When the Museum of Modern Art mounted its huge Picasso exhibition in New York in 1980, it obtained the full support of the Picasso museums in Paris and Barcelona on condition that the Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), in a sense the cornerstone of New York’s collection, might be allowed to cross the Atlantic for a final time for display in these two cities. The New York exhibition was a triumph—the greatest Picasso exhibition there has ever been or ever will be, even though the late work was inadequately represented. Many of the great works seen together will never be reunited: Guernica, for example, was afterward restored to Spain, according to the artist’s ultimate wish, and is now permanently installed in a dependency of the Prado, its rage and its passion muffled inside a grotesque bullet-proof cage. The relatively small Demoiselles exhibition shown in Paris and Barcelona was a triumph of a different kind. It is accompanied by a two-volume catalog, which makes the Demoiselles, after Guernica,1 the most extensively documented twentieth-century painting.

In the catalog, William Rubin writes at length about the picture with his customary thoroughness and incisiveness. Pierre Daix analyzes the relevant sketch-books. The exhibition’s organizer, Hélène Seckel, has brought together in a lively and intelligent fashion virtually every scrap of information relating to the work up to 1939, when it first went on display in its present home. Leo Steinberg’s celebrated essay of 1972, “The Philosophical Brothel,” is reprinted, with a postscript of 1987. It is now a moot point whether Guernica or the Demoiselles is the most famous image of the art of our age. Guernica has engaged the attention of specialists and commentators of every persuasion and has driven several of them insane. The Demoiselles remains more central to concepts of modernism and is ultimately the more important work—one of those rare individual works of art that have changed the course of visual history.

The Demoiselles was conceived and executed in a small and filthy studio in a ramshackle wooden building known as Le Bateau-Lavoir, perched on the slopes of Montparnasse. The picture can’t have been seen by all that many people in the years after it was painted and, with one exception, almost nothing was written about it at the time, or even subsequently, by the people who must have seen it in its original studio setting while it was being painted or immediately afterward. Fernande Olivier, who was living with Picasso at the time, does not mention it in either of her two memoirs.2 Neither does Apollinaire, although he had written so poignantly on Picasso’s earlier work and had already, and more than anyone else, helped to bring Picasso to early fame. I think, however, he may have commemorated it in a dark and savagely erotic poem, “Lul de Faltenin,” which was published in La Phalange a few months after the painting had been finished.

Max Jacob, who in the early years of the century shared with Picasso his top hat, his bed (they slept in it separately in relays), and indeed his very existence, and who at the time of the Demoiselles remained in many respects his alter ego, referred to the great painting only once, years later, and then casually, almost in passing. Another of Picasso’s writer friends, the poet, critic, and journalist André Salmon, did however discuss the picture at some length in his La Jeune Peinture française, which appeared in the autumn of 1912; and it was he who set the tone and formalistic approach in which the work was to be discussed for some fifty years to come.

Less surprisingly, we know about the reactions of Picasso’s painter friends only through their work, or at second hand, through hearsay. Derain, possibly with Balzac’s Frenhofer in mind, predicted that one day Picasso would be found hanged behind the painting. In the event it was the picture that to a certain extent hanged Derain. An artist of great intelligence and enormous natural gifts, more than any other artist of his generation he had acted as a weathervane for contemporary young French art, and he now produced a large lifeless answer to the Demoiselles, a three-figure piece called La Toilette, which he subsequently destroyed; he recovered his balance but the direction of his art had been permanently altered.

Matisse was made angry by the Demoiselles and seems to have thought it was something of a bad joke, although I believe he reacted to it indirectly when in 1908 he produced his great Bathers with a Turtle. Braque, too, initially disliked the Demoiselles; but he studied the picture harder than any other artist, and indeed his subsequent friendship and collaboration with Picasso led to the Cubist revolution. Critics and collectors were similarly baffled. Gertrude Stein tells us that Tschoukine, who had become an important patron of Picasso’s, said: “What a loss for French art.” Leo Stein burst into derisive laughter. Vollard, always taciturn, said nothing. Kahnweiler, who was about to become Picasso’s dealer, subsequently became obsessed by the picture; but he was also made uneasy by it right until the end of his days.


The Demoiselles was first shown publicly at the Salon d’Antin in 1916 in an exhibition organized by André Salmon. The picture, Picasso’s only entry, became the centerpiece of the exhibition, which was extended by a couple of weeks—cultural events of a comparable importance (literary and musical sessions accompanied the show) were rare in wartime Paris. It was here that the painting, which was originally known to Picasso’s intimates as Le Bordel Philosophique, acquired its present title. Picasso must surely have agreed to the way in which Salmon listed the work, but he came to dislike the title intensely, presumably because it seemed evasive and genteel; and he most often referred to the painting simply as “mon bordel.” Although the Avignon of the title has been associated with a brothel in Barcelona’s carrer d’Avinyo, near where Picasso’s family lived, Rubin is probably right in suggesting that Salmon chose the title because since the time of the papacy Avignon had carried overtones of sensuality and vice: the Abbé de Sade, Rubin reminds us, who was the uncle and tutor of the divine Marquis himself, quoted Petrarch on the subject.

The Demoiselles was almost certainly seen at the Salon d’Antin by the great couturier and Maecenas Jacques Doucet, who was subsequently to acquire it. But it was André Breton, acting as Doucet’s librarian, who urged his patron to make the purchase in a series of letters of such eloquence that we can only regret that he never wrote about the painting at greater length and independently, so to speak. (What a marvelous companion piece it would have made to that small masterpiece “Phare de la Mariée,” his essay on Duchamp’s Large Glass.) In November 1923, when Doucet appears to have been still wavering, we find Breton writing: “It is a work which for me goes beyond painting, it is the theater of everything that has happened over the past fifty years, it is the wall before which have passed Rimbaud, Lautréamont, Jarry, Apollinaire and all those whom we continue to love.” A year later, after the sale had been completed, we find him still reassuring Doucet: “Here is the painting which one would parade, as was Cimabue’s Virgin, through the streets of our capital.”

