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.

Nor, previously, had I realised how omnipresent homosexuals were in and around Picasso’s entourage. Richardson recognises the importance of Gertrude Stein as both friend and patron of the artist, although he clearly finds her arrogant, and overrated as a creative figure in her own right. But there was a cast of minor gays as well: such hangers on of the bande à Picasso as the ‘handsome Belgian psychopath’ (later the notorious thief of two Iberian sculptures from the Louvre), Géry Pieret, whom Apoliinaire ‘took on as a live-in secretary’, during a brief experiment with tantouserie, and Louis de Gonzague Frick, ‘the parody of a fin-de-siècle aesthete’, not to mention the host of dealers and collectors, like Alfred Flechtheim of Düsseldorf, an intrepid Picassophile, who exhibited ‘a preference for policemen and athletes’; or the Prussian intellectual, Wilhelm Uhde, one of Picasso’s most ardent and articulate supporters, who sat for a major Cubist portrait and whose style of life was as daring as his taste in art. That many of these dealers, admirers and collectors, including his most important dealer, Kahnweiler, were Jews, points to the early importance of outsiders, of marginal figures, in responding to and encouraging Picasso, as well as other vanguard artists.

Richardson’s biography is amazingly complete in documenting Picasso’s love-life, and the ins and outs of his affairs with Fernande Olivier, Eva Gouel (nèe Marcelle Humbert), Gaby Depeyre and Irène Lagut. There are fallings-out, reconciliations, illnesses and recoveries, billets doux astutely tucked into the hidden recesses of paintings and drawings; a passion for one mistress is consummated while another lies on her death-bed. Throughout, Richardson is at pains to reassure us that reports of Picasso’s ‘misogyny’ are exaggerated, and due, at least in part, only to the machinations of self-promoting feminists. The artist, he explains, was simply a man of his time and place: a genius who was capable of great generosity towards women, and although, unfortunately, a product of the Andalusian cult of machismo, not by any means the thoroughgoing misogynist that feminist spoilsports have made him out to be.

These excuses are limp. Bad behaviour towards women is not the monopoly of genius, or of Andalusians. The exclusion of women from access to the professions, for example, as well as other forms of oppression, was already seen as a social problem in Picasso’s time, and amenable to a political rather than a merely personal resolution: it is not a question of anyone being ‘trapped’ within a culture of machismo. Picasso’s total lack of sensitivity to the situation is what matters, his lack of awareness that the relation between men and women – his relation to his women, specifically – might be something more than a simple matter of a man’s needs and desires and a woman’s submission to them. Other artists of Picasso’s time could see women as potential or actual comrades and equals, rather than mere objects of either obsessive lust or sheer contempt. Picasso’s position was by no means inevitable within the avant-garde circles of his day. Robert and Sonia Delaunay, both of them practising artists of considerable originality, must have maintained a very different kind of relationship from that of Picasso and Fernande or Picasso and Ewa.

Paradoxically, given his tendency to excuse or justify Picasso’s unfeelingness, Richardson often resorts to the catch-all term ‘misogyny’ when it comes to rationalising those of Picasso’s canvases or drawings where he feels women are represented in a less than flattering way – in the Demoiselles, for instance. I believe, however, that it is important here to separate the work from the life, and to distinguish the artist’s often reprehensible behaviour towards women from his representation of women in his art. Sexuality in art, Picasso’s included, is always an effect of representation: it is produced conventionally, through pictorial signs, and never traceable directly to the artist’s feelings or fantasies about particular women or woman in general. Picasso may be unremittingly macho in his life, but in his work, with rare exceptions, as in the period in the Thirties when he was obsessed with the youthful Marie-Thérèse Walter, his visual construction of gender is interestingly ambiguous.

