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Portrait of Picasso As A Young Man
Norman Mailer
An Interpretative Biography
Published by Atlantic Monthly Press/NY in 1995

A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2004


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In 1881 a genius was born, ushered into the world of the breathing by the life-giving spirit of tobacco.

[page 3] Picasso, delivered at 11:15 p.m. in the city of Málaga, October 25, 18881, came out stillborn. He did not breathe; neither did he cry. The midwife gave up and turned her attention to the mother. If it had not been for the presence of his uncle, Dr. Salvador Ruiz, the infant might never have come to life. Don Salvador, however, leaned over the stillbirth and exhaled cigar smoke into its nostrils. Picasso stirred. Picasso screamed. A genius came to life. His 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. It is not unfair to say that the harsh spirit of tobacco is seldom absent from his work.

One can only wonder if the usual medical procedures for a stillborn today would have been as effective in not only bringing a baby to life. In the sterile atmosphere of surgical delivery rooms, no cigar smoke would be available to new born Picassos in the 21st Century and who knows if such a genius will ever be born again. Oxygen, if it had been available to Don Salvador might have brought breath to Picasso, but would it have brought the uniquely spirited life that was destined to be his?

Mailer makes a point of the approach of the Spanish doctors to pain as something to be utilized, not avoided.

[page 3] Spanish surgeons, for example, do not like to give pain-killers to gored toreros when cleaning out the wound. Their premise is that the body will heal faster if it has suffered torment; it must quintessentially Spanish to assume that reality is the indispensable element in a cure.

If this sounds like a mediaeval approach to medicine, it probably is. It harkens back to a time before the logical-rational materialistic approach of Francis Bacon took over the world of science and later of medicine. One can feel glad that we have developed ways of alleviating pain or wonder if there may be some wisdom in the Spanish approach. For example, if the presence of pain signals the body to begin the healing process, might not artificially removing the pain, in the presence of a serious wound, derail or slow down the healing process?

His full name was prodigious in scope, Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paulo Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Crispín Crispiano Santíisima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, or in brief, Pablo Ruiz. His mother, Mailer tells us, told him, "If you become a soldier, you'll be a general. If you become a priest, you'll end up as the Pope!" She might have added, "If you become an artist, you'll be a Picasso!" if Picasso had already been invented. When an earthquake hit, his family sought shelter in the strongest house on the top of the hill, his father's boss and master artist. One can imagine that Pablo came to know that he needed to be the best painter in the world in order to find shelter in his art studio for the remainder of his life. He may have started many earthquakes in the art world during his long life, but he found stability in his studio.

His choice of the name Pablo Picasso was an attempt to distance him from his Spanish name, as the "ss" is unusual in Spanish, but suggests a French name like "Matisse or Rousseau." (Page 18)

1958 Detail from 'Standing Woman' on page 24 His father painted pigeons, did paintings whose major subjects was pigeons, and his father's boss was heard to say wistfully, "Had I been able to help him, he would have turned into a good naturalistic painter like me." (Page 20) But as we know, there was no help for Picasso no man could turn him into a painter like himself Picasso could only become a Picasso a painter whose life was as much a work of art as any of his painted masterpieces.

As a child Pablo witnesses an autopsy in which the Spirit of Tobacco was also present. During the autopsy the woman's head was severed in two. The night watchman in the gravedigger's shed was smoking a cigar. Young Pablo got sick and had to leave the shed, but the memory of what he saw must have stayed with him for the rest of his life, as in this 1958 Detail from "Standing Woman" on page 24. The destruction of the woman's face and head became a work of art. Mailer quotes Michael Bakunin's first principle of anarchism, "The urge to destroy is also a creative urge." In my essay Art is the Process of Destruction I lay out the connection between destruction and creation in a slightly different fashion: true art is the destruction of sameness and liberates exciting possibilities which provide the seed for future creative productions of art. Picasso was to destroy the sameness of the art that he found and exciting possibilities onto the world of art for much of the rest of his long life.

Picasso's first long-term love affair was with Fernande, and Mailer compares their romances to a flower on a slender stem, flourishing while fragile.

[page 145] How intensely do Pablo and Fernande personify at this point all those delicate, lovely, and exploratory romances that flourished like sensuous flowers on slender stems, those marijuana romances of the Fifties and Sixties in American where lovers found ultimates in a one-night stand, and on occasion stayed together. There was always an element of the other in such romances they were a gift from the beyond and so the lovers who came together on marijuana could never trust their love altogether: The marijuana was the third creature in the act and might disappear someday.

In the end, Mailer pins both Picasso and Fernande as narcissists upon his specimen board and looks at them under his literary magnifying glass. A narcissist himself, Mailer quotes himself from "Genius and Lust" writing about Henry Miller and says it applies equally to Picasso as to Fernande:

[page 149] Each half is forever scrutinizing the other. So two narcissists are the opposite of two mates. Narcissists do not join each other so much as approach each other like crystals brought into juxtaposition. They have a passionate affair to the degree that each allows the other to resonate more fully than when alone . . . So, it is not love we may encounter so much as fine-tuning . . .

