The Vanishing Brothel

Linda Nochlin

  • A Life of Picasso. Vol. II: 1907-1917 by John Richardson and Marilyn McCully
    Cape, 500 pp, £30.00, November 1996, ISBN 0 224 03120 1
  • Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man by Norman Mailer
    Little, Brown, 398 pp, £25.00, November 1996, ISBN 0 316 88173 2
  • Picasso and the Spanish Tradition edited by Jonathan Brown
    Yale, 208 pp, £30.00, November 1996, ISBN 0 300 06475 6

I must have been quite young the first time I saw Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon at the Museum of Modern Art, barely into my teens. I knew little about Cubism, less about Iberian sculpture, and nothing at all about the title’s supposed reference to a brothel in Barcelona; I am not sure I even knew what a brothel was. All I knew was that this was a great masterpiece by the greatest artist of our time, and I responded with appropriate awe and admiration. I had grown up with a tastefully framed reproduction of a rather saccharine Blue Period little girl over my bed, and the Demoiselles – angular, colourful, mysterious, aggressive, like nothing I had ever seen before – seemed to me a great improvement from every point of view. The last thing that would have then occurred to me was that the painting had anything to do with the visual representation of sex. The latter I associated with stolen glimpses of Varga Girls in my uncle’s copies of Esquire, with their satiny, airbrushed bosoms, svelte, impossibly long legs and perversely high-arched feet. Sex also had something to do, on the other hand, with the two most terrifying and exciting images in Thomas Craven’s Treasury of Art Masterpieces: with Fouquet’s Agnès Sorel as the Virgin, where the sitter’s globular white breast thrusts it-self provocatively out at the viewer above a tightly-laced bodice; and with Grünewald’s green, twisted, lacerated body of Christ on the Cross, which, since it figured suffering and Christianity, both outside the pale in my progressive Jewish family, I associated, not unreasonably, with the equally forbidden realm of the sexual.

I go on at such length about my first encounter with the Demoiselles because the painting figures so prominently in the second volume of John Richardson’s magisterial Life of Picasso, whose first chapter, and part of the second, are devoted to its genesis, sources, formal innovations and iconography, and the ways in which Picasso’s experiences at the time he was painting it affected its final form. It is in terms of this painting that the book’s subtitie, ‘1907-1917: The Painter of Modern Life’, assumes its full meaning. As such, it offers a striking example of both the advantages and the dangers of a biographical approach to art and to artists.

Richardson’s book is in many ways exemplary. It is full of interesting information about Picasso’s work, about Picasso himself, and about other artists: Braque figures prominently, the ‘Salon Cubists’ are put – rather unfairly – in their place, Juan Gris and Marie Laurencin receive their due. Nor does Richardson neglect the more arcane inhabitants of Parisian bohemia. Indeed, his book might more accurately have been titled Picasso: His Life, His Times, His Friends, introducing us as it does to such seductively louche peripheral figures as the so-called brother and sister (their relationship heightened by false reports of incest), Hélène d’Oettingen and Serge Jastrebzoff, a.k.a. Serge Férat, he a dabbler in painting, she claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of royalty; or the beautiful, talented and imaginatively promiscuous Englishwoman Beatrice Hastings, long-term mistress of the peintre damné, Modigliani, and author of an excellent novel about a cancer ward, Madame Six. (An unjustly forgotten writer, Hastings eventually succumbed to alcoholism and gassed herself, along with her pet mouse, in 1943.)

Picasso’s creative achievement in these years is fully accounted for, even some of the projects that never came off. I had not known, for instance, that Brooklyn might in 1910-11 have become the world’s leading shrine of Analytic Cubism had Picasso been permitted to complete the major commission, negotiated by his friend Frank Burty Haviland, to paint 11 large decorative panels for the library of Haviland’s cousin, Hamilton Easter Field. The timid Field drew back midstream, but Richardson reproduces several of the paintings that were made, and one can only regret that the scheme was not brought to completion. Unlike Matisse, Picasso has never been associated with domestic decoration; he surely would have been if the Field project had gone ahead.

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