Pablo:the biopic?

Question: when is a painting not a portrait? Answer: when it's a Picasso. Andrew Graham-Dixon argues that, by sticking models' names on the pictures, the new Paris show betrays the true subjects of the artist's work
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The late 20th century has seen the spread of a highly infectious disease, transmitted chiefly through the medium of biography, which causes the delusion that the lives of great men and women are more interesting than their works. The organisers of "Picasso and Portraiture", an intriguing but fundamentally misconceived exhibition currently at the Grand Palais in Paris, evidently suffer from the condition.

"My work is like a diary," Picasso mischievously used to say, but the remark can be taken rather too seriously. Throughout this large, ambitious survey, the viewer is encouraged to see Picasso's painting in essentially diaristic and anecdotal terms. The works on display are there to be read, indeed, as if they were pages from a journal in which the artist, as "portrait painter", obliquely noted his thoughts about himself, his family, his friends and his lovers. But to bring such literal-mindedness and such amateur detective attitudes to Picasso's art is a serious mistake. Whatever his work may happen to tell us in passing about the precise details of his life, that is the last reason to value it. His genius was inseparable from his disdain for the minutiae with which the diarist is concerned.

"Picasso and Portraiture" depends, for its very existence as an exhibition, on a shameless distortion of the truth. A great number of the works of art which it contains are, quite simply, not portraits at all. Yet they have been treated as such by the organisers of the exhibition, which means that the show as a whole tells an insidious and symptomatically modern lie about the nature of Picasso's painting.

Near the start of the show, for example, we encounter two of the artist's most beautiful and statuesque idealisations of the female nude, both dating from 1906: Nude with Joined Hands from the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto; and Standing Female Nude from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. When he painted these pictures, Picasso was clearly searching for an imagery charged with the inscrutable otherworldliness of myth. He had been thinking of Cezanne's bathers, and of the nymphs in Matisse's mythological pastoral of 1905-6, Le Bonheur de Vivre - a painting which almost overawed him when he first saw it. Certainly the last thing on his mind, as he dreamt up these strange and distant goddesses, was portraiture.

Yet "Picasso and Portraiture" presents the two paintings as if they are indeed portraits, in some meaningful sense of the word. Their titles have even been changed, in support of the view of the exhibition organisers that they are actually depictions of Picasso's lover at the time, Fernande Olivier. This means that Nude with Joined Hands becomes Nude with Joined Hands (Fernande) and Standing Female Nude becomes Standing Female Nude (Fernande). Close to them hang several studies of Fernande Olivier, drawn from the life, to which Picasso's idealised goddesses do admittedly bear a vestigial resemblance. But this does not make them portraits. It merely proves what we have known for a long time - namely that Picasso drew on echoes and memories of those whom he knew in creating his art.

William Rubin, director emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art, whose brainchild "Picasso and Portraiture" was, claims in the catalogue to the exhibition that its aim is, precisely, to explore such interesting areas of ambiguity. "It may emerge that, after this exhibition, it will be even harder than before to define what Picasso meant by a portrait. If so, the artist's ghost will be chuckling, for he thought of himself very much as a challenger of definitions." But Picasso's ghost may be not quite as amused as Mr Rubin believes. Picasso was a very precise artist. He meant us to distinguish clearly between the different types of picture which he painted.

To remain, for the moment, in the year 1906. As well as the two idealised nudes of that year, which are so clearly not portraits, the exhibition also includes Picasso's much-celebrated picture of Gertrude Stein, which clearly is a portrait, for all sorts of entirely traditional reasons. Stein is clothed, rather than naked; she is depicted in the here and now, rather than sub specie aeternitatis; she is bulkily present, rather than semi-fantastical. Everything about the picture tells us that this is a study of a living, breathing individual with her own quirks and characteristics - a certain tilt of the head, a certain bunched way of holding the shoulders. It is a classical portrait because its chief ambition is so patently to show us a person as a painter saw and felt about her - and, to underline this, Picasso framed the whole painting as an act of competitive homage to one of the very greatest French portraits ever painted, Ingres's Portrait of Monsieur Bertin, in the Louvre.

"Picasso and Portraiture", in eliding the distinction between works like the Gertrude Stein portrait and the nudes of the same year - and that is only the start of it - is simply and unforgivably blurring boundaries which the artist himself drew very clearly. There are, admittedly, a few borderline cases in Picasso's work, the best instances being, perhaps, the three Cubist pictures inspired by his art dealers, Uhde, Vollard and Kahnweiler. Picasso plainly painted these extraordinary works, which look like faces shaken up in a kaleidoscope, to test Cubism's limits - they are deliberately provisional in character because they are, in effect, pictures painted to see whether such a thing as Cubist portraiture might actually be possible. But otherwise, Picasso was not nearly as playful as Rubin might like him to have been.

