The Hooks of her Gipsy Dresses

Nicholas Penny

Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, author of After Reason and The Female Woman, took up the task of writing about Picasso because she had been ‘seduced by his magnetism, his intensity, that mysterious quality of inexhaustibility bursting forth from the transfixing stare of his black marble eyes as much as from his work’, but had come to be ‘chilled’ by him. Huffington, who is also the author of The Gods of Greece, felt that in order to explain Picasso’s demonic attraction, she had to go ‘back to the original Spanish tales of Don Juan and the Indian myths of Krishna’. But she had to think about the modern world as well, for she ‘suddenly saw that Picasso’s life was not just the life of one of the most gifted artists who ever lived ... it was in a very real sense, the 20th century’s own autobiography.’

Couldn’t her editors (or Bernard Levin who helped her and whose ‘passion for the English language’ she cites) have improved on the ‘mysterious quality of inexhaustibility bursting forth’, or were they seduced by Huffington’s glamour (it bursts forth from the dust jacket)? If so, they are in respectable company. Paul Johnson (described in this paper some years ago by Lord Blake as the greatest living British journalist) has declared in the Spectator that he found the book ‘morbidly compulsive from start to finish’. It starts in a world that is now very remote. Huffington evokes Belle Epoque Paris as it would have seemed to a ‘wide-eyed young man from Barcelona’: ‘Parisians lived in the streets, they sang on street corners, they kissed on the benches and on café terraces and in the carriages passing by, they used the public pissoirs, they bought from sidewalk vendors not only their roasted chestnuts, fruit, meat and cheese but also their beds, saucepans, hats and sideboards. And there was colour, colour, and noise everywhere.’ The city is presented as a quaint and fun place for today’s Colour Supplement reader to visit. For Picasso, presumably, the department stores were more novel than street markets (which he had surely noticed in Spain) and the metro more remarkable than the carriages (even those full of kissing couples).

When, later in the book, historical imagination of a different order is required to explain why Picasso joined the Communist Party in 1944, Huffington’s failure is no less striking. She quotes from Picasso’s explanation, published in L’Humanité: ‘were not the Communists the bravest in France, just as they were in the USSR or my own Spain? ... The Party has opened its arms to me, and I have found in it those that I most value, the greatest scientists, the greatest poets.’ The image of Picasso finding the scientists is absurd and, in someone of such extraordinary originality and pride, the submissive tone and fraternal sentiments strike one as being as false as most ‘sincere’ public statements of this sort. This particular statement is not hard to explain: Picasso was greatly impressed by the courage shown by the Communists both in his native Spain and in his adopted Paris, and perhaps also ashamed of his own non-participation in the Resistance. He was also naive and content to be used by the intellectuals he admired – Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard and Laurent Casanova. The influence of these men is recorded by Françoise Gilot, with whose testimony Huffington is very familiar: but this version is not discreditable enough to Picasso for her liking, nor as congenial to the view of Communists as indistinguishable from Nazis so much in vogue with today’s right-wing journalists. In occupied Paris they had been distinguishable.

‘Never before had he so thoroughly poisoned the well of truth,’ Huffington writes of Picasso’s piece in L’Humanité:

Was he incapable of comprehending the magnitude of the suffering imposed by Communism, the millions murdered or incarcerated in concentration camps, the simple fact that, morally, Stalin was no better than Hitler? Or did he believe that the end justified the means? The reports coming out of Russia provided ample evidence that Stalin and his pack meant business. Picasso worshipped strength and despised weakness. Weakness smelled of death to him ... he admired totalitarianism. He was fascinated by its apparent efficiency and its sheer power.

One may be forgiven for wondering why Picasso had not lent his support to Franco or to Hitler. Earlier in the book, in need of an international political backdrop, Huffington quotes Paul Johnson’s description (in his book Modern Times) of a party at the Kremlin after the signing of Hitler’s non-aggression pact with Stalin: there was a ‘sudden discovery of a community of aims, methods, manners and, above all, of morals. As the tipsy killers lurched about the room fumblingly hugging each other, they resembled nothing so much as a congregation of rival gangsters’ – gangsters in the movies, I suppose, unless we are to credit Mr Johnson with a more colourful life than would seem likely.

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[*] Picasso’s Women (Lennard, 225 pp., £12.95, 6 October. 1 85291 013 5).