Looking Back on Picasso

Picasso: Birth of a Genius

by Juan-Eduardo Cirlot
Praeger, 288 pp., 64 color plates, 907 black and white illustrations pp., $37.50

Picasso: The Artist of the Century

by Jean Leymarie, translated by James Emmons
Viking, 320 pp., 108 color plates, 509 black and white illustrations pp., $37.50

Henri Matisse: Ecrits et propos sur l'art

edited by Dominique Fourcade
Hermann, 368 pp., 21 F

Henri Matisse

by Louis Aragon, translated by Jean Stewart
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 2 vols., 752 pp., 155 color plates, 541 black and white illustrations pp., $75.00

Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso; drawing by David Levine

Picasso’s death sent a shock throughout the world, all the greater because we had come to feel that as he had already outlived all his contemporaries—only Chagall has survived him, and how smug he must feel—he would probably outlive everyone else and perhaps finally be carried up miraculously into heaven. His personality had something miraculous about it: his precociousness, his virtuosity, his versatility, his energy, his sudden changes whether of style or of mistress, his power to tease or shock without ever ceasing to be an artist—and towering above all these faculties or foibles, his genius. He has failed to achieve physical immortality but he will certainly attain immortality in the history of civilization.

At this precise moment it is particularly hard to arrive at an objective estimate of his achievement. We can’t yet escape the hypnotic power that he exercised, and it will take ten years before one can reach a position from which Picasso can be viewed with any degree of detachment. A further obstacle is presented by the question of his last works. There has been a growing tendency among even his firmest admirers to feel that, unlike the work of Titian and Michelangelo, who went on to reach ever greater heights at the ends of their long lives, Picasso’s work since the Second World War has fallen off. Not in vitality or productivity, but there has been a lowering of imaginative level, a lack of the seriousness which is essential to all great art (though it may be veiled under an affectation of light-heartedness); and this feeling about the foreground, so to speak, may distort our view of the whole picture.

But there can be no doubt what the final judgment will be on an artist who changed the course of art by his invention of cubism, who produced the melancholy visions of the blue and pink periods, the brutal paintings of the Negro phase, the calm Maternities of the early 1920s, or the passionate protest of Guernica. These seem, in retrospect, to be the peaks; but between them and around them are other achievements which would be enough to make any artist’s reputation: the gay late cubist patternings of the years just after the First World War, the witty pots and plates of Vallauris, the sunny decorations painted for Antibes; not to mention vital contributions to the theater and book illustration.

Given the stature of the artist it is sad to have to recognize that the literature about him falls so far short of what it should be, not in quantity, for more has been written about Picasso than about any other artist, living or dead, but in quality. Alfred Barr’s book of 1946 remains the best general survey of his work, and Penrose’s volume of 1958 the best biography. There are (nearly) complete illustrated catalogues of his paintings and engravings, and a few valuable studies…

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