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.

This and other references to his own book may be what Johnson has in mind when he announces in the Spectator that Huffington’s book is ‘well-researched’. Certainly Huffington has read diligently, but her naive or dishonest use of sources is as deplorable as her sententiousness is tedious and her pretentions to omniscience are impertinent. Picasso, she confides, ‘had always been a solitary man, but at this time in his life’ – here she is writing about the summer of 1935 – ‘he truly experienced “the solitude of the solitudes”.’ Then she quotes a cryptic observation of Picasso’s in which Surrealism, characteristically blended with pseudo-archaic proverbial sagacity, fails to disguise self-pity. In life, he said, one throws a ball and hopes that one’s friends will form a wall that enables it to return: but it usually falls, as if it had hit a wet sheet. Huffington, concerned to help us to understand the deterioration of Picasso’s relations with Marie-Thérèse Walter, picks this up. ‘With every new relationship, Picasso had hoped that the woman would be able to throw the ball back. Olga had not been able to, and now it was becoming painfully clear that Marie-Thérèse too was unable to bounce the ball back – except in bed, and there, after nine years, the diminishing returns were inevitable.’ It must have been the wet sheets, and perhaps also the athletic interests of Marie-Thérèse, which prompted Huffington to extend this simile so ludicrously – and painfully.

Marie-Thérèse Walter also provides an admirable instance of the way Huffington uses her sources. She claims that Marie-Thérèse retained vivid memories of Picasso’s ‘sadomasochistic sexual preferences’. Her source is an American doctorate of 1981 by Lydia Gasman. In October 1977. Marie-Thérèse committed suicide, hoping, fifty years after they first met, to join the lover she never ceased to adore. Towards the end of her life she was very unbalanced in mind. One would like to know the tone and context of her discussion with Gasman, and the exact words used. Instead of providing these, Huffington melodramatically quotes from Georges Bataille’s Surrealist meditations on sex and murder, which Picasso would have read, and then solemnly informs us that ‘this was the world of eroticism, violence and violation that Picasso and Marie-Thérèse inhabited in Dinard’ (where in July 1928 they had a delirious time in a holiday-camp beach hut).

Elsewhere in the book we read that ‘when Marie-Thérèse was later asked what happiness was for Picasso, she replied: “he first raped the woman, as Renoir said, and then he worked. Whether it was me, or someone else, it was always like that.” ’ This was reported in a touching interview with Pierre Cabanne published in L’Oeil in May 1974. The word used was violait, but in a context where it should be translated as ‘ravish’ not ‘rape’. Marie-Thérèse a moment before this replied to the question ‘How was your life with Picasso?’ as follows: Tout à fait exaltante. Couverte d’amour, de baisers, de jalousie et d’admiration. She then went on to describe her lover’s tearful joy at the news of her pregnancy. A more interesting account of this relationship will be found in Roy MacGregor-Hastie’s gossipy book, which uses information from his friend the Dadaist Tristan Tzara.[*] He notes, as Huffington doesn’t, that Marie-Thérèse was religious as well as sportive and sexy. Dora Maar succeeded Marie-Thérèse Walter as Picasso’s mistress. He didn’t rape her, it seems, but he ‘often beat’ her ‘and there were many times when he left her lying unconscious on the floor.’ No source is given by Huffington for this claim.

After Dora Maar came Françoise Gilot, whose Life with Picasso of 1964, written in collaboration with Carlton Lake, described Picasso’s wit, charm and tenderness, as well as his deceitfulness, his selfishness, his cunning manipulation of his friends, his superstition and his cruel streak. Now she has revealed more of his cruelty to Huffington, and in particular how, in his rage at her when she declared herself happy to stay by herself in the Midi in a house he had rented for her, he drove his lit cigarette into her cheek.

This would be an unlikely story for her to invent since the scar was presumably seen by many witnesses. Much of Gilot’s testimony has an impressive specificity as, for example, when she describes her discovery that the hooks of her gipsy dresses had been adjusted to fit someone else. What must make us suspicious, however, is that the cigarette story appears in her own earlier book in a far less violent version. Later during this same stay in the Midi, she tells us there, after he had upset her and she had called him a devil, Picasso said he would brand her and took his cigarette and ‘touched it to my right cheek’, withdrawing it when she didn’t flinch with the remark that it wasn’t a good idea because he might still want to look at her. This inconsistency suggests that Gilot is not the most reliable guardian of the ‘well of truth’.

