So The New Yorker, like one of those ferocious patriotic ladies in the First World War, has handed Picasso the white feather. He was “a coward, who sat out two wars while his friends were suffering and dying,” although, the passage continues, less certainly, “he may have been right to do this in the First War, but he did it again, in the same way, in the Second….”1
Picasso was born in 1881. To accuse a man of cowardice for not having joined up in 1939, when he was in his late fifties, strikes me as a complete novelty, and it would have been a novelty to those Allied soldiers who, on the liberation of Paris, flocked to Picasso’s studio as a place of pilgrimage. Picasso could have “sat out” the war in New York, but chose not to do so, even though he was one of the most famous antifascists of his day. Picasso was also a Spaniard and a pacifist. Whether you think that he should have felt obliged to fight for France in the First World War depends on whether you think he might be entitled to his pacifism—whether you think that all pacifists are cowards.
The man in the long skirt with the cloche hat, doling out these white feathers to the artists of the past, and hitting them over the head with his parasol, is Adam Gopnik, the author of the New Yorker article. Gopnik’s own writing on Picasso comes across, over the years, as an unstable compound of calculated big-cheese worship and exasperation. A decade and a half ago, he wrote as the proselytizing star pupil of William Rubin, whose forthcoming lectures and insights he was permitted to flag.2
By 1989, although Rubin was still “a great historian,” his researches into Cubism were seen by Gopnik as irrelevant and obsessive: “Whatever minor anomalies and surprises may remain to be found, this looks like a case where all the returns are in.”3 And in the latest episode of this tale of disillusionment and remorse, Rubin, still “the greatest of Picasso scholars,” gets treated ironically as “a man of…intimidating aplomb, born to lead orchestras or armored divisions,” but nevertheless a fool who fusses over absurd minutiae, while the young Gopnik, in a disgusting disavowal, is portrayed as a consumer of carrion:
Like many young art historians of my generation, I did a little feeding on Picasso’s corpse. We couldn’t help it: it was the biggest body on the beach, the washed-up whale, and we needed a meal.
What does this mean? That his generation were careerists who just had to get on by whatever means came to hand? As so often with Gopnik, the bad style leads the sense by the nose, and this affected remorse comes across as smug.
Gopnik’s unfolding purpose seems to be to tell his old teacher that his life has been spent in vain. In order to soften the blow, he offers up an indictment of John Richardson’s biography, which he calls ill written (and he is on such thin ice here: he is the author of the judgment that Picasso’s Cadaqués paintings “look like pictures that Whistler might have produced had he given up pastels for an X-ray machine”), exculpatory, and shallow in its assessment of the art. But he spoils the effect by his triumphant conclusion that Picasso “may very well turn out to be this century’s Ingres—a master draftsman, with a single, reiterated erotic vision, who became the little god of the academies and had…no artistic conscience at all.” The author of this remark is more worried about his own academic past than he is about his critical conscience.
One could imagine a situation in which Picasso’s reputation sank, just as Rodin’s did earlier this century. The history of taste is full of such reversals. But even if Picasso’s reputation sank to zero, he is hardly likely to disappear as a historical figure: one would still have to know about Picasso in order to understand the history of other people’s painting, other people’s sculpture, etchings, ceramics, design. He would become—this future, unbearable Picasso—a figure like Sir Walter Scott or Victor Hugo, whose books remained familiar through other media even when they were not read. Even if, say, Guernica became absurd or incomprehensible as a painting, there remains the fact that the other day the Germans paid damages to Guernica itself. I doubt if that would have happened had Picasso’s painting not kept the Guernica incident notorious. That is one of many reasons why it was always shallow of Tom Wolfe to call Picasso this century’s Bouguereau. It was a shallow remark, but it meant something. Gopnik’s revision of it means nothing at all.
To return to the question of Picasso’s cowardice: John Richardson, who is clear-sighted about his subject’s human shortcomings, does not seem to think that a failure to enlist in the Foreign Legion was one of them. On the contrary, he thinks that Apollinaire’s eagerness to fight for France (he was an Italian national) was part of his tragedy. Apollinaire had been imprisoned over the “affair of the statuettes,” in which objects had been taken from the Louvre with his alleged complicity, and was keen to purge the stain of his misdeeds. Picasso was not required to join up, and he obviously did not feel obliged to make either himself or his art more acceptable in the eyes of French chauvinism by gestures of that sort. He saw his prime responsibility as being toward his art, and he was quite right.
