The Monster as Artist
Picasso: Creator and Destroyer.
by Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington.
Simon & Schuster. 558 pp. $22.95.
Few books in recent years have provoked so unanimous a critical drubbing as Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington’s recent biography of Pablo Picasso. Art historians, Picasso specialists, even general-interest book reviewers all over the country joined forces to revile Picasso: Creator and Destroyer as the candied-prose “fluff” of a publicity hound equipped with the art expertise of a freshman and the psychological insight of a soap-opera heroine—and, simultaneously, as a hatchet job, “one-sided and hate-filled,” “vengeful,” and “strident.”
Moreover, these critiques of a book faulted for lack of objectivity themselves often took on a curiously personal note. Mrs. Huffington, a Cambridge-educated Greek, is the author of four earlier works on culture and politics; she is also the recent wife of a Texas oil heir and a woman dedicated in her pursuit of fame, wealth, and social position. The latter attributes won her the mockery of (among others) Time’s art critic Robert Hughes, who in his review denounced not only her book but her “pearly teeth” and the $18,000 wedding dress that “capped her own social ascent in Reaganland.”
This would seem, indeed, to be that rare case where critical opprobrium has succeeded in killing a book otherwise destined for bestsellerdom. Although each of the major early reviews ruefully predicted that Mrs. Huffington’s biography, sold to television before its publication, would become a blockbuster, in fact Picasso hovered low on the charts for a mere four weeks or so before dropping from sight.
Whatever the merits or defects of this biography, the virulence with which it was greeted clearly had to do with its overall thesis. Picasso: Creator and Destroyer presents this modernist deity and one of the most famous figures of the 20th century as a grotesquely evil human being, and consequently, a deficient painter. In so doing, it raises questions, interesting in themselves, about the life which fueled and, in Mrs. Huffington’s contention, disfigured and poisoned Picasso’s work, about the nature of his reputation, and about the degree to which critics and audience must come to terms with an artist’s often not-so-private disposition, conduct, and beliefs.
Born in Malaga in 1881 of a failed painter and an ambitious and worshipful mother, Picasso lived to be a feverishly prolific ninety-one. Throughout seventy-five years of astonishingly diverse and copious creativity, he proved himself a genius of gargantuan scale, ferocity, and dynamism. Reanimating Iberian, Mesopotamian, Greek, and African forms with his own brand of erotic disruptiveness, mathematical concentration, and at times serenity, Picasso invented a kind of art that was at once “primitive”—art as mask or idol averting evil, art as one’s worst nightmare come true—and magnificently analytical. The result was a body of work that stands as one of the chief and also one of the most disturbing glories of our century.
In the process, Picasso paradoxically both broadened and domesticated art’s domain. Not only is he arguably the greatest painter of the 20th century, he also made himself one of its most famous and familiar household gods—a small black-eyed bull whose figure, posing as boxer, as matador, or simply naked in the bath, ubiquitously graced the European and American press and whose barbed sayings, sometimes antic, sometimes sober and complex, were savored as modern gospel.
Indeed, as early as the 1930’s Picasso came to be regarded by many not just as a painter of powerful and transfiguring genius, but as the social and political conscience of our time. In such canvases as Guernica (1937), which memorializes in emblems from Picasso’s own private mythology the fascist bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War; in a poem and-drawing sequence lampooning Franco, or the grisaille The Charnel-House (1945), which apparently depicts a Nazi concentration camp; in Massacre in Korea (1951), a vast sci-fi cartoon delineating an American “atrocity”; and in the interminable peace doves that bespatter his late work—as well as by his many statements against war and the forces of “reaction” and on behalf of oppressed humanity, and by his long and active service in the Communist party—Picasso’s art at times took on a highly topical and political finish, while its maker became known as a standard-bearer of peace and artistic freedom in a world of occupying armies.
In nothing was Picasso so fortunate as in his critics. The appreciations penned by such friends and early biographers as Pierre Daix and Ronald Penrose, by the photographer Brassai, and by Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, are remarkable for the rhapsodic reverence, sometimes cascading into sheer adulation, with which they regard not only Picasso the artist but Picasso the man. There were, of course, one or two dissenting views, most notably Life with Picasso (1965), the memoir by his long-time mistress, the painter Françhise Gilot. But this book, which depicts the artist as a perverse and often cruel man, and which Picasso unsuccessfully sued to have banned, was denounced by much of the art world as malicious slander. A similar organized fury has greeted other efforts to qualify the master’s reputation. And this is where Mrs. Huffington’s biography comes in.
