Some twenty-five years ago, Picasso had the contents of his Paris studio shipped to the villa he had recently bought at Cannes. Among the treasures, household goods, and accumulated rubbish—the artist was a compulsive hoarder—were seventy portfolios. The day Picasso decided to go through these, I happened to be present. Few had been opened since 1939, some not since 1914. Although Picasso was vague about what was in the portfolios, there was reason to believe that they contained most of the works on paper that he had kept for himself, because they were too precious, personal, exploratory, or else too scabrous to exhibit, let alone put on the market. And here we should bear in mind that, as he grew older, Picasso retained much of his best work, drawings especially. So it was with the trepidation felt by Howard Carter when the first pick-axe probed Tutankhamen’s burial chamber that we watched Picasso fiddle tantalizingly with the knots.
Picture our dismay when the artist threw open a bulging portfolio and gleefully showed us sheet after sheet of paper, some of it to be sure emanating from eighteenth-century Italy or nineteenth-century Japan, but all uniformly blank. “Far too good to use”—the artist knew he could count on our emphatic denials. Was Picasso up to one of his celebrated teases? Was he perhaps reenacting the Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu? No, the next portfolio contained Ingresque portrait drawings, many of them unpublished, of family and friends; another disgorged papiers collés, some not even glued together, and so forth. Sometimes there would be a disappointment—reams of identical posters, old newspapers—more often surprises: one of Rimbaud’s exercise books, numerous lithographs by that rare print-maker, Rodolphe Bresdin, quantities of Picasso’s poems (why haven’t more of these been published?), and some puzzling watercolors of large heads. Early Marie Laurencins? Wrong, they were the amateurish oeuvre, what little remained of it, of Picasso’s first maîtresse en titre, Fernande Olivier. “No worse than any other woman painter,” Picasso said.
As Picasso scanned his own drawings, I could not help being struck by his total concentration, at the same time scary detachment about himself. It was as if he were examining work he had never seen before by an artist quite unknown to him. “Je est un autre“: Rimbaud’s disturbing line came forcibly to mind. “Not bad,” he could comment, but more in the spirit of a teacher going over a student’s work than in pride of execution or ownership. “Wouldn’t the Museum of Modern Art like to get their hands on all this for their up-and-coming show?” (this was in 1956), Picasso grinned malevolently. “This is what I call a retrospective,” and all of a sudden he made a great to-do about locking everything away.
Twenty-three years passed before Picasso was to have his retrospective—at the Grand Palais in Paris last summer. It consisted of all the paintings and sculpture and the best of the drawings and prints (roughly a quarter of the artist’s estate) which the French government had accepted in lieu of taxes, and was a most moving exhibition. This was partly because Dominique Bozo (curator-in-chief of the newly founded Picasso museum) had exercised his right to first choice of the artist’s holdings with such skill that he had skimmed most of the unique or exceptional works—above all in the fields of cubism and sculpture—off Picasso’s Picassos. (Poor heirs!) But it was also refreshing because the composition of the show was dictated by the wayward, even aleatory pattern of the artist’s collecting rather than the all too predictable preferences of art historians.
Before honoring the late artist’s promise to make major loans to the retrospective that would take over the entire Museum of Modern Art in New York, Bozo was obliged to exhibit the best of this bequest in Paris. And it was perhaps inevitable, in view of the haste with which the exhibition was organized and the haphazard nature of the material at Bozo’s disposal, that the installation was slapdash, and the representation of the artist’s development spotty. But these defects were a virtue to the extent that they helped to evoke the prodigality and disorder of the artist’s various studios and conveyed the feeling that somewhere in the vicinity work was still in progress. The display of these private treasures brought Picasso back in spirit. It was as if he were still around.
More to the point, this show contained none of the second-rate work that the artist allowed to flood the market in later years. Nor was there the least whiff of the restorer’s lab or the bank vault, or of produce which had gone stale on gallery or institutional walls. True, many of the works at the Grand Palais had been published or exhibited, but even those who thought they knew Picasso’s private collection by heart were stunned by revelation after revelation. New avenues of research were opened up by the early sketchbooks and drawings of 1906-1908—cubism in the making. As for the huge hoard of sculpture, some familiar, some unfamiliar, this proved yet again that Picasso is by far the most protean and inventive sculptor of this or any other century.
In its freshness and unfamiliarity, Bozo’s show had the virtue of enabling us to see Picasso anew. Not only did it effectively quell any doubts that may have arisen regarding Picasso’s stature, but it reinforced faith in his powers. For, in the opinion of many, the last paintings had tarnished the artist’s reputation; so inevitably had death.