It is a cozy vice for a non-combatant from a different age to make himself a connoisseur of other people’s valor. Braque fought. Picasso did not. But it was not this that came between them. Most of those who fought had no choice in the matter. Léger, for instance, features in Richardson as “one of the more gallant of the Montparnasse artists. Until he was gassed in 1917 and invalided out of the army, Léger was a sapper in the engineering corps and constantly in the thick of action: Verdun, Aisne, Argonne.”4 But Léger was desperate not to fight in 1914, and his letters from the front show a man consistently keen to get away from the fighting, always on the lookout for the legitimate ticket of leave (as when he wistfully remarks that the workshops of the camouflage division, which he wants to join, are near that famous bar, the Lapin Agile). Christian Derouet, in his introduction to Léger’s letters, paints a quite different picture of the artist from Richardson, implying that he was something not far short of a malingerer. Derouet says that Léger’s job—he was only briefly a sapper and spent most of his time as a stretcher-bearer, a brancardier—was “often only a sordid chore.” This judgment seems both ungenerous and wildly lacking in imagination.5
There is a fundamental divide between those who have been subject to military discipline on the battlefield and those who have not, but even within the former category there will be a wide discrepancy in suffering. Léger implicitly acknowledges this in his letters when he describes soldiers emerging from the trenches, where they have spent weeks on end without relief. He seems to recognize that they have been through something he can only guess at. But he also knows full well that his friend back home, Louis Poughon—the man to whom he makes so many requests for influence to be exerted on his behalf—is never going to understand what he, Léger, has been through:
I am sure that this war will have taught me to live. I believe that I shall not squander another minute the way I used to squander entire months, because I shall see things in their “value,” their true absolute value, in God’s name! I know the value of every object, do you understand, Louis, my friend? I know what bread is, what wood is, what socks are, etc. Do you know that? No, you can’t know that because you have not made war. Do you know what it is to have fear take over your whole body and tear you away from a secure shelter and throw you out against death like an imbecile? No, you can’t know that, you haven’t made war. You will remain a man of “before the war” and that will be your punishment, Louis, my old friend, and me, despite my 34 years, despite my life already begun, like my work, which this tragedy has broken in two, I am nevertheless still young enough, still alive enough to be, me too, if the God of my mother permits it, to be, you understand, of the great generation after the war!6
Léger used trickery to remain in hospital for the last year of the war, but one would have to be something of a Spartan mother to call him a coward for that, considering he had just been through Verdun. As for the idea that Picasso should perhaps have volunteered for Verdun, I doubt if Léger himself would have seen the sense of it. He only ever volunteered in the opposite direction.
That Richardson never intended definitive status for his biography—whatever the word might mean in such a context—is clear to anyone who has bothered to read the note on “Principle Sources” in Volume One. Not all collections of papers can be consulted, and some of the items in the Picasso archive itself are yet to be declassified. The interest of Richardson’s book is in any case a personal one. When Richardson was living with Douglas Cooper in the 1950s, he got to know many of the principal actors in this story, including Picasso and Braque (about whom he wrote a short book which still reads well, as does his celebrated essay on Manet).
The relationship with Cooper was both a source of education for Richardson and, as it turned out, a handicap, for Cooper did his best to undermine the younger man’s self-confidence. When the two quarreled, and Richardson went off to work at Christie’s, in due course running its New York office, what had once been a very promising writing career was shelved for a while. Richardson as a scholarly writer has no Middle Period to speak of, only the authoritative early works such as the excellent essays in the Burlington Magazine, and this great late flowering.
In the two volumes of the Picasso biography so far, what we have is a splendid making up for lost time. There is the careful revision of the published sources, debunking some and rebunking others. There is the material that comes directly from Picasso, with whom Richardson got on better than Cooper did (Cooper would irritate with niggling inquiries, while Richardson was ready to entertain with gossip). At times, I believe, we also hear the tones, and maybe some of the prejudices, of Cooper himself (to whose memory the first volume was dedicated, Cooper and Richardson having eventually become reconciled, although Picasso in his last years banned Cooper from his house).
