Anthony Byrt reviews an exciting new study of Pablo Picasso, genius and visionary, who comedian Hannah Gadsby called out as a disgusting #metoo pig.
One way to measure Picasso’s greatness is that he’s never far beneath the surface of our collective cultural consciousness. His monumental anti-fascist statement Guernica, for example – his second-most important painting – has popped up again recently. The flattening of Syrian cities and the consequent migrant crisis, and the renewed march of a racist European nationalism that will likely turn full-fascist very soon, are just as easily embodied by his screaming figures as the painting’s original subjects – the inhabitants of a small Spanish town bombed by Hitler’s Luftwaffe, on behalf of Hitler’s ally General Franco.
That’s Good Picasso. Bad Picasso, though, is squarely in the #metoo gun right now. Comedian Hannah Gadsby has slaughtered him in Nanette, the Australian art history grad suggesting that he and, by association, Cubism in general, can fuck right off in the face of the odious little Spaniard’s rampant misogyny and sexual relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, who he began sleeping with when she was 17 (he was by then in his mid-forties).
As Miles J Unger’s new book Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World reminds us, Good Picasso and Bad Picasso were both there from the very start. From his early days he was a boy wonder, the unbelievably gifted son of an academic painter. But little Picasso was also manipulative, particularly of his mother’s and sister’s affections; he viewed his father as an abject failure as soon as he realised he was far more talented than Dad (Picasso was his mother’s family name); he indulged in petty crime and ran with kid gangs that shot stray cats for kicks; he jilted a young cousin to whom he was betrothed; and he drank and went whoring with his mates – and that was all before he first visited Paris in his late teens.
In that sense, Gadsby is absolutely right. We art historians and critics play a shifty game: forgiving Bad Picasso, not for the sake of Good Picasso necessarily, but for Great Picasso. Because that is the version that matters most to us. Great Picasso was simply the most important artist of the twentieth century, and – yes, let’s go there – probably the greatest painter in the history of art since his seventeenth century countryman, Diego Velázquez.
But how the hell does one measure that? One criteria is that Picasso, throughout his lifetime, made more new things possible in art than anyone else, and did it more often. He accelerated art’s development so much that it began to keep pace with the twentieth century’s larger technological, scientific and ideological shifts, and in doing this, freed it from the bourgeois, backward-looking stranglehold of official patronage and sanction. He made it explosive and dangerous, a force for progressive thinking about the world, and, at its best, a vehicle for societal change: art of its time. Others – Courbet, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Gauguin, Cézanne, Matisse – had achieved similar radicalities, temporarily. But it was Picasso who maintained that ability – that pace – from his twenties until the end of his life.
This began in 1907, with the painting behind Unger’s click-baity title. Les Demoiselles D’Avignon – his picture of five twisted, proto-Cubist prostitutes leering out from a shattered pictorial space, a couple of them with African masks for faces and all of them loosely based on early Iberian sculpture – has been regarded, at least since the 1930s, as the most important painting of the twentieth century, the work that properly began modernism. Consequently, every Picasso biographer or art historian has had to deal with the shadow it casts over the man and his career, and over the extraordinary art scene it was produced in. Unger has gone one step further. Following Gijs van Hensbergen’s 2004 Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon, he’s written a whole book about the single work.
Except that his book isn’t that at all, really. It’s a romp through the Parisian avant-garde art scene from about 1900 through to around 1908. And this is where the Good/Bad Picasso dichotomy becomes essential, because the Spaniard was one half of the rivalry that, during those formative years, defined the era and supercharged twentieth century art. The other was Henri Matisse. The competition between them has been a longtime fascination for the international art world, culminating in the remarkable exhibition Matisse Picasso, which showed at Tate Modern in London, Les Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais in Paris and New York’s MoMA throughout 2002 and 2003. Unger has placed the drama at the heart of his book, too.