Doucet paid 25,000 francs for the work, an astonishingly small sum even at that time, and Picasso probably agreed to the sale because Doucet had promised to bequeath it to the Louvre. (It never got there, but Doucet had almost certainly not acted in bad faith, and it is very likely that the Louvre may have verbally rejected the offer of such a controversial work.) Picasso never forgave Doucet for having got the work out of him so cheaply and he refused to come to see it when it was finally installed in the new mansion in Neuilly into which the Doucets moved in 1928. There it was given pride of place on the landing of an extraordinary staircase (the steps were of silver and red enamel under heavy glass and the newel posts took the form of exotic birds) conceived by Doucet himself and executed by the sculptor Csaky. Opposite the Demoiselles stood enormous double doors by Lalique (rescued from an earlier dwelling) that led into the “studio” and beyond into the room where oriental antiquities were displayed. The picture itself was encased in a forged metal frame, especially designed for it by Legrain, who had originally achieved fame as a bookbinder but had also come to be recognized as one of the greatest French craftsmen of his time. The Bateau-Lavoir was a world away.

In August 1929 A. Conger Goodyear, who was president of the trustees of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, was taken to see the Doucet collection and was bowled over by it and its setting. Alfred Barr, then the museum’s director, starred the Demoiselles in the list of paintings he wanted to put together for a Picasso show that was originally to have taken place in 1931, but for various reasons was not mounted until 1939. In the meantime, Doucet had died, the house had been demolished, and Madame Doucet had sold the collection of eleven Picassos (the eleventh turned out in fact to be by Braque) to the Seligmann Gallery, which had branches in Paris and New York. The Demoiselles was sold for six times what Picasso had received for it.

The picture sailed for New York in October 1937 on the Normandie, the Legrain frame traveling separately. In November it went on show at the Seligmann premises on East Fifty-first Street to the accompaniment of considerable publicity. On November 9 Barr, who now described the picture as “the most important painting of the twentieth century,” urged the advisory committee to propose the picture to the museum’s trustees. In December the sale went through. (Things moved fast in those days.) The picture went on view on May 10, 1939, in an exhibition entitled “Art in Our Time,” which was designed to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the museum and its reopening in its present premises. Somewhere between Fifty-first and Fifty-third Streets the Legrain frame mysteriously disappeared.


The recent Demoiselles exhibition consisted of the great canvas itself, a handful of paintings that led up to it, and some five dozen oil paintings, watercolors, and drawings that relate directly to it; equally revealing and exciting are the sixteen sketchbooks that record the processes of Picasso’s mind and eye at work over a period of some nine months from the autumn of 1906 through to high summer of 1907. These he kept himself until his death, and until recently they were relatively unknown. The problems of sequence and date surrounding the sketch-books and the individual leaves within them have not been completely sorted out, and given Picasso’s unmethodical working processes they probably never will be. But the sketchbooks make it immediately obvious that this was by far the most elaborately plotted of all Picasso’s masterpieces. Finally, there is what is virtually a small exhibition within an exhibition—a group of “things seen”: possible sources of inspiration. Many people have expressed reservations about this section of the exhibition and have found it either extraneous or didactic. I myself found it fascinating, demonstrating as it does that working from photographs and reproductions, the actual feel of works of art, the presence with which they confront us, becomes so completely lost.

The relevance of a particular El Greco, The Vision of Saint John, known until recently as The Seventh Seal (and to Picasso himself, probably most importantly, as Profane Love), was first pointed out by Ron Johnson in 1980 and then elaborated upon, at the same time and entirely independently, by Rolf Laessoe and, in even greater depth, by John Richardson.3 The affinities between this El Greco and the Demoiselles are so striking, not only on a multiplicity of visual levels, but also spiritually and psychologically, that it is hard not to believe that Picasso began the actual execution of the Demoiselles under its direct stimulus. Picasso had known and consulted El Greco’s work for some time past, and he had almost certainly often seen this particular work, which belonged to the Spanish painter Zuloaga, then resident in Paris. But, as so frequently with Picasso, revelation seems to have struck, or to have been called upon to strike, at exactly the appropriate moment; and maybe this faculty is one of the attributes of true genius. It is hard to see much of El Greco in any of the surrounding studies. The presence of this singularly apocalyptic El Greco behind the Demoiselles helps to explain why Breton, for one, viewed the painting of the interior of a whorehouse as a mystical experience.

Picasso must have seen Ingres’s Le Bain Turc in the great Ingres retrospective at the Salon d’Automne of 1905. He certainly admired it and it was to obsess him in old age. It stands behind the Demoiselles, but at a distance. Cézanne’s Five Bathers, like the El Greco, strikes an instant chord of psychological rightness in relationship to the Demoiselles, and its sublimated but still uneasy sensuality seems infinitely closer to it than does the melting eroticism of the Ingres. Gauguin’s Oviri makes the point that for Picasso Gauguin’s sculpture was more important than his painting. Matisse’s Blue Nude and Derain’s Bathers, both seen at the Salon des Indépendants of 1907 (it opened in March), are in different ways relevant to the Demoiselles, although they seem to exist in very different worlds from it; and great paintings though they are, the Demoiselles dominates and tames them. The tribal art from Africa and the New Hebrides in the exhibition simply serves to confirm what so many of us have always maintained: that while he was actually at work on the Demoiselles Picasso experienced its impact. As in the case of El Greco, Picasso must have already been aware of tribal art—his friends and colleagues had been talking about it and collecting it for at least a year—but it was at this moment that its implications struck home in the violence of the two demoiselles at the right-hand side of the composition.

Complementing the tribal art, and anticipating its impact on the Demoiselles, is a life-size stone Iberian head of a man, dating from between the fifth and third centuries BC, and hence to a primitive period of the peninsula’s indigenous art. This had been stolen from the Louvre in March 1907 (by one of Apollinaire’s assistants) and almost immediately entered Picasso’s possession. An object of very little obvious aesthetic worth, it nevertheless has extraordinary presence. Half the head has been virtually obliterated by erosion; the other half displays an enormous scroll-shaped ear, a sharp wedge-shaped nose, and a great bulging eye. These features are echoed in the heads of the two central demoiselles, and, as X-rays and preparatory studies show, underlie the heads of their companions.