At times, Richardson’s contempt is on display. I don’t think it right to call him antifeminist. He is anti-Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, herself a prominent antifeminist and author of the forgotten tract The Female Woman. He is anti any attempt to foist what he sees as a premature politicizing onto Picasso, and this makes him rather tough on someone called Patricia Dee Leighten. He is rather reluctant to let Picasso ever go to bed with a bloke, no doubt rightly, but since it is also built into Picasso’s psychology that he requires the adoration of male homosexuals, one does sometimes idly wonder whether there might not, at some stage, have been the occasional experiment in that direction.
He is particularly anti—and this I believe to be a Douglas Cooper leitmotif—the “Salon Cubists” Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, so anti that the other day I paid a visit to the Musée d’Art Moderne in the Trocadéro to find out what they had done wrong. It was of course not simply a matter of their adaptation of Cubist style to an essentially decorative purpose. It was also the extraordinary act of appropriation whereby they decided that they had invented Cubism. One can still buy Metzinger’s memoirs, Le Cubisme Etait Né, which mentions Picasso only in passing and Braque not at all, and their jointly written Du Cubisme (first published in 1912), in which Picasso and Braque are vouchsafed one illustration each, while Gleizes and Metzinger together enjoy eight.7 Their view was that only those who had exhibited with them in the Salon des Indépendants had the right to be called Cubists. Picasso during all this period was exhibiting more abroad than in France, and he was avoiding the Salons. So he was really, on this view, quite marginal.
The vanity and self-deception of the minor artists of the period is illustrated in the story Cocteau tells of going round studios with Picasso only to find doors locked against them while the painters hurriedly hid their recent works in case Picasso stole one of their latest inventions. It is not that one doubts that Picasso might well have seen fit to borrow whatever came in handy. The vanity is rather in the belief that there might be so much lying around for Picasso to steal, so much that wasn’t, more likely, stolen from him in the first place. Richardson has an interesting detailed account of the quarrel between Picasso and Diego Rivera, which illustrates the process at work: Picasso had indeed borrowed a pictorial device, but only from a painting overwhelmingly indebted to Picasso himself.
Richardson is not exculpatory or amoral in his attitude toward Picasso. He likes the story he is telling to be good, and if it contains bad, or monstrous, behavior, we are going to be let in on it. He is pretty much unshockable, which is just as well when one is dealing with characters like Cocteau and his fashionable circle, who diverted themselves at the beginning of the war by designing for themselves outlandish uniforms (like deep-sea divers’ or Argentine policemen’s) and popping off to the war in ambulance units equipped with showers. Cocteau, we are told, “supervised this facility, photographing and on occasion seducing the Zouaves and Senegalese sharpshooters, and even writing a poem about them, called ‘La Douche.’ Eventually there was a scandal. Outraged by Cocteau’s passion for one of his men, a jealous goumier (Moroccan) sergeant threatened to hack the flirtatious poet to pieces.” A far cry, one feels, from the war as Léger knew it.
The need to compress the enormous amount of information involved—even in a biography on this scale—suits Richardson’s style very well. Consider the following sentence, describing the uncle of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the dealer: “Sir Siegmund [Neumann] was one of those Edwardian tycoons whose lavish hospitality—dinners of ortolans, baby lambs’ tongues and foie gras en croûte, followed by cigars and stockmarket tips—prompted Edward VII to reward his hosts with knighthoods and invitations to shoot at Sandringham.” There is a great deal of social history packed in here, and, to the English ear at least, the placing of the word “Sandringham” at the climax of such a sentence is both comic and revealing: this is exactly, one feels, what Sandringham was all about.
As with the first volume, the second installment is self-contained and generously self-explanatory. A character appears—say, for example, Annette Rosenshine, best friend and cousin of Alice B. Toklas. She has a cleft palate and a harelip and a deteriorating psyche. Gertrude Stein begins subjecting her to amateur analysis. She gets worse. Then both Stein and Toklas (who have fallen in love) drop her. She is traumatized but, in Richardson’s view, saved by this betrayal. She goes back to San Francisco in 1908, dropping out of the story. Except that there is a footnote:
After World War I, Annette returned to Europe. Alice saw that Gertrude shunned her, but it no longer mattered: she was on her way to Zurich to have Dr. Jung undo the damage done by “Dr.” Stein. Later Annette did a stint with Gurdjieff, and in the 1960s ended up in Berkeley, where she found not only a following among the students but an analyst who gave her LSD therapy.