At this point, I am right with Mailer and he has me thinking, "Haven't I been in such a narcissistic relationship for about five years at one time in my life?" I ponder the question. The next passage nails it for me: the intensity of the love followed by the quickness of the recovery from it. Yes, narcissism it was. I recovered quite rapidly, with almost a sigh of relief that it was over.

[page 149] The paradox is that no love can prove so intense, therefore, as the love of two narcissists for each other. So much depends on it. Each is capable of offering deliverance to the other. To the degree that they tune each other superbly well they begin to acquire a skill which enables them to enter the world. (For it is not love of the self but dread of the world outside the self which is the seed of narcissism.) So narcissists can end by having a real need of each other. That is, of course, hardly the characteristic of the relation. The love of most narcissists tends to become comic, since, seen from the outside, their suffering manages to be equaled only by the rapidity with which they recover from suffering.

Enter Stage Left, Gertrude Stein, Mailer royal example of a narcissist. He says, "When it comes to narcissism, Gertrude Stein is equal to Catherine of Russia." Mailer does not like Gertrude Stein; he dislikes her so much that every passage where he talks about her is a slap in the face. I wondered why he disliked her so much as I read this book passage after passage he disparages her in some way her memory is faulty, her writing is bad, her taste in art manquè, etc. He devotes all of Part VI to her, some fifty pages, and let's see if I can find one complimentary passage he writes about her. In the first chapter of VI, he talks mostly about Fernande and Picasso and only in the last two sentences does he write about how Gertrude broke up their relationship:

[page 191] It is tempting, all the same, to think that they were truly happy for a period, and that their love might have gone on much longer if not for the entrance of Gertrude Stein into their lives. Gertrude's presence would change his grasp of the universe.

In Chapter 2 of VI, he tackles Stein's audacity to write an autobiography of a close friend, and never say anything bad about herself while doing so. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Mailer refers to as "that classic tour de force of boundless vanity where Gertrude Stein had the wit to write about herself through the eyes of Alice while never allowing her mouthpiece one irreligious reaction to her beloved mistress." He allows her wit in one breath and uses it against her in the next. Mailer seemed to like Leo Stein better than he did Gertrude, but he points out that while they came from a German-Jewish family, they were "so little Jewish that if Leo [her brother] shared any attitude with Gertrude it was that they were both comfortably anti-Semitic." If Mailer respected Gertrude for any talent, it was her talent as a hostess, not a writer. Does he respect her talent as a mentor of a writer, as she was for Hemingway? You decide.

[page 199, 200] As a writer, it is hard to say whether her reputation would be larger now or non-existent if Hemingway had not been her pupil in the Twenties. But he was -- he took the live ember of her perception of a new kind of prose and carried it to places that affected generations of writers; if he had not come along, her work might have perished. Little of it does more than entertain us today; much of it is pretentious or, worse, lumpy. She can be a very bad writer.

About her influence on Picasso, again Mailer will restrict her effect on him to be as a live coal of perception which she gave Picasso in her recognition of his talent.

[page 200] The truth is that apart from her recognition of Picasso's talent which is, admittedly, no small matter she did not understand much else about him, and kept faking it.

When Mailer praises Gertrude's writing, he again gives and takes away, such as in the ambiguous phrase he applies to her writing about Picasso: "orotund excrescences." Does he refer to her abnormally shaped writing (excrescences) as full-throated (orotund) or as pompous and inflated (orotund)? (page 200)

Through all his slammings of Gertrude, I kept recalling what I wrote many years ago when I reviewed Gertrude Stein by Avis Burnett, "Tough, opinionated, hard-as-nails, a female Norman Mailer of her time was Gertrude Stein. No wonder Mailer disliked Gertrude so much." Now as I read an entire book by Norman Mailer, I'm not sure I agree with myself back then. Mailer's writing is cogent, literate, and very understandable. Stein's resembled "orotund excrescences" in the worse interpretation of the phrase many times she tended to conceal more than she revealed, much as Picasso's Cubist paintings did. Here is Mailer at his best when he discusses the famous portrait Picasso did of Gertrude Stein. I'm reminded when I read this that one can predict the future if one can produce the future one predicted.

[page 214] One evening at the rue de Fleurus, Picasso would remark, "Everybody thinks she is not at all like her portrait but never mind, in the end she will manage to look just like it," and that is true. By the time she died, no one said any longer that Gertrude's portrait did not look like her, but then, we have all heard that long-married people grow over decades to resemble one another more and more, and so could Gertrude Stein have been married to the image Picasso had finally been able to offer of her.

But there were other narcissists for Mailer to grind under his pen, Apollinaire was one. He was one of the prominent figures in Picasso's circle of friends and his poem La Chanson du Mal-Aimé has this as its third stanza:

[page 162] Mars and Venus with their wild mouths
Have come back to embrace
All those innocent places
Beneath the blossoming rose
Where rose gods dance nakedly.

