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26 July 2023

The Picasso problem

Fifty years after the artist’s death, the cult of genius that hid his flaws offers less protection.

By Michael Prodger

In the mid-1950s, almost five decades after they had invented cubism together, Georges Braque commented that his old friend Pablo Picasso: “used to be a great painter, now he is merely a genius.” There was, as with all the best bons mots, more than a little truth to his observation. How, after all, can a career as long and as prolific as Picasso’s be judged? By the time he died in 1973, aged 91, he had produced – by some accounts – 13,500 paintings, 300 sculptures and ceramics, 34,000 illustrations and 2,400 prints and engravings. Statistically, it is impossible that all can be great works but in their variety, abundance and inventiveness even those that aren’t bear out the second part of Braque’s claim.

Picasso’s numbers exceed those of his contemporaries – from Braque and Matisse to Pollock and Warhol. His earliest exhibited work, First Communion, was painted when he was 15 and still at art school and he never stopped. His last major set of etchings, named the “156 Suite” after the number of prints in the series, was completed less than a year before his death. It was as if he suffered from a form of irrepressible artistic impulse: the need to create was uncontrollable and would always spill out. Picasso put it another way: “The movement of my thought interests me more than the thought itself”, he once said, and his teeming output is a record of that ceaseless movement.

The result is an entire Picasso ecosystem: there are dedicated Picasso museums in Paris, Barcelona, Málaga, Antibes, Vallauris and Münster, and several others with significant holdings of his work; he has sold six paintings above the blue riband $100m mark; he regularly tops the annual list for the most sold and most valuable artist at auction; and there is rarely a time when there is not a Picasso exhibition running somewhere in the world. This year, the 50th anniversary of his death, sees no fewer than 50 exhibitions devoted to him, from France and Spain to New York and Switzerland.

Many decades before he died, Picasso had ascended to the empyrean of celebrity. He relished being in front of a camera and innumerable photographs made his gnarly face instantly recognisable; his Breton shirt an acknowledged uniform; his world – from bullfights and beaches to cafés and street-stopping promenades with his entourage – familiar; and his style, or one of them, a shorthand for avant-gardism. In the early 1980s, a wag at the British Library, then in the Round Reading Room at the British Museum, added some graffiti to the wall of the gentlemen’s lavatory: two small triangles with the caption “‘Balls’ by Picasso” underneath. A modest gag, but it wouldn’t work with any other artist.

Wherever Picasso was in the world, his fame meant that supplicants trailed after him, like remora and pilot fish around a shark. John Richardson, who knew the artist well and whose four-volume biography is the greatest resource on Picasso, recalled his first meeting with the painter, surrounded by “collectors, publishers, photographers, dealers, journalists, fans and friends – who had arrived, bearing gifts in the hope of a favourable response to their requests”. Although the artist came to need such attention, indeed thrived on it, it could be wearisome. He delighted in a neighbour, Madame Boissière, next to one of his south of France homes who would shout at visitors that Picasso was a terrible painter and they should keep away. “The perfect concierge,” he said. He was also amused when newspapers erroneously reported that he had bought a castle near Rome and troublesome visitors trotted off to search for him there instead.

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If Richardson was prepared for the brouhaha that attended the painter, “what surprised me was Picasso’s smallness and delicacy, also the unassuming courtesy – those radiant smiles – with which he greeted people, who seldom had a language or anything else in common with him and seemed only to want to waste his time”. However, he soon came to understand that “Picasso had as many ways of saying yes while meaning no as a Japanese. ‘I’ll do my very best,’ or ‘I’ll be in touch,’ usually implied the opposite.”

Here, after all, was a man venerated. Everything he touched became imbued with mystery and value – a drawing on a napkin, a quickly-painted and utilitarian “Manure for sale” sign, a bicycle saddle and handlebars made into a bull, even a proffered cigarette. He once offered a collector’s wife a Gauloise, which she took but refused to light. She wouldn’t let this gift from his hand go up in smoke, she said, and insisted he sign it. She kept it, like a holy relic, on a red velvet cushion under a glass cloche. When Picasso heard of this reverence, he was thrilled.

It is only in the past few years that this sort of reflexive genuflexion has come to be questioned; in particular, regarding his treatment of women. Picasso married twice; first the Russian ballet dancer Olga Khokhlova in 1918 and in 1961 Jacqueline Roque, who was a saleswoman at a pottery when he met her. He also had a series of long- and short-term relationships with various other women, the most important being with Fernande Olivier, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, and Françoise Gilot. As Richardson noted: “Without a woman on his arm, he looked a bit forlorn.”