Of course neither Annette Rosenshine (with her appetite for therapy) nor Sir Siegmund Neumann has anything directly to do with Picasso. It is the speed with which these marginal characters make their impression that is so admirable. As for the treatment of the major characters and themes, I found with Volume One, and the sensation is no less with the present volume, that as I read it my education simply advanced by one great step. It is like being in a clocktower when one of the big cogwheels moves forward by one notch—a great, simple, fundamental event.
One could organize a whole exhibition (it might be called “A Century of Sucking Up”) out of the portraits that painters have done in order to cement or improve their relationships with their dealers. There are forerunners of course—Titian did one, and so did Courbet—but the genre as such really gets going with Van Gogh (Père Tanguy and Alexander Reid) and is developed by Renoir (members of the Durand-Ruel family). One supposes that the rise of the genre coincides with the decline of the aristocratic patron, and the diminishing importance of the academy in the lives of the artists. If this imaginary exhibition were organized by subject, the hero would undoubtedly be Ambroise Vollard. Picasso once said to Françoise Gilot:
The most beautiful woman who ever lived never had her portrait painted, drawn, or engraved any oftener than Vollard—by Cézanne, Renoir, Rouault, Bonnard, Forain, almost everybody, in fact. I think they all did him through a sense of competition, each one wanting to do him better than the others. He had the vanity of a woman, that man. Renoir did him as a toreador, stealing my stuff, really. But my Cubist portrait of him is the best one of them all.8
If the exhibition were laid out according to schools, then the British room (from Orpen’s Duveen to Hockney’s Kasmin) would be pretty good, while the American section would round it off nicely (Schnabel’s Mary Boone, painted on broken plates) and there would be a special lifetime award for Jasper Johns, who, during the whole of his artistic career, appears to have represented only three recognizable faces: himself (on another plate), the Mona Lisa, and Leo Castelli.
But if the exhibition were done artist by artist, the master of the dealer portrait would undoubtedly emerge as Picasso. At the time of his first Paris exhibition he did both his dealers (Pere Mañach and Vollard), plus the reviewers who had been persuaded to turn in good notices. From that time on, until he stopped needing to, and realized he no longer needed to, he did everyone. One of Picasso’s most frightful paintings (Madame Paul Rosenberg and her Daughter) is a sucking-up portrait, but then so are the distinguished Cubist portraits of 1910—of Vollard, Kahnweiler, and Wilhelm Uhde. A year before, Picasso had painted (from photographs, apparently) the horrible Clovis Sagot, the most ruthless and pitiless of the small-time dealers. That he should have made these portraits during the height of his Cubist period is striking. Both Richardson and Michael C. FitzGerald (another Picasso scholar with a Christie’s background) suggest that he used the time spent on these sittings to strengthen his relations with those three, and Richardson adds, in his cool way, that if he did his finest portraits of dealers rather than the poets who were his closest friends, that is because he needed the dealers as much as, if not more than, the poets.
William Rubin, in his catalog to the show “Picasso and Portraiture” which opened at MOMA and closes this month at the Grand Palais, acknowledges FitzGerald’s suggestion, but thinks it does not go far enough.
The 1910 portraits coincided with a moment in the artist’s career when, as a result of the radicality of his thinking, the thread connecting his pictures to the visual world seems nearest to breaking. In order to test just how abstract he could be and still communicate an individualized subject, Picasso needed sharply etched, salient models, who would not disappear into types and generalized symbols in the manner of “passive” still-life and landscape motifs.9
There is something comic in the idea that Picasso might have woken up and thought: Who do I know who is sufficiently sharply etched and salient not to end up, when I have painted his portrait, looking like a mandolin and a bowl of fruit?