Here we are confronted for the first time with one of the rawest and most profound aspects of Picasso’s genius—his ability to take something that in itself comes pretty close to being nothing and to transform it into great and meaningful art. In his catalog essay for the “Late Picasso” exhibition, which by luck coincided in Paris with that of the Demoiselles, John Richardson writes evocatively of the Andalusian concept of the “mirada fuerte,” the way in which the Andalusian grasps a person or an object with his stare or steady gaze, possesses it, rapes it. But if traditionally the mirada fuerte is a male prerogative, here it is given to the five naked women. The two outer figures stare past and through each other. The other three transfix us completely with their gaze, and it is only subsequently that we become aware of them as bodies. Eventually the painting stares us down.

Even before the richness of the sketch-books had been revealed to us, the basic iconography of the picture had been frequently rehearsed in the phase of the literature on the painting initiated by Alfred Barr in Picasso: Forty Years of His Art, which accompanied the Museum of Modern Art’s 1939 exhibition. Two men were to have been included in the composition, a sailor seated among the women and a figure (later identified by Picasso as a medical student) who entered the composition at the right; he holds either a skull or a book, and on one occasion both. As the sketches evolved, first to go was the medical student. Ultimately the sailor himself disappears. We, the spectators, are now seated at the inner table of the brothel (originally there had been two tables), opposite the Demoiselles, and we have by implication become their clients. The watercolor sketch from the Gallatin Collection in Philadelphia, which corresponds most closely to the Demoiselles, is, I suspect, not a final preparatory study for the painting but a subsequent footnote to it, a record of what the picture looked like before Picasso went back into it after his traumatic encounters with the tribal art displayed in the Trocadero (now the Musée de l’Homme). Thirty years later, recalling this revelation, Picasso spoke to Malraux of the Demoiselles as his first “exorcism” picture: “For me the masks were not simply sculptures, they were magical objects…. They were weapons—to keep people from being ruled by spirits, to help free themselves.”

Leo Steinberg’s essay of 1972 reads as persuasively as ever; and it now seems strange that for fifty years writers, including myself, should have written about the painting in almost entirely formalistic terms, and put to one side its erotic implications and thus denied the painting some of its supreme physicality. Rubin has repeatedly expressed his indebtedness to Steinberg. He now reaffirms it but wonders if Steinberg did not indeed go far enough in his “psycho-sexual” analysis. Rubin can find no very direct links between the head of the squatting demoiselle (the most apocalyptic of all) and any tribal masks that Picasso might have seen. He now suggests that Picasso’s imagination was fueled by memories of the syphilitic patients he saw when he visited the hospital-prison of Saint-Lazare (and its morgue) in 1901; its female inmates were prostitutes contaminated by venereal disease.

In this connection Rubin reproduces some truly horrifying photographs from the turn of the century showing the heads of women suffering from tertiary syphilis. Picasso may well have been haunted by such nightmares; but the head of this demoiselle and the study for it have about them a hypnotic and barbaric beauty as well as an overpowering and corrosive vitality that makes confrontation with the photographic images of pustular decay oddly gratuitous. These heads of Picasso still look deeply tribal and atavistic to me, and since he was ultimately interested simultaneously in the spirit that lay behind tribal art and in the formal visual principles that made that spirit manifest rather than in any particular example, I see no reason why he should not have manipulated these to his own psychological and expressive purposes. If the squatting figure is the most violent of the demoiselles she remains the most enigmatic.

For that matter, and despite the wealth of research that has now been placed at our disposal, the picture itself remains something of an enigma. That Picasso should have felt compelled to make a major effort and statement at this moment in his career was only to be expected. He undoubtedly saw himself in rivalry with Matisse, and Matisse’s Bonheur de vivre, shown at the Salon des Indépendants in 1905, had set the seal on his reputation as leader of advanced young French painting. In acknowledged and friendly rivalry Matisse and Derain had a year later at the Indépendants shown their two large “blue” paintings, the works in the current exhibition. Prostitution and its dangerous consequences had been a major theme in Picasso’s work in the early years of this century. But why should he have returned to the subject at this particular moment in his life, and why should he have chosen it to effect a major stylistic revolution? Although Picasso was still experiencing financial hardship his work had begun to sell well to important dealers and collectors. The paintings done at Gosol during the summer of 1906, which in a sense represent him at his first full maturity, are classicizing and breathe an air of deep calm and content. Fernande Olivier had come to live with Picasso toward the end of 1905 and for the first time in his life he appeared to be enjoying a stable relationship with a beautiful woman whose physicality matched his own.

The choice of subject matter for his great new canvas may in part have been a deliberate and defiant answer to the hedonism of the work of Matisse and his fellow Fauves. Apollinaire, with his insatiable appetite for erotica, may well have been an influence; the original manuscript of his Les Onze Mille Verges bearing the date of 1907 was one of Picasso’s most treasured possessions. It is a pornographic tour de force and one of its set pieces is an orgy in a brothel. Rubin is almost certainly right in suggesting that it was Apollinaire who gave the painting its original title, The Philosophical Brothel. Several authors have suggested that Picasso himself had been attacked by venereal disease, and given his early way of life this is at least likely; if so something may have happened to remind him of the episode. The years between 1898 and 1902 had seen the climax of the battle between those who wanted to abolish government control of prostitutes and those who wanted to regulate their activities, and the subject was still very much in the air.4

The second volume of Fernande Olivier’s memoirs, which has just been posthumously published, makes it clear that when she met Picasso she was leading a promiscuous life, and this may account for some of the excessive possessiveness he showed toward her. Their “adoption” of a thirteen-year-old orphan, Raymonde, seems to have introduced further complication into their communal life. In August of 1907 Fernande wrote to Gertrude Stein in distress saying that she and Picasso were separating. By the end of the first week of September she had left. She was soon to return; but during the first half of 1907 there were tensions in the studios at the Bateau-Lavoir and these must have found their way into the general atmosphere of the building and into the Demoiselles itself.

But it is to the work of the autumn of 1906 that we must turn for premonitions of what was to come, and the tensions here are, or so it seems to me, purely visual and pictorial. Two of the paintings are in the exhibition. They show massive female nudes whose girth is so abnormally distended that one can only convey an impression of them in words by describing them as pneumatic lay figures, pressed up against a glass surface and pumped fuller and fuller of air, so that they become increasingly swollen and monumental in appearance, while simultaneously flattening up against and across the surface that is immediately in front of them. An explosion was inevitable and this explosion was the Demoiselles.