Biographers love to play up the differences between the men. Matisse, born on the last day of 1869, was already well into his 30s by the time the action got seriously going between them: a polite, carefully dressed man living in a stable, loving relationship with his supportive wife Amelie. Picasso, 12 years younger, was the destructive, short, moody, pistol-packing, opium-smoking, scruffy upstart who made sure he was constantly the centre of an unstable universe and burned anyone who flew too close to him – behaviour enabled by his first longtime partner Fernande Olivier, and his three disciples, poets who proselytised about his genius every chance they got: Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob and André Salmon.
It was to their collective dismay, then, that in 1905, it wasn’t Picasso who took the first big step into the twentieth century, but Matisse. At the Salon D’Automne of that year, the Frenchman presented 10 works that earned him the title of the leader of the “Fauves”, or “wild beasts.” The public’s shock at his and his colleagues’ work was widespread; their raucous colours were completely divorced from any kind of reality. Matisse’s Woman with a Hat – a portrait of Amelie – and his arcadian but equally unnatural Joy of Life were the major talking points. The American expat collector Leo Stein – one of the three Stein siblings who did so much to support early twentieth century painting – bought the portrait. Matisse finally had money, and notoriety. Meanwhile Picasso, as Unger writes, “had spent too much time suppressing his own delinquent nature, only to find himself leapfrogged by a painter in spectacles and tweed jacket.”
These details matter, a great deal, to the history of twentieth century art. It’s well established that Picasso’s two most important works from 1906 and 1907 were direct attempts to best Matisse. Though Matisse was a good chunk older than him, it was Picasso’s Blue and Rose Period masterpieces that now seemed stuffy and reactionary. To find genuine greatness, he realised, he had to find radical new forms, as Matisse had. The journey damn near destroyed him, and the people, like Fernande, who loved him.
His first breakthrough was his extraordinary portrait of Gertrude Stein, Leo’s sister, which was his response to Matisse’s Woman with a Hat. Gertrude had been slower to the avant-garde party than her brother, but over time became the far greater visionary, both in her collecting and her own modernist writing. Stein sat for hundreds of hours before Picasso finally cracked the portrait, when she wasn’t there in front of him. The second breakthrough, of course, was Demoiselles, which was, in part at least, an attempt to better Matisse’s Joy of Life. To make it, Picasso locked himself away from everyone and everything, only to find that when he asked for feedback, the people who had worshipped him – the dealers, the Steins, the poets and his fellow painters – were horrified. Some even thought he was finished; flamed out while still in his mid-20s. He took it off its stretcher, rolled it up, and tucked it away for several years. But he didn’t put away its innovations, pressing on towards Cubism with the help of Georges Braque, pretty much the only person who didn’t think Picasso had gone mad.
Unger’s book is primarily about the lead-up to this moment, and its strength is the way it gets under the skin of the Parisian art scene of the time: the artists, major and minor; the crazies and the suicides; the girlfriends and wives and prostitutes and dancers; the opium dens and bars and their owners who extended doubtful credit to broke artists or accepted works as payment; the art dealers, both scrupulous and not; the wild dinner parties and raging arguments; the Steins and their main competition, the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin. We get to gasp at the peanuts the dealers paid to starving-but-brilliant young artists, cheer when the artists finally get a decent payday, and scoff at the newspaper hacks who got it so utterly wrong about the future heroes of modernism.
All of this makes the book a sharp, entertaining portrait of the origins of contemporary art speculation. While there had been an art market of sorts in the late nineteenth century, the period Unger writes about – 1900 to 1908 – is where the voracious competition really starts between eagle-eyed dealers taking punts on the Next Big Thing. Rather than taking works on consignment and raking a commission when a work is sold, as present-day art dealers do, dealers in turn-of-the century Paris would buy stock like retailers do from wholesalers, often screwing desperate artists on price. It was also common for collectors to buy straight from artists’ studios, which the Steins did regularly, from both Matisse and Picasso, snapping up as much as they could afford (Unger makes the point that, although extremely comfortable, the Steins weren’t wildly rich by the standards of the day).