Rubin is capable of the most extraordinarily slack writing, and is at his worst when discussing the history of portraiture (see page 18 of the “Portraiture” catalog) and what distinguishes the modernist portrait from those of what he calls the Old Masters. He thinks that between the Renaissance and modern times, the “portrait situation” remained “fairly stable,” that the relative wealth of the sitters meant that there was a “psychosocial” distance between them and the painters, which tended to “diminish dialogue and intimacy and encouraged the painter to concentrate on externals: facial features, costumes, and accessories symbolizing the sitter’s formal place in the world.” In parentheses he tells us that “because of their own renown, Leonardo, Titian, Rubens, Velázquez, and a few other great masters constituted exceptions—though only partial ones—to this rule.” Nonetheless he concedes that “the finest portrait painters managed to make great paintings” but, still, “portraiture, in anything less than outstanding hands, was usually the most boring of Old Master genres (as art-sensitive visitors to the ‘stately homes’ will readily attest).”
This does not sound particularly “art-sensitive” to me. To begin with, it appears to have been written by somebody not in the least curious about the history of art of previous centuries. Secondly, if the problem for those Old Master painters was their social distance from their sitters, then one would expect the history of the self-portrait, where the social standing of artist and sitter is identical, to be quite different from that of portraiture in general. If it was a drawback for the Old Masters, when they painted portraits, that they were obliged to concentrate on “facial features,” then I suppose one could expect the self-portraitist to concentrate on something less “external”—tonsils and adenoids, perhaps.
A still life from 1914 called Bottle of Bass, Wineglass, Packet of Tobacco, and Visiting Card (none of the titles of Picasso’s paintings are his) bears the visiting card of André Level, a businessman of extraordinary perception who organized what has been described as the first mutual fund; it was called “La Peau de l’Ours,” the skin of the bear (an allusion to La Fontaine), and involved a group of investors contributing 250 francs each a year, which would be invested speculatively in modern paintings. At the end of ten years the whole collection would be sold, but before then the paintings would hang in the homes of shareholders.
At the time the fund began, Matisse had been trying to get together a group of backers to support him in a similar way, and he may well have been the originator of the idea. Level had twelve partners, and he began investing in 1904. Ten years later, as if to prove that the fund had matured on schedule, it had become almost impossible for him to buy the kind of works he had originally set out to acquire. A fancy catalog was printed and the sale took place in March 1914.
Shortly before the sale, the investors made what sounds like a rather noble decision: they agreed that 20 percent of the proceeds should go to the artists whose works made up the fund (to be divided between them in proportion to prices raised). This principle entered French law six years later and was known as droit de suite: when a modern artist’s work is resold in France, a small proportion of the proceeds is payable to him or his estate. This has recently become a topical issue, since the European Community, when it harmonizes laws like those on copyright, tends to level up rather than level down. If droit de suite were extended to England, according to the Chairman of Christie’s, Lord Hindlip, speaking last month in the House of Lords, that would be the end of London as a center for the modern art market, because no Japanese collector would wish to pay the extra 2 percent.10
So “La Peau de l’Ours” may be responsible, one day, for closing down Christie’s London operations. More immediately, it was responsible during the decade of its purchases for a change of attitude by dealers toward artists like Picasso and Matisse: someone was buying their work regularly and systematically. And when the sale took place, it was Picasso’s Saltimbanques that proved the star, selling for 12,650 francs. Michael FitzGerald, whose book Making Modernism: Picasso and the Creation of the Market for Twentieth-Century Art was published in 199511 (some, but by no means all, of his research is incorporated in Richardson’s Volume Two), made a calculation that in 1991 values this would be the equivalent of $4.18 million. Whatever the mathematics of the matter, and the difficulties of establishing equivalents in buying power, it was clear that Picasso had passed on to a new level of existence. From around 1909 he had not lacked money, although he did not know for certain that he had achieved financial security. But the still life with André Level’s visiting card was a gift from Picasso to Level in acknowledgment of his indebtedness. Picasso’s personal share of the proceeds was just under 4,000 francs.
