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Critical Review by Michael Kimmelman
SOURCE: "Tough Guys Don't Paint," in The New York Times Book Review, October 15, 1995, p. 16.
In the following review, Kimmelman provides a generally unfavorable assessment of Portrait of Picasso, citing incidents of unsubstantiated speculation and Mailer's failure to break new ground on the subject of the celebrated artist.
He has "a greedy desire for recognition," and "the vanity and the need for group applause of someone like Muhammad Ali." When young, he pushed "his explorations into sex, drugs," and had a lengthy affair that was one of "those delicate, lovely and exploratory romances that flourished like sensuous flowers on slender stems, those marijuana romances of the 50's and 60's in America where lovers found ultimates in a one-night stand, and on occasion stayed together." "Short in stature," "possessed of the ambition to mine universes of the mind no one had yet explored," he was "not macho so much as an acolyte of machismo." He "could not box."
Norman Mailer on Norman Mailer? Not this time, though it's obvious why Mr. Mailer, whose prime subject has always been himself, might have spent more than three decades contemplating a biography of Pablo Picasso. On the other hand, it's not so easy to comprehend why, after all that time, he has come up with such a clumsy and disappointing book, culled, at starting lengths, from already existing biographies. With so many out there, most notably Volume 1 of John Richardson's monumental "Life of Picasso," which covers nearly the same early years, one wonders what Mr. Mailer could have been thinking.
The book, his 29th, is a copiously illustrated account of the span from the artist's birth in 1881 to the start of World War I. Picasso emerges in a familiar guise, as a selfish, superstitious, sometimes cowardly and combative prodigy who moved chameleonlike from one style to another, through one relationship after the next. Mr. Mailer has called his work "an interpretive biography," to distinguish it from a work of original scholarship. This is fair enough, but most of the interpretations are not original.
For instance, Mr. Mailer is not the first to suggest, on the basis of no compelling evidence, that Picasso might have had a homosexual encounter or two as a young man. That dubious honor goes to Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington in her reckless "Picasso: Creator and Destroyer." Who cares one way or another, you might well ask, whether he had such an encounter? But like a dog with a bone, Mr. Mailer takes hold and won't let go. What is noteworthy about his book may be the vigor with which he pursues sensationalistic subjects like this one even while affecting a dispassion toward them. About a self-portrait drawing from 1902–3, for instance, in which Picasso stands with one hand raised, the other over his heart, Mr. Mailer writes: "One can make too large a case of the nude he did of himself in this period—modest, unadorned, a little seedy, certainly depressed, and taking the vow of allegiance to … to what? To his continuing heterosexuality? It is tempting to read too much into this drawing."
What Mr. Mailer ignores is that Picasso at the time was hoping to establish his reputation with large-scale, multifigure allegorical compositions, many of which were never undertaken. This self-portrait could be a preparatory drawing for an unrealized work, or possibly one for "La Vie" (1903). "La Vie," as Mr. Mailer knows, derives from studies Picasso drew of himself making various ambiguous gestures. The gestures, as Mr. Richardson has pointed out, relate to images on tarot cards, which fascinated Picasso. It may be that the self-portrait Mr. Mailer refers to is better explained in terms of Picasso's other works than by random speculation about his sex life.
Mr. Mailer also becomes fixated on the androgyny of the hulking proto-Cubist figures Picasso painted in 1906, connecting them to Gertrude Stein, whose portrait the artist was then painting. Mr. Mailer's remarks on the subject are worth quoting at length, to give a feel for his prose: "It is safe to assume that Gertrude Stein was the most monumental crossover in gender that he had ever encountered. He had to be knowing about this. With Fernande [Olivier, Picasso's mistress], he had entered the essential ambiguity of deep sex, where one's masculinity or femininity is forever turning into its opposite, so that a phallus, once emplaced within a vagina, can become more aware of the vagina than its own phallitude—that is to say, one is, at the moment, a vagina as much as a phallus, or for a woman vice versa, a phallus just so much as a vagina: at such moments, no matter one's physical appearance, one has, in the depths of sex, crossed over into androgyny. Picasso was obsessed with the subject."
