The Saturday Essay: Why the world still needs the myth of Pablo Picasso

While some of his female images may disturb us, they acquaint us with the power of masculine desire
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The Independent Culture
IF THERE is any artist who epitomises the genius of our century, it is Picasso. Long-lived, endlessly inventive, prolific in his production, prodigal in his sexual appetites as well as his artistic creation, an alchemist who could transmute the handlebars of a bicycle into the horns of a bull with a single gesture - there seems to have been no limit to his talents. Now the exhibition of his ceramics draws crowds to the Royal Academy. How many ceramists have shown in those august halls?

Of course, when it's a question of Picasso's work in that humble medium, it's different. And it really is different. What other ceramist stretches the medium so intrepidly to its limits, at the same time making us aware of those qualities of frangibility and malleability peculiar to the work of clay and kiln?

How is it possible to distinguish the "real" Picasso from the Picasso myth? I do not believe such a distinction is possible. One can, of course, be sharply and brilliantly critical of certain phases of his work. And, certainly, recent feminist scholarship has forced a considerable revision of the Picasso myth, questioning those inventive distortions of the female body, ranging from the grotesque representations of prostitutes in the Demoiselles d'Avignon to the cruelly nailed-on breasts in Seated Woman in an Armchair, through the many sexually provocative images of his lover, Marie-Therese Walter, in the Thirties, where his sitter's body serves as a theme for an astounding series of pictorial variations aimed at making all her sexual parts - breasts, pudenda, buttocks - available to the viewer in a single glance, deployed, like a tasty dish, on the surface of the canvas by means of artful distortion.

It is hard to separate such aesthetic inventiveness from the legendary misogyny of the artist, an essential element of the Picasso myth. His unfeeling treatment of his first mistress-model, Fernande Olivier, amply if inaccurately documented by the victim herself; his vicious caricatures of his wife, Olga, as an evil harpy; his casting aside of the ever-pliable Marie Therese in favour of the more complex and creative Dora Maar, who was in turn harshly rejected and subjected to monstrous depiction in a series of memorable portraits... all this seems inseparable from his artistic achievement. Of all his lovers, only Francoise Gilot seems to have escaped not only unscathed but strengthened from the encounter; but she was armed with two essential weapons: intelligence and her own income.

"We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand," Picasso once declared. We might say the same for biography, in Picasso's case at any rate, for Picasso's life is as much a product of creative enterprise as his artworks - indeed, one might say that Picasso's self-production is his greatest and most encompassing achievement, aside from the invention of cubism, which, after all, has to be shared with Georges Braque. And of course, his biographers, both admiring and deflating, have done their part to extend and amplify the legend. Even the photographers, like David Duncan, who have documented his day-to-day existence, have contributed to Picasso's self-aggrandising propensities, letting him cast himself as intense creator, loving husband or inspired clown as the mood hits him.

Picasso has his rivals in legend building, of course: most notably Jackson Pollock, the subject of a major exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Pollock also played the role of macho hero but the trajectory of his genius, unlike that of Picasso, was short if meteoric: the period of the great drip paintings lasted only from about 1947 to 1950. The Pollock mythology, however, gains in romantic intensity from the very brevity of his life. He shares with Van Gogh the tragedy of mental and emotional instability, of the career cut short, of the self-imposed, or almost self-imposed, death. In Pollock we have an almost ready-made figure of the doomed and tortured artist making major art out of his suffering, literally, as Hans Namuth's films record, enacting the throes of creation with a swirling stick and pots of housepaint.

Picasso, however, offers an alternative to this particular romantic myth. Unlike Pollock, he appears to have been the artist who could have it all: outrageous behaviour, a bohemian youth, an endlessly fertile imagination, unblocked productivity, enormous success, interesting friends, multiple relationships with the opposite sex, children - there are no limits, no tragic destiny to imply that the price of artistic genius is suffering, poverty and early mortality. The Picasso legend overwrites the myth of the romantic artist shivering in his chilly garret with the idyllic vision of productive sunset years passed in a splendid Mediterranean villa with a beautiful and adoring young woman in attendance.

In most cases, the attempt to heroise the individual artist involves either the imposition of a false unity on his or her work, a refusal to accept the messy heterogeneity and aesthetic ambiguity characteristic of most artistic careers in favour of a more harmonious, teleological narrative. The path must lead from early imitation, groping and seeking to the repletion of maturity and the "finding" of a self and recognisable style; to the pathos and grandeur of the late style, often considered an even more crowning achievement than that of the middle years.

Such late blooming gives added lustre to already illustrious careers, grants the artist-hero his exit with a bang rather than a whimper or, at the very least, represses the unheroic possibility that the "breadth" and "generalisation" of the late styles of these masters, although sometimes impressive, may owe more to loss of visual acuity and compositional power than to artistic intention. It is sobering to recall that until the Fifties and the advent of abstract expressionism, Monet's large-scale late canvases languished, rolled up like yard-goods, in the basement of a Paris dealer.

