The twentieth century in Paris opened with a curious lull, almost a whimper. During the previous century, each generation had staged at least one political upheaval, culminating during the 1890s in a spate of anarchist bombings and the near revolution of the Dreyfus affair. By organizing their own exhibits, the Impressionist painters had found a detour around the Beaux Arts-Salon system. With their recently developed prose poetry, free verse, and stream-of-consciousness style, writers had abandoned the authority of the Académie Française in literature. But the seething activity designated by the loose term “avantgarde” seemed to slow down as the new century opened.

At the first Salon d’automne, in 1905, one central room housed the color-saturated works of Matisse, Derain, Braque, and Vlaminck along with a huge predatory jungle scene by the Douanier Rousseau. A journalist named it “the wild animal cage,” la cage aux fauves, and the movement known as Fauvism came into being. But it flourished for only two years before it flickered out. Scores of talents were hard at work in the Latin Quarter and on the slopes of Montmartre. But in literature Zola’s Naturalism and Mallarmé’s Symbolism appeared to hold everything at a standstill. In painting, the unprecedented work of Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, and even the aging Monet would fall awkwardly into the makeshift category of post-Impressionism. It was Virginia Woolf who, on seeing their paintings in London, wrote: “On or about December 1910 human character changed.” What was happening in these years? Were the first two decades of our century an intermission or a turning point?

A bold simplification would focus on three forces affecting the cultural life of Paris during this period. The new technologies of automobiles, airplanes, electricity, telephones, phonographs, radios, cinematography, and bicycles led to an ethos of speed, belligerence, and scientism to be proclaimed in Paris by a group of Italian artists as Futurism. The best self-promoters and publicists in Europe, they persuaded the Paris daily Le Figaro to publish their manifesto in 1909.

At the same time other artists, writers, and musicians were discovering the appeal of African and Oceanic masks along with children’s drawings, the art of the insane, jazz, and folk music. No one wrote a counterpart manifesto of Primitivism, but the ingredients were there for the taking. Many of them became associated with the amorphous movement soon to find a name: Cubism.

A revived spirituality tending toward occultism and exotic religions ran even deeper through these years than Futurism and Primitivism. This was the era of a revived Rosicrucianism, Mme. Blavatsky’s theosophy, cosmic consciousness, and similar doctrines, many of them considered in William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). In Paris, as all over Europe and America, these spiritual currents left a deep mark on the arts.

Today, because of founding works by Stravinsky, Debussy, Schoenberg, Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, Proust, Apollinaire, Lawrence, Joyce, Chekhov, Mann, and Rilke, we see this pre—World War I interlude not as a lull but as an astonishing new beginning. Its impetus was only temporarily interrupted by World War I. Then it assimilated a disciplined rappel à l’ordre in the Twenties and projected its energies up to the Thirties, until stopped by the stultifying directives of socialist realism.

The opening decades of the twentieth century in Paris remain an alluring period, often explored, still not definitively mapped. But why would Norman Mailer, contender for the heavy-weight fiction title and journalist of contemporary events, take it into his head to devote a full-length book, neither novel nor journalism, to this century-old period? He does not hide the answers, and they give us a certain insight into the present state of mind of one of our most ambitious writers, who likes to alternate between the roles of Old Testament prophet and New Age Confidence man.

In an imaginary interview of 1960, “The Metaphysics of the Belly,” Mailer speaks of how looking at Picasso reproductions relieved the severe eyestrain from which he was suffering. As Ancient Evenings grew out of studying ten volumes of Egyptian hieroglyphics at the New York Public Library, he wants us to believe that Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man grew out of eight weeks spent at the Museum of Modern Art turning the pages of Zervos’s thirty-three-volume catalog of Picasso’s work. In both cases the pictures communicated a magic spell. Years later, Mailer translated the Egyptian spell into a thousand-page first-person narrative, and the Picasso spell into a medium-size illustrated monograph. So much he tells us.