At first Gilot refused to be interviewed by Huffington, but then she came to spend a weekend at Huffington’s home in Los Angeles: ‘it was a weekend that was the beginning of an amazing journey of discovery. She had suddenly decided as a result of her “inner guidance”, she explained, to talk to me and reveal the many facts and insights that she had left out of her own book on Picasso, published while he was still alive and while, she felt, her children were still too young to be exposed to the full truth.’ What Gilot has done, however, is not only to add facts but to alter them. Her account of herself and her most intimate encounters with Picasso were never quite convincing, but now that they are retouched they seem fraudulent. For example, before they became lovers Picasso tried to shock her by asking her if she had read the Marquis de Sade. In Life with Picasso she says:

I told him that although I hadn’t read Sade, I had no objection to it. And I had read Choderlos de Laclos and Restif de la Bretonne. As for Sade, I could make out without it, but perhaps he couldn’t, I suggested. In any case, I told him, the principle of the victim and executioner didn’t interest me.

In the new version the well-read young virgin is rather less cool. ‘Are you crazy?’ she is supposed to have said. ‘It is ludicrous to even talk about de Sade, let alone indulge in all that, when people are being tortured and suffering for real, not for sexual games.’ The indulgence of the liberated Sixties has been replaced with the sterner moralism of the Eighties: but how did she really react in the Forties?

Huffington seems to have been as magnetised by Gilot as she had been by those ‘black marble eyes’, and she turns Gilot into a saint as she turns Picasso into a devil.

Ever since her childhood, Françoise had had an almost magical belief that the sacred quality of certain things depended on their integrity, on the fact that they were whole. She could not bear to have anything chipped around her, whether it was 18th-century porcelain or an ordinary mug that she loved. Her mother’s advice was that if she cared so much about things being chipped, she should preserve them in a case and not use them. ‘But I could never do that,’ she explained. ‘The more I love something, the more I want to use it every day, and if it breaks or chips, then I just throw it away because I can’t stand the idea of it no longer being whole. It was the same with Pablo. If our relationship could not have a certain wholeness, if it had degenerated into something trivial, then I would rather have nothing at all.’

Nearly fifty pages later we read of how, after they had separated, Picasso proposed that she should divorce her husband and so legitimise their children. Her agreement to do this seems to be wholly at odds with this intolerance with the imperfect and with the clear perception of Picasso’s destructive nature with which she has been credited in earlier pages. One would have liked to hear the opinion of her husband, Luc Simon, on this matter. He was an ‘ordinary mug’, maybe, but one whom she apparently loved and who had no intolerable chips that we are told of. Yet she threw him away after she discovered that Picasso had tricked her and secretly married her rival. As for the rival, Jacqueline Rogue, even Paul Johnson perceives that Huffington’s treatment of her doesn’t so much as try to be fair. A more sympathetic and far better written account of Picasso’s life with her will be found in the essay by John Richardson reprinted in the catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Late Picasso exhibition. It must be said, however, that an impartial view is hardly possible if one is dependent, as all serious Picasso scholars are, on the good will of one or another faction among the artist’s heirs. There are allegations against Jacqueline which Richardson does not mention.

Even if Life with Picasso often gave an unconvincing portrait of Gilot herself, Picasso is presented by her and Lake in a far more rounded and convincing way than Huffington is capable of. Above all, the earlier book gave an account of Picasso as an artist, recording his bold innovations in handling the sugar used in aquatint, his furious determination to obtain the right patination for his bronzes (in one case taking a foundry worker’s advice and repeatedly urinating on the metal), his pursuit of new colours for his pottery, his ingenious bullying of Tuttin the master craftsman at Mourlot’s lithographic works who alone had the skill to reproduce his experiments. She also records in detail the way he discussed art with Matisse and described his own work to her. Even Marie-Thérèse Walter, who was neither artistic nor intellectual, gives a charming account of how Picasso moved when he painted. There is very little of this material in Huffington’s biography. She takes no interest in the ideas and has no knowledge of the procedures which absorbed most of Picasso’s life. More surprisingly, she doesn’t have much to say about Picasso’s relations with his dealers about which, again, Life with Picasso was so informative.