The great exhibition that fills the entire exhibition space of The Museum of Modern Art is a far, far grander affair—a retrospective to end all retrospectives. It is of course big, but not that much bigger than the Paris show in 1966-1967. The difference is that it is much more discriminatingly chosen and much more handsomely installed. For once full justice has been done to the variety of genres, styles, media, and techniques that makes Picasso the most prodigious and versatile artist of all time. Instead of splitting things up into “periods,” the organizers, William Rubin and Dominique Bozo, have emphasized the continuity of Picasso’s development. If this gives a spurious logic to the oeuvre, no matter. It makes for coherence and enables the artist’s energy to manifest itself in one vast wave instead of a succession of spurts.
Let us also record our gratitude—since nobody else seems to be doing so—to Alfred Barr, whose Picasso shows at MOMA in 1939, 1946, 1957, and 1962, exemplary catalogues, and perceptive acquisition policy where Picasso was concerned paved the way for the present exhibition. The fact that Barr has been struck down by illness is no reason for MOMA to forget him. How he haunts the place!
If there are gaps in the MOMA show, it is not the fault of the organizers, who are said to have left no string unpulled in their efforts to obtain key loans. So far as the US goes, the most conspicuous absentee is the National Gallery’s huge circus painting, Family of Saltimbanques (1905), but at least it is readily accessible in Washington. Far more disastrous is the non-arrival of the Russian loans: twelve irreplaceable works that chart the early course of cubism. Our condolences to Rubin, but he might have spared us the comment (New York Times, May 18) that these paintings will “be missed only by art historians.” From someone who has written so perspicaciously about these very paintings, this smacks of sour grapes.
Let us, however, concentrate on the overwhelming quantity of works that have been obtained, starting with the wealth of juvenilia. Much of this is unfamiliar, since it emanates from the artist’s estate, or from Picasso’s sister’s collection, now in the Museo Picasso, Barcelona. Earliest drawings, done when Picasso was eight or nine, bear out the truth of the artist’s claim that he never drew like a child, always like an adult. But, as the MOMA show reveals, Picasso’s youthful virtuosity transcended the mechanical tricks of a child prodigy. From the age of fourteen or fifteen, he drew with instinctive formal insight and phenomenal authority. Likewise the brushwork of his earliest paintings has an energy and sensibility that are astonishingly mature, and at odds with their juvenile sentiment of subject.
Later in life, Picasso used to say that his innate facility had been more of a curse than a blessing, that he had always had a hard time making things difficult for himself; and in this respect Cézanne was to be envied for his initial lack of technical accomplishment. It would have been simple to fall back on slick bravura effects like the other Barcelona artists. Instead Picasso forced himself to look at whatever was in front of him as if it had never been looked at by him or anyone else before. And it is this conflict between the hard way and the easy way, between originality and déjà vu, that gives the early work its special character.
It is instructive to follow Picasso’s early search for a style as well as an identity through the works of his Barcelona period, especially in the precocious self-portraits that reveal the artist trying out a succession of masks and roles: eighteenth-century aristocrat, fin-desiècle visionary, down-at-heel bohemian, top-hatted dandy, and many more. Interesting that the man who was to become the greatest manipulator in the history of art started his manipulative games on himself.
Meanwhile Picasso had the good fortune to spend his formative years in a city that was one of the most progressive in Europe. Thanks largely to Gaudi, Barcelona had become a hotbed of art nouveau, and the young artists and poets who befriended Picasso kept in touch with the latest developments in Paris, London, and Vienna. Passionate admirers of Nietzsche, they subscribed—some of them at least—to a semi-serious belief that the century about to dawn would see the emergence of a glorious new art and the coming of a Messianic artist: a Nietzschean superman with a Dionysiac style. A self-portrait of this period (not in the show), which the artist inscribed three times over with the words “Yo el Rey,” suggests that Picasso implicitly believed in his divine right as an artist and also saw himself fulfilling this regal role—stupor mundi! And two other prophetic drawings which are in the show, both entitled Pierrot Celebrating the New Year, and which, it is significant, are dated January 1, 1900, hint that the “King” might on occasion double as a clown.
It was not until Picasso left Barcelona for Paris that his stylistic oscillations were to assume a fixed pattern in the triste mannerisms of the so-called Blue period. But for all its bittersweet charm, this style depended too much on academic virtuosity to satisfy the artist for long; and his tubercular models are depicted in terms that are too picturesque, too full of self-pity to carry much conviction. No wonder Picasso later dismissed the etiolated subjects of this phase as “nothing but sentiment.” Here exception must be made for certain portraits and La Vie (1903), the haunting allegory of impotence inspired by the suicide of the artist’s friend, Casagemas, two years earlier. Otherwise, I find the Blue period more interesting iconographically for the first intimations of certain obessive themes—for instance, the sleeper watched and the confrontation of two women with or without a mirror—and certain prototypes—those alienated, blank-faced waifs and melancholy outcasts—that recur again and again in the artist’s work.
