PICASSO. Controversial new biography reveals a tormented man

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In the end, of course, it will be the art that matters, not the actions and idiosyncrasies of the man who created it. For the moment, however, thanks to Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington's revealing and fascinating new book, ``Picasso: Creator and Destroyer'' (Simon & Schuster, $22.95), much of the art world's attention is being diverted from the art of Picasso to his long, complex, and often turbulent private life. ``Private,'' in fact, may be the wrong word, considering how essential the presence of others was to his sense of well-being and importance. Both friends and acquaintances were needed to flatter and entertain him - or, as Ms. Huffington demonstrates, to serve as targets for his anger, frustration, or malicious sense of humor.

Women, in particular, were subjected to the full range of his moods. None, as a result, had an easy time of it. And several, including some of those closest to him, suffered terribly.

Who these women were and how they reacted to him occupies a major portion of this book, and indeed, almost dominates it. That it doesn't is due to only one thing: the fascination of Picasso himself.

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To capture the nature of the man, the author interviewed many of those most intimately associated with Picasso during the latter decades of his life. These ranged from Fran,coise Gilot - Picasso's mistress of several years and the only woman to leave him and establish her own independent life and career - to his barber, the only man Picasso trusted to cut his hair (a signal honor, since he apparently believed that his hair trimmings could be used to control him). From them, and from the dozens of others interviewed and the hundreds of volumes read and referred to during the five years this book took to complete, the author extracted enough material to complete any kind of biography.

What she decided to do required courage, for she must have realized that a book that focused on Picasso's tumultuous personal life rather than on his art would face automatic disapproval from a large portion of the art community. Picasso, after all, is still afforded godlike status in the eyes of many, and any attempt to indicate feet of clay would almost certainly be perceived as nothing short of blasphemy.

And that, of course, is exactly what happened when the book came out. Picasso was seen as demeaned and diminished by its revelations, and great umbrage was taken over the fact that his art had been largely ignored. The criticisms continued despite Huffington's protestations that she had never intended to discuss Picasso's art itself in depth. She was accused of being a sensationalist, of attempting to analyze everything, even his genius, at the level of amateur psychiatry, and of trying to make a narrowly feminist case against him.

Even the introductory notes on the book's dust jacket came close to supporting her critics' contentions by subtly distorting some of her more dramatic revelations. Picasso, the reader was informed, was a man of ``fathomless contradictions,'' an ``avowed atheist who identified with the crucified Christ''; a ``bohemian rebel who became the toast of Parisian high society''; an ``ardent lover for whom the Minotaur was a symbol of his savage sexuality''; an ``outspoken communist who spent millions to live like a `tramp under a bridge of gold'''; and a ``man whose exuberance for life masked an overwhelming terror of death.''

No wonder the public was intrigued. Here, indeed, was a Great Man with not only feet of clay but a colorful array of fascinating vulnerabilities and vices.

A careful reading of the book, however, reveals that the author's intentions were not to sensationalize Picasso or to diminish his importance, but to shed light on the man behind the art from the perspective, primarily, of the women in his life.

For that we should be grateful. It was these women, after all, who actually lived with the Great Man, who saw him at his best and worst, his most charming and most destructive, and who suffered the most at his hands. And it was they who, almost without exception, preferred to remain close to him - no matter at what cost - rather than leave the world he dominated so completely by his genius, powers of persuasion, trickery, and outright cruelty.

Not surprisingly, considering the care with which Huffington tackled her subject, the Picasso who emerges from this book is not significantly at odds with the Picasso we've come to know through his art. Such tragic and tormented works as ``The Old Guitarist,'' ``Guernica,'' and ``Weeping Woman'' do not, after all, spring from the sensibilities of a simple or untroubled man.

And neither should we be surprised to learn how uncompromisingly, even ruthlessly, he pursued his goddess/demon of creativity to the bitter end. He simply couldn't stop at half measures. ``Are you happy with what you did?,'' he was asked during the filming of some of his work. ``Yes, yes,'' he replied, ``but it's still too external. ... I have to get to the bottom ..., risk everything. Show all the paintings that could be behind a painting.'' And later, ``You have to risk adventure to surprise truth at the bottom of the well.''

Anyone so obsessed with the search for truth (or was it merely for the ultimate illusion?) that he would probe for it anywhere, in anything and anyone, could not possibly have been an easy man to live with. That he could be awesomely vindictive has been established by other writers - although none has made as convincing a case as the author of this book. And that, I believe, is all to the good. The time has come for us to examine art's major 20th-century genius for his flaws as well as for his virtues. And to understand that Picasso was, at heart, a lost soul, an artist without a cohesive vision to support or engage him. He was a titan who had lost his way. Rather than finding serenity, or a least a sustaining meaning, in art, as had C'ezanne and Matisse, Picasso rattled the gates of both heaven and hell for entry - and demanded that all those nearest him pay homage to his courage and his pain.

Knowing this should not lessen our respect for his accomplishments. They were major, and they will remain a significant part of art history for centuries to come - a conclusion Huffington obviously has also come to, regardless of what she might think of Picasso the man.

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