It is significant that the purchaser of the Saltimbanques was a German, Heinrich Thannhauser from Munich, since the market which Kahnweiler had cultivated for Picasso was very much a German affair, and this was noted by French chauvinist writers, who accused the Germans of buying Cubist works in order to undermine the morale of the French. There was an atmosphere of cultural paranoia at the time which was not so unlike the atmosphere later created in Germany under the Nazis. If, by 1917 when Richardson’s Volume Two ends, Picasso was wealthy but not secure in his wealth, that is not so surprising. Two major dealers, Kahnweiler and Uhde, had their stock confiscated during the war. The Russian Revolution would put an end to the great St. Petersburg collections. Even after the war, when the French government sold off the Kahnweiler and Uhde stock as having been the property of enemy aliens, the artists affected were furious, afraid (wrongly as it turned out) that the market would be flooded and their prices would fall.
I have seen it claimed that the chapters in Richardson (both volumes) about collectors and dealers are nothing more than an eccentric and amusing extra. On the contrary, I think that both Richardson and FitzGerald are absolutely right in pursuing their researches in this direction. Kahnweiler, Picasso’s first real dealer, had a very strong point of view about Cubism itself. Léonce Rosenberg, who briefly replaced him, circularized his artists, telling them not to have anything to do with the Ballets Russes. Paul Rosenberg, who with Georges Wildenstein took Picasso over and sold his works in association with a gallery mainly dealing in Old Masters, may well be said to have contributed to the way—and this would be the important thing—that Picasso thought about himself. Richardson’s Volume Three will have to deal first of all with the “duchess period” in which Picasso was obligingly turning out portraits of Madame Wildenstein and Madame Rosenberg in Biarritz.
The whole question of who dealt in what and who collected what leads straight to the fundamental artistic issue: who could have seen what, where, and when. A shocking little detail in Richardson: in 1913 there was an exhibition in Berlin called “Picasso und Negerplastiken,” consisting of paintings and drawings relating Picasso’s work to tribal sculpture. No copy of the catalog has survived, but the exhibition toured Dresden, Vienna, Zurich, and Basel. It has dropped out of history. Nobody knows what the tribal sculptures involved were. The shocking detail is this: in order to establish priority, Kirchner, who also loved tribal art, “tried to falsify the record by altering the dates on his paintings.” He wanted priority as a primitivist.
Finally, I think Richardson right to emphasize that, in our perception of the history of Picasso’s fame, we can easily forget the role played by German collectors and dealers, because none of those early collections has survived. If it wasn’t the First World War or inflation that did them in, it was the campaign against degenerate art and the persecution of the Jews. The paintings that Kahnweiler sold to Germany ended up, most of them, in America. But one should not forget this chapter in their history.
The “affair of the statuettes” already referred to was not, in fact, about statuettes at all, but about some Iberian stone heads of the fifth to third century BC. Géry Pieret, a bisexual Belgian con man and psychopath, stole them from the Louvre in 1907. (When he told Marie Laurencin, “I’m going to the Louvre. Do you want anything?” she thought he was referring to the department store, the Magasin du Louvre.) He seems to have sold two to Picasso and another to Apollinaire. Four years later, after the disappearance of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, Pieret boasted to a newspaper about how easy it had been to steal from. The police were alerted. Apollinaire and Picasso went into a panic. Apollinaire was briefly jailed. Picasso appears to have disclaimed all knowledge of Apollinaire and somehow to have got off scot free.
Two of the statuettes in question were on show recently near Copenhagen at the Louisiana Museum, in a charming exhibition called “Picasso and the Mediterranean.” They are not so remarkable as works of art—nothing to compare with the tribal art which Picasso also collected, or with the wonderful tiny bronze statuettes, also Iberian and from the same period, which look like reductions of Giacomettis. They remind one, though, of the interest that was growing during that period, not so much in the grand art of the classical period as in the primitive, the folkloric, the modest and crude artifact. Such work included little Etruscan or Sardinian bronzes, Cretan pottery figures, and preeminently the Cycladic art which, when excavated in the nineteenth century, would have gone into the archaeological museums but would never have been considered as art. I asked some scholars from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek when the first Cycladic figures arrived in Denmark, and they said that it was around the 1830s. I then asked when Cycladic art first began to be faked, and they said around 1920. That gives a rough idea of the time it took for the taste in Cycladic art to be created.