The need to create an organic, all-inclusive totality out of the artist's career is the other side of the coin of amputating the inconveniently anomalous phases from the great continuum. A great deal, of course, depends on what is au courant at the moment: 30 years ago, the idea of an early Cezanne exhibition would have been laughed out of court; Cezanne's youthful work was seen as the daubing of an oversexed, undertalented neurotic. It was not until the advent of postmodernism and a revised standard of what constituted painterly achievement that the late Lawrence Gowing could mount an important exhibition of the young Cezanne's achievement, including wildly scumbled rapes, thickly plastered portraits and strangely elongated dwarves among the sombre landscapes and still lifes.

But Picasso's career, unlike that of almost any other modern artist, has never stood in need of revision or correction. It is remarkable for the variety of stylistic modes, its range of media and breadth of its subject matter. One might say that he has created something for everyone.

If the Demoiselles or his cubist work or his more outre surrealist-inspired ventures may still continue to epater la bourgeoisie on some level; if his overt political embrace of communism after the Second World War may turn off some conservative opinion; if some ignorant spectators at recent Picasso exhibitions are still brazen enough to assert that their five- year-old could paint as well... nevertheless the same spectators are usually mollified by Picasso's sheer technical skill in drawings like the Stravinsky portrait or that of Max Jacob; and even the most retrograde sensibility can hardly find fault with the charming neo-classical Mother and Child or the Woman in White, both evidently based on a "real" mother, Sara Murphy. The portrait of his beautiful wife, the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, seated with a fan and a Spanish shawl is extraordinarily detailed and realistic. Yet, at the same time, Picasso could portray his wife in a modernist style, based on pointillism, emphasising formal rather than representational elements.

The very epitome of Picasso's multiple stylistic personae is perhaps an oil painting called Studies, of 1920. Here, in separate but adjoining rectangles, the artist has deployed both his abstract and his neo-classical realistic styles, a cubist still life adjoining a realistic dancing couple, another cubist work topping an Ingres-style female profile and two separate, sculptural hands extended above an overtly cubist work. The artist seems to be saying in this canvas: "To hell with a unified, harmonious style based on a similarly unified personality! I am the creator of all of these images; isn't this multiplicity more interesting, and more powerful, than any one, single-minded achievement?" Whatever any other artist can do, Picasso seems to imply, he, Picasso, can do better.

And what about today's young artists? Is there any attempt to replace Picasso in the public imagination? Yes, there have been attempts, but on the whole, with the exception of Jackson Pollock, they have been failures. Andy Warhol's position as an image-making superstar is something quite different. Today's cutting-edge art - video, object or installation - involves an outright rejection of the hero, or the hero's sexual prowess, so much an aspect of the mythology of the artist from the later 19th century down to the recent past.

In the hero-less world of the post-modern present, women can share the stage with men without difficulty. Mona Hatoum and Rachel Whiteread can function as major figures of inspiration without deploying legends of sexual prowess in their work; in a way, their politics, in the broadest sense of the word, have more to do with their art than any simple notion of gender. The age of the hero-artist is dead, as far as contemporary art is concerned, as is, to a lesser extent, painting or sculpture in its traditional form, the means of expression par excellence of the heroic creator.

Yet the myth of the artist still flourishes at the end of the 20th century, as does Picasso, its prime embodiment. The myth, after all, serves many purposes for our collective psyches. In an era where the individual seems to have less and less control over his or her life, where standardisation, computerisation and multinational corporations seem to conspire in imposing the realm of the simulacrum or the society of the spectacle on every aspect of human existence, the myth of the artist stands for everything the ordinary person is lacking: spontaneity, self-expression, doing what you want, constructive pleasure, beauty, sexual prowess, power, and, in the case of Picasso, fame and wealth beyond the average citizen's wildest dreams. If the rock star, the diva, the TV personality or the football hero can take up some of the fantasy slack, the artist - Picasso specifically - still occupies a solid position in our collective fantasy life.

His work is something else again: embedded in the myth or apart from it, a Picasso painting, witty collage or playful ceramic brings our eyes to life, stimulates our minds with its metaphoric vigour, challenges, still, our preconceptions about truth and beauty with its visual ambiguity. While his female images may disturb with their overwrought possessiveness or even their sadism, they acquaint us, through the brilliance of their pictorial tropes, with the power of masculine desire, the molten heat of lust in action, as does the work of no other artist. The boldest pornography fails because it arouses disgust before astonishment, unlike Picasso's Woman and Minotaur series.

If art is a lie that makes us realise truth, then the truth that Picasso's multifaceted art production reveals is that there is no single "truth" behind the myriad masks; that art is a lie that makes us realise the unstable basis of reality itself, whether in a cubist canvas or in the life - more accurately, the myth - of the artist himself.

Linda Nochlin is Professor of Modern Art at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts