Gleaming, naked and nasty; books

Andrew Marr compares two approaches to the century's greatest artist
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A Life of Picasso. Volume II, 1907-1917 by John Richardson, Cape, pounds 30

Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man by Norman Mailer, Little,Brown, pounds 25

Picasso may be a great artist. All the same, he is a wretched man." Thus Marie Laurencin, not a great artist, after the death from cancer of Eva Gouel, Picasso's putative bride and mistress. Almost all artists' biographies stir up the argument about the relationship between character and work. Moralists will always want to connect X's reprehensible politics or Y's cowardice with flaws in the painting, novels or music. Yet common sense suggests that human personalities are divided, so that people who behave meanly in the flesh, can be generous-spirited and great-souled in their work.

Pablo Picasso confronts us with these problems at their most intricate. He wasn't an evil man in his politics, and the easy description ''woman- hater'' fails to get anywhere near his fascination with femaleness, swinging him between intoxicated eroticism and extreme loathing. But he is an easy target. For many years, his misogynistic selfishness and occasional cruelty, his physical cowardice and envious pride have been picked over by the termite-colony of psychological biographers, leaving him gleaming, naked and nasty.

Does it matter? It does not diminish his art - Picasso is, in the end, the greatest artist of this century, the ultimate magician of form - but it helps us see his art differently. One thing he did was to reintroduce into painting many things that had been lost. He painted hatred and disgust as well as celebration. He painted idealised visions of love and of lovers; but he painted the raw dirtiness of sex as well. He introduced jokes and puns into high art. And he did all this because, in part, of the man he was.

Picasso's sometimes extreme behaviour and his totemic stature have made for some second-rate biographical writing in the past. There have been the dazzled worshippers, such as Roland Penrose, and the clawing furies, such as Arianna Stassinopolous Huffington. But since the first volume of John Richardson's Life appeared in 1991, we have known that there was one sure guide, one thoughtful, balanced and highly readable detailed account in progress. The second volume is even better than the first.

After the breathtaking facility and verve of his early years, the decade 1907-17 takes Picasso into revolutionary mode. The blue and rose periods are behind him. He is still with his first serious muse, Fernande Olivier, and he is about to embark on the adventure of cubism, via the savagery of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, his half-Iberian-classical, half-tribal group portrait of prostitutes which, 90 years after it was painted, remains one of the most disturbing and shocking images in Western art.

Cubism is the big story of this book, a sudden break with many of the constants of Western art. The detail of that story is unavoidably absent in a biography. You strain to hear, and never can, those long and intricate arguments with Braque in the privacy of his studio. You want to go to big illustrations of the drawings and colour reproductions of the paintings which the book lacks. But Richardson's arguments about the key developments are compelling and sometimes novel. Given his pro-Picasso instinct, it is particularly interesting and eloquent that, time after time, he awards Braque the prize for key Cubist discoveries.

Meanwhile, there is plenty of action to punctuate the story of Picasso's life through the decade. He moves from bohemian poverty in Montmartre to bourgeois plenty in Montparnasse, from the relative obscurity of factional leadership to real public fame. Throughout, he is surrounded by a large, colourful and changing cast of rivals, hangers-on, poets, self-publicists, mistresses, models, fakers and snipers. Richardson is brilliantly good in his pen-portraits of these characters, not least the dealers and collectors who made Picasso rich and famous.

The story includes the suicide of a friend, the arrival and return of a briefly adopted daughter, brushes with the law, the Simon Peter-like denial of Apollinaire in the dock, war and pacifism, the death of one mistress, the discarding of others, a menagerie of animals and the endless, multi-layered politics of the avant-garde. This is a genuine work of scholarship, and one emerges from it knowing far more about Picasso's behaviour and admiring his genius no less. It is a glorious thing to have in the house.

The comparison with this great work of scholarship and tact has not helped Norman Mailer, whose Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man seems designed to make professional critics sneer. It is a tumult of a biography, all fist-shaking defiance and breathtaking judgements such as the dismissal of a wonderful Cezanne harlequin as ''clumsy... begging to be improved upon.''

In fact, the clumsiest thing around is Mailer's prose, which can sometimes sound like a poor translation: ''We can hardly conceive of how powerfully did objects impinge upon him.'' This book postures, rants and hectors - it is a caricature of literary machismo.Yet it has great qualities too. Mailer is not embarrassed to quote at length from other authors and contemporary observers, including Fernande herself and Gertrude Stein - passages from which Richardson extracts a single phrase to embed in his own text, are here reprinted verbatim. If you want the smell of Picasso's Paris, or of Barcelona whorehouses, or to hear the voices and arguments around him, this book is better than the better book.

Nor has Mailer's eye for a killer phrase wholly deserted him. For instance, Richardson has a lot to say about Picasso's extraordinary, pear-headed friend, the damaged and clearly lovable poet Apollinaire. But nowhere does he achieve the fanfare Mailer gives him: ''In keeping with specifications of a royal bastard, he was christened Wilhelm (later to be Guillaume) Wladimir Alexandre Apollinaire de Kostrowitzky. While not one third of the length of Pablo Diego Jose Francisco de Paulo Juan Nepomuceno Maria de los Remedios Crispin Crispiano Santisima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, it is notably more elevated. Of course, Apollinaire belonged to a rare sub- group - the lumpen-aristocracy...''. One suspects that that's the kind of writing that would have got a round of applause in the Bateau Lavoir.

Then, of course, there is sex. Mailer has an intuitive understanding of Picasso's machismo and shamanism that the average art critic lacks. He wades into arguments about sexual identity with relish, focusing without embarrassment on Picasso's more pornographic scribblings. And if the psychological ruminations seem wild at times, again Mailer has a Picasso- like fascination with death, the female principle and so on. He doesn't flinch from the monstrous aspects of the genius's behaviour; he doesn't flinch from the glorious paintings either. Sometimes you can learn almost as much from a good bad book as from a straightforwardly good one.

Comments