Picasso: Creator and Destroyer is governed by a three-part argument, which goes roughly as follows: First, in his private life and professional dealings Picasso was a monster of megalomania and sadism, a mean-spirited and malicious despot ruled by the compulsion to ravish, enslave, and destroy everything he touched, and animated by a kind of cosmic hatred that found its particular focus in his sexual loathing of women. Second, Picasso’s painting, so clearly autobiographical, from his Cubist masterpieces to his last drawings, expresses a similarly systematic degradation of women. Lacking in that quality of redemptive humaneness which resides in all great and eternal creations, it is consequently barren, time-bound, and already dated. Finally, the reason Picasso has become such an icon of modernity is precisely that his brand of raging nihilism embodies the spirit of our age—a century characterized by massive destructiveness in the name of totalitarian ideologies. In short, Picasso, himself a perfect totalitarian, achieved his success and his significance because both his art and his life were “the 20th century’s own autobiography.”
The man who emerges from Picasso: Creator and Destroyer is indeed a pattern of the tyrant. Moreover, he is a tyrant who puts all his gusto and finesse into bedeviling the sick, poor, weak, or the very young, and who grows increasingly petty, shameless, and depraved as his depredations and humiliations go unchallenged. Mrs. Huffington’s catalog of Picasso’s cruelties to colleagues, friends, mistresses, and children makes for dismal and ever more oppressive reading as, with age, the painter’s character disintegrates and his targets become smaller and smaller.
Particularly hateful among Picasso’s betrayals was his successful campaign of defamation against his friend, the Spanish painter Juan Gris. Among other tidbits, he talked Gertrude Stein out of giving money to the hungry Gris, and bullied Diaghilev into dismissing Gris, who was then dying, from a ballet he had been commissioned to design, and accepting instead sketches by Picasso that had been previously submitted for another Diaghilev production and rejected. More shadowy is the story of Picasso’s refusal in 1944 to exert his considerable prestige with the Germans occupying Paris to free the poet Max Jacob, his long-time friend and acolyte, from the Nazi transit camp at Drancy. To a mutual friend who was raising a petition on Jacob’s behalf, Picasso is said to have explained, “It’s not worth doing anything at all. Max is a little devil. He doesn’t need our help to escape from prison.” (Jacob died there, awaiting transport to Auschwitz or Dachau.)
Picasso’s treatment of women and children is equally heart-sickening. A voracious womanizer who thrived on stirring up intrigue and inflicting pain, Picasso shamelessly played off his wives and girlfriends against each other, most famously describing as “one of my choicest memories” the day when Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse Walter wrestled on the floor of the studio for his affections while he stood at his easel, painting. On family vacations Picasso would ensconce himself in a hotel with his current female companion, dog, parrot, monkey, children, and chauffeur, with a former wife and an alternate mistress installed in nearby lodgings, and would daily send off letters swearing undying love to a fourth woman, whose impassioned replies he would read to the lady-in-residence as an example of true love.
By Mrs. Huffington’s account, Picasso regularly beat Dora Maar unconscious. When Françhise Gilot resisted moving in with him, he won her submission by pressing a lighted cigarette into her cheek. Nor did he deny himself more imaginative gestures of humiliation: while at a Communist “peace congress” in Wroclaw, he ordered his chauffeur to compose obviously working-class love-telegrams and send them in Picasso’s name to the pregnant Gilot.
Picasso’s schemes to drive his dependents crazy met with signal success: both Dora Maar, once a proud and talented painter and photographer, and his first wife, the Russian ballerina Olga Kokhlova, went mad, as did Marie-Thérèse Walter whom he had scooped up at the age of seventeen and kept on a lifelong string. When he died, Picasso correctly predicted a shipwreck in which many would go down: his grandson, whom, along with three of his four children, Picasso in the last years of his life had turned away at the door, swallowed a pint of chlorine bleach; his son Paolo soon followed with cirrhosis of the liver; Marie-Thérèse Walter hanged herself; and his second wife Jacqueline blew her brains out. (Françhise Gilot survived, and is today married to Dr. Jonas Salk.)
