Picasso, Creator and Destroyer
This outstanding blography of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), the father of Cubism in modern art, was first published by Simon and Schuster in 1988. The author, born in Greece and married to an American, is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. She began researching Picasso in 1982 after David McCulloch decided not to continue with his own blography on the celebrated painter. After her own book was ready to go to press, Huffington asked McCulloch why he made that decision. "'We need monsters in our mythic life,' he replied, 'but I didn't want one in mine.... In the end, l didn't want Picasso for my roommate for five years.'" Huffington was grateful for "a remarkable journey" but notes that "there were many gruesome moments during the last five years when I did envy (McCulloch)" (p.539). In her preface she explains that
I was brought up, like so many of my generation, to see Picasso as the most extraordinary, the most compelling, the most original, the most protean, the most influential, the most seductive and certainly the most idolized artist of the twentieth century. After a day at the massive Picasso retrospective at the Grand Palais in 1980 ...the legend of Picasso, the sorcerer and magician, was confirmed: but buried in admiration, fascination and sheer physical exhaustion, there was an uneasy feeling.
Two years after the retrospective I began work on this book. Five years and countless surprises later, the Picasso of legend seemed like the fantasy hero of a collective act of make believe compared with the Picasso I came to know ... The man who appeared to be a towering creative genius one moment turned into a sadistic manipulator the next. What seemed a life guided by burning passions--for painting, for women, for ideas--seemed a moment later the story of a man unable to lave, intent on seduction not in the search for love, not even in the desire to possess, but in a compuision to destroy. "I guess," he said once, "I'll die without ever having loved." It was, in fact, this struggle between the instinct to create and the instinct to destroy that was at the heart of his life, and it is this struggle which is at the heart of this book (pp.9-10).
Picasso craved sex while always vilifying and seeking first to dominate and then to destroy his many women. Huffington believes that in this he was representative of our time, and that "Another profound way in which he mirrored our century was in his deep ambivalence toward God and the divine.... He trumpeted his atheism at the same time that he identified with the crucified Christ and returned to this theme in his work during all the great ordeals of his life" (p.12). This ambivalence is amply documented in the book.
All his life Picasso exhibited a deep belief in magic. For example, he "believed that in the wrong hands, his hair trimmings could be used to control him" (p.14, p.424). His magic world view was particularly significant for his Cubist painting style:
Intensely superstitious, he saw the disintegration of form as literal, as having a magical power to affect both his subjects and himself, which is perhaps why he never painted a Cubist self-portrait. Even for (fellow Cubist painter) Braque's portrait, he used a man who resembled him rather than Braque himself as a model. (p.109)
In the first of Picasso's four etchings of The Blind Minotaur, really himself in the guise of a mythical monster of antiquity done in the early 1930s, was a small sketch of Picasso's earlier work, The Death of Marat,
upside down and completely crossed out with an X. It again expressed Picasso's primitive belief in the magic power of his art. The Death of Marat was about the terror of his own death at the hands of a hostile force--whether that was his wife, his mistress or an evil God. By canceling the action on paper, he was canceling it in his life: "'my ... prayer book--the first notes written ... backwards,' he wrote, 'have the magic effect of reversing evil fate ... because 'all incantations (are) allowed.'" And incantations, whether verbal or visual, had the power to change reclity--that was Picasso's magic conviction ... (p.207)
When his erstwhile sculpture teacher Julio Gonzalez died in March 1942, Picasso announced to the sculptor Fenosa "I'm the one who killed him" after Gonzalez' funeral. Perhaps he believed this because he was convinced that he had the power to affect reality; (Fenosa had overheard him, twelve years earlier, saying to himself again and again, 'I am God, I am God ... ') ... Whatever the reason for his overwhelming guilt, he sought to exorcise it through seven paintings on the death of Gonzalez. It was his primitive magical thinking that led him to feel he had killed Gonzalez, and it was through the magic he ascribed to his art that he hoped to expiate his guilt (p.260).
Many other examples of Picasso's magIcal worid-view are strewn throughout the book. It is clear that he saw his art as a magic means to destroy the reality that was "really there," which God had created as was taught in the strict Spanish Catholic church of his childhood, and God Himself.
Picasso conceived Cubism during the fall and winter of 1906 upon first seeing Negro statuettes and primitive fetishes. Years later he talked to André Malraux of the moment of conception:
All alone in that awful museum... Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (his first Cubist painting which shook the international art worid) must have come to me, but not at all because of the forms; because it was my first exorcism-painting... The masks... were magic things. The Negro pieces were intercesseurs, mediators
... They were against everything--against unknown, threatening spirits. I always locked at fetishes. I understood; I too am against everything. I too believe that everything is unknown, that everything is an enemy! ... all the fetishes were used for the same thing. They were weapons. To help people avoid coming under the influence of spirits again, to help them become independent. They're tools. If we give spirits a form, we become independent. Spirits, the unconscious (people still weren't talking about that very much), emotion--they're all the same thing. I understood why I was a painter. (pp. 90-91)
Huffington correctly interprets Picasso's revealing self-disclosure.