Picasso did not always treat them well, but then he didn’t necessarily treat anyone well. His possessiveness and callousness are well known (in his first years in Paris, when he lived with Olivier in Montmartre, he insisted, despite their joint poverty, she give up modelling work and would lock her in when he went out). He summarised his attitude in his supposed statement that: “For me there are only two kinds of women: goddesses and doormats” – and the goddesses inevitably became doormats. The female form and an erotic charge were necessities for his art but the price exacted could be high. Walter and Roque would both die by suicide, Khokhlova and Maar both had nervous breakdowns.

Picasso was first attracted to Dora Maar when he saw her in a café, sitting at a table and stabbing a knife in between her fingers. A frisson of danger remained even after they separated. In the late 1950s, more than a decade since they had parted, Picasso telephoned Maar and insisted she show a sketchbook she held to a publisher for possible reproduction. As the pages were turned, Maar became increasingly agitated. By the time she had reached pages that, in Richardson’s words, showed delicate drawings of her “crotch, fore and aft, all too evidently done from life” she was in tears. When Picasso heard what had happened he responded “with a terrible predatoriness”: “So she cried?” He had achieved what he had wanted to do and turned her back into the “Weeping Woman” he had famously painted many times in the 1930s.

This at least was cruelty between adults. When he lived in Paris with Olivier, they tried but failed to have children of their own so adopted a 13-year-old orphan, Raymonde. However, like a Christmas puppy, they soon sent her back to the nuns at the orphanage – possibly because Picasso found her presence a distraction from his work and possibly because Olivier found some unsettling drawings he had made of the girl.

[See also: The mysteries of late style]

Nevertheless, for all his casual or considered misogyny, Richardson reports that when Olga Khokhlova died in 1955 following 20 years of estrangement – not divorce – Picasso’s former mistresses called him up and proposed marriage “now that he was free” (at least, according to the then maîtresse-en-titre Jacqueline Roque).

Of course, Picasso’s morality is of interest only because of his art. Whatever his many and obvious flaws, he left a series of works that transformed 20th-century painting. From the dolorous Blue Period (1901-04) paintings such as the one-eyed La Célestine to cubism and the reinvention of what a two-dimensional picture could show, from the post-First World War neoclassical female figures to the weeping women, from the minotaurs – avatars of the artist and his urges – to the dancers conjured from a simple outline and blocks of colour. And the two great works that stand above all the others; Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907 and Guernica of 1937.

What enabled Picasso to unpick and remake art was that he had had a traditional academic training in Spain. His father was an art teacher who tutored his son before he even reached his teens. He entered art school at 13 and made his first trip to Paris at 19. For all his facility, success was slow in coming. He had a series of false starts in Paris, moving among the rackety community of artists, circus performers and prostitutes on Montmartre, where he lived and worked in a cobbled-together wood and glass studio called the Bateau-Lavoir – “the laundry boat”.

When he was first introduced to the writer Gertrude Stein, who would become his most important early patron (and an Easter Island statue in his 1906 portrait of her), she thought he resembled a “boot-black”. Nor did his initial meetings with the slightly older Matisse, brought about by the Stein family, go well. The two painters were, said Matisse, “as different as the North Pole is from the South Pole”, and he thought Picasso “unsympathetic as a man and less than negligible as a painter”. This was disingenuous: both seemed to have quickly recognised in the other their one true rival and they maintained a wary respect – which never made it into friendship – for one another for the rest of their lives. Picasso thrived on rivalry but most of his competitiveness was reserved for dead painters.

It was with Braque that he formed a working partnership in his early years, cemented by their shared liking for cowboy stories. Picasso likened the pair of them to “mountain climbers roped together” as they developed cubism: first analysing form, then shattering it into shards before putting the pieces back together in a not-quite-abstract assemblage so that the subject – a café table, a person, a violin, a still life – could be read from multiple perspectives simultaneously. Cubism literally remade the visual world.

Braque had also been one of the first to see Les Demoiselles d’Avignon when Picasso unveiled it in his studio to selected friends such as the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. The work was perhaps the most radical painting of the 20th century: five naked prostitutes, nearly seven feet tall, with angular bodies and seemingly different ethnicities – two wear African masks, two are based on Iberian statues, one is possibly Egyptian – confront the viewer. Drawing on El Greco, Gauguin, Cézanne and ethnographic sculpture among other sources, it exploded traditional notions of form, propriety, beauty and perspective. According to Kahnweiler, it “seemed to everyone something mad or monstrous”. The painting was enigmatic, confrontational and raw and lakes of ink have been sucked dry trying to explain its meaning.