In stark contrast to his ungovernable viciousness in personal relations was Picasso’s meekness as a Communist. He joined the party after the Spanish Civil War—many people otherwise sympathetic to Bolshevism were repelled by Stalin’s betrayal of the Republicans in that conflict, but apparently not Picasso—and he remained an extremely active member through the Stalinist purges, through the suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, through Khrushchev’s secret speech revealing Stalin’s crimes, and indeed to his dying day. “I am a Communist,” he insisted, “and my painting is Communist painting.”
Mrs. Huffington tellingly records the controversy over the portrait of Stalin which Picasso produced for the French Communist-party paper L’Humanité on the occasion of the dictator’s death. This work provoked formal censure by the party leadership and many letters of protest from the rank-and-file as being insufficiently noble and “kindly.” Louis Aragon, the poet who had commissioned the portrait, published a “self-criticism” thanking the party for its just rebuke. And from Picasso? Not a peep, either in defense of his work or in defense of artistic freedom. “I suppose it was the party’s right to condemn me,” he told reporters. This docility Mrs. Huffington ascribes to Picasso’s frank admiration for power, in this case the power to dictate how artists might or might not paint.
Mrs. Huffington’s portrait of the artist as tyrant is largely gleaned from Françoise Gilot, whose cause Mrs. Huffington champions but whose part in Picasso’s life she replays with a melodramatizing crudeness quite foreign to the subtlety and good nature of Gilot’s own Life with Picasso. In Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, indeed, we see too little of the avid curiosity and dogged discipline that make Picasso’s life not just a cautionary tale but also an exemplar, or, most importantly, of the obsessive seriousness about art and its practitioners that marks the contradictory man presented by Gilot.
In her plentiful borrowings from Gilot’s memoir, Mrs. Huffington often seems to lop off anecdotes precisely where the terrible dissolves into the comic, or to omit those passages—the larger part of the book—in which Picasso is seen delivering thoughtful, complex, and rather reverent disquisitions on painting and sculpture and their properties and effects, and analyzing the innovations and particular genius (and failings) of his predecessors and contemporaries.
On the subject of Chagall, for instance, Mrs. Huffington repeats Françoise Gilot’s spicy anecdotes concerning the falling-out between the two painters, including a stormy dinner in which Picasso accused Chagall of not wanting to return to his native Russia because there was no money to be made there, and Chagall’s later quip, “What a genius, that Picasso. It’s a pity he doesn’t paint.” But Gilot also includes, and Mrs. Huffington omits, Picasso’s more generous and interesting assessment of his former friend:
When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter left who understands what color really is. I’m not crazy about those cocks and asses and flying violinists and all the folklore, but his canvases are really painted, not just thrown together . . . there’s never been anybody since Renoir who has the feeling for light that Chagall has.
Thus, although no one today can honestly argue that Picasso was other than a monster, and although none of Mrs. Huffington’s critics has challenged the truth of any of her horror stories, even her portrait of him as a man ruled entirely by the passion for power needs to be qualified. Still, it is not this, but her riskier contention that Picasso’s nastiness of spirit infected his painting, and from early on, which has aroused the greatest ire among the critics, who have derided her inability to separate the man from his work.
Here Mrs. Huffington has a point against her critics. For in Picasso’s case the realms of private and public creativity have almost always been considered inseparable, including by his admirers, and perhaps most of all by the painter himself, who declared in 1935, “It’s not what the artist does that counts but what he is. Cézanne would never have interested me a bit if he lived and thought like Jacques Émile Blanche [a society portraitist], even if the apple he painted had been ten times as beautiful.” In a manifesto signed by forty prominent members of the art world demanding the banning of Françoise Gilot’s Life with Picasso, the artist Edouard Pignon wrote, “In Picasso, there is no divorce between the man and the painter. It’s of no use exalting the painter if one destroys the man. . . . Picasso’s way of painting is a source of morality in itself.” Or, to put it negatively, the artist did to the canvas what he did to his wives and children.