The nudes that precede it, unique in the history of art for their distention, have been themselves discussed in psychosexual terms; but just as many of the figures of Cézanne’s maturity assume the quality of still lifes, so these creations of Picasso seem to me to be primarily pregnant with purely formal and visual possibilities. The erotic implications of the Demoiselles are married to its formal innovations and are conveyed by them, as Steinberg has demonstrated. But apart from a couple of expressionistic footnotes to the painting, it was succeeded, as it had been preceded, by what was on the whole a period of calm, of pictorial experiment and analysis. In the Demoiselles Picasso began to shatter the human figure and the pictorial conventions for rendering it. He was to spend the rest of his artistic life dissecting, reassembling, and reinventing it.


At the time of the Hommage à Pablo Picasso of 1966, which celebrated the artist’s eighty-fifth birthday and which occupied both the Grand and the Petit Palais in Paris, I found myself spending a lot of time in the rooms devoted to the late work for the simple reason that they were completely empty, whereas the spaces that preceded them were intolerably crowded. The paintings worried me. Certainly it was almost universally felt at the time that since the early 1950s Picasso’s work had fallen off. The two exhibitions of 1970 and 1973, held in the Palais des Papes at Avignon, showed only the most recent work (the 1973 exhibition, which opened a month after Picasso’s death, contained 201 paintings chosen by the artist himself) and in retrospect appear protean, but they were then to a large extent ignored; and when they were noticed had an almost uniformly hostile reception. No less a figure than Douglas Cooper, a friend of Picasso’s and a lifelong supporter, described the very last paintings as “incoherent doodles done by a frenetic dotard in the anteroom of death.”

My own conversion to the late work came when, together with my friend the late Roland Penrose and Dominique Bozo (then director of the still to be opened Musée Picasso), I chose the work for an exhibition entitled “Picasso’s Picassos,” which took place at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1981. The exhibition was designed and hung in such a way that the last section came as one of its climaxes. That same year Christian Geelhard mounted an exhibition of the late work in Basle, and three years later Gert Schiff’s “Picasso: the Last Years” was put on at the Guggenheim Museum in New York; they saw the late period as beginning in 1964 and 1963 respectively. By now it was beginning to be obvious to many that Picasso had simply, as always, been ahead of the game.

If there are still any doubts about the originality and magnitude of the late achievement they are dispelled by the current exhibition shared between Paris and London. The selectors, David Sylvester, Marie-Laure Bernadac, and Isabelle Monod-Fontaine, have cast their net wider and take as their starting point 1953, the year when Jacqueline Roque finally displaced Françoise Gilot as the principal figure in Picasso’s life, and when he moved into the first of his final three dwellings and studios. This enables them to show Picasso carrying out his most intensive dialogue with the art of the past and in the process of doing so reassessing his own vast output, before moving in the second half of the 1960s into a new late style that bears comparison, in a very general way, with the late styles of, for example, Titian Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Goya.

In other words, this exhibition allows us to put the very late work in perspective. Far from decreasing in old age, Picasso’s production was if anything accelerating (over one half of the twenty-three volumes of Zervos’s catalogue raisonné are devoted to the last twenty years), and the work was inevitably becoming increasingly uneven. But this selection is hard to fault; and if the exhibition is in fact not all that large (ninety-odd paintings, half a dozen sculptures, and approximately a hundred drawings and etchings) the impact it produces makes it into a real blockbuster. The earliest painting in the exhibition, called The Shadow, shows a reclining nude who is in a sense present by her absence since she is conveyed mostly in terms of the bare white canvas; below her is a male silhouette or shadow. The picture is a farewell to Françoise Gilot.

Simultaneously, right at the end of 1953, Picasso had begun his variations on Delacroix’s Women of Algiers, a painting that had long obsessed him: “That bastard. He’s really good,” he once said to Françoise after having taken her to see the painting in the Louvre. These paintings cement the relationship with Jacqueline; Picasso identified her with the righthand figure of Delacroix’s masterpiece and once remarked, “Delacroix had already met Jacqueline.” The Women of Algiers also commemorates Matisse, who had just died: “When Matisse died he left his odalisques to me as a legacy,” Picasso remarked to Penrose.

Next come the interiors showing the new studio at La Californie, a large villa just above Cannes. These are imbued with a new feeling for space. Space is a concern in the first variant on Velázquez’s Meninas (there were to be more than forty), begun in August 1957. David Sylvester, in his catalog essay, revealingly juxtaposes a reproduction of it with the second of Braque’s great Atelier pieces of 1949, and he suggests that Picasso was recognizing that his old friend and collaborator had in his own late work once again become a force to be reckoned with.

Picasso had always been, and was to remain, primarily a painter of images, and for the most part space interested him only insofar as it gave his images room in which to exist physically and psychologically; in the years of their Cubist collaboration it was Braque who had invented a new kind of pictorial space in which Picasso’s images could breathe more freely. Certainly the spatial complexities of the Meninas fascinated Picasso. In front of the first of his own Meninas he said to Penrose, “Look at it and try to see where each of the figures is actually situated.” If subsequently the figures in Picasso’s work were once again to canmbalize the space around them, in devouring it they acquired a new breadth and monumentality.

The Meninas was important for Picasso at virtually every level. He had discovered its greatness in adolescence, and now in old age the questions that it raised concerning the relationship between art and illusion, between the artist and his subject, and between art and society must have permeated his consciousness more than ever before. Not only was the Meninas the archetypal studio painting, but its quality of pageantry—the diversity of its characters and the personal and public social rituals they perform—must have encouraged Picasso to begin to view both life and art as one great shifting kaleidoscope of visual revelations and sensations. The picture took him back directly to Spain’s Golden Age, and not only to its art but to its literature.

In the same way Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (over two and half years, from 1959 to 1962, Picasso did more than a hundred variants of it), which itself reflected Manet’s hispagnolisme and made overt references to masterpieces of the past, must have simultaneously led Picasso to reassess the origins of modern art as he had experienced it when he first settled in Paris in the early years of the century. Stimulus also came from the erotic implications of the painting that had so disturbed the critics of Manet’s day. In 1929, on the back of an envelope, Picasso had jotted down: “When I see Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe I say to myself: trouble for later on.” Earlier, in 1924, the critic André Suarés wrote to a friend after seeing Picasso’s own great canvas of 1907: “These Demoiselles are Picasso’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe. He must secretly have thought so.”

