At some point during John Richardson’s superb biography of Picasso you begin to feel grateful to Art, not for the pleasure it affords the consumer, but for the outlet it offers the psychopath. Picasso once explained that “in art one must kill one’s father,” and his life as told by Richardson plays out as a series of these little metaphorical murders. Artists whose work Picasso is unable to dismiss (not many: he once described the Sistine ceiling as “a vast sketch by Daumier”) he cannibalizes. He sketches one of Gauguin’s Tahitian women and signs the portrait “Paul Picasso.” He copies the signatures of Steinlen and Forain over and again like some angry shaman. A friend describing Picasso racing back and forth between the Greek and Roman rooms in the Louvre says he “paces around and around like a hound in search of game.”
In the current exhibit of Picasso’s early work on display in the National Gallery in Washington (which is pegged to Richardson’s first volume), the walls wreak havoc with art history: Picasso consuming Symbolism; Picasso eating Impressionism; Picasso devouring Fauvism. One of the myths of the modern artist is that he could never have been anything other than what he was. But if you take Picasso’s character and transport it to late 20th century America, it is easier to imagine it doing almost anything except painting pictures. People with the predatory instincts that led Picasso to become an artist in late 19th century Spain become takeover specialists or basketball players or filmmakers in our culture.
The life and the work are bound together by this single character trait: not so much the instinct to create as the compulsion to erase. Richardson’s Picasso is unable to abide even his own tradition. As soon as he settles into a new style of painting (or a new home, or a new mistress), he is contriving to destroy it (or her). Richardson’s account does not so much excuse the bad behavior of the artist as use it to explain the career: The art was great at least in part because the artist was flawed.
This makes all the more puzzling a strain in the critical response not only to Richardson but also to Picasso: a tendency to dismiss his art because of his life. So far as I can tell, the trend was set in motion a decade or so ago when Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington published her sexual history of Picasso. You can see it gathering steam in Surviving Picasso, the 1996 Merchant-Ivory film that views Picasso pathetically, through the unsympathetic eyes of his lover Françoise Gilot. But it reached a new level of respectability last December, when The New Yorker’s art critic, Adam Gopnik, reviewed the second volume of Richardson’s life of Picasso.
G opnik turns Richardson on his head: If Picasso’s art is bad, he argues, it is so at least in part because Picasso was a bad man. This is not exactly a new line of art criticism, but it’s rare to find it taking root at such altitudes. (The piece recently won a National Magazine Award.) And, given the violently mixed reaction to the National Gallery exhibition (Michael Kimmelman writing in the New York Times, “I think, from the show, that if he had died in 1906, before Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, he would be remembered as a second tier Symbolist.”), you can’t help but wonder if Gopnik has finally figured out the way to dull the enthusiasm Americans feel for Picasso–by playing to their self-righteousness. After a long passage detailing the artist’s crimes against women, Gopnik rolls up his sleeves:
So Picasso was a creep with women, and Richardson gives him, out of a rather touching and, in this day, uncommon biographer’s loyalty, too large a benefit of the doubt on the question. … Who cares? Does it affect Picasso’s art, or the way we see it? Here the reviewer needs to drop all pretense of magisterial loft, jump down from the bench, and start testifying. Last spring I went for a walk in William Rubin’s vast show, at the Museum of Modern Art, devoted to Picasso’s portraits.
A single visit to an exhibition! All becomes suddenly clear! “Picasso’s misogyny was in evidence on every wall,” Gopnik writes. “And, along with misogyny, there was its Siamese twin, an oversweetened vision of family life in which the children’s implied vacancy is really Dad’s.”
It was only a matter of time before family values entered art criticism. But who would have thought it would be imported by The New Yorker? It’s hard to think of a clearer sign that old-fashioned Comstockian attitudes are once again in vogue, this time with a new twist. The modern moralist lacks the courage of his convictions. He is reluctant to attack the artist’s morality directly. Instead, he attacks his morality in the guise of attacking his art. The critic is using the life as a weapon against the work.
One sign of what Gopnik is up to is his tendency, when he is on the subject of Picasso’s character, to err on the side of the prosecution. In making the case against Picasso you might think there would be no need to exaggerate the artist’s crimes against his fellow man. But Gopnik does, describing Picasso as “a coward, who sat out two world wars while his friends were suffering and dying,” adding that “he may have been right to do this in the First War, but he did it again, in the same way, in the second.” (“Picasso was born in 1881,” notes James Fenton in the New York Review of Books. “To accuse a man of cowardice for not having joined up in 1939 when he was in his late fifties strikes me as a complete novelty, and it would have been a novelty to those Allied soldiers who, on the liberation of Paris, flocked to Picasso’s studio as a place of pilgrimage.”)
Gopnik’s bad faith extends to Richardson’s biography, which he faults (unbelievably) for treating Picasso too kindly. Early in his article–which he has called “Escaping Picasso: The Great Master That Never Was”–the author reminds us that there was a time when he devoted himself to Picasso studies, how the most trivial academic revelation once caused him to run off “to a nearby bar to drink my very first vodka on the rocks. … I passed out and had to be carried home.” But he is older now. He has put his academic past behind him. He is able to see the world as it is. He is able to see that scholars have been covering up the crimes of the artist to protect him from justice. “Richardson’s need to make Picasso into a serious artist and an honorable man (instead of the inspired poetic rascal he actually was) deforms, above all, his account of Picasso’s relations with women,” he writes.
What is peculiar about this is that much of what Gopnik knows about Picasso he knows from Richardson. It would be more true to say that Gopnik’s need to see Picasso as a rascal deforms his view of Picasso’s art. Both men are working with the same set of facts and accusations. The difference is that Richardson pleads for understanding while Gopnik brays for outrage.
Gopnik dismisses the cult of Picasso as “just another kind of celebrity worship.” His piece proves this point nicely. His is exactly the approach of every celebrity journalist to his subject. Why bother with the art on its terms when you can have it on your own?