Throughout the time Picasso was working on the Demoiselles, he created remarkably androgynous, or even android, figures of purportedly female subjects: such lumbering, muscular creatures as one finds in The Dryad or Three Women or Seated Nude, all of 1908, can hardly be assimilated to the canons of alluring femininity, not even those of the early 20th-century vanguard. At other times, a sensual female figure may contain elements of male potency within her contours: this is the case in Sleeping Nude, where Marie-Thérèse’s nose is partially formed by the outline of an adjunctive penis. At still other times, a male sitter, the poet Paul Eluard, is portrayed in the guise of Van Gogh’s L’ Arlésienne, nursing a cat at his bright green breast Far less than Matisse does Picasso restrict his obsessive figural investigations to the female subject. During the Cubist period, especially, the male features prominently: many of the major Cubist portraits are of men. The Seated Man, of 1916, and a host of related pictures, as Richardson rightly points out, are all important works of the later 1910s.

When Richardson gets down to a lengthy analysis of the Demoiselles, the weaknesses of the biographical format reveal themselves most starkly. He makes a brave and graceful attempt to summarise the extensive bibliography on the subject, but it is impossible, in the course of a single chapter, to account for the complex arguments advanced by such scholars as Leo Steinberg, William Rubin, Anna Chave and many others. The biographer of an artist will, inevitably, like to trace the development of a work, from early drawings to more finished sketches and to various versions of the final painting. To examine the ‘evolution’ of a painting can be illuminating: it gives us access not only to iconographic material lost in the final version, to the impact of unknown sources and vanished influences, but also to the artist’s changing ideas. On the other hand, it has an unfortunate tendency to reduce the meaning of the finished painting to its origins, and to read into the final version material that is no longer present and is now extraneous. To concentrate on the genesis of a painting makes it harder for us to concentrate on, or even see, what is before our eyes.

This is very much the case with the Demoiselles, which has been the subject of so much scholarly interpretation – of its sources, its style, its evolution, its relation to Iberian and African art, and to Picasso’s, and his contemporaries’, ‘attitude towards women’ – that people seem to have stopped looking at it in its final manifestation, in which many of these aspects have been muted, if not erased. Whereas in pre-Cubist work, or in the paintings of the German Expressionists, the sexually explicit portrayal of women can be read as referring to a male artist’s creative domination of an abject and seductive female object, in the Demoiselles and, to an even greater extent, in the Cubist works that followed it, such reference is either no longer present, or exists only in the form of a suggestion of what has been rejected or displaced.

It is important, for example, to separate the canvas now hanging in the Museum of Modern Art from the brothel setting of its original version, which would immediately define the Demoiselles as a painting about women seen in a condition of abject sexuality. Richardson, however, makes the brothel connection even more explicit, by relating the composition of the Demoiselles more concretely to a specific image, or group of images, by Baudelaire’s ‘peintre de la vie moderne’, Constantin Guys. There is nothing wrong in pointing to such a connection between the work of an often underrated 19th-century illustrator and a 20th-century painting, as long as the former is simply seen as one minor element in a whole ‘discourse of the Brothel’, which started in the 19th century and continued into the 20th, reaching a climax of sorts in Degas’s monotypes (which Picasso collected).

The Guys image which Richardson triumphantly pulls out of his hat as a specific ‘source’ serves more to reveal the differences between the draughtsman’s wonderfully perverse and titillating image and Picasso’s large-scale, ambitious and defiantly non-naturalistic canvas. Compared to its putative prototype, Picasso’s work seems asexual or even anti-sexual. Indeed, compared with Guys, the Demoiselles can hardly be said to be, apart from the title, about women at all. As pictorial constructions, its women are neither sexy nor desirable, or even unambiguously feminine in their anatomy. The struggle displayed is not that of a man to dominate women, or of women to seduce a man, but rather the struggle – equally intense – to challenge a tradition of representation in its most important generic manifestation: the nude. Above all, the artist is concerned with how to outdo and criticise Cézanne, the painter of the previous generation most deeply engaged in a similar enterprise in his series of Bathers. The brothel motif, almost entirely erased in the final version, exists only as a trenchant negation: to signify what the Demoiselles, in its modernity, has left behind. These female nudes are not outdoor figures, embraced by a redemptive landscape and identified with a timeless Nature (though one reconfigured by Cézanne and Matisse), but more threatening presences, resolutely anti-natural in their form and conception. The boldness of Picasso’s deconstruction of the female nude makes reference to the ‘primitive’ character of Gauguin’s female figures, and it is clear that sometime in the course of creating the Demoiselles he became familiar with African masks.