The dust jacket Mailer must have approved suggests a slightly different tale. With this book Mailer wants to pin his tail on Picasso’s donkey. He cannot contrive to make the name “Picasso” mate cabalistically with the name “Mailer” (as he mated “Marilyn” with “Mailer,” thus displacing Arthur “Miller“). Instead, he and his publisher display on the jacket the photograph of a young man framed top and bottom by poster-size lettering of the two names. And, lo, the level-gazed likeness could belong to either contender. A photograph of Mailer at twenty-six shows an almost spectral resemblance to the picture actually printed of Picasso aged twenty-three in his corduroy suit. In writing about eight critical years out of Picasso’s lengthy career, Mailer is creating another opportunity to write about himself.


What may have clinched the deal after Mailer reneged on his first contract for a Picasso book becomes clear when one wakes up to the fact that Mailer fell in love—both literally and literarily—with Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s first mistress, la belle Fernande, who wrote two books about that heady period. A couple of photographs of her clothed and hatted plus scores of drawings of her in nude poses make her charms convincingly real. And she writes about bohemian life and art and sex with an economy and a directness that must have impressed Mailer as often surpassing his own rodomontades on the same subjects. He quotes close to twenty pages of his own translations of her second book, Souvenirs intimes (1988). She was also the first to use the phrase “White Negro” when she described Braque in her first book, Picasso et ses amis (1933). Mailer’s most succinct statement of his story line gives Fernande an essential role.

In the face of such inner peril, this Spaniard, of weak and intermittent machismo, drenched in his own temerity, full of sentiments of social and intellectual inferiority, short in stature, was possessed of the ambition to mine universes of the mind no one had yet explored. His female companion for these most creative years of his life was a woman who is not without interest in her own right. While their love will suffer the fate of most passionate relationships…she is, nonetheless, the first of those women who will love him for all of his life. Since it is more than likely that she gave him the dignity to believe in himself as a man, so too did he acquire that indispensable buttress to extreme ambition, a measure of self-respect in the social world. Of course, she is worth our close attention!

A less narcissistic author might have used a different photograph on the jacket—one showing two figures—and called the book Pablo and Fernande.

I shall have a good many criticisms to make of the prose, the lazy assumptions, and the tangled purposes of Mailer’s book. But it remains the serious, sometimes impassioned undertaking of a major writer who wishes to restage events that took place almost a hundred years ago. We cannot dismiss this book because Mailer has moved out of his lane or because he has no eye. He offers a fast-moving synthesis of views on a subject that naturally and inevitably includes him.


Mailer’s “interpretive biography” does its duty by Picasso’s early years in Spain and his three preliminary trips to Paris. He traces the depression and dread of the Blue Period compositions primarily to Picasso’s sexual uncertainties lurking beneath the macho exterior, including the possibility of impotence, homosexuality, and syphilis. Thus preoccupied, Mailer pays disproportionate attention to Picasso’s running output of small erotic drawings, particularly of vulvas and penises, and he barely looks at the large allegorical painting La Vie (1903) on motifs of maternity and fidelity. In this regard Mailer should have borrowed even more heavily from one of his principal sources, John Richardson’s A Life of Picasso, Volume I, 1881-1906 (1991). Richardson’s fine chapter on La Vie examines the multiple symbols consolidated in the composition, including Tarot cards, Gauguin’s D’où venonsnous?, and exorcism by magic imagery.

Mailer’s story gets fully underway only in Part III (of eleven) called simply “Fernande.” On his fourth trip to Paris, Picasso settled into the Bateau Lavoir, a building that resembled a Seine barge for washerwomen grounded on the high hill of Montmartre. (Recently it was destroyed by fire.) Some months later Fernande, an artists’ model, moved in with him. Mailer reproduces the lovely lyric watercolor The Lovers (1904), which celebrates “the profound beginning of an affair.” He fails to observe that this most fully erotic work in the whole book—two lovers “floating away on a sea of peace”—finds no need to display penis or vulva or the male visage. Starting a new life with Fernande, Picasso learned French, made Parisian friends like Max Jacob, Apollinaire, and André Salmon, and distanced himself somewhat from his Spanish past.

Almost all Mailer’s comments on the paintings are anecdotal and fall within the confines of his biographical narrative. Writing about the works in themselves is not his forte. His one painterly preoccupation is to remark on the resemblance of one shape to another. When a painter renders an object,


he transfers it to another existence, he initiates a line that becomes a particular form. Soon enough, the painter is aware that one form can often represent more than one kind of object. The figure 7 can always be seen as a nose upside-down.

For Mailer, these natural resemblances provide more than amusing visual puns. They make magic, and “Magic offers priceless energy.” Mailer woefully overstrains his theory of mimetism when he relies on it to transform both a Baroque wall mirror in Science and Charity (1897) and a candle flame in Head of the Dead Casagemas (1901) into vaginas. On the other hand I believe he is not far off the mark in finding this magic mimetism in early Cubism. “Now [Picasso] will try to interchange torsos and trees.” By 1908 “Picasso will demonstrate that one form can turn into another as soon as one uses a moving source of light.”1

Ever since he wrote Marilyn in 1973 on commission against a crushing deadline, Mailer has at times faced allegations of excessive borrowing and quotation to the point of plagiarism. As in the case of Marilyn, threats of legal action arose over earlier versions of this book. It changed publishers more than once before the threats were allayed. Precautions have been taken. The preface lays claim to “no original scholarship,” and Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man, complete with a title lifted from Joyce, arrives fitted with dutiful acknowledgment of “quoting other authors at greater length than is customary.”

The systematic derivativeness of Mailer’s biography of Picasso may account in part for the nervous fumblings in his style. They begin in the brief preface, where Mailer uses the pronouns I and one in alternation to designate himself as author, as if the first person singular and the standard impersonal pronoun have the same meaning. This casual switching of point of view creates a yodel effect in the syntax that I find inept. Soon the reader begins to hear a recurring chorus of exculpatory phrases: “Be it said that….,” “It’s safe to assume that….” “One ought to add that….” Mailer sometimes cannot restrain himself from anticipating events, thus weakening the element of suspense. In discussing the resemblances of Picasso’s and Braque’s work in 1912, Mailer even loses track of grammar.

They had been dealing with death and decomposition, with motion through time, with modern city uproar—transcendentalism and near-chaos had no need of a signature until it did. But then it did. Anonymity was growing cold.

What is the antecedent of “it”? There is no reason for us to look the other way when one of the most resourceful purveyors of the English language stumbles needlessly. A copy editor should have used the blue pencil.2

In telling his tale of bohemian artists living in the grungy studios of Montmartre, Mailer gets a substantial number of things right: the use of opium, the appeal to magic and the occult encouraged by Max Jacob and Apollinaire, circus and cabaret motifs, the rivalry with Matisse, the intense and somewhat impersonal collaboration with Braque, and the self-serving friendship (on both sides) with the Stein circle. Mailer has a sense of anecdote almost as strong as Vasari’s in describing Renaissance painters. Because Mailer has narrowed his story to the years between 1903 and 1914, the climax comes not at the end but in the middle of the book with the composition of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in the spring of 1907.3

In the section called “The Brothel” after an early working title of the project, Mailer convokes all his resources in order to burrow inside the painting. He begins disastrously by comparing its greatness to that of Fidel Castro “in the wilds of eastern Cuba in 1956.” Then he moves to the conventional analogy of “the equal in modern art to the relics of a saint.” After quoting substantially from Roland Penrose, Pierre Cabanne, Daniel-Henri Kahn-weiler, André Malraux, Patrick O’Brian, and himself (a passage from Of a Fire on the Moon about loss of human scale in Cézanne), Mailer confronts the question of why, chronologically and compositionally, in the middle of Les Demoiselles Picasso transformed its style by introducing African masks for the two figures on the right. Then he quotes O’Brian’s troubling account of Fernande’s and Picasso’s adopting a child and soon after returning her to the orphanage. Mailer now has his answer: the fright masks in the painting will exorcise the failed attempt at adoption.

For Picasso, however, what a disaster! It must have taken no small march over the rocks in his Spanish soul to accept the idea of raising another man’s child with his barren mate, yet he came that far. Then Fernande gave the child away. Speak of curses. He was ready to practice exorcism.

