Picasso biographer paints incomplete portrait

IT is always surprising to discover how vulnerable genius can be - or sometimes how petty and cruel. If we're not surprised, we're dismayed. For genius, we prefer to believe, should be able to rise above human frailties. A good case in point is Pablo Picasso, whose recent biography by Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, ``Picasso: Creator and Destroyer,'' was reviewed here July 18. In this lengthy and fascinating book, modernism's premier genius is taken thoroughly to task for his determinedly self-centered life and his destructive effect on many of those nearest him. Women, in particular, were his victims, but even some of his closest male friends paid a price for knowing him well.

Huffington lays much of the blame for this perverse behavior on childhood traumas relating to death and separation and on the emotional insecurities and doubts as to God's good intentions which she feels resulted from them. If existence was a losing proposition no matter how one tried (we can hear the young Picasso arguing), then all that mattered was the continuing battle to assert oneself in as self-gratifying a manner as possible, and without undue concern for the rights and feelings of others.

Whether that was actually Picasso's philosophy we will never know. Certainly, he would not have admitted it. Even Huffington's carefully marshaled arguments that it was are not totally convincing, primarily because most of what took place in Picasso's thoughts during his childhood and youth will always remain conjectural.

What we do have is evidence of his actions as an adult, and that, by and large, is devastating. He was petty, insensitive, and cruel. Proof of that is overwhelming, and it cannot be excused. And yet, it would also be inexcusable to forget that he was a genius of a very high order, an artist who, more than any other, changed the face and direction of art, and a draftsman/painter of such scope and power that anyone who drew or painted during his lifetime was somehow affected by what he did.

That influence, unfortunately, wasn't always positive. For those with little to communicate as art, it often proved deadly. And for those with genuine but smaller visions and talents than his, it frequently created doubts and inhibitions that significantly slowed or even ended their careers.

For most, however, Picasso was the ``spark plug'' of 20th-century art, its principal innovator and energizer and one of its greatest risk-takers. From the very beginning of the century until his death in 1973, he was the artist to watch - or at least to keep a wary eye on. For one never knew what he would come up with next. To some, he was the ``great original,'' to others the proverbial ``bull in a china shop,'' capable only of doing damage. But to everyone, friend and foe alike, he was the father-figure of modern art. One might hate everything he stood for and yet have to admit that he was one of the greatest draftsmen of all time. Or one might try to ignore him and his art - only to discover that his name somehow always entered into one's conversations.

Such power and prestige do not, of course, spring up overnight. They have to be earned over a period of time. In Picasso's case, that process began in 1901 with his Blue Period, flowered brilliantly during Cubism's heyday (1909-13), and reached its high-water mark with ``Guernica'' in 1937. By that time, his reputation was unassailable. But even had he died in 1910 at age 29, he would still have made it into art history as the co-inventor - together with Georges Braque - of Cubism, almost certainly the 20th century's greatest contribution to world art.

The only significant flaw in Huffington's otherwise excellent book is that this awesomely gifted and amazingly creative individual never fully appears in it. By the end of the biography, we probably know as much as there is to know about Picasso the lover, friend, businessman, enemy, employer, father, etc., but next to nothing about Picasso, the towering figure of 20th-century art. True, that figure is constantly referred to and discussed at length, but he's never truly present in the way Picasso, the man, is present - as a vulnerable and destructive human being.

What we get, as a result, is a subtle but important distortion of Picasso's life and significance. While reading the book, we need to keep a well-illustrated volume of Picasso's work at hand to remind ourselves of just who it is she is writing about.

Accountability at issue

Now, admittedly, she cannot be held accountable for not focusing more deeply on his art when she makes it very clear that this was not her intention. But since she did (as we saw) attempt an analysis of what drove him to act as selfishly and destructively as he did, and then ``diagnosed'' what she perceived as the limitations of his art on the basis of that analysis, she can be held accountable for the picture of Picasso we are left with at the end of the book.

A keen self-knowledge

It's a picture of a genius who couldn't achieve true greatness because of emotional immaturity and flaws in both character and morals, but who nevertheless will go down in art history for his talent, originality, and profound effect on others.

Well and good. I have no argument with that. Greatness is a rare commodity, and we don't yet know for certain that anyone in this century has achieved it.

But I do take exception to the picture that emerges of Picasso as a clever, even brilliant artist who yet somehow never quite knew what he was doing - who somehow ``did'' his art between his many feuds, friendships, love affairs, and family entanglements, which occupied the major portion of his attention.

That simply isn't true, as Huffington, I'm certain, knows as well as anyone else. For all its faults, his art reflects an extraordinary and profound intelligence and an amazing degree of self-knowledge.

And yet it's that not-quite-as-bright-as-he-should-have-been Picasso we are left with at the end. Not because Huffington necessarily intended it that way, but because she never quite grasped, or was able to convey, the full depth and scope of the man/artist who was Pablo Picasso.

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