Unger is good on the strange American siblings, the two brothers Leo and Michael and their sister Gertrude. He’s particularly funny on Leo, the initial collector of the family, who was, by Unger’s account, a pretentious jerk who liked to tell Matisse and Picasso what he thought they should do next, eventually ditching both of them when he noticed they weren’t following his advice. The Steins also orchestrated a lot of drama for their own entertainment. It was at dinners in the apartment Leo and Gertrude shared that the competition between Matisse and Picasso played out, the artists themselves in attendance alongside their various acolytes, with their best works hanging on the walls around them. Evidently, the Steins loved it. Picasso, not so much, and there’s a fair case for arguing that, still poor, he, Fernande and his poet mates were showing up mainly for the free booze and food.
Despite the fact that Matisse and Picasso were the emerging heroes in an almost exclusively male art world, women set the conditions for their rise. Matisse depended hugely on his wife Amelie. Fernande, Picasso’s de facto wife (she was still married to another man), was crucial to his ascendance too, and would suffer greatly for it. Gertrude Stein became essential to Picasso’s credibility and income, and by sitting for what would become arguably his most famous portrait, helped in the formal innovations that eventually led to Demoiselles – itself a painting about women.
To his credit, Unger recognises this, largely arguing that the most important painting of the twentieth century, with its shattering of conventional Renaissance perspective and its splintering of time, space, and the boundaries between European and “primitive” art, is really a painting about sex, and women, and Picasso’s preoccupations with both, all filtered through his desperate need to one-up Matisse and become the most important painter in town. Yes, it is brilliant. Yes, it was also the product of a monstrous and anxious ego, and a confused and violent sexuality.
Throughout his life, Picasso abused and controlled his lovers, both present and past, and fought them ferociously when it came to revelations about their private lives with him. Françoise Gilot, who was with Picasso when he was in his 60s (she in her 20s) released a book about their life together, despite Picasso trying to prevent its publication. And Fernande – the first in a long run of women he treated terribly (he would often lock her in the studio when he went out) published Picasso and Friends in the 1930s, despite his opposition; one of the great on-the-spot accounts of a momentous time in Paris. Her private journals were eventually published too, well after she and Picasso had died.
Unger makes extensive use of both women’s accounts. His cringy introduction places us in 1945, with Gilot and the older Picasso, now an international superstar, in Paris. In a moment of nostalgia, he takes his young lover up to Montmartre and the Bateau Lavoir – the sleazy building where he and Fernande lived, and where he made Demoiselles. The door to his old studio, however, is locked; he can’t cross the threshold back to his past, to the moment when he was young and beautiful like his companion and everything was still pure potentiality. Ah! What a perfectly literal image for Unger to double down on! “It takes a while for our eyes to become accustomed to the gloom,” he writes, turning us into Johnny-on-Picasso’s-spot, “but if we concentrate it becomes apparent that a light still flickers, if only fitfully, from the chink in a darkened hallway, a remnant from the explosion of a distant star that carries messages from a vanished time….”
Dot, dot, dot. Thankfully, Unger largely abandons the silly affectations when he gets down to the graft of telling Demoiselles’ story. He does though, still encounter two big problems. The first is that, because Picasso was so prone to showing women in brutal caricature and treating them badly in real life, his biographers need to check themselves too. But throughout the book, Unger shows moments of unfortunate brutality. Early in the book, he quite rightly highlights the significance of the suicide of Picasso’s Catalan friend and travel companion Carles Casagemas. Casagemas shot himself and attempted to kill his former lover Germaine, after she’d clearly indicated she was no longer interested. Despite this, Germaine is described as having a “predatory sexuality”, being “dangerously alluring”, and the woman who had “lured [Casagemas] to his doom”: all cartoonish reductions of a young woman which undermine the fact that, as Unger makes otherwise clear, Casagemas’s mental illness was the real cause of his attempted murder-suicide.
