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Picasso, Creator and Destroyer




BOOK REVIEW

Arianna Stossinopoulos Huffington, Picasso, Creator and Destroyer. New York: First Avon Books Printing, October 1989. 558pp. incl. Preface, Notes on Sources, Bibliography, Acknowledgments, Picture Credits, and Index. Many excellent photos between pp. 288 and 289 (some reproduced inside front cover). Pb., $4.95.

This outstanding blography of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), the father of Cubism in modern art, was first published by Simon and Schuster in 1988. The author, born in Greece and married to an American, is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster. She began researching Picasso in 1982 after David McCulloch decided not to continue with his own blography on the celebrated painter. After her own book was ready to go to press, Huffington asked McCulloch why he made that decision. "'We need monsters in our mythic life,' he replied, 'but I didn't want one in mine.... In the end, l didn't want Picasso for my roommate for five years.'" Huffington was grateful for "a remarkable journey" but notes that "there were many gruesome moments during the last five years when I did envy (McCulloch)" (p.539). In her preface she explains that

Picasso craved sex while always vilifying and seeking first to dominate and then to destroy his many women. Huffington believes that in this he was representative of our time, and that "Another profound way in which he mirrored our century was in his deep ambivalence toward God and the divine.... He trumpeted his atheism at the same time that he identified with the crucified Christ and returned to this theme in his work during all the great ordeals of his life" (p.12). This ambivalence is amply documented in the book.

All his life Picasso exhibited a deep belief in magic. For example, he "believed that in the wrong hands, his hair trimmings could be used to control him" (p.14, p.424). His magic world view was particularly significant for his Cubist painting style:

In the first of Picasso's four etchings of The Blind Minotaur, really himself in the guise of a mythical monster of antiquity done in the early 1930s, was a small sketch of Picasso's earlier work, The Death of Marat,

When his erstwhile sculpture teacher Julio Gonzalez died in March 1942, Picasso announced to the sculptor Fenosa "I'm the one who killed him" after Gonzalez' funeral. Perhaps he believed this because he was convinced that he had the power to affect reality; (Fenosa had overheard him, twelve years earlier, saying to himself again and again, 'I am God, I am God ... ') ... Whatever the reason for his overwhelming guilt, he sought to exorcise it through seven paintings on the death of Gonzalez. It was his primitive magical thinking that led him to feel he had killed Gonzalez, and it was through the magic he ascribed to his art that he hoped to expiate his guilt (p.260).

Many other examples of Picasso's magIcal worid-view are strewn throughout the book. It is clear that he saw his art as a magic means to destroy the reality that was "really there," which God had created as was taught in the strict Spanish Catholic church of his childhood, and God Himself.

Picasso conceived Cubism during the fall and winter of 1906 upon first seeing Negro statuettes and primitive fetishes. Years later he talked to André Malraux of the moment of conception:

Huffington correctly interprets Picasso's revealing self-disclosure.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon portrays "five horrifying women, prostitutes who repel rather than attract and whose faces are primitive masks that challenge not only society but humanity itself" (p.93). Even Picasso's admirers were horrified, but continued to promote him. Adulation of Picasso became the fashion among critics and in academia, and multiplied when he, always of left-wing persuasion, officially joined the Communist Party on October 5, 1944, shortly after the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation. He served Party propaganda for many years even though his art was not in agreement with "Stalinist realism." Perhaps his greatest service to Communism came at the Second Worid Peace Congress in Paris on April 19, 1948 when Louis Aragon

"This famous Picasso," wrote (Helene) Parmelin, "did the dove of peace for the Peace Movement. There was the international power of the title. There was the power of art ... and there was audacity. There was the power of his fame and celebrity." And there was, above all, the power of myth that transformed a man at war with the universe into "the man of peace'--and a cantankerous bird into the symbol of peace. (p.348)

Behind the myth was Picasso the sadist who spoke of himself as king and God from his early youth, exploited his self-sacrificing father and his family without ever showing gratitude, lorded it over his friends to whom he was unfailingly disloyal in their time of need, and who sought out his many women only in order to gratify his sexual gluttony, to physically and spiritually torment and degrade them and to turn them, in Huffington's apt words, from goddesses into doormats. His dastardly treatment of his legitimate son and his three illegitimate children is extensively documented. The impact of his personal life and views upon his art is amply made clear by chronological tracing and by the appearance of the people around him in his works, strikingly shown in the book's photographs. His mistresses especially were often portrayed in grotesquely distorted and hateful ways, as for example Dora Maar, a beautiful, bright young intellectual whom Picasso reduced to a nervous breakdown precariously overcome only by years of treatment. He painted her as a monstrous Cubist "Weeping Woman." His son Paulo died of cirrhosis of the liver due to drug and alcohol abuse. Barred from his funeral on April 10, 1973, Paulo's son and Picasso's namesake Pablito drank a container of potossium chloride bleach, completely destroying his digestive organs; he died after three months of starvation. Picasso's long-time "secret mistress" Marie-Therese Walter, the mother of his daughter Maya, hanged herself four years after his death. Jacqueline (Roque), his servant girl, mistress and finally his second wife, shot herself to death in the morning of October 15, 1986.

Only one of his women, Francoise Gilot, over forty years younger than he, the mother of his illegitimate children Claude and Paloma, an artist in her own right and now the wife of Dr. Jonas Salk of polio vaccine and "New Age" fame, escaped his sadistic, manipulative and perverse clutches with her personal integrity still relatively intact by leaving him after years of degradation. When her father offered her emotional and financial support to extricate herself from her sick entanglement, she also found the insight to understand why she had entered it in the first place: "There is no question that when I decided to go and live with Pablo, mixed with my love and my admiration for him was a strong desire to rebel against my bourgeois upbringing, to destroy once and for all my father's authority over me" (p.371). When she considered leaving Picasso, he laughed, "Nobody leaves a man like me" (p.382).

When she finally did, his wrath was unappeasable, as was that of his admiring entourage. He hated everyone who did not slavishly bow down to him, including fellow artists and art critics. Yet some rejected him, for example Alberto Giocometti, who always hated Picasso the man and said of Picasso the artist: 'Picasso is altogether bad, completely beside the point from the beginning except for Cubist period and even that misunderstood.... Ugly. Old-fashioned vulgar without sensitivity horrible in color or non-color. Very bad painter once and for all' p.375). Marc Chagall said, "What a genius, that Picasso ... It's a pity he doesn't paint" (ibid.).

Picasso always half respected, half hated Henri Matisse, and was furious when Matisse agreed to design a Dominican chapel and even to underwrite its cost. Picasso told the journalist Helene Parmelin that "Truth cannot exist.... Truth does not exist" (p.339). Yet this nihilism, compulsively fought by his enormous production of artistic works (nearly 50,000 were catalogued when his estate, amounting to at least S260 million, was settled in September 1977), brought him to existential despair as it had Nietzsche, his favorite philosopher. His last self-portrait, done on June 30, 1972, "was the fact of frozen anguish and primordial horror held next to the mask that he had worn for so long and that had fooled so many" (p.465): that nightmarish last self-portrait is photographically reproduced in the book. Picasso set out to destroy God and His creation by his magic "art": this portrait shows that he ended by destroying himself.


--Reviewed by Ellen Myers

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