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 of particular phases—Daix and Boudaille on the early phases, John Golding on cubism—and useful but short summaries in the form of introductions to exhibition catalogues (Toronto, 1964; Paris, 1967). To these must be added the books of personal reminiscences, some of which, particularly those of his secretary Sabartés, contain information not to be found elsewhere. But the sum is unsatisfying, and there are no new syntheses worthy of the name.
Nor do the recent additions to the literature change the situation materially. There are three new books—a general survey, a volume containing several hundred unpublished drawings and paintings made between the ages of nine and twenty, a volume which reprints all Picasso’s dicta on art—and in addition there are a lengthy article in the Art Bulletin and the catalogue of the artist’s latest exhibition at the Galerie Leiris in Paris, not to mention an Italian edition of his erotic etchings of 1968.
Cirlot’s Picasso: Birth of a Genius is based on the material recently given to the Picasso museum at Barcelona by the artist and members of his family. It will always be an essential book for students of the early Picasso because of the quantity of unpublished material that it contains, but it adds curiously little to our knowledge of the artist’s formation. Picasso has always been a great repeater and the new volume simply provides us with a few hundred more examples of his early renderings of familiar themes—genre studies, sentimental scenes, prostitutes, and portraits of his friends and family. There are rather more landscapes than we knew before, but they are not of great significance, and the illustrations include two unpublished studies for La Vie of 1903, which are of interest because they show that at one stage—presumably the first—the figure on the right was not the mother carrying a child shown in the painting, but an old man in a shabby overcoat, stooping and holding out his hand for alms.
There is little that is new from a stylistic point of view in the works published here, though the very earliest drawings prove that Picasso was once really a child and made childish drawings; however the period did not last long—by fourteen he was already an accomplished academic painter and draftsman—and the drawings are remarkably dull. The book is edited in a somewhat unsatisfactory way so that the reader cannot get any adequate idea of what is contained in the many sketchbooks in the collection, beyond the few drawings selected—apparently without any particular system—for reproduction.
Miss Beryl Barr-Sharrar’s article in the Art Bulletin for December, 1972, is also connected with Picasso’s childhood since its subject is the recurrence in the series of etchings executed in 1968 of themes which he had treated in his very early years, particularly portraits—or sometimes caricatures—of his father. It is evidently correct to say that some of the figures in these etchings—particularly in No. 40—represent his father and other members of his family. But in view of the great affection and respect which Picasso always expressed for his father, it is surprising to find him in the role of what is politely called a “marginal observer” but which is in fact that of a voyeur in a number of somewhat bawdy scenes—and he appears in even more compromising situations in some of the freer subjects which for obvious reasons are not reproduced in this article. Moreover one is caused to hesitate about the validity of this game of identification by the remark about a figure in plate 100 that he “may be Velasquez or Balzac, both of whom he resembles.”
The Italian edition of the erotic etchings reproduces twenty compositions which were thought unsuitable for the general public and which only differ from those universally accessible in that they actually show taking place what is clearly implied in the other scenes as about to happen or as having just happened. The etchings reproduced in the Italian edition are, it may be noted, almost entirely different from those included in the special issue of Avant Garde published in September, 1969, and devoted to the same subject. As a pedantic point it is perhaps worth recording that in the latter publication the plates are reproduced backward, perhaps so that the dates, which Picasso did not bother to reverse on the plates, come out the right way round; further, some are printed in fancy colored inks or on fancy colored papers, and worst of all, some are printed in negative, white on black instead of black on white. In fact a very shoddy publication. Picasso’s etchings deserve more serious treatment, partly because they are the very best pornography and partly because they throw much light on what was going on in his mind in 1968, when he was eighty-seven.
The lavishly illustrated catalogue of Picasso’s last exhibition at the Leiris gallery, containing drawings of 1971-1972, shows that his principal theme had not changed: an obsessive interest in the female sexual organs, rendered on an enormous scale, often stylized but none the less conspicuous for that. Unhappily the vitality which was still apparent even in the etchings of 1968 seems to have vanished and the drawings do not show any imaginative invention. The artist seems simply to have revived and exploited devices that he used in earlier phases of his career and to have applied them to his one theme. The multiple viewpoints of cubism, the classical “quotations” of the early 1920s, the abrupt juxtapositions of improbables of the near-surrealist phase, the gay archaism of Antibes, and the tragic distortion of Guernica—all had significance and imaginative power in the context for which they were invented, but now they only seem to convey the frustration of old age, obviously in the field of sex and apparently in imaginative creation. It is sad to think that Picasso did not live up to his own dictum of 1935: “I have a horror of copying myself.”
