|Another Myth of the 20th Century?||Colin Vernon turns the spotlight on Pablo Picasso|
IT IS REPORTED of the young Pablo Picasso that, on being given a pair of roller skates, he took them apart and fastened the wheels to the undercarriage of a pet tortoise whose slow progress round the patio had annoyed him. A schoolboy's prank or an early indication of an unsettled mind? We can only conjecture as to the suffering of the mute creature but, as time would tell, inflicting pain both physical and mental was the artist's true forte.
The son of a drawing master, Picasso is said to have performed brilliantly when, at 15 in 1896, he sat for the entrance examination to Barcelona's School of Fine Arts. In fact it soon transpired that he had very little use for the School and regarded his own technique as being far and away superior to that of his teachers. Nevertheless, it is beyond question that Picasso was, when he wanted to be, a competent artist, quite capable of holding his own in a profession that was, as always, somewhat overcrowded. But that would not do. His mission, he believed, was to shock, to "rape nature", as he quaintly expressed it. Importantly, as regards his conventional schooling, the young Pablo learned virtually nothing. Thus when the family moved to a different locality, and his father needed a certificate to show to the new educational authority, he had to persuade the friendly schoolmaster to set his son some very easy questions. Even then, Pablo had to be shown the answers. Here we see the beginnings of an introvert; an individual who knew nothing, and cared nothing, about the world outside of himself.
Blue, pink and diabolical
What is regarded as Picasso's first personal style is known as his "blue" period 1901-1904, which focuses on loneliness and despair with tones of that colour predominating. The close of this period marks his decision to move to Paris, where he stayed for the rest of his life. In 1905, that is to say before spin doctors were recognised as a separate species, Picasso met a young Polish emigré to France who, if he knew next to nothing about art, had nevertheless an excellent command of words, and successfully promoted the "blue" period products. But possibly the change of air was having a beneficial affect on the master as, for the next couple of years, we have the "rose" period; rather less melancholy, this often featured circus performers, harlequins, dancers and acrobats.
Sadly, in 1907 somebody showed Pablo some African art, and it is recorded that, having seen a wooden negro statuette, he sat up all night drawing, repeatedly, a large woman's face with a single eye and an elongated nose melting into her mouth. If it had not actually arrived, nevertheless "cubism" was on its way. Some of this, "The Three Musicians," for example, was at worst rather silly, but "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" was, at that time, considered horrific. One writer has described it as: "Five monstrous female figures with masks rather than faces, posing in a convulsive jagged array - distorted and savagely transformed."
Whores and foolish virgins
Picasso, if he is to be understood at all, is only comprehensible if we look at his attitude to the opposite sex. The young ladies of Avignon, mentioned above, were actually prostitutes, and certainly he could paint them from memory, having spent many hours in the brothels of Madrid and Paris from an early age - although the idea of masks instead of faces again suggests the influence of African art. Married twice, the genius had several mistresses and countless casual affairs. Without exception, these women were humiliated, dominated and then cast off. The once proud Dora Maar was frequently beaten and left lying senseless on the floor. On another occasion, when visiting a lady with a view to having her return to his fold, he holds a lighted cigarette against her cheek and burns a hole in it. And, totally dominated, she accepts him again. PIcasso delighted in watching a confrontation between an "ex" and his current passion, and relished the anguish of both. One former mistress is persuaded to obtain a divorce on the strength of Pablo's proposal of marriage. Only too late does she discover that twelve days previously he has married a young woman behind her back. The general pattern was to make a slobbering idiot out of an attractive companion and, after a decade more or less, to scout round for another 17-20 year old to take her place.
All that can be said in his favour is that, if one looks at his "Tete de Femme" it appears that he was always looking for the unusual and never found it. A possible complaint against the strictures of one man on the "love life" of another is that they may be tinged with envy. Believe me, dear reader, there was nothing for any man to envy in Pablo Picasso. He hated women, feared the power that they had, and ruthlessly crushed it. And, where he could not always accomplish this in the flesh, he put it onto canvas, painting hideous caricatures of what they might look like in the future. If you want to really understand him - and ladies of delicate disposition might well be advised to decline the suggestion - take a look at his "A Woman Peeing," and shudder.
Tests of friendship
During 1910 Picasso and the helpful young Pole already mentioned were involved, wholly innocently it seems, in a case concerning the theft of statuettes from the Louvre. The young fellow is arrested and a couple of days later the artist is required to appear before the magistrates. Reduced to a trembling jelly and intent on self preservation, our hero admits to no more than a casual acquaintance with his friend of three years' standing who is thus callously betrayed by the man he adores and has championed.
It seems unlikely that poor Max Jacob, Jewish, homosexual, (and apparently ashamed of both) posed any serious threat to the German war effort. All the same, in accordance with the official policy of the occupying authority in Paris, he was detained early in 1944 and removed to a transit camp, his ultimate destination being, it seems, a labour camp in the East where his positive contribution to that war effort would be assured. At once, the poet's small band of admirers, led by Jean Cocteau, petitioned for his release. But the signature of a very old acquaintance was requested and refused. That signature might have carried some weight because the Germans, while not perhaps over-awed by Picasso the man, found it necessary to pay some regard to his international following and reputation. But, once again, the self-styled rebel found it convenient to keep on the right side of authority when the chips were down. Here was a pathetic creature dominated by his own fears, fancies and superstitions; a man who needed to trust his hairdresser because he feared that an enemy might work some detrimental spell if he got hold of the master's clippings.
