Books Lives & Letters: Cubism with the lights out

PICASSO by Norman Mailer, Little Brown pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
As one of the most famous "personalities" of the 20th century, Picasso has suffered much at the hands of biographers and amateur psychologists. Perhaps he brought it on himself, particularly when he emphasised so often and so explicitly the connection between his virility and his creativity. But even had he been a male chauvinist without a transcendent inventiveness as a painter, no one would wish on him the fate of some of the studies by those who have entered the biography stakes without any real understanding of modern art.

Fortunately, Picasso is currently being treated to one of the best artists' biographies ever written, that by the art historian and critic John Richardson. The second volume, to be reviewed here by David Sylvester, promises to be as meticulous, thoughtful and elegantly written as the first. Norman Mailer's new book covers the time span up to and including the invention of Cubism and the subsequent dissolution of the highly charged world of Parisian modernism in the sobering horrors of the First World War.

One can see the appeal of this project to a publishing executive sitting in New York or Boston - the combination of our century's most famous painter with one of the most robust voices of American fiction and journalism seems certain to set the tills ringing. And indeed there is no reason why Mailer, who has won two Pulitzer prizes for his book-length cultural journalism, should not have interesting things to say about Picasso and a place in the modern world, valuable insights which cautious art historians will never get to. He is also well equipped to present such insights in a demotic voice that many readers might find more approachable than the smooth orotundities of the professors.

The subject too has irresistible appeal. The years between Picasso's first visit to Paris in 1900 and the outbreak of the First World War were the most hectic in his life as he struggled to establish himself as the best of the rising generation of artists carrying modern art forward from the point where Cezanne had left it. There is the poverty-stricken bohemianism of the days at the Bateau-Lavoir studios, the making of friendships with Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Alfred Jarry, Gertrude and Leo Stein and the rest of the denizens of modernist Paris, commercial to-ing and fro- ing with the influential avant garde dealers Kahnweiler and Vollard, intense rivalry with the older Matisse and the close working association with Braque. Added to this there was plenty of drugs, booze, sex, elation and depression in what was then the world's artistic capital.

Mailer's Picasso tries but fails to rise to its theme. In the end it amounts to nothing more than a self-indulgent album of lengthy quotations from other people's published writings, held apart by a very thin narrative that veers uncertainly between the past tense and the present. Mailer is usually a good writer, but in Picasso the laconic macho of the style is both unsubtle and careless. Friendships go "at full throttle", relationships "fructify", and, be warned, when the subject is the long relationship between "Pablo and Gertrude", we "will need our wits if we are to follow it. When it comes to narcissism, Gertrude Stein is equal to Catherine of Russia."

Mailer compounds his sloppy writing by a lack of any sense of the relative values of the sources he quotes from at such length. The scrupulous John Richardson is extensively cannibalised for facts and opinions. So are the charming but unreliable memoirs of Picasso's first long-term mistress Fernande Olivier, Gertrude Stein's self-serving Autobiography of Alice B Toklas and Stassinopoulos Huffington's idiosyncratic Picasso: Creator and Destroyer.

It is probably just possible to write a good biography of an artist with a life as rich as Picasso's without having a particularly profound understanding of his art. It is also very easy for critics and art historians (who are in any case slightly suspicious of biography as a genre) to be sniffy about outsiders who venture into their territory. Nevertheless, it does seem hubristic of Mailer to devote four chapters of his book to Cubism, probably the single most complex and important development in 20th-century art. In these chapters he attacks as either commercially interested or deliberately obscurantist some of those who have written most lucidly and compellingly on the subject.

As for Mailer's own explanation of what Cubism is, which begins from the insight that "a Cubist canvas is a creature as much as an object", I have to confess to being so much in thrall to what he calls "the conceptual jargon" of the art world that I understood very little of his swirling prose. The clouds did clear for one brief moment, though, and I found myself nodding in sage agreement with the thought that "Cubism is not a form of lovemaking with the lights out". I think I might try that one out next time I happen to be in the Tate - it could be a good pick-up line.