Picasso was ‘essentially a fashion designer’, Paul Johnson announces. Huffington insists that his appeal was ephemeral. ‘Unlike Shakespeare and Mozart ... Picasso was not a timeless genius.’ Picasso painted the brothel, the studio, the bull-ring, the circus – not the home, interestingly, and not the garden, but the view from a studio window and plants in the studio beside the nude model. He depicted a wide range of animals, especially monkeys, pigeons, bulls, horses; also the minotaur, the young bathers, the lovers, the bearded Greek hero, the artist and, later in life, a cast of picaresque characters taken from history, comics and classics: Rembrandt, the Pope, Don Quixote, Cavaliers, musketeers, grandees, Raphael (locked into the Fornarina), Degas and his prostitutes, the procuress Celestina (from late 15th-century Spain). He used bits of newspaper, he depicted a light bulb in Guernica, one of his models had a pig-tail, and I think I once spotted Tintin in a drawing, but it is hard to think of an artist whose imaginative world was less truly modern – indeed, he resembles Yeats in his ability to create a personal, but accessible mythology out of familiar and obscure sources. His chief theme was the mystery, lyricism, violence and absurdity of relations between the sexes, a theme which is hardly topical. When Huffington complains of Picasso’s genius not being timeless what she means is that it was, in some specially modern way, destructive. ‘He saw his role as a painter as fashioning weapons of combat against every emotion of belonging in creation and celebrating life, against nature, human nature and the God who created it all.’ And, in particular, in his paintings as in his life, he was beastly to women. It’s a very odd verdict when one considers the diversity of his work. But she is right that he had no time for God, and right in her insistence that his frenzied productivity as an artist was, like his sexual voracity, an attempt to escape from age and death.

It was also surely an attempt to escape from too much critical reflection on his own art. The spectacle of his own prolific improvisations, versatility and mimicry allayed increasingly desperate anxieties that his inventiveness and imaginative vitality would flag. In his social life, playing with napkins or face-paint, in much of his festive pottery, in some of his witty and fantastic work for the stage, he was content to charm, dazzle, entertain, but his artistic ambition, as outlined to Gilot, was to produce a magic which would embody, and so control, terror and desire. Tenderness and beauty and delicacy of handling, although achieved (in drawings and prints especially), were distrusted. Graffiti commanded respect.

Never was he more determined to avoid being agreeable than in his late work now at the Tate Gallery. The best group of works on display is the selection from the series of erotic prints made in 1968 and 1970-2. This includes masterpieces (Nos 114 and 148, above all), but also many rehearsals and doodled variations, a higher ratio of unserious work than in his earlier bouts of print-making. Two marvellous watercolours of artist and model, of age and youth, from the suite of 180 drawings made over the winter of 1953/4 are also included (Nos 76 and 77), beside which his numerous subsequent returns to the same theme, both in drawings and paintings, seem crude and even mechanical. One of these two, No 76, as a depiction of the intriguing apertures and corners, of the light and heat and the cool and shade, of his studio achieves more in a small scale and without colour than the two oil paintings of interiors made in 1956 (Nos 7 and 8) or 1961 (Nos 15 and 16), although these, especially the earlier pair, are nevertheless among the few captivating canvases in the exhibition. They pay homage to Matisse whose Studio of 1904 in the Tate’s permanent collection should be looked at afterwards. It has a greater concentration and a patch of colour – red flowers – more thrilling than any in any Picasso. Many of the large later paintings, with their incontinent dollops and angry scrubbings of paint, leave me feeling shaken, sometimes sick, as if exposed to a strong magic which has gone wrong. Increasingly, Picasso preferred the grotesque to the lyrical. Life no doubt also seemed grotesque. But it had not always seemed so, certainly not all the time.

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