In bed with the reds
When, in 1926, Andre Breton, critic, publisher and poet, decided it was time for the Surrealists and Communists to get together, he was closely quizzed by party officials and was asked, "inter alia," why he published reproductions of the "art" of the "madman" Picasso. Thus Picasso's post-war application to join the party put the comrades into something of a stew. While this glittering new prize was already idolized by the cognoscenti of the artistic Western world, the hard-headed party chiefs still harked back to the not unreasonable view that Pablo's art was degenerate tripe. However he "had" painted "Guernica," a sort of symbolic statement supposed to reflect the misery of that Spanish town when it was held by the Republican forces and bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War, so demonstrating his anti-fascist credentials. As it happened, the party's very worst fears were realised when Stalin died in 1953 and Communism's favourite painter was commissioned to execute a memorial portrait of the deceased tyrant. Cutting a long story short, the finished product was not quite what the faithful had in mind, and a hurriedly prepared notice appeared in L'Humanite to the effect that while Comrade Picasso was, of course, a great artist and while his dedication to the cause was well known, the Secretariat of the French party wholly disapproved of the master's work on this occasion. The views of individual party members were no less damning. One of these observed that the portrait "failed to reflect the goodness and nobility of the subject."
But there were nagging doubts elsewhere. In 1957, asked to execute a huge mural for UNESCO headquarters in Paris, the old fraud concocted, with forty separate plywood panels, the "Fall of Icarus," which, though presented as a work of art, resembled more closely a gigantic doodle. The veneer was peeling off and the cracks were beginning to show.
All in the mind
In 1932 the eminent Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung visited a Picasso exhibition and immediately spotted the uncanny similarity between what he saw there and the mindless, infantile daubings of his schizoid patients. Jung came away with no doubt that the masterpieces on view, which he described as banal, ugly, grotesque and pointless, were the work of a severely afflicted schizophrenic. On the other hand, the World Book Encyclopedia would have it that "His searching style made him the leader in expressing the complexity of the 1900s." However, if you stand back from this comment and perhaps read it again, you will notice that, unlike Jung's professional opinion, it does not actually say anything at all, and is thus typical of much of the nonsense written about modern art.
We must, of course, accept that an individual may be a treacherous, faithless, brutal, sadistic, morbidly superstitious, oafish lout, and yet produce artistic work of the highest quality. It has even been argued that in occupations as diverse as painting, acting and brain surgery, exceptional prowess may be accompanied by traits which polite society finds less than desirable. In this connection it is necessary to stress the implications of Jung's diagnosis. Picasso was schizoid and introvert. As a professional he could, and sometimes did, produce realistic, if not truly lifelike, images on canvas. But his fame, or his infamous notoriety, according to one's own perception of the man, is based for the greater part on ghastly monstrosities nurtured in a diseased brain which, from his birth, never had any true concept of the exterior world. Thus, if someone inclines to the view that integrity, honesty, decency and loyalty are to be considered as admirable qualities in his fellow humans, he must reject the Picasso legend, and then take a long, hard look at the plethora of muck which his debilitating influence has helped to spawn.
The floodgates are opened
The canonization of the retarded freak from Malaga has paved the way for any lunatic with a paintbrush, and sometimes even a lunatic without one, to get himself or herself "recognised." Even elephants were encouraged to grab a brush and do their worst. Unkindly enough, the provenance of some of these masterpieces was withheld from the critics who, unwittingly, pronounced them to be striking, mind-provoking creations. Chimps naturally wanted to get in on the act, but it seems that the jumbos had the last laugh when their dung was the media chosen for a recent "chef d'oeuvre", the artist being we believe of African origin.
In recent times it has become fashionable to bestow some meaningless title on a piece of mindless rubbish. Thus the discovery of the master's message to humanity is left to the intelligentsia of the art world, an orgiastic trance being the best way to ensure correct decoding. This puts ordinary mortals at a great disadvantage and, when confronted with something faintly ludicrous; they can either stare dumfoundedly and sadly acknowledge their own lack of taste and appreciation of genius, or perhaps cheat and sagely agree that the thing is brilliantly done. Only the very brave will say that it is junk.
Not long ago the Telegraph wasted a lot of newsprint on the magnum opus of a young female artist, the subject being a dead pig, judiciously positioned to display a veritable array of porker's nipples. The creator of this vile object described it as a "female nude" and, in fact, "almost human". Only after the erotic impact of the thing had abated did it occur to me that the creature depicted was pale-skinned, thus making the picture repugnantly racist! Surely in an enlightened age like this we were entitled to be shown a tableau of several mortally disadvantaged pigs variously coloured. Readers will doubtless be relieved that I have not mentioned the exquisite "Woman's Soiled Bed", which has, I believe, been profitably sold to a rich collector.
The next move is yours
And so my dear bewildered ordinary mortals, if we are really intent on building ourselves a new shining future, and if we believe that truth and transparently honesty should be the watchwords of our nationalism, we must give the lie to those who would destroy our British heritage and culture. We must laugh when they try to feed us tripe, whether it masquerades as music, painting or literature. If enough of us shout "Rubbish!" from the rooftops, who knows? We may be heard! Meantime, let us close on a humorous note with a quote from that great British writer, G. K. Chesterton (Father Brown), who described a Picasso drawing as "a piece of paper on which Mr Picasso has had the misfortune to upset the ink and then tried to dry it with his boots."