Picasso and Cubism

Gabriel Josipovici

  • Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective edited by William Rubin
    Thames and Hudson, 464 pp, £10.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 500 23310 1
  • Picasso: His Life and Work by Roland Penrose
    Granada, 517 pp, £9.99, May 1981, ISBN 0 7139 1420 3
  • Portrait of Picasso by Roland Penrose
    Thames and Hudson, 128 pp, £3.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 500 27226 3
  • Viva Picasso: A Centennial Celebration, 1881-1981 by Donald Duncan
    Allen Lane, 152 pp, £12.95, May 1981, ISBN 0 7139 1420 3
  • Picasso: The Cubist Years, 1907-1916 by Pierre Daix and Joan Rosselet
    Thames and Hudson, 376 pp, £60.00, October 1979, ISBN 0 500 09134 X
  • Picasso’s Guernica: The Labyrinth of Vision by Frank Russell
    Thames and Hudson, 334 pp, £12.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 500 23298 9

Le Mystère Picasso is how Clouzot entitled his famous film, in which the artist was seen at work before our eyes, and for most of its eight decades our century has been vainly trying to decipher that mystery. To talk about Picasso is to talk about the culture of our time, not just because his work has played such an important part in it, but because in the reactions to it we can discern nearly all the myths and clichés of the age. Picasso has been the butt of every anti-Modernist joke in a way Cézanne, for instance, never was, and he has also been our most celebrated artist. The paradox is only superficial, for both attitudes show little interest in the actual work of the hand.

He owed his fame to a number of factors which have little to do with art: to his longevity; to his habit of changing mistresses every ten years or so; to the fact that he was the first major artist whose rise to a position of importance coincided with a revolution in the dissemination of reproductions; above all, perhaps, to his photogenic qualities. The squat, powerful figure, feet planted firmly in the sand, bare torso gleaming, bright eyes piercing the viewer: in the last twenty years of his long life it was that image rather than any of the things he had made which immediately sprang to mind when Picasso’s name was mentioned. This is understandable: with Picasso around, there was always the feeling that perhaps, somewhere, the secret of immortality did exist – and perhaps we could share in his godlike status. The blurb to Donald Douglas Duncan’s book of photographs – a selection from his previous books brought out, like Penrose’s slightly similar Portrait of Picasso, to coincide with the centenary – catches the tone exactly: ‘Through these extraordinary photographs, introduced in duotone and full colour, and the delightfully candid text, we can feel the vitality of this great man, watch while he creates a masterpiece, and sense the emotional depth of a genius whose work affected the entire course of modern art.’ All this for only £12.95. It’s better than a holiday in Tahiti.

No wonder younger artists wanted to get him off their backs, or that discerning critics felt that Picasso the Genius was even more of a hindrance to a true appreciation of the art of our time than Picasso the Charlatan. But the curious fact is that when Michael Ayrton in the Fifties or John Berger in the Sixties tried to react to the generally unctuous tone of what passed for Picasso criticism, they produced essays which rebounded more on themselves than on Picasso, though these are among the finest writers on art of the past half-century.

The old fox refused to be caught. Though he obviously loved to be photographed, he was not in the least concerned with his own image. Françoise Gilot said she couldn’t go on living with a monument, but that may have been sour grapes. No doubt he was passionately concerned with himself, but he was even more concerned with the things he made. And not with those he had made, but with whatever he happened to be working on at the time. He kept the ‘Demoiselles d’ Avignon’ in his studio for twenty years, hardly ever took part in group shows when it might have advanced his career, and never evinced any desire to sell himself to the public.

He belonged more to the generation of Monet and Cézanne than to that of Pollock or Warhol. He never wrote about art, and although he spoke about it without inhibition, his comments are always reactions to immediate situations, not pondered statements or manifestos, like those of Klee or Kandinsky. He was perfectly happy to contradict himself, and his remarks were often trite. Yet they could also on occasion be incisive and profound, as when he said to Hélène Parmelin: ‘Freedom, one must be very careful with that. In painting as in everything else. Whatever you do, you find yourself once more in chains. And there you have it, chains.’ He then went on to tell Jarry’s story of the anarchist soldiers on parade who, told to face right, immediately all face left. Sabartès asked why the sight of sea urchins interested him:

Had I seen them only in my imagination I might not have noticed them; even if they had been in front of me. The sense of sight enjoys being surprised. If you pretend to see what is in front of you you are distracted by the idea in your mind ... It’s the same law which governs humour. Only the unexpected sally makes you laugh.

It’s a pity that, with remarks like these before them, and with the mounting evidence of the painting, his staunchest supporters should have tried to account for the mystery of Picasso, as if that was not just one more idea in the mind. Penrose’s Picasso, first published in 1951 and now reprinted and brought up to date for the centenary, strikingly demonstrates the way even the best-intentioned critics have allowed the idea of Picasso to obscure their view of what was actually in front of them. Of course, as Meyer Schapiro once remarked, ‘to perceive the aims of the art of one’s own times and to judge them rightly is so unnatural as to constitute an act of genius,’[*] but Penrose was not writing in 1914 or even 1934, but in 1951. One might have expected better.

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[*] ‘Fromentin as Critic’, Partisan Review, 1949. Schapiro’s essay on Picasso’s ‘Woman with a Fan’, reprinted in the second volume of his selected papers, Modern Art (Chatto, 1978), is probably the best short piece on Picasso.