It is worth remembering that, just as it is possible that one day Picasso’s reputation will go into an eclipse, so it is possible that one day the taste for Cycladic art will be quite forgotten. This is not as mad as it sounds. There is a very good precedent in the story of Tanagra figurines—painted terra cotta statuettes, mostly from third-century BC Greece. Around the turn of the century, very few people would have understood the expression “a chaste, Cycladic beauty,” but a large number would have known and employed such phrases as “a lyrical beauty, Tanagra-like in its delicacy.” Count Harry Kessler, who thought that the Tanagra figurines were the sculptural equivalent of Anacreon’s poetry, would spend hours in the museums gazing at the cases full of Tanagras. He couldn’t do so now because large numbers of them are in the storerooms and are fakes.12
And just as Tanagra only held its own as a category of beauty between the 1870s and the first decades of this century, so too the Mediterranean as a category has its own history, its rise and decline. Byron, who knew the Mediterranean so well, would never have known about its myth, because he thought in imperial terms and would have identified with the spirit of Greece or the spirit of Rome. But the Mediterranean myth has to do with what lives on, in the imagination, all around the shores of that sea. It is a Blut und Boden myth. In the Mediterranean any nationality is interchangeable: Maillol was a Catalan of peasant stock, and it was a commonplace to say of him, “He is a Catalan, practically an ancient Greek.”
Jean Leymarie, in his essay in the Copenhagen catalog, is clearly still a believer in the myth when he writes, “The soil of the Mediterranean is poor but it has produced brave sea-men to sail its waters and resilient folk to work its land; Picasso never forgot what he learnt from them.” And “The corrida brought him closer to the solar and nocturnal pulse of the ancient Mediterranean: the rites and ceremonies of Crete; the cult of Mithras and the legend of Theseus.” And “The radiant sea, upon whose stormy, roiling waters Man mastered the metrics of the cosmos through catharsis, remains the irreplaceable fountainhead of Metre and Beauty.” Tériade, the Parisian Greek critic, took Odysseus Elytis to see Picasso’s sculptures, and Elytis wrote: “I felt suddenly jealous that these great symbols of the South, these archetypes descended from the mists of time, had not been made on an island in the Aegean, where in former times Man’s fingers dared to model solid matter with a clumsiness that cannot lie.”
If this kind of writing makes you want to throw up, I quite agree. Not every Greek was obliged to write like that. I looked through Cavafy again the other day to see if the Mediterranean had affected him similarly, but of course Cavafy’s antiquity is urban and realistic, peopled with civil servants and minor officials. Another Parisian Greek, Picasso’s friend Jean Moréas, “the Ronsard of Symbolism,” is held to have been one of the founders of the myth, with his Ecole Romane. John Richardson describes him memorably: “This flamboyant but grubby dandy, made grubbier by the cheap black dye that rubbed off his hair and moustache onto his monocle and gold-ringed fingers….”
Christian Zervos, philosopher of Greek origin, author of a thesis on Plotinus, who became the editor of Cahiers d’Art and cataloguer of Picasso’s oeuvre, caused a great scandal, we are told, with a book on Greek art published in 1933. The scandal? His earliest illustrations began in the third millennium BC, and that was considered barbaric.
I bought recently a couple of issues of Cahiers d’Art (they do not come cheap) to see what Zervos’s aesthetic program was like. It is wonderfully consistent. The first issue, Number 6 of 1929, begins with an account by Zervos of the paintings that Picasso has been making up to the July of the same year. The next piece is on Cycladic idols, followed by one on Fauvism and on pre-Orthodox Slavic art. The last essay is on the railway workshops at Freyssinet, with beautiful photographs of metal industrial windows. The book reviews include an attack on Gaudí’s architecture for dishonoring the city of Barcelona.
The following issue begins with a piece by Tériade, bringing us bang up to date with what Matisse has been doing, followed by early Cypriot terra cottas, Ummayad mosaics, a rightly forgotten painter called Cossio, the architecture and town planning of Joseph Gocå?ar in Czechoslovakia, and archaeology in the Middle Euphrates. The issue ends with a letter endorsing the attack on Gaudí as being against the principles of modern architecture as espoused by the magazine.