As commentators from Braque and Max Jacob to Hilton Kramer have in different ways observed, the particular impulse of this artist who declared painting to be “an instrument of war for attack and defense against the enemy” was a demonic assertion of power, which wreaked an agony of mutilation and woe on all he portrayed. His destructive rage was, moreover, distinctly sexual in its preoccupations, as can be seen not only in his increasingly malevolent portraits of women—at once dismembered and predatory, animals, demons, and machines, their howling mouths fitted with shark teeth, their bodies torpid, shriveled, robotic, or convulsed—but also in his crucifixions, bullfights, battlefields, his minotaurs, his bathers, his fishermen. These are canvases overridden by an unforgiving wrath, visited by a hideous conflagration from which no one may flee.
The rage intensifies with time. Picasso painted and drew prolifically until he died, and in his late work majesty deserts him: natural facility is joined to an erotic fury diseased in its jeering malevolence, “the eroticism,” in Mrs. Huffington’s words, “of the gaping crotch and the Peeping Tom.”
It is Mrs. Huffington’s contention that this existential “rejection of life and creation” which, according to her, lies at the heart of Picasso’s work robs his painting of any claim to enduring greatness. But the trouble is that her book in no way earns its right to such a judgment. Picasso: Creator and Destroyer is dizzyingly indifferent to Picasso’s working life, to the nature of his artistic endeavor, to the larger historical traditions and contemporary movements by which he was informed and which he both changed and enriched.
And as for the individual paintings, drawings, and sculptures that kept Picasso busy when he was not threatening to throw a recalcitrant mistress into the Seine or refusing to attend a friend’s funeral, once Mrs. Huffington has identified a sitter, reiterated her litany (“misogynistic,” “degrading”) and quoted for back-up every passerby who ever uttered a mean word about Picasso’s art, she has said all she seems to care to know. Such masterpieces as Night Fishing in Antibes (1939)—an oil-slick purple and green dream vision of a marine corrida—go altogether unmentioned. In the end, one might apply to Mrs. Huffington herself Ronald Penrose’s description of Marie-Thérèse Walter as a person so immune to Picasso’s talents beyond the bedroom that she could greet him at lunch with, “Well, Pablo, what did you do this morning? I bet you’ve been painting again.”
In Picasso, Mrs. Huffington asserts, the man is the art. Yet if one accepts this circular statement, there is no understanding him without attending to his painting. If Picasso’s malignity deformed his work, it is equally true that his respect for his calling often acted beneficently upon his character, enabling him to enter into a rare and intimate communion with fellow-painters and, as we have seen in the case of Chagall, to appreciate disinterestedly the achievements of enemies or rivals. Thus, in the Cubist years, Picasso painted side by side and collaboratively with Braque, subsuming egotism in the task of exploring a territory so unearthly and unthought-of that, in Braque’s enchanting description, “The things Picasso and I said to each other during these years will never be said again, and even if they were, no one would understand them anymore. It was like being two mountaineers roped together.” In a strikingly similar formulation, Françoise Gilot records Matisse telling Picasso, “When one of us dies, there will be some things the other will never be able to talk of with anyone else.” And on Matisse’s death, Picasso, who had been irked and stung in life by the Frenchman’s spiritual composure, remarked, “In the end, there is only Matisse.”
Mrs. Huffington’s final word on Picasso—that his genius was merely to have “mirrored the destruction of the most destructive of all centuries”—is as wrong about the genius as it is inadequate to the century. In her own book on Picasso, Gertrude Stein connects the painter to quite a different aspect of our century, namely, its scientific glories, comparing his vast, roiling, geometric vision of creation to the exhilarating sight of the outstretched, molded earth from the wings of an airplane. Once one has gazed down upon the world from the sky, its fields and towers never look the same again; for better or for worse, Picasso has had the same irreversible effect upon seen reality.
It is not, then, from Picasso: Creator and Destroyer that one will discover how this specimen of human vileness, who strikingly lacks the rent, anguished love of El Greco, the luminosity of Goya, the salubrious Orientalism and devotional gaiety of Matisse, the patience of Cézanne—any of those transcendent qualities that have for all time defined the greatest art—nonetheless squeaks in there by sheer magnitude of power, intensity of imagination, and fury of address.