Pablo Picasso was a genius among geniuses. He was, doubtless, the greatest painter of the last century, who embodied a daring sense of brilliance of form and essence. For a revolutionary artist, who was as iconoclastic as any conquistador can be, Picasso was a relentlessly ‘truant’ persona, always ready for new battles, what with his insatiable appetite for romance. He also had a proclivity for voyeuristic ambivalence concealed within his profoundly, even fascinatingly, divided nature.
Norman Mailer’s absorbing biography, Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man, makes for fascinating reading — anytime. It is written not just for posterity, but with the opulence of an art book. That Mailer was eminently qualified to write an absorbing bio of an otherwise revelatory individual, juxtaposed by his inner development as a man and artist, with the intimacy of a novel, is passé. What’s most important is Mailer happens to be one of the better writers in the genre — one who was blessed with the precise credentials of probing the soul, including the explosive years of a subject as idiosyncratic as Picasso.
Mailer’s bio is a work of art; a labor of love, a feast for any and every Picasso fan. It’s precisely what the creative doctor ordered for giving readers of an entirely new generation a great chance to virtually visualize, or even see, Picasso’s turbulent psyche with the artist’s mindset. This is not all. Mailer’s exemplary book also presents, for the first time ever, excerpts from the candid, all-revealing memoirs of Fernande Olivier, the first of the many women who were destined to ‘love’ Picasso all his life.
Mailer’s personal freedom stands out from the word go. His is an unorthodox approach, yes; but, he compensates that liberty without lapsing into gross generalizations. He is also unsparing in his criticism of Picasso’s contradictions, of his obsession with carnality and the awesome power of women on his psyche. In so doing, Mailer has used his uncanny ability to plumb the psyche of his refreshingly iconoclastic subject — the making of Picasso himself.
Mailer calls his work interpretive biography. And, rightly so. His method is, therefore, intentionally intrusive — a brilliant investigation of Picasso’s life and art. It has a sense of artistic empathy, telling detail, and an allegiance to both wit and insight, paced with the spirited assurance of a writer who has not only grasped, but mastered the essence of Picasso’s story.
“Picasso, delivered at 11.15pm, in the city of Málaga [Spain], on October 25, 1891,” writes Mailer, “came out stillborn. He did not breathe; nor did he cry. The midwife gave up and turned her attention to the mother.” He adds, “If it had not been for the presence of his uncle, Dr. Salvador Ruiz, the infant might never have come to life. Don Salvador Ruiz, however, leaned over the stillborn and exhaled cigar smoke into its nostrils. Picasso stirred. Picasso screamed. A genius came to life.”
So, with a touch of ribald humor, Mailer unfolds the drama: “His [Picasso’s] first breath must have entered on a rush of smoke, searing to the throat, scorching to the lungs, and laced with the stimulants of nicotine.” He concludes his opening ‘shot’ with striking empathy, “It is not unfair to say that the harsh spirit of tobacco is seldom absent from his [Picasso’s] work.”
The story, according to Mailer, is agreeable, albeit the good doctor may have actually shocked the newborn into life. The act, says Mailer, was quintessentially Spanish — reality is the indispensable element in a cure. He explains, “Don Salvador could have been offering that whiff of smoke as an objective correlative, “Wake up, nino,” might have been the message. “Life in these parts will seldom smell better than this.” Mailer’s description is absolutely original — an ace journalist’s sense of how the world works, so to speak.
Mailer’s work took almost thirty years to see the light of the day, in print. That’s great research, you’d say. So, it goes without saying that only a prude would fail to grasp the immensity, or originality of his book. Yet, Mailer is modest. He lays no claim on his work as being singularly original. All he observes, with his personal meta-analysis, is that the book is a revelation. Not a judgment. Quite true. Picasso is Picasso. Any attempt to interpreting him, within the span of a summarized approach, would be tantamount to holding the Danube in a flask.
Picasso, notes Mailer, was not a bright student. He always had difficulty in reading and writing. He was wholly unable to comprehend arithmetic. He was often petrified when he had to go to school. At his desk, he was no better. Picasso could just not concentrate. He would be oblivious, and he would often devote himself to drawing. Society wouldn’t have accepted Picasso’s ‘naiveté.’ A change was imminent. Picasso’s father opted for another school for his ‘wayward’ son. It was a blessing in disguise. The new headmaster saw what others hadn’t seen in Picasso — his unique artistic abilities and exceptional ‘terrors’ with the Freudian intent.
Barcelona was the place where Picasso went to, sometime later. In 1895, to be precise. Barcelona, the world capital of anarchism, was destined to be Picasso’s first brush with immortality. He began to develop, and in the process explored religious subjects and sex. Agreed that the religious themes came first in the family; but, at the personal level, Picasso was charmed by women.
Destiny was manifest.
Picasso worked with a sense of divine frenzy — the theme song for any creative pursuit to sprout. His sharp eye served as his intellect — and, his paintings began to gain ground. So were his visits to ‘curves of the line’, to quote Picasso’s turn of phrase. He found it exciting — a ‘stimulation’ for his intellect to explore funds of new perception. Shades of Freud, again? Yet, Freud would have been slighted.
Picasso soon became a magnet; a mesmerizing alchemy. The luck of the draw was on him and on the brilliant paintings he produced. Money just flowed. There was no stopping him — even in the material sense. His canvas reflected him. It was his stage. So was his perennial fondness for women — a ‘fixated’ allegory. Mailer makes no bones about it. He goes into it all with surgical detail. His shocking revelations are, however, well-documented. Picasso, perforce, was damn fluky. He did not have to contend with the paparazzi, or the ‘sly’ brigade.
Opium too was a part of Picasso’s life. It was a substance that gave him extraordinary images. Paradoxically, however, it also took away much of his desire to paint. He loved its ‘kick’ as much as he loved Paris — the place, where he moved to in 1904 and lived until his death. Paris made him a legend, all right. It also brought him close to illustrious people like writers Gertrude Stein and Guillaume Apollinaire, and painters André Derain and Georges Braque.
A master of classical drawing at age 14, Picasso’s art was as startling as it was influential. His art knew no age. His new concept of realism called Cubism became the traditional form upon which the whole edifice of European art was based. Modern poster design, for example, is one field in which we can now witness the influence of late Cubism — simplistic geometric elements leading to simplification of form. Its evidence continues on TV, washing machines, and so on.
Picasso loved the sea. Its waves denoted his trials and triumphs in life. Notwithstanding a host of stormy affairs, stunning achievements, and ‘heartbreaks,’ Picasso seemed to possess the secret of inexhaustible youth. He painted, made sculpture, and even wrote poetry with finesse. He was a closet socialist too. At the time of his death on April 8, 1973, Picasso was reputed to be worth UK£7m. What’s not calculable, however, was the true value of his genius, or maverick temperament, which will last so long as art exists.
Long after his death, Picasso’s paintings continue to create records and break them — they have also included many a ‘fake,’ no less. If this isn’t genius of the highest order, what is? The fact also remains that there won’t be another like him again — a man who called painting an avenue of freedom in a world that is not what we think it is. This is not all. Picasso’s life and work has a powerful message — that most geniuses, aside from their creative or frenzied talents, should never be emulated.