The interest, in other words, was in the very latest in art, and the very earliest, and pretty well nothing in between. Antiquity is the source of the modern principles of beauty, and the Mediterranean is the source of antiquity.
Think of a barren slope, some fractured torso, and a distant view of the sea. Add a peasant. Throw in a goat. You’ve got the Mediterranean. It’s all a cliché now but it wasn’t always a cliché. There wasn’t always a perfume called “Kouros.”13 The Mediterranean had to be invented, nurtured, and campaigned for. Leymarie mentions the Spanish philosopher Eugenio d’Ors, who reflected that the ideal basis for a redemptive mythos for Catalonia might be none other than “the discovery of the ‘Mediterranean.”‘ Richardson has many references to it scattered around Volume One, mostly to do with Moréas’s Ecole Romane, and with Maillol and the Spanish sculptors Manolo, Gargallo, and Casanovas, and with the earlier Puvis de Chavannes and his “huge visions of a drab Arcadia dotted with groups of models in stilted poses” which are the ancestors of those naked youths Picasso painted around 1906.
Robert Rosenblum, during the conference which ended the Denmark exhibition, revived an amusing theory when he displayed, side by side, Picasso’s The Pipes of Pan and the photograph by Baron von Gloeden that has the same subject and composition. The idea that von Gloeden’s photographs, which strike us today as homosexual pornography, might have been a source for Picasso, takes some getting used to. But Rosenblum had other examples. Presumably in his next volume Richardson will have to return to the theme of the Mediterranean, since it underpins so much of Picasso’s post-Cubist imagery, so much of his classicism. Who is the preeminent artist in the Mediterranean myth? It is the sculptor. Who is the preeminent craftsman? It is the potter. What was the Picasso sculpture that Elytis wished had been made in the Aegean? It was a goat. What must be killed? Bulls and Minotaurs must be killed. This is the world we are heading for, which Picasso made so much his own. This is the labyrinth into which we shall follow Richardson.
February 6, 1997
See Adam Gopnik, “Escaping Picasso,” The New Yorker, December 16, 1996. ↩
See “High and Low: Caricature, Primitivism, and the Cubist Portrait,” Art Journal, Winter 1983. ↩
See “A Leap in the Dark,” The New Yorker, October 23, 1989. ↩
Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Vol. II, p. 350. ↩
Fernand Léger, Une Correspondance de Guerre (Les Cahiers du Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, 1990), p. 3. ↩
Léger, Une Correspondance de Guerre, p. 35. ↩
Both books are published by Editions “Présence,” Sisteron. ↩
Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso (McGraw-Hill, 1964), p. 49. ↩
“Reflections on Picasso and Portraiture,” in Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, edited by William Rubin (Museum of Modern Art, 1996), p. 33. ↩
See Daily Telegraph, December 16, 1996. “Imagine a conversation with the Japanese seller of a å£2m Picasso, the bread and butter of our business,” noted the noble lord. “I tell him that our charges are 2 percent and that we will charge him expenses of a further 0.5 percent. ‘So I will have to pay 2.5 percent to sell my picture in London?’ asks our Japanese. ‘Not quite,’ I have to reply, ‘There is also the question of droit de suite.’ His face clouds and he says, ‘So it is 2.5 percent to you and 2 percent to the artist’s heirs?’ ‘Yes that is so,’ I add, ‘but if it is bought by a European there will be another 5 percent’—and one day that may be 15 percent. ‘Well, what about America?’ asks the anxious Japanese. ‘In America it would be 2.5 percent.’ ‘And nothing more?’ ‘Nothing,’ I reply. Noble lords will see that this is the end of sales in London by Japanese clients. It will also be the end of the London art market.” Droit de suite is due to be introduced in 1998. ↩
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995. ↩
Reynold Higgins, Tanagra and the Figurines (Princeton University Press, 1986). ↩
An illustration of the change of taste: Kenneth Clark’s popular book The Nude (1956) illustrates a Kouros with the remark that “the earliest nudes in Greek art are not beautiful.” Clark believes that “quite suddenly, in about the year 480, there appears before us the perfect human body, the marble figure from the Akropolis known as the Ephebe of Kritios.” Clearly the marketers of Kouros as a brand name in toiletries were disciples of Zervos rather than Clark. ↩