Picasso’s motives for turning to artists of the past for inspiration have often been questioned. Was his own imagination exhausted, and did he need artificial stimulus, a ready-made subject? Was he challenging the art of the past, or did he want to exorcise the figures he was choosing as mentors by metaphorically taking possession of them? As his own painter friends disappeared or died and his own reputation went into decline, did he turn to the figures of the past for company and consolation? I believe he communed with artists of the past as painters have always communed with each other, out of a need for stimulus and in a spirit of both comradeship and competition. Picasso had always been fully aware of the art of the past, but now a sense of its totality came flooding through him. Raphael, Rembrandt, Goya, Ingres, Degas, and countless others passed through his studio; and in his graphics he sometimes actually encounters them at the theater or in a brothel. Occasionally he virtually lived inside the work of others. John Richardson in his catalog essay tells us that slides of Poussin’s and David’s Rape of the Sabines and of Rembrandt’s Night Watch were projected in his studio so that they covered an entire large wall. In the case of Van Gogh, Picasso’s ultimate great passion and obsession, one of the self-portraits was from time to time projected opposite him, from floor to ceiling; he was living in the Dutchman’s mind.

The theme of the artist and his model, like the studio interior, had preoccupied the painter from the 1920s onward. Now, centered as his art had become on the nature and mechanics of painting, the theme became increasingly dominant; during 1963 and 1964 Picasso painted virtually nothing else, and these pictures show his vision becoming increasingly internalized. He was working demoniacally, harder than ever before. Virtually every writer who has ever written on Picasso has stressed the autobiographical aspect of his art, as he did himself: “I paint the way some people write their autobiography,” he said to Gilot. John Richardson has entitled his catalog essay “L’Epoque Jacqueline” and in it Picasso’s debt to her is made abundantly clear. As one would expect she continuously makes her appearance in the art. But the organizers of the “Late Picasso” exhibition have chosen, rightly I think, to concentrate primarily on thematic concerns, so that we sense her presence for the most part indirectly, although many of the monumental female nudes in the first half of the exhibition have about them a tenderness that is rare in Picasso’s art. It permeates in particular the paintings of 1964, some of which show the nude model playing with a cat; and these bear eloquent testimony to the central place Jacqueline occupied in his work and life.

The artist and model paintings, on the other hand, comment on the relationship not only between the painter and the naked model, but on the relationship between the act of love and the creative act. Again this had been a theme of Picasso’s art since the 1920s, but it now became increasingly obsessive and explicit. In some of the first of the 1963–1964 series the model is placed at a distance from the painter and her prime function seems to be that of furnishing the space around her. As the series progresses the painter moves up on her and eventually the model and the canvas on which he works become confounded. The painter’s attributes—his brushes, the palette pierced by the thumb that grips it—become increasingly phallic. Finally it is the model and not her image that is being painted, that physically feels the painter’s touch. Like the single nudes that flank them, many of these paintings have about them an almost elegiac quality. In many of them the paint quality itself has become sensuous, voluptuous, in a way it never had been before. The pictures depicting couples have a bucolic or pastoral air.

In November 1965 Picasso left the south precipitately for Paris, where, at the American Hospital, he underwent gall bladder and prostate surgery. Several writers have assumed that he was left impotent. Myself, I wouldn’t be too sure, although he did remark to Brassaï,

Whenever I see you, my first impulse is to…offer you a cigarette, even though I know that neither of us smokes any longer. Age has forced us to give it up, but the desire remains. It is the same thing with making love. We don’t do it any more, but the desire is still with us.

But the operation marked a final milestone in his life. He was henceforth to become increasingly isolated, and more than ever his studio became his entire world. “Painting,” he once said, “that is actual lovemaking.” And if he had previously used lovemaking as a metaphor for painting, now one senses increasingly that he was using painting as a metaphor or substitute for sexual intercourse; and this gives his art a new urgency and violence.

Already the elements of the late style had been present in his work. Matisse in old age had become increasingly preoccupied with the concept of signs. “Each thing has its own sign,” he said to Aragon, “and the discovery of this marks the artist’s progress in the knowledge and expression of the world, a saving of time, the briefest possible indication of the character of a thing.” Picasso, much earlier on, when he had been asked why the full-face heads in the Demoiselles had been given noses seen in profile, had replied that this was the surest way of “saying” that they were noses. He confided to Hélène Parmelin, who with her painter husband Pignon was among the few people he now saw regularly: “I want to say the nude. I don’t want to do the nude as a nude. I want only to say breast, say foot, say hand or belly. To find the way to say it.” Hitherto Picasso had “said” things graphically, by the use of line. In his late manner, and in keeping with his increasingly painterly concerns, he was to “say” things with great painterly sweeps and gestures and with increasing freedom and abandon, with that total disregard for any sense of stylistic conventions or unity that is in itself the hallmark of a late style.

Picasso had always drawn compulsively and continued to do so, but as an activity drawing had now become subsidiary to his painting, rather than pointing the way forward as it had so often done in the past; just as during certain periods of his career his paintings had been surrogate sculptures, the sculptures of old age become surrogate paintings. Printmaking, on the other hand, was fundamental to the art of his last decade, and it fed and complemented his work on canvas. His printmakers, the Crommelynck brothers, possibly the greatest living masters of their trade, were the last new friends he was to acquire. As his painting became simultaneously wilder and more emblematic, the etchings from the second half of the 1960s demonstrated that his hand was as steady as ever, his virtuosity undiminished, and his imaginative powers at a new and hitherto unequaled pitch of inventiveness; their style is broadly speaking classical, but their subject matter is not.

It is in the graphic work that the narrative aspect of Picasso’s art finds its fullest expression. He said, “I spend hour after hour while I draw, observing the characters and thinking about the mad things they are up to: basically it is my way of writing fiction.” In these late etchings the time barrier is exploded and the past meets the present. And in them the heritage of Spain’s Golden Age surges most deeply through his work; the characters of its theater and its literature meet figures that seem to come from nineteenth-century French painting and fiction, and together they stroll forward in time. The cast of characters multiplies and so do the quotations and references from the art of others; the artists of the past with whom he had conducted individual dialogues now move in and out of his studio simultaneously, freely and at will. Picasso spoke of the voyeuristic aspect of etching; more than in any other medium the artist is spectator at the birth of his own work, since he is never certain of the end result until the plate has been pulled. And the eroticism of these works, unmatched in the annals of the art of the West for its explicitness and inventiveness, has about it almost invariably a voyeuristic aspect. But it is also paraded before us in such a way that it transcends eroticism and becomes simply the focal point of some vast, constantly changing artistic theater of life.