M. Leymarie’s book, called in the French edition, Picasso: Métamorphoses et unité, and more prosaically in the American version, Picasso: The Artist of the Century, is attractive in presentation and ingenious in its plan. This conforms to its original French title, for it is constructed not chronologically but around a series of themes, whose titles, it must be admitted, sound a little high-falutin’ in English, but which enable the author to follow the evolution of certain ideas through Picasso’s art over several decades. The weakness of the book seems to arise from the fact that M. Leymarie must have written it in a hurry, in moments of euphoria, without perhaps considering the precise meaning of his sentences. A disadvantage of this method—and it is one which American and English publishers should bear in mind—is that texts written in this manner can just, but only just, get away with it in French (or Italian), but reduced to the crude simplicity of English prose they are simply not acceptable.
The richest passages are in M. Leymarie’s chapter entitled “The World of Woman,” from which the following quotations must suffice.
The fundamental ambivalence of sex and relations between the sexes…which, when primordial woman is made the symbol of all nature, leads the artist to immerse her in the flux of passions and events, to subject her, like any other element of nature, though in privileged fashion, to the most drastic stylistic manipulations.
Without departing from her easy, familiar pose, her truth to life and her intransigent architecture, she is also the fabulous emblem of her race, the poetic embodiment of desire and its accomplishment.
Woman is forever gazing into the mirror…. When the mirror slants and takes on the so-called “psyche” shape in the famous synoptic picture of 1932, it exceeds (like all modern art) its role of mimesis and gives rise to an awe-inspiring anamorphosis revelatory of the eternal Eve under her ternary aspect, in her cyclical destiny.
M. Leymarie’s book is intelligently larded with quotations from Picasso’s own comments on painting or those of his intimate friends. Dore Ashton’s volume is entirely composed of this material. It is, of course, useful to have these comments collected together, but the result is from several points of view disappointing.
The fact is that Picasso’s statements about art do not throw much light on either his work or his mental processes. They are often cryptic, sometimes paradoxical, and even in the few full-dress statements there is much that leaves the reader puzzled rather than enlightened. It is not without significance that Gelett Burgess, whose interview with Picasso in 1908 is among the earliest of such documents, but is not referred to by Miss Ashton, says that it was only after considerable joking and evasion that the artist could be induced to make any serious statement about his concerns as an artist.
Miss Ashton wisely decided that the comments recorded by Picasso’s intimate friends are often more illuminating than his own statements. The book is largely made up of extracts from their writings; but the selection is unsatisfactory. The omission of Françoise Gilot was deliberate and is defended in the preface with sound arguments, but it is difficult to see why Guillaume Apollinaire and Fernande Olivier are missing from the bibliography. Even more astonishing is the fact that there is no reference to Picasso’s statement made to Pol Gaillard in Paris in October, 1944, in which the artist gave his reason for joining the Communist party and which is an essential complement to the interview with Jerome Seckler which is printed in full. It would have been more profitable to include passages from these works rather than to repeat—as has been done in the present volume—fragments of the two major statements of 1923 and 1935 in later sections of the book dealing with particular subjects.
Finally it must be said that the book is carelessly edited. The first passage on page 98 is from the statement of 1935, not that of 1923; on page 59 “limits of limitations” should read “limits and limitations”; and on page 119 the translation of piton as “picture book” instead of “picture hook,” though explicable as a misprint, makes a considerable difference to the sense of the passage.
The contrast between Picasso’s writings on art and those of Matisse is striking. Henri Matisse: Ecrits et propos sur l’art, edited by Dominique Fourcade, is in a sense difficult to review because there are no bright paradoxes to quote and no sharp critical comments. What emerges from Matisse’s statements about his intentions and methods in painting is, above all, an intense seriousness. He never plays to the gallery and is concerned only to give the most precise definition to his ideas. He very often repeats himself, but deliberately and always to useful purpose, developing and refining what he has to say.