Despite all that has been written about Picasso’s early iconography, not least by Anthony Blunt and Phoebe Pool, its origins are still unclear. Much research remains to be done, above all in the files of art magazines that Picasso might have seen on his father’s bookshelves, to judge by the very close resemblance between the Youth on Horseback, a study for The Watering Place of 1906 (Warrington Collection, Cincinnati), and a drawing (a study for Rienzi) by William Holman Hunt, published in The Magazine of Art, No.1, 1891.1 This important unpublished discovery by Robert Isaacson opens up the possibility of other similar links.
A very different contribution to our understanding, or misunderstanding, of the Blue period was made by the late Edgar Wind who, if my memory is correct, suggested in a lecture given some twenty-five years ago that the sentimental images of the artist’s early years represent the true Picasso. Subsequent changes of style, Wind claimed, are simply a succession of freakish masks contrived by the artist to conceal an innate banality of vision. This theory with which Wind sought to impugn most of Picasso’s oeuvre on the grounds of speciousness is in itself specious, but it is not entirely without insight or value. For it challenges us to look at certain works in a new light; the Demoiselles d’Avignon, for instance. Virtually everyone from Alfred Barr (“the sheer expressionist violence”) to Pierre Daix (“[Picasso] loaded his picture with tension and violence”) emphasizes the violence of the Demoiselles. But isn’t this violence—for example, the famous “African” (simian?) striations on the two right-hand faces—at odds with the Symbolist overtones of Picasso’s allegorical brothel scene (Leo Steinberg’s analysis notwithstanding)? Weren’t Picasso’s demonic masks in danger of changing, obscuring, or negating any meaning the allegory ever had? Hadn’t style and content drifted too far apart for even Picasso to straddle? Why else is the Demoiselles unfinished and unresolved?
But back to the exhibition: if the period following the Demoiselles is not as well represented as we or the organizers would like, this is more than made up for by the glorious section devoted to the great years of cubism—a section that constitutes a magnificent exhibition in itself. Rubin’s incomparable selection of masterpieces and supporting works reveals more fully than ever before how, with Cézanne’s help, Picasso swiftly scaled the heights of great art and remained there, side by side with Braque, for six extraordinarily productive years (1908-1914). Far from being content with their discoveries, the two founders of cubism pushed inexorably ahead and came up with a new notation of form and space, thanks to which reality could be perceived in a more “tactile” way. The main point of these noble paintings is that, for all their metaphysical overtones, they brought the subject, be it fruit-dish or mountain, within reach, thus allowing the beholder, in Braque’s words, “to take full possession of things.”
Such a dazzling display of Picassos makes us forget that cubism was essentially a combined operation, carried out by “two mountaineers roped together,” as Braque, co-founder of the movement, later said. It is, therefore, only fair to recall that Braque, the absent partner, made equally sublime contributions to cubism. In the words of Uhde, the German collector (whose prissy portrait is one of the joys of the MOMA show): where Braque was “clair, mesuré, bourgeois,” Picasso was “sombre, excessif, révolutionaire.” “In the spiritual marriage which they entered into,” Uhde concluded, “one contributed a great sensibility, the other a great plastic awareness.”
At the same time this section of the show emphasizes the fact that MOMA’s own collection of cubist works is more comprehensive than any other. One reservation, however: too many paintings belonging to this and other US institutions have had their surfaces marred by well-meaning, if misguided, restorers. True, pollution necessitates a protective coating for vulnerable surfaces, but need this be so noticeable? To subject these delicate grounds to wax-relining and, worse, a shine, is as much of a solecism as frying a peach.
Too few restorers realize how adamant Picasso and Braque were that cubist paintings must be matt, never varnished. If a shiny surface were required, the artist could always add varnish to his pigment or employ glossy house-paint like ripolin. As Braque insisted, any form of gloss falsifies the rapports between color, tone, and texture on which the delicate harmony of cubist compositions depends. You will see what I mean if you compare the awful sheen on the important Nude Woman (1910), recently acquired by the National Gallery in Washington, with the fresco-like surface of the Prague pictures or the two great compositions that recently came to light in Picasso’s private collection. In this respect it is ironical that the paintings which were collected by Gertrude Stein and removed from Alice Toklas’s custody on the grounds that they were not well enough cared for should have suffered more at the hands of restorers than they ever did from Gertrude’s pets or Alice’s benign neglect.