It is perhaps through the etchings that we can best approach the work of the final years. At one level the very late paintings seem to flow into each other more insistently than at any other period in Picasso’s career. At another, and increasingly as one stands back from them, they overwhelm us physically as individual images. This may in part be because the space that the figures inhabit has become so dislocated, so dematerialized, that we lose our own spatial bearings in relation to them. (As I moved through the exhibition I was aware of having to stand further and further back from the paintings and it seems fairly obvious that late in the day Picasso was becoming progressively more farsighted.) Another characteristic of the late work is the enlarged eyes of all the figures. As with the Demoiselles, and even when the heads of the figures don’t look directly at us, the pictures seem to stare at us and subdue us. New subjects include the kiss, works of an almost incredible ferocity in which heads seem to copulate, and what Picasso called his “musketeers,” figures in seventeenth-century dress, derived in large part from his dialogues with Rembrandt.

Some of these “musketeers” are in fact musicians or matadors, some hold pipes; their attributes, are invariably phallic. They are not self-portraits (although these abound in the late work after an absence of decades), but they seem to be alter egos or in some odd way friends from the past; they are the flattest and most disjointed of the late single-figure pieces. A Spanish scholar, José L. Barrio Garay, has pointed out that the word “mosquetero” was also used for the non-paying spectators who stood at the back of the Spanish theaters in the Golden Age; like the voyeurs in the etchings, maybe these musketeers are looking at the great teatrum mundi that Picasso’s art had become.

Although the very late work is not autobiographical in the way that so much of Picasso’s art had been, it is revealing at a different level of the condition of extreme old age. A work of 1971 shows a naked couple; the man is not old but he appears to be infirm; it is hard to tell whether he is attempting to walk forward or whether he is squatting—in either case he appears to be collapsing. The young woman to his side attempts to support him but her hands are disproportionately small and inadequate to the task. The theme of childhood now recurs obsessively and we sense that the children held by the musketeers or on their mothers’ laps are now the artist himself. The vaginal imagery takes on new connotations: great vertical gashes seem to invite penetration of a total sort; they are entries into primeval or preconscious worlds.

The last painting in the exhibition, called Reclining Nude and Head, is dated May 25, 1972, and appears to have been worked over several years. It is in some respects the most majestic and mysterious of all. The reclining figure at the bottom of the painting is angular and rigid, a human sarcophagus. The great dominating head above it is described by John Richardson as “Jacqueline-like.” David Sylvester has compared it to the bicycle seat and handlebars that in 1943 Picasso had turned into the head of a bull, a favorite image but one that in old age had virtually disappeared from his art. It also looks strikingly like the tribal Grebo masks that Picasso owned and that in 1912 and 1913 had helped him to make the transition from analytic to synthetic Cubism, from a new way of looking at things to a new way of making paintings. The last staring skull-like self-portraits resemble nothing so much as the eroded Iberian head that had been so crucial to the early stages of the Demoiselles.


In 1980 Arianna Stassinopoulos (now Stassinopoulos Huffington) published a biography of Maria Callas that became an international best seller. One reviewer, carried away by the book, described it as being “as tempestuous and wrenching as a Balzac novel.” And Ms. Stassinopoulos certainly told a stirring tale not only of the rise to fame of a great artist but of love, jealousy, betrayal, and what-have-you among the celebrated, the rich, and the powerful. Reading the book one had the sensation that the author, like her subject, was somewhat larger than life, and that, having dealt with one of the sacred monsters of our time, she could only subsequently cry out for madder music and for stronger wine. The same year in which the Callas book appeared Stassinopoulos says she staggered out of the Picasso exhibition at the Grand Palais and “walked the streets of Paris as if a physical act were needed to absorb the boundless energy that had engulfed me.” However, already “there was an uneasy feeling.” The development of this uneasy feeling into the certainty that if Picasso was a genius he was also in many ways an evil one is in some respects the theme of the large biography of him she has now produced.

Stassinopoulos soon came to realize that Picasso was not a nice or good man, not at all, and that the “struggle between the instinct to create and the instinct to destroy…was at the heart of his life,” and she sees this same struggle as being “at the heart of this book.” The first chapters are in many respects the least bad, possibly because the Spanish childhood and adolescence and the early heroic years in Paris have been so thoroughly chronicled that Stassinopoulos is able to pick her way through them at her own pace. Her own contribution to the history of the early years is to suggest that, despite the fact that before he was fifteen “he spent endless hours in one brothel after another,” Picasso’s relationship with the young Gypsy boy who accompanied him and his friend Manuel Pallares on a camping trip outside Horta in 1898 was physical: “Together they watched the daily miracle of dawn and took long walks on the rough mountain paths. Theirs became a burning friendship….” Of such speculations are legends made.

Further on, discussing Picasso’s relations with Petrus (or Pere) Manyac, a Catalan who tried to help Picasso in his early Paris days and who became overpossessive of him, Stassinopoulos again wonders about his “homosexual leanings.” The Watering Place of early 1906 is described as “depicting an Arcadian world of male beauty, of instincts and horses being given free rein…. It was another moment of hesitation, of nostalgia for the idealized world that living with Fernande, or with any woman, forever closed to him.” (Of the eight paintings reproduced in the book, one is an indifferent portrait of Manyac and another The Watering Place.) Despite Picasso’s “raging sexuality,” I remain unconvinced. Stassinopoulos produces no concrete evidence, documentary or visual, to support her thesis.

The only work of art to get a full-page reproduction is a very small drawing of a copulating couple that is dated “Agosto 1904,” and probably commemorates Picasso’s first sexual encounter with Fernandea Olivier. Stassinopoulos didn’t have the advantage of seeing Olivier’s second book of memoirs, which has only just appeared, and she gets Fernande’s early, pre-Picasso history wrong. But she writes persuasively about the relationship. She sees it inevitably partly through the eyes of Gertrude Stein; but she is less condescending toward Fernande and recognizes that she was important to Picasso in various ways; she helped him to mature and to feel less of an outsider in French life. Stassinopoulos is good, too, on the working relationship with Braque—the only moment in Picasso’s career when he was able to recognize a contemporary artist (with the possible exception of Matisse) even temporarily as an equal. (New, to me at least, and in this case possibly convincing, is the revelation that Marcelle Dupré, whom Picasso introduced to Braque and whom Braque married, had, unbeknown to Braque, been Picasso’s lover.)