At other stages of his career, Picasso was not averse to unequivocal representations of women as sexual beings, as objects of loathing or desire, with swelling breasts, curvaceous buttocks and alluring blonde hair, all of which are present in the Marie-Thérèse pictures of the Thirties. The more abstract, Cubist Seated Woman has incontrovertibly feminine, nippled breasts nailed onto the chemise draping the ‘torso’ of the sitter and carries a chilling frisson of sadistic pleasure. But in the Demoiselles, even more than Cézanne, who went a long way in this direction in his late female Bathers, Picasso has erased or transformed or distorted the pictorial signifiers of femininity, those alluring curves, bulges and indentations that artists have used, either overtly or more coyly, to indicate the sites of masculine desire. The only ‘demoiselle’ whose body even approaches the curvilinear, the foreground figure whose buttocks face the viewer and whose ‘breast’ bulges beneath her armpit, is also the one whose head has been most grotesquely replaced by a terrifying, and asexual, mask. The curves, and lusciousness, such as they are, are displaced onto the fruit-bowl in the foreground, with its suggestive slice of melon and double-curved pears. The bodies could be those of men or young boys, with muscled pectorals, knobbly knees, angular legs and threatening poses.

The complexity of any analysis required even to begin to unpack the implications of a single work like the Demoiselles makes clear what a hazardous enterprise an artist’s biography can be, especially when it deals as this one does with an artist who lived so long, whose work is so complex and whose life and work are both so demanding of attention. Analysis is continually being broken into by details of the life, and the concentration demanded of us by the problems of representation interrupted by the seductive intrusions of friends, dealers, lovers and even pets – of the Higher Gossip. And yet, it is the work that is the point of the Life.

One alternative to a full-scale biography such as Richardson’s is to restrict one’s attention to a relatively short but significant portion of the artist’s life and achievement. This is what Norman Mailer does in his Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man. This ‘interpretive biography’ is valuable mainly as a source of some excellent reproductions. Completely dependent on previously published material, purple in its prose, slovenly in its scholarship, and embarrassing in its resort to every known cliché connecting genius to male hormones, Portrait of Picasso makes Lust for life look like an austere documentary. An ‘interpretive biography’ seems to be a code for autobiography, so closely does Mailer identify with his subject.

A more radical alternative to biography is Picasso and the Spanish Tradition, a collection of scholarly essays by a group of academic authors, edited by the Velázquez specialist, Jonathan Brown. These authors each focus on a single issue, approached from a wide variety of vantage-points. The most interesting chapter is by Robert Lubar: ‘Narrating the Nation: Picasso and the Myth of El Greco’. Starting out with a complex and provocative analysis of the Demoiselles, Lubar problematises both the painting and its relation to possible sources in El Greco, and many other artists as well, by locating it in the broader field of cultural history: ‘I want to suggest that Picasso does not merely compete with his predecessors formally, but calls into question historical and temporal constructions of national visual traditions through a practice that is also textual. The bodies of the five demoiselles constitute the site where this practice is negotiated.’ By the time he has finished, Lubar has thoroughly exploded the myth of El Greco – Cretan in origin, Venetian by training – as a prototypically Spanish painter. Above all, he subjects the young Picasso’s own ambivalent and anxiety-ridden relationship to his national tradition to relentless scrutiny. The other essays are less ambitious but all of them have something interesting to say about Picasso’s long love-hate affair with the traditions of his own country.