Leave aside for the moment the paradox of Mr. Mailer's twisted syntax in a book that takes art historians and critics to task for their writing. The basic fact is that Mr. Mailer says Stein influenced Picasso's art. So she did, and Picasso even incorporated an image of a man into her portrait. But scholars have pointed all this out already: Mr. Mailer is appropriating their ideas just to indulge in the sort of grandiose flourishes that are a trademark of his style. In any case, it becomes hard to weigh Stein's significance because other obvious influences on Picasso—like the large women in the works of Renoir and Maillol—are glossed over or missed. Mr. Mailer is so enraptured by the affairs of the artist's life that he regularly plays down the connections between Picasso's works and those of other artists. To be sure, he isn't alone in this. Picasso has largely been written about in terms of his biography. The exception is his Cubist period, and Mr. Mailer is right in this case to lament the "near impenetrability" of so much of the critical jargon attending it. "Cubism is not a form of lovemaking with the lights out: Cubism is compelling because it is eerie, resonant and full of the uneasy recognition that time itself is being called into question," he writes. "Some of the paintings, if we dare to entertain the vision, have the appearance of corpses, their flesh in strips and tatters, organs open."
Again, Mr. Mailer isn't the first to speculate about the emotional impact of Cubism's fractured imagery, but this is a provocative and minority viewpoint, and unfortunately he does not take it further. The collaboration of Picasso and Braque on the creation of Cubism is almost unparalleled in art history, and it would seem to have afforded Mr. Mailer a vast psychological field in which to let his imagination play. What is one to think of a man like Picasso, he might have asked, who on the verge of success suddenly chose to make difficult pictures virtually indistinguishable from someone else's? But Mr. Mailer ignores this question to hop on an old hobbyhorse: in life, he writes, "Braque had legitimate machismo," but in art he "cannot often come off like Picasso. Machismo, obviously, has its mansions and no one was going to be more macho than Picasso when it came to painting." So much for their profound and complex association.
Mr. Mailer's principal sources are Fernande Olivier's colorful memoirs, Picasso and His Friends (1933) and Souvenirs Intimes (written in 1955 and published posthumously in 1988). Olivier lived with Picasso from 1905 until 1912. She has said that she kept diaries at the time and that her memoirs derived from them. Still, these are books written as much as 43 years after the fact, and by a former lover, which brings to mind the French saying about trying to pull the sheets to one's own side of the bed.
Mr. Mailer acknowledges the problem, fretting over it himself, but relies on her stories anyway. They provide some of the book's freshest material, to be sure, since "Souvenirs Intimes" has not yet been published in English. But one should expect more of a work like this than that it translates someone else's memoirs.
And with this subject in particular, one expects more of Mr. Mailer. There is a tremendous sense of opportunity missed. He of all people would seem equipped to write a vivid and original book about Picasso, since he shares with the artist, if not the same degree of talent, then the characteristics of a long public career, prolific output, Rolodex of styles, sexual fixation, narcissism, will to power and compunction to parlay his own life into art.
Mr. Mailer's career, for better and worse, has been a project of self-mythology—assuming greatness by proxy. And his willingness to rationalize away Picasso's disregard for, even violence toward lovers and friends will ring a bell with readers of such Mailer classics as The Naked and the Dead and "The White Negro." But the links between him and Picasso must be gleaned with some effort from the book. If anything, Mr. Mailer doesn't put enough of himself into it, relying on the idiosyncrasy of his prose to carry readers along. Picasso, who had no patience for art criticism, once praised Jean Genet's writing on Giacometti, which was personal and self-exploratory. It is the type of writing one hopes for from Mr. Mailer—more like The Armies of the Night, with its blend of intense self-scrutiny and reportage, and less like his cut-and-paste Marilyn. Mr. Mailer might have written a more distinctive book about Picasso if he had observed his own maxim: "It's impossible to truly comprehend others until one's plumbed the bottom of certain obsessions about oneself."
This section contains 1,585 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)