Stassinopoulos assesses accurately the importance of Apollinaire for Picasso—“In Apollinaire, Picasso had also found an advocate who was big enough to contain his contradictions”—and she shows how at a different level it was essential for Picasso to surround himself with courtiers like Jacob and Sabartés. She frequently reminds us that Picasso could treat his men friends as badly as his women—his shabby behavior toward Juan Gris, for example, and his ultimate betrayal of Jacob, when he did not sign the petition to the German authorities for his release after his arrest by the Gestapo—but it might be true to say that Stassinopoulos is on the whole fairer and more objective about Picasso’s relations with men and with the mistresses of his youth than she is about the women who afterward came into his life.

But it is in connection with the art of the period, and increasingly as the book goes on, that doubts about Stassinopoulos’s capacity to deal with her subject set in. She is not an art historian and it would be wrong to judge the book by arthistorical standards. But to misrepresent the art is to misrepresent the man. To take only a handful of examples relevant to the pre-1914 period: Stassinopoulos seems unaware of the importance to Picasso in the “blue” period of his visits to Saint-Lazare, the hospital for venereal diseases. The Two Sisters, “his painting of a whore and a nun—originally a whore and a mother—(in which) Picasso expressed for all time his starkly divided vision of women as madonnas or whores,” in fact represents two fellow sufferers from venereal disease; contemporary accounts comment on the fact that prostitutes often kept their small children with them in confinement.

She describes La Vie of 1903, possibly the most densely layered of all Picasso’s work in autobiographical terms, as being “richly symbolic,” but she casts no new light on it, and she seems to be unaware that, as Michael Leja has shown, it is yet another of the canvases that comments on “les deux risques,” venereal disease and unwanted pregnancy. (She also tells us that Don José, Picasso’s father, “personally prepared the huge canvas,” but it is in fact painted over Ultimos Momentos, a work of 1900.) To name Alfred Jarry as the “principal perpetrator” of the “many unconscious philosophical influences” underlying the Demoiselles is to diminish it, even though it is true that Jarry’s impact on other artists was disproportionate to his own artistic and intellectual achievements; at one point Stassinopoulos actually refers to the aesthetic that motivated the painting as “a rejection of life and creation.” She talks of Cubism as “the new vision that dominated his work,” but she never tells us in what this vision consisted. At times she seems unclear about what the distinction between analytic and synthetic Cubism implied.

While one can admire Stassinopoulos’s attempts to situate Picasso’s life and work in a broad historical perspective, some of her generalizations are slightly starting. Chapter six, entitled “Genius in Black Tie,” begins, “The war was over, and the modern world, disoriented and disillusioned, was born.” This takes some thinking about, particularly since four pages on we read that “the crazy, glorious twenties had arrived a little ahead of the calendar.” But Stassinopoulos clearly enjoys situating Picasso in that odd limbo where high society and high bohemia meet; he was by now rich and successful. She is dismissive of Picasso’s wife Olga—“an average ballerina, of average beauty and average intelligence, with average ambitions.” Picasso did not marry her to enhance his social position as Stassinopoulos suggests, although she is of course right in stressing that her values were not his own.

Now doubts about Stassinopoulos’s methods begin to mount too. Of Picasso’s highly successful exhibition at Paul Rosenberg’s gallery in October 1919 she writes, “Not all dissenting voices had been silenced”; and yet the “dissenting voices” she quotes were voiced, in print at least, in 1929 and 1977. This is only one example of her somewhat idiosyncratic use of sources. And what of the art? Of the works related to Olga’s pregnancy Stassinopoulos writes, “There was something impenetrable about these women and, despite their volume and size, an abstract, inhuman quality.” Those commemorating the birth and early childhood of their son Paulo are characterized by “a lumpish immobility from which every ounce of life’s vital energy has been drained.” She is writing about some of the finest works of Picasso’s neoclassical period and about one of the three or four greatest periods in his entire output.

Stassinopoulos is probably right in describing Marie-Thérèse Walter as “the greatest sexual passion of Picasso’s life.” Picasso picked her up in the street in 1927. But Woman in an Armchair. painted in the month he met her, does not set the tone “for the sexual deformations that were to follow” These deformations had been formulated over many years and first found full expression in The Embrace of 1925, a work which perhaps more than any other commemorates Picasso’s growing unease with the demands, family and social, that life with Olga was imposing on the personal freedom that he felt was essential to his art. Picasso may well have initiated the seventeen-year-old Marie-Thérèse into “all (sexual) experimentation, including sadism,” but she seems to have been happy enough at the time. She loved Picasso, remained faithful to him all her life, although it is also certainly true that at times he treated her vilely. Marie-Thérèse was probably the simplest and the least intelligent of the important women in Picasso’s life, and when she took her own life after his death, she apparently did so in some obscure belief that she could try to look after him wherever it was that he had gone. She doesn’t in fact put in an overt appearance in Picasso’s art until 1931. Very little is said in Stassinopoulos’s book of the glorious sequence of canvases that during the 1930s commemorated her passive sensuality; these were some of the ripest and most beautiful pictures that Picasso ever produced.

Françoise Gilot comes into the story in the last paragraph of chapter nine. almost exactly halfway through the book. Chapter ten, which introduces her as the new and ultimately most important person in Picasso’s life, is significantly entitled “A Window to the Absolute.” We are told that the character she most identified with was Ariel in The Tempest, which makes her sound rather tiresome, and that Picasso had issued a warning but, “vibrant with all the courage of youth, she felt invincible.” Gilot was one of the two women with an important part in Picasso’s life who could be described as distinguished. (Dora Maar was the most distinguished of all; Geneviève Laporte, another intellectual. was in the last analysis a peripheral figure.) She was beautiful, she was intelligent, and she was a gifted artist in her own right. Although she was forty years younger than Picasso she was one of the very few people really to stand up to him. Gilot lived with Picasso for ten years, bore two of his four children, and after their separation wrote a book about him (in collaboration with Carlton Lake), which, although it wounded Picasso and many of his friends and was the subject of a nasty lawsuit when Picasso tried to prevent publication, established itself as an important source for Picasso’s ideas and pronouncements on art.