During the summer of 1905, Picasso spent time in North Holland. Fernande wrote that the women he encountered there “towered over him” (bearing in mind he was only 5’4’’ so, you know, pretty low bar). Unger, in turn, writes that “[r]eturning to Paris, he returned as well to the skinny androgynous types that dominate the Rose Period, but the memory of those hulking Amazons lingered” (my italics). Gertrude Stein is also described as “hulking” a couple of times, and even, “squat and massive”. And, getting thoroughly breathless as he races to the end of the book, Unger describes the women in Demoiselles thus: “The whores he summons for his modernist masterpiece are Baudelaire’s ‘macabre nymphs’ and more: sluts, harridans, harpies, ravening, devouring, heroic in scale and shameless in stance, unapologetic, unabashed, fearsome but unafraid.” Clangers like these seem almost like Unger is going out of his way to prove Hannah Gadsby’s point.
Unger’s description of Stein illustrates the other issue. In fact, the phrase comes from Roland Penrose’s 1958 biography, Picasso, His Life and Work: “Gertrude was unselfconsciously eccentric in appearance. Her squat and massive figure, regular features and intelligent expression, coupled with a masculine voice, were significant of a strong personality.”
The 1958 version is a fraction more forgivable than Unger’s 2018 repetition. But the wider issue here is that, although Unger’s research is impeccable, and it’s clear he’s read absolutely everything, his version of events is largely an exercise in fast-paced aggregation: pretty much everything meaningful in his book has been published somewhere else before.
The true giant of Picasso biography is John Richardson, whose meticulous, blow-by-blow, painting-by-painting account already runs to three volumes, and he’s only up to 1932 (over 40 years to go). Unger recognises Richardson effusively in his Acknowledgments. But the reality is that Volume 1 of Richardson’s biography covers almost the identical time period, and the same lead-up, to Demoiselles. The Matisse Picasso exhibition catalogue from 2003 also does an excellent job of mapping the rivalry at the heart of Unger’s book. Nor is there anything particularly innovative about his art historical analysis of the paintings themselves; the biggest breakthrough for years, if not decades, on this front belongs squarely to TJ Clark, whose brilliant Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica (2013) is a game-changer for how we understand the way Picasso built space in his paintings.
The question, then, is what Unger offers that readers can’t find elsewhere. The most obvious thing is a page-turner: in blending first-hand accounts and heavy-hitting biographies with a bit of creative licence, he manages to summon up a Parisian art scene ripe for a movie treatment: beautiful, talented young people taking drugs and drinking in seedy bars, fighting and having lots of interesting sex in an incredibly sexy and interesting city, breaking each other’s hearts and dealing with the traumas of suicide, and rubbing shoulders with wealthy society types while they’re still down-and-outs, all while reinventing Western art.
He also, quite rightly I think (and despite the dodgy moments listed above), frames Picasso’s major advances in 1906 and 1907 in more explicitly psychosexual terms than other biographers. At the time, Picasso’s relationship with Fernande was deteriorating badly; the poets whose adulation he’d relied on so much were starting to doubt his artistic prowess (which Picasso always seemed to equate with sexual virility); and he was working alone for months on end, trying to outdo Matisse, all to have his painting laughed at when he finally dropped his metaphorical trousers and showed it to people he trusted.
And then there was Raymonde, the 13-year-old girl Picasso and Fernande briefly adopted that year. Fernande was unable to have her own children, and at the lowest point in their relationship, the pair decided to try to form a family. Both Richardson and Unger make clear that Picasso’s fixation on the adolescent girl, shacked up with them in their grimy single room in the Bateau Lavoir, was dangerous (and a precedent for his later relationships with girls and women far younger than him). Fernande obviously recognised this too, so back to the orphanage went Raymonde. Unger goes further than Richardson, and suggests that the “fevered conditions” of Raymonde’s presence in the Bateau Lavoir contributed to the evolution of Demoiselles. It’s a convincing argument. There’s a drawing Richardson reproduces in Volume 2 of his biography, of Raymonde by Picasso. In it, the girl is inspecting the bottom of her foot; with one leg lifted, her crotch is visible. The squatting figure in Demoiselles – a key step on the way to the fully-fledged Cubist revolution that followed over the following few years, seems remarkably similar.
And so we end up exactly where we started: with Bad Picasso, at the centre of his unstable universe, inflicting suffering on those around him, on the cusp of becoming Great Picasso. And the argument continues.
Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World by Miles J. Unger (Simon & Schuster, $47) is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.