However, what else can one expect when publishers of art books—the late Albert Skira was the original culprit—have accustomed the public to ultraglossy reproductions? Thanks to this trend, eyes accustomed to the wet look that varnish gives are apt to find the real thing a let-down. Can one blame restorers for giving the public what it has grown accustomed to?
All of which brings me to the catalogue raisonne of Picasso’s cubist oeuvre by Pierre Daix and Joan Rosselet. The color plates, alas, are glossy, but in most other respects this volume will satisfy the very high expectations which these authors’ indispensable catalogue of the Blue and Pink periods encouraged us to entertain. Picasso students who are weary of battling with the chaotic organization and chronological inaccuracies of Zervos’s thirty-three volumes are now assured of a reliably accurate work of reference. And accuracy is essential, if the successive stylistic changes that revolutionized the course of twentieth-century art, some of them in a matter of weeks, are to be properly charted. In a volume of this magnitude (893 illustrated entries) there are bound to be blemishes2 but these are few. All in all, the authors are to be congratulated on the brilliant way they have marshaled a vast amount of information. Let us hope that they devote a companion volume to Braque’s cubist work, for as Daix generously admits, “it is absurd to try and separate the team.”
Daix is also to be congratulated on the accuracy and thoroughness of his text—a laudably detailed and in many ways perceptive analysis of Picasso’s cubist achievements. If Daix occasionally comes across less lucidly than some of his predecessors in the field—John Golding and Douglas Cooper, Robert Rosenblum and Edward Fry—it is because he has adapted “to the problems of cubism…Claude Lévi-Strauss’s methods for the study of anthropology and myths.” When Daix borrows Lévi-Strauss’s theory of bricolage or sees cubist developments in terms of “signs,” “which can only be identified and decoded when [they] can be recognized in [their] different uses and [their] career[s] followed up,” he clouds rather than clarifies the understanding of a process whose beauty lies in the fact that it was intuitive and free of theory. And when Daix uses Lévi-Strauss’s claim that “light is shed on every work or version of a work by what it transforms, distorts, opposes, denies or affirms” to inflate simple confrontations into “duels” and “primitive onslaughts,” darkness descends and art history suffers.
The rhetoric of structuralism is often a stumbling block. For instance, Daix sees the Demoiselles as evidence of Picasso “lashing out uncompromisingly at” or “flaunting the window of a Mediterranean brothel at” or even “cocking a snook” at—what? Matisse’s Joy of Living (sic). Overkill. Apropos the rapports, or lack of them, between the two artists, Daix might have considered the significance of the Matisse painting—the highly simplified, heavily outlined portrait of the artist’s daughter, Marguerite—that Picasso chose when the artists exchanged works in 1907. At the time Picasso was accused of having picked a bad painting out of malice, but, as he confirmed many years later, he chose it because he was fascinated by its daring simplifications. According to Picasso, the key influence at this turning point in Matisse’s career was not Byzantine mosaics (as Barr has suggested) but the fact that two of the artist’s children, Pierre and Jean, had just begun to draw; the crude outlines and flat washes of their childish daubs suggested to their father how to condense and simplify. When Picasso chose this painting, he knew exactly what he could learn from it, as the spareness of his work of late 1908 reveals.
Unlike Daix, Rubin does not try to update Barr’s historical analysis which made MOMA’s earlier Picasso catalogues so indispensable. Instead he has tried in his catalogue to present what he calls a “kind of art history without words”—that is to say a meaningful lay-out in the place of a text—and has reproduced “every painting, sculpture, work on paper, and ceramic in the exhibition—over two hundred of them in color.”
Rubin’s juxtapositions and confrontations are undeniably eloquent; my only complaint is that, despite all the care his staff has taken, the color plates, even of the museum’s own paintings, are as catastrophic as the ones that disfigured MOMA’s otherwise excellent Cézanne catalogue. If the printers can’t control the red separations, the museum should stick to black and white.
In place of exegesis, Rubin’s catalogue includes a detailed and copiously illustrated chronology, compiled under “extreme pressure” by Jane Fluegel. Despite a few inaccuracies in the later sections (by no stretch of the imagination can The Charnel House be said to “constitute a pendant to Guernica“; Picasso’s 1949 visit to Italy is omitted; the first meeting with Jacqueline did not take place in Perpignan but in Cannes), this chronology—early sections especially—is a most useful feature. But it would have been more useful still if events in the artist’s life had been pegged to stylistic developments; if, for instance, instead of merely suggesting that the paraphrases of Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger were “perhaps a tribute to Matisse,” Miss Fluegel had told us that these works were inspired by Picasso’s discovery of Jacqueline’s resemblance to the right-hand figure in Delacroix’s Algerian scene; she might also have mentioned that Jacqueline had spent many years in Africa. These facts would have helped to explain the orientalist references in Picasso’s work of this period.