The stories of Picasso’s relations with Olga, Marie-Thérèse, and Dora Maar continue to play an important part in the second half of this book, and inevitably Jacqueline Roque looms large in the final chapters. But it is Gilot who dominates the book from now on, and, important to Picasso as she undoubtedly was, this leads to a sense of imbalance, an imbalance that is even more pronounced when we stop to consider that from an artistic point of view the years with Gilot were not among the most outstanding of his career.

Gilot has provided Stassinopoulos with much new material, but since she has already told her own story, inevitably there is now a sense of déjà lu. Gilot’s Life with Picasso was on the whole dignified and, in retrospect at least, surprisingly fair and levelheaded; and she managed to convey a sensation of the privilege and pleasure of living with Picasso as well as of the concomitant pain. By contrast her life with Picasso as told to and by Stassinopoulos often makes unpleasant reading. As a single example: the occasion on which Picasso held a lighted cigarette to her face is dealt with in her own book in a short paragraph; and it illustrates a facet, however disquieting, not only of Picasso’s temperament but also of their relationship. Stassinopoulos, quoting from one of her interviews with Gilot, gives the episode three times the space and a more sensational emphasis. (A delightful book of reminiscences by Diane Deriaz,5 which has just appeared, gives some insights into what the ménage looked like to someone who was a friend of both of them, but who saw the situation from outside, objectively.)

The cigarette episode appears in the chapter entitled “Comrade Picasso.” In her own book, Gilot treated Picasso’s politics and his adherence to the Communist party with a certain contempt, and of the two she was possibly the more politically aware. Stassinopoulos goes much further. Of the interview “Why I joined the Communist Party,” which Picasso gave to The New Masses and which appeared in L’Humanité at the end of October 1944, she writes, “Never before had he so thoroughly poisoned the well of truth.” In fact Picasso was basically apolitical (although Stassinopoulos tells us “he admired totalitarianism”). One of his closest friends at the time was Paul Eluard, and he was also in contact with Aragon; both men played a part in committing him to the cause. Picasso also liked and was a bit glamorized by Laurent Casanova, who had been an important leader in the Communist underground resistance during the Occupation. Some of Picasso’s statements on his political beliefs are both somewhat pretentious and slightly naive, but they do not merit the scorn that is here heaped on them. Diane Deriaz is better on the subject.

If the prominence given to Françoise Gilot and her views weighs down the book, her advice to Stassinopoulos was to prove disastrous: in her preface, Stassinopoulos tells us that Gilot urged her “not to write about the dead Picasso, symbol and legend, but to engage in a personal encounter with the artist…. It should not be a biography written at arm’s length about Picasso, but you, Arianna, in a living, present relationship with him.” At arm’s length it certainly is not. Stassinopoulos pays lip service to Picasso’s attractiveness, to his magnetism, vitality, and charm; but these are qualities that are hard to convey in words, and particularly so for a writer who wasn’t around to experience them at firsthand. Bad characters are almost invariably more interesting to read about and write about than good; and Picasso’s character was in many respects very bad indeed. He was somewhat like a force of nature; and in the morality stakes he saw himself as hors concours. But then so did most of the people who knew him or were involved with him; and if he often treated them appallingly badly, the fact remains that his victims were almost invariably anxious to come back for more. This would suggest that the rewards of contact with him must ultimately have outweighed the pain and psychological damage he couldn’t prevent himself from inflicting on so many who came into his inner orbit.

The decline of Stassinopoulos’s “living, present relationship” with Picasso begins to be very evident about a third of the way through the book and accelerates steadily. Few opportunities are neglected to do him in. We are told that “accuracy was never high on his list of values,” that he was “never loath to use somebody else’s good idea,” and that “he rarely caused hurt by accident or oversight.” And of course all these things are true. In the chapter that deals with the period of Guernica she writes that “at the very moment when in his art he was soaring like an eagle, in his life he was behaving like a hyena preying on others’ weaknesses.” We learn that in 1936 his “rage for life” had deserted him, and that he “was receiving the world’s adulation for his paintings at the very moment when he was incapable of painting.” (This just over a year before he painted Guernica and when he was temporarily passing through a fallow period.) In any case he seems to have recovered his “rage for life” by 1944 because in the confused euphoria of the Liberation, many underage French girls were initiated into the mysteries of sex by a man who was old enough to be their grandfather.” Later still he is into a “season of raging sexuality, fueled by fear of death, of old age, of the sap failing to rise.”

Needless to say, Picasso’s work was also going downhill, according to Stassinopoulos. Unfavorable remarks by Braque, Giacometti, and Chagall are assiduously passed on. Kostas Axelos, Gilot’s philosopher friend, is quoted as saying of the works shown to him by Picasso in 1948, “Picasso’s art had already entered its period of decadence. And he knew it.” After the departure of Gilot and the ascendancy of Jacqueline Roque the collapse is of course final at every level: “Having failed in his life with a goddess, he settled for the peace of living with a doormat. It was the peace of the grave.” But things could still go from bad to worse: “The Spoiled Child had met his match in the Terrible Mother, all too eager to enclose him in her deathly womb, the better to foster all that was dark, cruel, gross and meanspirited in him.” Finally, “as he played out the last act of his life, love and compassion seemed to have been left in the wings.” Odd this, since in Stassinopoulos’s view they had never exactly been center stage.

By 1962 Picasso’s work was being “born of panic and of the frenzy that panic brings,” and again one page on, “In his work too he was regressing.” Even the extraordinary achievement of the late graphic work doesn’t make the grade: “Futility and disgust filled the suite of three hundred forty-seven etchings that he began working on in March 1968.” Toward the end, ” ‘I do worse every day,’ he said in a rare moment of selfawareness.” But of course that wasn’t really what he meant at all. This book will undoubtedly be a best seller because of the tone in which it is pitched, and because we all like being reminded that the great have feet of clay and can behave ignominiously, and that spectacular fame and wealth often ring unhappiness to artists and those who surround them. It may tell us something about Picasso as a man, but it doesn’t help to explain the achievement of one of the greatest artists of all time. Pierre Daix, whose biography of 1987 is much better, called it simply Picasso Créateur.6

This Issue

July 21, 1988