Everything, the whole of creation, was an enemy, and he was a painter in order to fashlon not works of art - he always despised the use of that term--but weapons: defensive weapons against surrendering to the spell of the spirit that fills creation, and weapons of combat against everything outside man, against every emotion of belonging in creation, against nature, human nature, and the God who created it all. "Obviously," he said, "nature has to exist so that we may rape it!" (p.91 )
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon portrays "five horrifying women, prostitutes who repel rather than attract and whose faces are primitive masks that challenge not only society but humanity itself" (p.93). Even Picasso's admirers were horrified, but continued to promote him. Adulation of Picasso became the fashion among critics and in academia, and multiplied when he, always of left-wing persuasion, officially joined the Communist Party on October 5, 1944, shortly after the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation. He served Party propaganda for many years even though his art was not in agreement with "Stalinist realism." Perhaps his greatest service to Communism came at the Second Worid Peace Congress in Paris on April 19, 1948 when Louis Aragon
picked a marvelous lithograph of a pigeon Picasso had completed at the beginning of January, declared it a dove and turned it into the poster of peace.... by five o'clock that afternoon, the poster appeared all over Paris. From there, the dove flew around five continents, and Picasso became for millions the world over the man of the dove, the man of peace. "Poor old Aragon," Picasso chuckled as soon as Aragon had left his studio. "He doesn't know anything about pigeons. And as for the gentle dove, what a myth that is! There's no crueler animal. I had some here and they pecked a poor little pigeon to death because they didn't like it. They pecked its eyes out, then pulled it to pieces. It was horrible. How's that for a symbol of Peace?"
"This famous Picasso," wrote (Helene) Parmelin, "did the dove of peace for the Peace Movement. There was the international power of the title. There was the power of art ... and there was audacity. There was the power of his fame and celebrity." And there was, above all, the power of myth that transformed a man at war with the universe into "the man of peace'--and a cantankerous bird into the symbol of peace. (p.348)
Behind the myth was Picasso the sadist who spoke of himself as king and God from his early youth, exploited his self-sacrificing father and his family without ever showing gratitude, lorded it over his friends to whom he was unfailingly disloyal in their time of need, and who sought out his many women only in order to gratify his sexual gluttony, to physically and spiritually torment and degrade them and to turn them, in Huffington's apt words, from goddesses into doormats. His dastardly treatment of his legitimate son and his three illegitimate children is extensively documented. The impact of his personal life and views upon his art is amply made clear by chronological tracing and by the appearance of the people around him in his works, strikingly shown in the book's photographs. His mistresses especially were often portrayed in grotesquely distorted and hateful ways, as for example Dora Maar, a beautiful, bright young intellectual whom Picasso reduced to a nervous breakdown precariously overcome only by years of treatment. He painted her as a monstrous Cubist "Weeping Woman." His son Paulo died of cirrhosis of the liver due to drug and alcohol abuse. Barred from his funeral on April 10, 1973, Paulo's son and Picasso's namesake Pablito drank a container of potossium chloride bleach, completely destroying his digestive organs; he died after three months of starvation. Picasso's long-time "secret mistress" Marie-Therese Walter, the mother of his daughter Maya, hanged herself four years after his death. Jacqueline (Roque), his servant girl, mistress and finally his second wife, shot herself to death in the morning of October 15, 1986.
Only one of his women, Francoise Gilot, over forty years younger than he, the mother of his illegitimate children Claude and Paloma, an artist in her own right and now the wife of Dr. Jonas Salk of polio vaccine and "New Age" fame, escaped his sadistic, manipulative and perverse clutches with her personal integrity still relatively intact by leaving him after years of degradation. When her father offered her emotional and financial support to extricate herself from her sick entanglement, she also found the insight to understand why she had entered it in the first place: "There is no question that when I decided to go and live with Pablo, mixed with my love and my admiration for him was a strong desire to rebel against my bourgeois upbringing, to destroy once and for all my father's authority over me" (p.371). When she considered leaving Picasso, he laughed, "Nobody leaves a man like me" (p.382).
When she finally did, his wrath was unappeasable, as was that of his admiring entourage. He hated everyone who did not slavishly bow down to him, including fellow artists and art critics. Yet some rejected him, for example Alberto Giocometti, who always hated Picasso the man and said of Picasso the artist: 'Picasso is altogether bad, completely beside the point from the beginning except for Cubist period and even that misunderstood.... Ugly. Old-fashioned vulgar without sensitivity horrible in color or non-color. Very bad painter once and for all' p.375). Marc Chagall said, "What a genius, that Picasso ... It's a pity he doesn't paint" (ibid.).
Picasso always half respected, half hated Henri Matisse, and was furious when Matisse agreed to design a Dominican chapel and even to underwrite its cost. Picasso told the journalist Helene Parmelin that "Truth cannot exist.... Truth does not exist" (p.339). Yet this nihilism, compulsively fought by his enormous production of artistic works (nearly 50,000 were catalogued when his estate, amounting to at least S260 million, was settled in September 1977), brought him to existential despair as it had Nietzsche, his favorite philosopher. His last self-portrait, done on June 30, 1972, "was the fact of frozen anguish and primordial horror held next to the mask that he had worn for so long and that had fooled so many" (p.465): that nightmarish last self-portrait is photographically reproduced in the book. Picasso set out to destroy God and His creation by his magic "art": this portrait shows that he ended by destroying himself.
--Reviewed by Ellen Myers