In an artist whose works may seem at first sight primarily decorative it is surprising to find the words “expression” and “feeling” (sentiment) coming so often to his lips, from the very earliest notes of 1908 right down to the comments on the chapel at Vence, “feeling” defining his relation to his subject, “expression” the means of transforming his feelings into lines and colors.
There are no short passages in this book summing up his theories, but there are many giving the flavor of his writings, particularly his highly personal relation to his subjects. For instance writing to Pierre Matisse in the agonizing uncertainty of September, 1940, he says:
J’avais projeté avant d’être ici de peindre des fleurs et des fruits—j en ai plusieurs arrangements dans mon atelier mais cette espèce d’incertitude dans laquelle on est ici (car ce pays peut être occupé sous un prétexte quelconque) fait que je ne puis, ou je crains de me mettre au travail en tête à tête avec des objets, qu’il faut que j’anime par moi-même, par mon sentiment—aussi je me suis arrangé avec un groupe de figurants de cinéma, qui m’envoient ses plus jolies filles—quand je ne les garde pas je leur donne dix francs et j’ai ainsi trois ou quatre modèles jeunes et jolis que je fais poser séparément pour le dessin trois heures le matin, trois heures l’après-midi. Ca me tient là au milieu de mes fleurs et de mes fruits avec lesquels je prends contact tout doucement sans m’en apercevoir. Quelquefois je m’arrête sur un motif, un coin de mon atelier que je trouve expressif, même audessus de moi, de mes forces et j’attends le coup de foudre qui ne peut manquer de venir. Ca me prend toute ma vitalité.
Before I came here I had planned to paint flowers and fruit, and I have got several groups arranged in my studio; but the kind of uncertainty in which we live here (this area may be occupied [by the Germans] on some pretext or other) means that I am unable, or afraid, to try and get in contact with these inanimate objects into which I have to inspire life myself, from my own feelings. And so I’ve made an arrangement with a group of film actors who send me their prettiest girls. When I don’t keep them I give them ten francs, and so I have three or four young and pretty models who sit to me singly for drawing three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon. This keeps me about, among my flowers and my fruit, so that I gradually get into contact with them, almost without realizing it. Sometimes, in a corner of my studio I stumble upon something that seems to me to have possibilities, which are perhaps beyond my capacity at the moment; and I wait for the moment of revelation, which always comes in the end. This absorbs all my energy.
It all looks so easy when it’s finished, but passages such as this give some idea of the effort, intellectual and emotional, which the artist went through in the process of creating his harmonies.
One feature of Matisse’s theory is perhaps worth noting as a puzzle. The famous statement about wanting to produce a relaxing kind of painting like a comfortable armchair has always been quoted as expressing one of the basic characteristics in the art of Matisse, but it is sometimes forgotten that it was written in 1908 when Matisse was one of the most advanced and aggressive of French painters. Nothing was less like an armchair than the angular and strident compositions of that year; and yet the armchair comparison fits beautifully with the later paintings from the 1920s onward.
The book is admirably selected and edited. Many readers will be surprised to find how much Matisse wrote about his art, but none of it is redundant. The material is of various kinds—quotations from letters, carefully prepared statements, and records of conversations—but all of it is of interest. They are intelligently grouped under themes, sometimes general problems such as the relation of drawing to color, sometimes on particular works or groups of works, such as the illustrated books, the papiers découpés, and the chapel at Vence. In addition there is a useful index of the ideas discussed. One could perhaps have wished that there was in addition an index of persons. In the absence of this the reader who wants, for instance, to look up all the letters between Matisse and Bonnard has to search through the book, but this is a very slight complaint about a really valuable book, well conceived and well executed.
Aragon’s book on Matisse tells one much less about Matisse than about Aragon. In the French edition the word roman is added as a subtitle, which explains the fact that the book is in no sense a monograph or a biography. But it does not properly describe the character of the book, unless by roman we mean a love story, because the book is really an account of Aragon’s highly emotional feelings for Matisse as an artist detached from the squalid realities of politics and war, who existed—as Aragon had never done but may have wanted to do—devoted solely to his art. The book will always be of importance to students of Matisse because of its splendid illustrations which include a large number of otherwise unpublished works and a generous quantity of good color plates. The translation could not be better. It has the cardinal merit of not reading like a translation and it renders brilliantly Aragon’s quick staccato style.
June 14, 1973