London — `NO artist,'' observed Pierre Cabanne in his 1975 biography of Picasso, ``boasts so vast a bibliography, mainly laudatory.'' Picasso saw the artist's role as a maker of legends, and he succeeded astoundingly in making his own. His legend has proved to be exceptionally persuasive.
Even so, criticism of the man - of his monstrous egotism, his outrageous lack of conscience, his often bad treatment of the many women in his life and so forth - does seem to have come more easily than intelligent negative criticism of his art. Biographies of him, such as Cabanne's, have tried to dissect the man, rather than the art - even though this is almost impossible to do, since Picasso's art is thoroughly autobiographical.
The latest book of this kind is Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington's ``Picasso: Creator and Destroyer'' (Simon & Schuster, $22.95; Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 16.00). Ms. Stassinopoulos veers from extravagant admiration to contempt. What her book lacks is good humor, or even just humor - a must for dealing with a man for whom humor, albeit ironic, sardonic and often cruel, was integral.
Huffington's approach to Picasso was, to some extent, suggested by Fran,coise Gilot, the artist's mistress of many years. According to Huffington, Ms. Gilot revealed to her ``many facts and insights that she left out of her own book on Picasso.'' She advised Huffington not to be a biographer ``writing at arm's length.'' It should be, she said, ``Arianna, in a living, present relationship with him.''
This imagined relationship is not fleshed out enough to capture what one friend of Picasso has called the ``fun-and-games'' of his everyday life. It does imply a relationship with all the other women that Picasso enjoyed, loved, hated, used, and abused - or who, in the case of the last woman in his life, Jacqueline, jealously mothered and isolated him. Jacqueline seems to be the one Arianna does not like, though the book's description of her squares with those written by others.
But does Arianna like Picasso himself? The question matters because it is is hard to write an unbiased biography if the author either loves or hates her subject too much. Huffington seems too often to do one or the other. ``I found,'' she confesses in her preface, ``that he stirred in me all the emotions present in an intimate relationship. I was seduced by his magnetism, his intensity, that mysterious quality of inexhaustibility bursting forth from the transfixing stare of his black marble eyes'' - an admission which is not, perhaps, quite so embarrassing when one considers how many women seemed to have felt something similar. But Huffington also writes that she ``was chilled by the way that he fought ... the deepest existential battles of our century until he was ultimately destroyed by them.''
At times the reader feels that this book does achieve a fair balance. Huffington seems to understand the tormented, demonic, superstitious roots of the Spaniard and his art. She grasps his competitive, cannabalistic attitude toward other artists. She is particularly good at describing his response to that other Spanish Cubist, Juan Gris. To this end, she quotes art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler's praise of Gris: ``Gris' ... art is pure and so was his life. He was not only a great painter, but a great man.'' As Huffington notes, ``It was an accolade that the dealer would never bestow on Picasso.'' Such comparisons roused Picasso's destructive genii. He was appallingly callous toward Gris.
Still, it is not at all clear that this biography will ``forever change the way the world looks at Picasso,'' as its dust cover claims. In fact, in most essentials it is not too different from Cabanne's story.
The one thing that Cabanne's book does not mention is the tale Huffington tells of a ``passionate friendship'' between the 17-year-old Picasso and a gypsy boy two years younger. But in so doing she shows a failure to question the dependability of Picasso's own stories. She cites Gilot as the source of this rather melodramatic incident. Picasso apparently mentioned it only once. Huffington jumps to conclusions, but she does not cast any doubt on the episode's authenticity.
Huffington is least revealing in her description of Picasso's last years. Here she is out of step with the current reevaluation of his vigorous art in this period. The ``Late Picasso'' show now in London testifies to his undiminished potency with a paint brush and to explorations he did not attempt in his earlier art.
But Huffington simply repeats the lore that in these years ``he was retreating. It was the time of giving up, settling down and going back.'' She says he had lost his ``capacity for joy.'' Probably true, but that was something he lost at other times in his life, and its loss did not deprive his art of its energetic savagery. Just the opposite: His last self-portrait, of June 30, 1972, with its ghastly, staring terror like some bejewelled primitive skull, shows he had lost little of his expressive power.