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"Picasso" by Arianna Huffington is a very thorough book that can probably be skipped, except possibly by those with an intense interest in Picasso's personal life. For the rest of us it is sufficient to know that Picasso had no friends or family, just groupies (many of whom were family) throughout his life, and, to a person, he treated them despicably. For example, he usually had several women at a time who each worshiped him. He would play them off against each other, often openly and in public, seemingly in an attempt to provoke jealous rage, murder, depression, or suicide (he succeeded grandly at all except for murder, but his best friend took care of that one for him). He found ways to treat the male groupies with equal misery. But, soap operas should last thirty minutes at most. This book goes relentlessly on and on for 500 pages determined to prove that Picasso did not take one decent breath in his whole entire long life.At a certain point the reader begins to wonder that "thou dost protest too much." So then how did he come to be hailed as the genius of the 20th Century; as the man who showed us what our world really was or at least what it really looked like? The answer to this question is somewhat complex. The easiest part of it is that he was like a human camera. He could paint exactly what he saw as if he were a camera, and, he could paint any impression of what he saw, better than any human being alive. He was half way home on that talent alone, meaningless though it may have been. After all, if you can throw a ball better than anyone you are halfway home too. But Picasso's subject was, seemingly, important; one that intellectuals were interested in. Hence if he could capture their imaginations and somehow add their imprimatur to his painting talent the world would be at his feet, where he always felt it belonged.
Picasso hung out in Paris with many of the world's leading intellectuals. He even wrote a play called "Desire Caught By the Tail" directed by Albert Camus in which Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir acted. The play was about 10 pages long and nothing more than a series of bizarre scenes similar to what might have appeared in his painting. When Picasso commented about literature he said "it seems many writers want to be painters" apparently not knowing that the descriptions of visual objects in literature are often mere back drops for the infinitely larger conceptual themes with which language artists deal. He really didn't seem to understand that there was more in the world than pictures. His friend Sartre, a legitimate genius, set the record straight about the essential triviality of pictures in "What is Literature" when he said, "even when Picasso attempted to approach the real world with "Guernica" does anyone think he changed even a single mind with that painting"? And this was before the visual world was forever trivialized by, affordable travel, cameras, video cameras, TV, and film. We don't need a great painter anymore to create "The Last Supper" and by his choices tell us about the true nature of Jesus.
It did turn out though that the tyrannical and confused little painter did have something in common with the leading existentialist avant guard intellectuals of his day, namely, they all wanted us to see the world differently. The intellectuals because the world of physics had correctly foreshadowed today's confused world of string theory and because philosophy had foreshadowed the concomitant shift from the certain, well defined world of God to the confused existential world of man. Picasso too wanted us to see the world differently not because he was a physicist or philosopher but because 1) he was so hopelessly neurotic that he did see the world differently as any sick person does and 2) he realized he had to paint differently to develop a reputation as a different and great painter. The intellectuals were happy to use Picasso because his technically ingenious but neurotically confusing paintings did help loosen our grip on old realities. Picasso in turn was happy to use their imprimatur of change to normalize his neurosis and to falsely give philosophical meaning to his immense skill at meaningless painting. That he encouraged us toward misogyny and/or other of his gruel narcissistic indulgences did not matter; it was change, and that was what the intellectuals wanted most. The public really had no idea what was going on as Picasso's legend grew and grew to newer and newer heights of irrationality. Today, Picasso's reputation seems mostly in the hands of art owners, museums, and curators all of whom profit in Picasso's on going and growing legend. This summer's hugely successful Picasso/Matisse exhibit at MOMA , for example, drew 100s of thousands of adoring fans. Curators raved at the point, counter point genius of the two artists; everyone made money, had fun, and wished they too could free their troubled souls and enlighten the world by creating great art, but not a word was ever said about the emperor having no clothes.
Norman Mailer, who was taken seriously as the greatest living writer and thinker, is a great fan of Picasso and has written adoringly and extensively about him; so perhaps his view is worth comparing to Huffington's? He and Picasso had things in common: both were diminutive technical genius who gained public adoration and hugely deformed egos at a very early age. Mailer stabbed one of his early wives and clearly behaved a lot like Picasso, and perhaps for many of the same reasons, although he matured as he aged whereas Picasso did not. His portrait of Picasso as a young man tends to be purely forgiving. The idea that internal struggle, suffering, depression, angst, turmoil, and general soap opera leads to great, honest, revolutionary art apparently still lives in Mailer's soul. After all, what can an artist create if not the manifestation of tremendous inner turmoil and growth?
Mailer forgives Picasso for everything because it was all to produce "great art." Sadly, the idea that the traditional, formulaic, hypocritical, country club Republican mentality would be replaced by the existential soap opera playing out in the communist souls of Picasso, Mailer, and French intellectuals seems more a joke today than anything else. So in the end, Huffington is quite right about Picasso, although she doesn't address the meaning of Picasso's art at all, except in so far as she ruthlessly cuts his foundation away.