

The man in the long skirt with the cloche hat, doling out these white feathers to the artists of the past, and hitting them over the head with his parasol, is Adam Gopnik, the author of the New Yorker article. Gopnik’s own writing on Picasso comes across, over the years, as an unstable compound of calculated big-cheese worship and exasperation. A decade and a half ago, he wrote as the proselytizing star pupil of William Rubin, whose forthcoming lectures and insights he was permitted to flag.

By 1989, although Rubin was still “a great historian,” his researches into Cubism were seen by Gopnik as irrelevant and obsessive: “Whatever minor anomalies and surprises may remain to be found, this looks like a case where all the returns are in.” And in the latest episode of this tale of disillusionment and remorse, Rubin, still “the greatest of Picasso scholars,” gets treated ironically as “a man of…intimidating aplomb, born to lead orchestras or armored divisions,” but nevertheless a fool who fusses over absurd minutiae, while the young Gopnik, in a disgusting disavowal, is portrayed as a consumer of carrion:

Like many young art historians of my generation, I did a little feeding on Picasso’s corpse. We couldn’t help it: it was the biggest body on the beach, the washed-up whale, and we needed a meal.

What does this mean? That his generation were careerists who just had to get on by whatever means came to hand? As so often with Gopnik, the bad style leads the sense by the nose, and this affected remorse comes across as smug.

Gopnik’s unfolding purpose seems to be to tell his old teacher that his life has been spent in vain. In order to soften the blow, he …

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