Although the picture was not exhibited until 1916, its influence spread much earlier. For Braque, who was both troubled and fascinated by it, the painting was a revelation of its painter. “There at once I knew the artist and the man, the adventurer, in the work he set down in spite of everything…” And, in a sentence that could stand as the mission statement for Picasso’s entire output, he “found in it an unswerving determination, an extraordinary yearning for freedom asserted with a daring, one might almost say a calm fieriness”.

The fame of Les Demoiselles (Picasso’s preferred title was Le Bordel D’Avignon) spread that of the artist too. The first monograph devoted to him was published in Munich in 1921 and by the following year the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky would write that: “The first studio to be visited in Paris is, of course, that of Picasso.” That fame protected him during the Occupation of the Second World War when, despite being a well-known communist and creator of “degenerate art” he remained safe.

[See also: The monsters of feminist art]

This was all the more surprising, perhaps, since by then he had painted Guernica, the huge and chilling indictment of fascist brutality in Spain. The picture – screaming horses, grieving mothers, flaming buildings – commemorates the bombing of the republican Basque town of Guernica by Germany’s Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War, and is an updating of Goya’s “Disasters of War” prints of more than a century earlier. Nevertheless, during the Occupation, Hitler’s ambassador in Paris, Otto Abetz, himself a former professor of drawing, visited Picasso’s studio and, shocked by the cold, offered him coal. He also saw a photograph of Guernica pinned up: “Oh, it was you, Monsieur Picasso, who did that?” “No, it was you,” was Picasso’s reply.

In 1949, Picasso made a very different anti-war image. His simple black and white outline lithograph Dove was used for a poster at the 1949 World Peace Council and became synonymous with both the peace movement and international communism’s Cold War propaganda. Despite the Iron Curtain repressions of 1956 and 1968, about which he said nothing, the artist never left the French Communist Party. “I have joined a family,” he told his personal poet laureate Jean Cocteau, “and like all families, it’s full of shit.”

Picasso was perhaps too much of an egotist to be a slavish political follower. For all the noise that surrounded him he was always utterly committed to creating art. Part of that commitment was not just his own protean nature but a sense of his place in the art historical record. While he acknowledged the influence of an assortment of old and more modern masters – El Greco, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Ingres, Manet, Cézanne, Henri Rousseau – he rarely, except in the case of Cézanne (“My one and only master”), saw himself as an acolyte but rather as an equal.

For much of his career he was in a competition with artists from the past. He confronted Delacroix’s Les Femmes d’Alger (1834) in a series of works sparked by the resemblance of Jacqueline Roque to a woman on the right of Delacroix’s painting. He recast Ingres’s Madame Moitessier (1844-56) as Woman with a Book (1932). He took on Goya’s bullfight prints La Tauromaquia (1816) in numerous paintings and rapid black-wash drawings. He reworked Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) in a series of 1957 variations in which “my Meninas” became an anti-Franco statement. There is, underlying a huge swathe of his output, a cry resonating between a statement and a plea: “I am one of you too.”

This competitiveness can also be sensed behind Picasso’s fear of death. His friends would try to shield him from any sight or mention of mortality because it upset him. He was traumatised as a child when his sister Conchita died of diphtheria, and again when his closest friend, the painter and poet Carles Casagemas, shot himself in front of his unrequited lover in a restaurant – having fired at but failed to kill her; he superstitiously refused to write a will; and the photographer Brassaï recalled Picasso’s conviction that “if he stopped working, that was death”. Douglas Cooper, the greatest private collector of Picasso’s work, but a man who became disaffected when spurned by his idol, believed this led in Picasso’s last years to artistic degeneration and the churning out of “incoherent doodles done by a frenetic dotard in the anteroom of death”.

This bile aside, Picasso also wrote some 300 poems and there was poetry behind one of his last pictures: it was a blank canvas bearing nothing but his signature – his way of leaving his work open ended. “I have less and less time,” he told his lover of the 1940s Françoise Gilot, “and yet I have more and more to say.” The competition was also, and perhaps always had been, a race against time.

[See also: 50 years after Picasso’s death, we still struggle with the figure of the monstrous genius]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special