This story of adoption and repudiation is of no relevance to the Negro masks unless both events took place in the spring of 1907, but if so, not only is much accounted for, but it can also explain why, a few months later in that summer of 1907, Picasso decided to separate from Fernande. But there we anticipate.

The problems and latent strengths of this book converge here. The novelist’s imagination has discovered a possible, perhaps even a plausible, biographical explanation for the wrenching shift visible along the central axis of Les Demoiselles. Some see it as the major fault line of Western art since antiquity. But neither the journalist nor the historian in Mailer has exerted himself to disinter the facts and to verify the proffered solution. The structure of the chapters and the significance universally attributed to this painting pick out this section as the high point of the book. The banquet held in Picasso’s studio for the Douanier Rousseau, the collaboration with Braque, and Picasso’s alleged complicity in the theft of the Mona Lisa all belong, for Mailer, to an intense yet diminishing aftermath. He may be right that the combination of painterly and personal circumstances he describes carried Picasso up onto the watershed of Les Demoiselles and then down again by another path. But there is a hole here in the middle of the story, which will probably not be filled until the appearance of Richardson’s second volume next year. Mailer’s elaborately conditional formulation of his solution to the big question about Picasso as an artist undermines his own slender guess. He has moved a short distance inside the mind of the artist who produced Les Demoiselles. But even an “interpretive biography” must hunt down the pertinent facts.


As I read him, Mailer develops three nested theses. First, Cubism between 1906 and 1914 represents the greatest achievement of Western art, a dazzling breakthrough to a new vision. Mailer quotes Cabanne to make the case. “For so perilous an enterprise one had to sacrifice the entire illusionist apparatus of painting, that is, everything the public was used to, everything it judged a picture by.” Second, not single-handed but more persistently than anyone else, Picasso found his way to this high frontier. He had swiftly absorbed academic and post-Impressionist practice, and in 1907 glimpsed a magic link between the stark bone structure in the head of Fontdevila, an imposing old smuggler in Gósol, and the awe-inspiring deformation of human features in African religious masks. Third, the figure who facilitated this achievement, who was soon revulsed by it, and who almost alone understood that the shift was undertaken willfully against the grain of Picasso’s fundamental classicizing temperament was Fernande Olivier.4

None of these theses is original. No one else has assembled them in the same manner. And even Mailer never sets them down in this stark form.5 I list the theses not because they afford us new insights into Picasso but because by default they call attention to aspects of Mailer’s subject he fails to cover.

Attentive to lives and social currents immediately surrounding Picasso, Mailer still misses several important elements of that milieu. There is no discussion of the philosophical, political, and criminal appeal of anarchism, a doctrine which spread wide and deep in both France and Spain of that period. Mailer does take account of the art dealers who spotted and stalked Picasso from his earliest visits to Paris. But he never mentions the little band of private buyers who formed a modest holding company called la Peau d’Ours (the Bear’s Skin) and bought directly from the most advanced artists beginning in 1904. Their public auction in 1914 quadrupled their investment; Picasso’s Les Saltimbanques (1905) fetched twelve times what he had received for it in 1908. A fifth of the profits was returned to the artists. Money was probably more important than magic for Picasso. It would soon allow him to live exactly as he pleased.6

Part V of Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man collects many amusing stories about the bohemian antics of Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Alfred Jarry (whom Picasso admired without ever meeting), and others. In the following sections on Les Demoiselles and the birth of Cubism, Mailer leaves such high jinks behind. He concentrates instead on Picasso’s exorcism of personal terrors and on aesthetic considerations. However, no careful art critic or historian can discount the fact that the attitude of blague d’atelier, of studio joke and mystification and elaborate hoax, contributed its leaven to the development of avant-garde experiments. That ebullient attitude originated as much among Beaux Arts students as in artists’ studios. The Futurists from 1909 on deliberately and defiantly mocked artistic and cultural conventions in order to scandalize the bourgeois. The press’s wariness about being taken in by publicity stunts from artists working in mockery or in bad faith was not just a form of philistinism. By 1912 Théodore Duret, the sturdy supporter of Impressionism, was warning his readers that the snobbish new art lovers were “ready to swoon in front of any eccentricity.” The hint of a grin hovered on the face of Cubism and complemented its audacious formal experiments. Mailer does not allow enough for the impulses Picasso felt, along with his fellow artists, to try out a series of impish sight gags along with his serious exploration of a new visual space.

Instead of humor and farce, Mailer insists on a cluster of ideas closer to his own career than to Picasso’s. “It is the essence of middle-class intuition that art is reckless, art is putatively criminal.” Presumably, the fact that Fontdevila was “a noble outlaw” gave his prominent cheekbones an added liberating force to release Picasso’s style from realist representation. And the last summation of Picasso’s character as an artist turns us firmly back toward the author.

If he was a monster, we have no alternative but to accept him. We ought to know that violence and creativity all too often connect themselves inextricably. … He was not only the genius of us all, but a prisoner in the structure of his character.

To a large extent Mailer is writing here and elsewhere in the book about his own moral dilemmas since he wrote “The White Negro,” the 1957 essay that defends the psychopathic hipster and the “apocalyptic orgasm” of criminal violence. He is trying to maneuver Picasso sideways until he lines up with Gary Gilmore, the murderer-artist of The Executioner’s Song, and with Jack Abbott, the prisoner whose cause Mailer took up in the early Eighties and who was later convicted of manslaughter. In so doing Mailer is surrendering to the prevailing romantic dogma of two centuries—that the artist must be an outlaw and pariah engaged in transgression, violence, and crime in order to plumb the depths of his genius. The life and work of contemporary artists like Matisse and Braque and Arp tell a different story; regrettably, they provide smaller advances for their biographers, precisely because they do not conform to the outlaw convention.

Mailer remains deaf to the powerful case that can be made for the artist as someone who can probe the subtle and elusive condition of the normal because of his own superior normality. Somerset Maugham argues toughmindedly along these lines in The Summing Up. George Eliot and Tolstoy and even Proust reveal that ordinary people, imaginatively portrayed, are rarely uniform or shallow or even ordinary. Mailer has been too impressed by the unreliable and compromising stories in Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington’s biography of Picasso. And Mailer can hear very little over the song of his own theories about the artist as the enemy of all social institutions and constraints.

For those attentive to the history of art in its largest aesthetic and cultural significance, Mailer’s most grievous failure concerns neither the pre-World War I era, nor Picasso as a young artist, but the early years of Cubism as a movement—more exactly, their outcome. Did Cubism go anywhere, accomplish anything? In order to grasp the trajectory of Cubism, we have to know more than Mailer tells us about what was going on outside the Bateau Lavoir, both in Paris and in other cities of Europe. For it was precisely between 1905 and 1914 that Kandinsky in Munich, Malevich in Russia, Mondrian in Holland and Paris, and Kupka and Delaunay in Paris crossed the line into non-figurative or “abstract” painting. A series of influential books accompanied this defining step: Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy (1908), Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), and Clive Bell’s Art (1914). Kandinsky reached the widest audience among artists. Bell launched the immensely useful phrase “significant form.” By a powerful visual and philosophic logic, “pure art” emerged out of Impressionism and post-Impressionism, renounced the world of objective appearances previously rendered as the very essence of art, and turned to a domain of pure form, line, and color linked to inchoate interior feelings and to the spiritual.

Publicized through journalists’ mockery of “little cubes” and producing some of what were regarded as the ugliest and most grotesque paintings ever submitted to the public gaze, Picasso and the Cubists provoked such a rumpus in the pre-war years that many people did not notice that these painters chose not to go over the brink into non-figurative, abstract painting. It looked as if they would take that leap. But persistently in the depths of the most severe, most stripped-down, autopsy-like compositions of Braque and Picasso in 1911, there remains the armature of a human figure along with shards of pipe, book, or bottle. And, until their respective deaths as the last grand masters of nineteenth-century painting, Cézanne (d. 1906) and Monet (d. 1926) dwelt bravely on this outermost frontier of representation and refused to go over the top into pure forms. In his own sector, Matisse also kept the faith with appearances.

A number of historical circumstances have helped to obscure the significance of this withdrawal from the abyss by most artists of the pre-war Paris school. World War I brought a serious hiatus, followed by the long variety show of Dada and Surrealism, accompanied by a neoclassic reaction, followed by the dictates of socialist realism, followed by another World War, followed by the New York School displacing Paris and establishing the triumph of Abstract Expressionism. In such a jumbled sequence, Cubism appears to figure as an important early step along the inevitable road toward non-objective painting. In the Fifties and Sixties the powerful critics Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and even Meyer Schapiro hectored us into accepting this version of progress in art. In reality, Cubism undertook a highly varied holding action, neither a great leap forward nor a retreat. The fault line visible in Les Demoiselles alludes not to where Picasso went over the edge but precisely to how he refused to do so by adapting the expressive distortion of African masks and the vertiginous plastic resources of four-dimensional space-time, however seriously misunderstood.

Félix Fénéon’s reported response to Picasso on seeing Les Demoiselles was to advise him to devote himself to caricature. That remark points to one of the paths by which the Paris school found its way down from the mountain, not back to earlier practices but obliquely into new plastic territory where the world of objects and figures still counts. Some, like E.H. Gombrich, have argued that the exciting nineteenth-century practice of caricature had a crucial part in bringing a new expressiveness by distortion into twentieth-century art. And caricature is not unrelated to African masks and la blague d’atelier.

Mailer has picked out the most challenging episode in modern art—challenging both to the artists themselves and to us in our attempt to grasp what happened. I believe he fails to see that Picasso was a Moses in reverse. Having reached a point where he could look over into what voices around him like Apollinaire’s were proclaiming as the Promised Land of pure light and of forms liberated from the contingent world of appearances, Picasso was not too old and weak to complete the journey. He was too young and vigorous to relinquish his belief in the sensible world. Therefore he neither strode on nor turned back. He found a companion and rival in Braque with whom he could occupy the embattled terrain of appearances until other paths emerged. For all their simplifications and smoothings out, Arp and Brancusi remained on the near side of the great divide. Drawing deeply on the reverberations of the studio joke and caricature, Duchamp, Klee, Chirico, Ernst, and Magritte all explored their separate ways along the uncertain slopes of easel painting following the Cubist explosion. We do not yet know what terrain lies ahead of us in the next millennium. But the refusal of these artists to renounce appearances will not be ignored or forgotten.

Mailer has found his way to an exciting geographic and chronological site in the landscape of modern art but fails to see the whole picture. Some have called Montmartre in the pre-World War I decades “a new Acropolis.” There, a handful of young artists and poets collaborated in a successful attempt to stir up the eerie lull that followed the turn of the century. They founded a new artistic movement soon named Cubism. It also carried the markings of a sly cultural prank trumped up out of Pataphysics and high spirits, of a magic trick performed in the face of grinding poverty and disastrous personal lives, and of an unbelievably successful financial enterprise at least for one of their number and for a few dealers. Because his own persona often stands in his line of vision, Mailer gets the picture only partly right. In a shorter book without the trappings of scholarship, I believe he would have avoided the gaucheries of style and the wavering artistic judgments that now obstruct his account. Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man tell us that Mailer’s intelligence is still turning over and that he can lay out the plan of an enterprising book, however derivative, however skewed. Is he now going to devote himself to “masterpieces of ugliness” of the kind he says became Picasso’s trademark? I don’t think so. Mailer cannot convincingly pin his tail on Picasso’s donkey. Their careers do not run parallel. And “ugliness” hardly does justice to Picasso’s post-Cubist works.

Mailer uses an epigraph in which Picasso refers to his intent “to revolutionize [people’s] way of identifying things.” Yes, truly. But let’s not forget the essential fact that in Cubism, and in Picasso’s works for the rest of his life, “things” remain there to be seen. In a half-facetious “Practical Guide for the Amateur of Cubism,” written for a 1912 show in Barcelona, Max Jacob gives us advice on how to identify those things. “Pick out a detail that contains the key to the whole, stare at it for a long time, and the model will appear.” Thanks to such artists and such poets, the world is still very much with us.

This Issue

January 11, 1996