For the facts of his life have more bearing on Picasso’s art than is the case with any other great artist, except perhaps van Gogh. The more we know about his day-to-day existence and particularly his domestic arrangements, the easier it is to unravel the mysteries and metamorphoses of Picasso’s development. This is especially true after 1918, when abrupt changes in style imply that one wife or mistress has been substituted for another. Thus the pattern of stylistic infidelity can be said to follow the pattern of amorous infidelity. So long as the artist was alive, a biographer—especially one as loyal as Roland Penrose—was unable to delve deeply enough into Picasso’s private affairs to be able to perceive the ramifications of this pattern with any clarity. Now, however, that the artist is dead, every crumb of information should be gathered while there is time. In no other great life are the minutiae of gossip so potentially significant.
Dora Maar, probably the most perceptive of the artist’s companions, once told me that at any given period of the artist’s post-cubist life there were five factors that determined his way of life and likewise his style: the woman with whom he was in love; the poet, or poets, who served as a catalyst; the place where he lived; the circle of friends who provided the admiration and understanding of which he never had enough; and the dog who was his inseparable companion and sometimes figured in the iconography of his work. On occasion these factors overlapped: Jaime Sabartés, Picasso’s secretary, survived four different regimes. But as a rule, when the wife or mistress changed, virtually everything else changed.
Max Jacob is of course the poet whom we associate with Picasso’s early years in Paris and Apollinaire with cubism. Later, if we are to go along with Dora Maar’s theory, we should see Cocteau as a catalyst for the neoclassic period presided over by the artist’s first wife, Olga; Breton and the Surrealists for the “Metamorphic” period presided over by Marie-Thérèse; Eluard for l’époque Dora (1936-1945); Eluard and Aragon for l’époque Françoise (1945-1953); and, despite Picasso’s malicious comments about his shady war record, Cocteau again from the mid-Fifties until his death, for l’époque Jacqueline.
For such a lightweight, Cocteau had a tremendous impact on Picasso, his influence persisting from 1916 into the Twenties. Thanks to Cocteau, Picasso embarked on an association with Diaghilev (beginning with his decor for the ballet Parade) and met his first wife, the ravishing Russian dancer, Olga. Thanks largely to Cocteau, he moved to a smart apartment and took to frequenting the Proustian world of “le tout Paris.” But above all the poet confirmed the artist, in his budding taste for neoclassicism. This phenomenon, whose glacial embrace so many Parisian artists, musicians, and writers were to experience, should be seen in part at least as a reaction against the disorder of the First World War. One of its attractions for Picasso was that it represented the very antithesis of synthetic cubism. For a time the two-dimensional cut-outs of synthetic cubism exist side by side with the gigantic bathers, pneumatic ballerinas, and galumphing nymphs of neoclassicism, but after 1920 the latter gradually take over, as Rubin’s lavish display of this period demonstrates.
However, besides reflecting the modish dictates of Cocteau’s manifesto, Le Rappel à l’Ordre, Picasso’s adoption of this new style reflects the embourgeoisement brought about by marriage to a woman who, besides being silly and irredeemably square, was infatuated and jealous to the point of insanity. The reaction against a life of first nights followed by nice little dinners followed by hysterical scenes was not long in coming. Just as Picasso’s love for his wife paralleled his adoption of neoclassicism, so did his subsequent hatred of her parallel his rejection of it. Not that this was by any means the last time Picasso expressed his feelings about women in neoclassic terms.
The failure of Picasso’s marriage and the demise of the backward-looking style that it engendered are proclaimed by the cacophony, the metamorphic contortions of La Danse (1925). Part Dionysiac Charleston, part in memoriam, this is the most forward-looking of Picasso’s post-cubist works and in the artist’s opinion (as he told Roland Penrose) “a finer work than Guernica“—partly I suspect by virtue of its not being an official commission, which was something the artist had always been at pains to avoid. That La Danse stands in relation to the second half of the artist’s development much as the Demoiselles d’Avignon does to the first half is too often overlooked, though not by John Golding, who has reminded us that both these paintings were featured in the same number of La Révolution surréaliste (1925).