The misreading on which the exhibition depends betrays a reluctance to acknowledge how traditional an artist, in many respects, Picasso always remained. It is true, for instance, that there are trace memories of the physiognomy of Dora Maar, who was one of his lovers in the 1940s, in The Weeping Woman; it is also true that Picasso drew on a lover of the 1930s, Marie-Therese Walter, when he came to invent the great sequence of fantastical and dislocatedly erotic nudes which he painted during that decade. But it is not therefore true that these pictures are daringly modern experiments with the very nature of portraiture. Rather, Picasso was simply (as so often) working within a well-established tradition of high art. What he was doing was in essence no different from what Thedore Gericault did when he included a figure modelled on his friend, Eugene Delacroix, in his great history painting The Raft of the Medusa. Picasso used those around him as subject painters have always done.

He absorbed them into works of art that were not about them, as such - but which were, rather, attempts to find new and powerful forms to express archetypes of human feeling. The Weeping Woman is no more a portrait of Dora Maar than The Raft of the Medusa is a portrait of Delacroix. The nudes Picasso painted in the 1930s are no more portraits of Marie-Therese Walter than the Venuses of Titian are portraits of the models who inspired them. Rather, such paintings seek to transcend the everyday world.

Because the Paris exhibition includes so many of Picasso's overtly mythological or archetypal works under the false rubric of the portrait, it is forever trying to send the viewer in the wrong direction - scurrying back to the mundane reality which the painter set out to transfigure in his art. We are constantly encouraged to seek out the trivial physical resemblances that Picasso buried deep in works which he never meant us to read for their verisimilitude.

In his mythologies, especially his female nudes, Picasso worked a form of alchemy on the people in his life, turning them into works of art whose subject was anything but the people themselves. Starting with Dora Maar, he might end up by producing a picture not about her but about misery, and compassion; starting with Marie-Therese Walter, he might produce a picture about voluptuousness; starting with Francoise Gilot, he might paint a picture about the terror of death. To go to such pictures in quest of the people whom Picasso thus transformed is to misunderstand their nature. It is to practise a form of reverse alchemy on them, turning the gold of art back into the base matter of biography.

"Picasso and Portraiture" is more disturbing, however, than a mere category mistake. It trivialises Picasso's work as well as misrepresenting it - and it does so in a way that suggests our very modes of thinking about art are in danger of being trivialised. To group Picasso's works according to those whose traces may be seen in them - to bunch his art up, as this exhibition does, into "Marie-Therese" pictures, say, or "Francoise" pictures - does them great damage. At best, it mistakes the superficial subject matter of many of Picasso's greatest paintings for their true subject matter. At worst, it provides a licence for all sorts of trite amateur psychoanalysing - so that, say, a picture like Seated Bather becomes Picasso's way of wreaking revenge on his first wife, Olga, by turning her into a castratory monster; whereas a picture like The Dream represents his new- found happiness with his new lover Marie-Therese. This turns the pictures into little more than stage scenery for psychodrama. How small and undemanding a thing it makes of Picasso's uvre as a whole - no more, in effect, then the confessions of a much-married and much-divorced celebrity.

One man, ultimately, is to blame for all this. The real motive force behind "Picasso and Portraiture" - although it goes pointedly unacknowledged by William Rubin and the other authors of the catalogue - must surely be John Richardson's on-going biography of the painter. Richardson, more than anyone else, has pioneered the type of interpretation of the painter's work which "Picasso and Portraiture" seeks to institutionalise. The central premise of his enormous project - two extremely influential volumes of which have so far appeared - is the notion that Picasso's art does indeed contain a blow-by-blow narrative of his life, written in a code which it is the task of the biographer/ cryptographer to crack.

In Richardson's hands, this approach has yielded interesting results and fanciful hypotheses in roughly equal measure. It would certainly seem true that there is much to be learnt about Picasso's life if we dig deep enough into his work - and Picasso's life, as Richardson's book shows, was indeed fairly interesting. But "Picasso and Portraiture" is worrying because it so blatantly wants to make biographers of us all. The suggestion is that the whole point of looking at Picasso's art is to excavate the biographical data which it contains. Such an idea is clearly absurd, and would certainly have horrified Picasso.

'Picasso and Portraiture' is at the Grand Palais, Paris, to 20 Jan 1997 (closed Tues). Details: 00 331 44 13 17 30

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