And this about ten stanzas further down:

[page 163] Rotting fish of Salonica
Endless chain of repulsive dream
Of eyes torn out by pointed snakes
Your mother loosed an awful fart
And birthed you in a colic pool.

Which led me to pen this schoolboy verse to Apollinaire:

Roses are red
Violets are blue.
Picasso's a madman
And so are you.

Picasso was stuck in his "Blue Period" and Mailer describes him as perfectly sane, but with a useful insane streak:

[page 164] We can do worse than to comprehend him in his last of the Blue Period, from 1904 to 1905, as a perfectly sane hardworking young artist with but one insanity, a highly useful and functioning insanity his belief that he could not shift his palette from dark blue to bright green, let us say, or to brilliant red without being rent apart.

And he describes Apollinaire thusly:

[page 166] To keep up with Guillaume Apollinaire, one had to view him from so many angles that he was already a spiritual model for the Cubism to come.

I dare say if Gertrude had written that sentence, Mailer would have called it an "orotund excrescence."

Then Picasso meets George Braque and they both begin painting the first Cubist paintings and Picasso is said to have entered his Green period. The art critic Roland Penrose gave the name to this period and wrote this about painting a landscape.

[Page 270] In contemplating a landscape, the eye has the ability to extend the sense of touch so that it seems possible to caress the surfaces spreading out into the distance. The walls of a house or the slope of a distant mountain can be become as tangible to the imagination as a match-box held in the hand.

When you look at the Cubist paintings of George Braque and Pablo Picasso, you see a quilt-like effect which brings the distance up close, so close you feel as you can touch it. Picasso was breaking spiritual ground by teaching the world about sight as Rudolf Steiner was during the same year, 1909, describing it in his lectures in A Psychology of Body, Soul & Spirit. This passage is from that book. Note the similarity Steiner's words below to the words of Penrose in the above passage.

[page 28] In the sentient soul it is a form of thinking that streams outward through the eyes as genuine thought substance. It has a far greater elasticity than the two other substances that stream out through the senses of smell and taste and for that reason reaches out much further. An astral element really does stream out from the human being to the things.

Colorplate 6 following page 272

What Rudolf Steiner does is give scientific names to principles that artists are aware of but have lacked a means to discuss them scientifically, up until now. Here's an image of one of these Cubist landscapes on which one can test the words of Penrose and Steiner, Colorplate 6 following page 272.

Kahnweiler writes of the same reaching out process of the eye, but holds back with a materialistic style, talking about the retina and placing quotes around the operational word, touch, in this passage:

[page 309] The different accommodations of the retina of the eye enable us, as it were, to "touch" three-dimensional objects from a distance. . .

Here's how Kahnweiler characterizes Braque and Picasso's art.

[page 290, 291] Even Kahnweiler, normally cautious, does say in 1916 in Der Kubismus, "Admittedly Braque's art is more feminine than Picasso's brilliantly powerful work," and goes on to suggest that "gracious" Braque is the "gentle moon" against "austere" Picasso's "brilliant sun."

Mailer says "no one was going to be more macho than Picasso when it came to painting. Fair enough. He was not in a hurry to forgive God for making him short after his father was tall." This smacks of a karmic decision that the "I" or Ego of Picasso made upon coming into this world, that the little ego did not understand. Picasso and Braque had a special relationship which they did not share with the world when it came to their Cubist paintings. Mailer quotes Braque here in a passage that also hints of a karmic connection between the two men:

[page 292] Years later Braque, meditating on this period from 1909 to 1914, would declare: "Picasso and I said things to one another that no one will ever say again . . . things that would be incomprehensible to other, but that gave us a great joy. It was like being roped together on a mountain . . . All that will end with us." . . . They are as famous as Hemingway for never talking about it . . .

Mailer pins Cubism down as a paradox when he says that "the foundations of Cubism a dynamic art! are now in place (c. 1909). If this is an oxymoron dynamic foundations Picasso for one, was quite at home with intellectual vertigo." It seems to me from his writing that Mailer is also at home with "intellectual vertigo." How can one consider as dynamic an art form which produced paintings as dull as a dry, rock-covered stream bed? Mailer attributes the palette and style of early Cubism thusly:

[page 300] Perhaps with all else, the gray-and-brown palette of Cubism could be seen as a reflection of long periods of depression walking with one's head down, staring at the wet cobblestones of Paris streets on a rainy autumn day.

As I drew near the end of the book, I wished for another Mailer book to detail the successive phases of Picasso's life. Maybe one day. My favorite quotation from this book by Picasso was recorded by Lydia Gasman in 1981 dissertation, "Drawing is a kind of hypnotism; one looks in such a way at the model, that he comes and takes a seat on the paper." Somehow models for Cubist paintings came, rearranged themselves in amazing ways, and took a seat on Picasso's paintings. In a curious bit of irony, the very field he claimed never existed, "Cubism", now bears his own imprimatur as surely as if he had willed it so.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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