Besides La Danse, a chance meeting with a seventeen-year-old blonde, Marie-Thérèse Walter, outside the Galeries Lafayette (January, 1927) opened the way for the next set of stylistic developments. Within a few months of this pick-up, Picasso’s work betrayed the otherwise well-kept secret that he had a new companion. Not that he did portraits of Marie-Thérèse; what gave the show away was the frenzied sexuality and voluptuous forms of the new paintings and, a bit later, monumental sculptures that the tiny artist took to doing. The fact that Marie-Thérèse was a sleepy, easy-going girl who loved swimming and was often to be found in the company of a sister, on the beach or at Picasso’s new house (château de Boisgeloup)—all this can be deduced from paintings of mammoth women, asleep or reading, by the sea or in a garden. Monsters of sex appeal! Once again a new style had evolved under the influence of the mistress’s persona, or rather Picasso’s perception of it.
The extent to which Marie-Thérèse’s sexuality pervades Picasso’s work of the early Thirties can be appreciated as never before in the spectacular group of paintings and sculptures of the late 1920s and early 1930s, which Rubin has arranged to such telling effect. Has sheer physical passion ever been made so palpable in paint or bronze? And yet for all their raunchiness, these Marie-Thérèses have a tenderness and warmth that make Matisse’s girls of the same period seem cold and contrived and, in the same way, the mountainous Jacquelines of Picasso’s old age look frustrated and menacing.
The switch from voluptuousness to violence in the mid-Thirties has its roots in an unhappy combination of events: more out of thwarted love than greed, Picasso’s estranged wife tried to appropriate half his property (including the studio contents); at the same time Marie-Thérèse became pregnant. In the face of these worries, Picasso abandoned painting for poetry (February, 1935). Further problems lay ahead: not long after Marie-Thérèse gave birth, Picasso fell for a beautiful young photographer and painter, Dora Maar, whom he had met through Eluard. Meanwhile civil war was boiling up in Spain.
The fallow period—almost a year—paid off. When Picasso resumed painting, his work was heavily influenced by Surrealist poetry. Melancholy allegories feature mortally wounded Picassos in the form of bulls, bull-fighters, and Minotaurs confronted by Marie-Thérèses in the form of gored horses or classical nymphs crowned with wreaths; there is even a lot of the blue that self-pity brings out. And then all of a sudden, thanks partly to the advent of Dora, Picasso is back at his Dionysiac best. The series of women’s heads—all to some extent portraits—which continue for the next eight years constitute the artist’s most sustained achievement since cubism.
But first came Guernica. This huge polemical panel in which Picasso pits himself against Goya (specifically The Third of May, 1808, soon to be Guernica’s neighbor in the Prado) is permeated by Dora’s presence. She not only photographed it at different stages of completion, but she actually painted part of it, and the figure holding a lamp is unquestionably a likeness of Dora.3 Moreover, she was an important link with Surrealists like Eluard who supported the Popular Front against Franco and whose ideas may well have played a part in the gestation of Guernica.
Dora was a formidable muse. Even in the earliest portraits of her one senses that a struggle to the death has broken out between this highly strung intellectual beauty and her demonic lover. Once again Picasso’s manipulation of his mistress’s life parallels his manipulation and redistribution of her features. Thus for Dora he contrived a supple new style that could express a range of emotions from rapture through tenderness and grief to loathing in contortions that are sometimes lyrical but more often monstrous. Meanwhile Picasso continued to paint Marie-Thérèse. Sometimes he would portray both women on the same day in the same pose but each in a different morphology (Dora angular; Marie-Thérèse all curves). Sometimes he would paint one mistress in ways that recalled the other; or he would do a painting in which the blonde Marie-Thérèse could see tell-tale traces of the flamboyantly smart Dora—dark hair in a snood, heavily made-up eyes—cropping up in what was otherwise a likeness of her. Was Marie-Thérèse being supplanted? Yes. “These facts betray themselves in my work,” Picasso once said. “It must be painful for a girl to see in a painting that she is on the way out.” How heartless and brutal! And yet Picasso was also capable of the utmost tenderness toward the women in his life, as well as much kindness and generosity toward his friends. To dismiss him as a fiend is as misguided as promoting him as a saint.
While consummating his passions in paint, Picasso likewise consummated feelings of guilt and hatred in diabolical portraits of his vengeful wife. One of these is in the MOMA show, although it is not identified as such (Lady in a Straw Hat, catalogue, page 331). The contrast between this obscene yenta, crowned by a grotesquely dainty hat, and the ideal beauty which the artist portrayed so affectionately in the early years of marriage is a chastening one.
Do not, however, imagine that the number of people present in these distorted “portraits” is limited to one or two. On his summer visits to Mougins in 1937 and 1938 the artist was accompanied not only by Dora Maar but by Paul Eluard, and his wife, Nusch. He also saw a lot of Lee Miller (Penrose), the American photographer, and of Ines (subsequently his housekeeper) and her two sisters. Picasso did separate portraits of all these women; he likewise did composite portraits, ones in which the features of three or even four people blend into a single image. In other works of the period Picasso arbitrarily manipulates the sex of one of his friends: Eluard gets a coif and is transformed into an Arlésienne, also into a Provençal peasant woman suckling a kitten.
One more bizarre element must be taken into account, if we want fully to understand these paintings. Picasso had recently acquired an Afghan dog, Kazbek, and he often grafted the elongated muzzle and floppy ears of this animal onto the face of Dora—a comment, he claimed, on “the animal nature of women” (e.g., page 346).
Staying on in Paris after it was occupied, Picasso made no overt references to the war in his work, but he painted some of the grimness of it into his portraits of Dora, particularly the agonized, skull-like heads he executed in 1943. These paintings can have left Dora in no doubt that love had soured into rage. “She always frightened me,” Picasso said much later of the highly strung woman cooped up with him by the Occupation. Poor Dora! When Picasso left her, she suffered a nervous collapse and had to be entrusted to Dr. Jacques Lacan’s care; she subsequently became a recluse. But by that time paintings of a fresh young face free of angst reveal that Picasso had taken a new mistress: Françoise Gilot.
Once again everything changed. Picasso and Françoise set up house on the French Riviera; he fathered two children, took a more active part in politics, acquired a new dog, and adopted a simple new style—spare, serene, optimistic—in keeping with this idyllic new relationship. He also experimented to brilliant effect with a new medium (lithography) and a new craft (pottery). All went well until the artist discovered that, unlike her predecessors, Françoise resented being manipulated. As she has recorded in her book, Life with Picasso, she was exasperated by Picasso’s view that women were “either goddesses or doormats.” And so, after eight years, she left the artist, but not before the tensions between them had manifested themselves in some grim paintings of domestic life. The MOMA show includes the exquisite Femme Fleur portrait of Françoise (1946) and a few others, but on the whole it does scant justice to l’époque Françoise. None of the Matisse-like portraits (1948-1949) is included, nor any of the Antipolis compositions.
Françoise’s departure (1953) was followed by an uneasy interim period. Once again Picasso expressed his sorrows in allegory; the so-called Verve series of drawings that bear witness to the dilemma of an old man confronted by desirable young models. At the same time, contrary to his usual custom, Picasso devoted some forty paintings and drawings to a beautiful girl, Sylvette David, who was not his mistress. The absence of emotional involvement is immediately apparent in the lack of tension and expressiveness—presumably why this corny series has been excluded from the present show. Meanwhile Picasso continued to pay court to three different women in three different parts of France, until, in the summer of 1954, his choice finally settled on a young divorcée, Jacqueline Roque (subsequently his wife), who had come to Cannes to work for her cousins—Picasso’s potters.
Picasso lost no time in reverting to his old habit and soon contrived a new style with which to express the allure of his new mistress. But how unlike, how inappropriate the first portraits of Jacqueline seemed! It was difficult to equate such a demure girl with such a dramatic, such an intense air; and a long neck (see page 414) was not her most conspicuous feature. But once again Picasso’s insight was born out by events; within a few months his mistress came to resemble the portraits in personality and even looks—Dorian Gray in reverse!
The old manipulator always prided himself on the premonitory powers of his portraits, often in the way they foretold unfortunate developments in the life or character of his female companion. Especially eerie are some of Picasso’s later portraits of Jacqueline, which predict the unhappy widow who was later to emerge in all her malevolence after the artist’s death. Yet other portraits include presentiments of a different kind. In the early years of the affair Jacqueline’s health was poor—“Women’s ills are always their fault,” Picasso used to say—and the artist swore that some of his more anguished portraits anticipated Jacqueline’s bouts of sickness by a few days. More to do with her response to psychosomatic suggestion than with the painter’s prophetic powers, I always felt.
“I would like people to have almost a sense of vertigo, to leave this exhibition reeling,” Rubin has announced. I don’t know about vertigo, but by the end of the show, I was certainly reeling, not least because the last twenty years of the artist’s life are charted in a rather erratic manner. Many critics, I know, hold the view that the artist’s old age represents a decided decline in his powers. This is not entirely true. If the same discrimination and space that have been lavished on earlier sections were in evidence in the last galleries, the show could have ended with a bang.
It tails off largely because the organizers, who elsewhere have done such an exemplary job of installation, have relegated some of the artist’s finest late works—his versions of Velásquez, Delacroix, and Manet—to a grab-bag section of all periods, entitled “Paraphrases”. These would make much more sense hung in their chronological place. Far from being mere stylistic exercises, these hybrids are crucial to our understanding of the artist’s penultimate style. For they demonstrate how Picasso, canniest of art historians, vainly pursued immortality by painting himself into the company of the immortals. As Picasso said to Hélène Parmelin, “I have a feeling that Delacroix, Giotto, Tintoretto, El Greco and the rest, as well as all the modern painters, the good and the bad, the abstract and the non-abstract, are all standing behind me watching me at work”.
This obsession with art and artists of the past is most evident in the fantastic series of 347 prints that Picasso executed in 1968. In these playful allegories a figure, who may or may not be Picasso, often in the company of another figure, who may or may not be Jacqueline, rubs shoulders with artists out of the past and their mistresses, characters out of French and Spanish literature, and people out of the artist’s personal mythology. Rapists in plumed hats, lecherous old masters, stuffy gentlemen from the court of Philip II, girls with their legs in the air perform a variety of sexual antics, but these are more knockabout than erotic. Whether they represent circus or seraglio, brothel or battlefield, these scenes are really about the studio—the center of the artist’s world, the setting for his fantasies—where Picasso had immured himself.
What I find particularly poignant about Picasso’s late works is the mixture of self-mockery and megalomania in the artist’s conception. In the teeth of death—the arch enemy that Picasso could neither exorcise nor face—he set about constructing his own peculiar pantheon with himself sardonically ensconced at the heart of things. By remaking the past in the present, he seemed to think he could stretch time and outwit mortality. After all, art had enabled Proust to manipulate the laws of time and Joyce to cram the whole of history into one man’s day. By the same token, Picasso—most Faustian of artists—was determined to turn yesterdays into tomorrows.
As Picasso entered his ninth decade, his imagination flagged, not, however, his energy. With time running out, he jettisoned more and more—virtually all considerations of color, structure, facture, finish, and style—in his race to summarize, in shorthand if need be, the black thoughts and jokes and sexual pangs that still preyed on his mind. Consequently many of the late paintings, less so the drawings, are helter-skelter to the point of sloppiness—speed painting. Time and again the artist would adumbrate an ambitious composition, then optimistically conclude it with a signature, long before any valid pictorial solution was in sight. Sad! And yet the best of these monstrous figures, all gaping eyes and banana fingers, pack such a punch that it would be dangerous to write them off as mere reprises. Like it or not, a painting like The Young Bather with Sand Shovel (1971) has the impact of a Mack truck. Up to the day of Picasso’s death in 1973 the power was never switched off.
All the same, a sad end. Of course it would have been more dignified if the great man could have died in the odor of artistic sanctity, like Titian or Rembrandt or Cézanne. But, let us face it, Picasso’s vision had reached its apogee in his thirties. By his eighties, let alone nineties, fear of death overshadowed everything else in life and made inward looks unthinkable. To believe Picasso, he had no faith of any kind; to believe Jacqueline, he was capable of being “plus catholique que le pape.” Either way, he was addicted to superstitions of the blackest sort. As his daughter said, it was all very Spanish. And so for this other Faust there could be no peace of mind, no great late works, no Saintes-Victories.
July 17, 1980
As an illustration to Hunt’s article, The Proper Mode and Study of Drawing Addressed to Students. ↩
Here are a few comments: No. 142 (D & R’s date: 1908?) surely comes from the sketchbook (Nos. 86-91) purchased by Gertrude and Leo Stein and, therefore, dates from the summer of 1907; it is also worth noting that the features and hairdo resemble those of Alice Toklas whose portrait, it is true, Picasso never executed from life but whose likeness, according to the artist, existed in a work of this period. Again, according to Picasso, No. 263, whose subject is more fashionably dressed than the run of cubist females, was known at the time it was painted as the portrait of Etta Cone, the Baltimore collector, “not that it was really conceived as such,” said Picasso. The symmetry of No. 272 (D & R’s date: 1908-1909?) would surely indicate that, like Nos. 73-74, it dates from 1907. Another “sport,” No. 304 (D & R’s date: 1909?), belongs with No. 145 in the spring in 1908. No. 330: Braque confirmed Picasso’s story. The hat in question is a flat-topped “Cronstadt” that Braque had acquired as a tribute to Cezanne. ↩
So far as I know, nobody has published the fact that Dora Maar worked on Guernica. Many of the vertical strokes on the horse’s body were painted by her. ↩