Picasso Speaking

The Paris art critic for The Christian Science Monitor recounts a visit with Pablo Picasso at his home.
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I told him that if he'd talk about the things I wanted to talk about, I'd do my best to keep the bêtises to the minimum. "It's a deal," he said.

One thing that interested me, I said, was the question of his Communism. It was hard, I explained, for many people to understand how a man who believes in total independence—whose work has been for nearly two generations the very symbol of it—could be a member of the Communist Party today. How did he square those two ideas?

He sobered down immediately. "I suppose you're thinking of the Social Realism in contemporary Russian painting," he said.

I said yes, but for the moment I thought we could bring it closer to home by sticking to the situation within the Communist Party in France. I referred to what Louis Aragon, intellectual wheel horse of the French C.P., had said after the Party had castigated him for printing Picasso's memorial portrait of Stalin -- not exactly a speaking likeness—in his paper, Les Lettres Françaises. I quoted to Picasso Aragon's words: "Anarchy in art is a petit-bourgeois concept which places the individual outside the mass, and thus condemns him to mediocrity, incapacity, uselessness, and malfeasance." Didn't that, I asked, point in his direction, and if so, didn't those terms, in that context, come as a bit of a shock to him?

Picasso shook his head. "I don't agree with Aragon on that point, any more than I agree with Soviet doctrine on realism in painting. I've known Aragon a long time. I know what he's like and how he feels. As I said, we don't always agree. Oh, I suppose it wasn't the best portrait of Stalin—or even my best. I look at it this way: Stalin died. I am a member of the Communist Party. I felt it was up to me to make a geste of some sort. If it had been someone else, I might have sent flowers. But in the circumstances, it seemed more appropriate, somehow, for me to do a portrait of him. Between me and other elements of the Party—those who objected to the portrait—there is a great distance, in some respects. My portrait had to cover that great distance. Like a bouquet of flowers, it started out fresh, and at the end of its long journey it arrived a bit faded and wilted. That's all."

He raised his finger. "There's another point I'd like to clarify in all that," he said. "I object to the use of the word anarchy in connection with my work—whoever uses it. I'm not an anarchist. I never have been. My work is a constructive one. I am building, not tearing down. What people call deformation in my work results from their own misapprehension. It's not a matter of deformation; it's a question of formation. My work obeys laws I have spent my life in formulating and adhering to. Everybody has a different idea of what constitutes reality and the substance of things. Labels are meaningless. For example, you say 'red.' What is red? There are a thousand reds." He pointed to the bowl of fruit in the middle of the big table. "We've been told that's an orange. So we call it an orange. We've been told that's an apple. So we call it an apple. But you and I look at those things and we see different objects—with the same name. I paint them in a still life and I set them down in what my intellect tells me is the order and form in which they appear to me. It's a constructive process from beginning to end. No, I'm no anarchist. I believe in total liberty, yes, but subject to an inner order, control—and laws."

I told him I thought it would make many of his admirers happy to pick up their newspapers one morning and read that he had renounced his allegiance to the Communist Party—not in favor of some other political organization, but just to get out of the political picture and leave that kind of activity to other people.

Picasso raised his eyebrows, then relaxed, smiled. "Look," he said, "I'm no politician. I'm not technically proficient in such matters. But Communism stands for certain ideals I believe in. I believe Communism is working toward the realization of those ideals." He paused ever so briefly and then, before I had a chance to speak, picked up the question that was beginning to formulate itself in my thought. "You'll ask me, 'what about Stalin?'" he said. Well, what about him? You would have said he was no good—but you didn't know that; you only thought it. Well, I thought he was. It turned out that I was wrong. But is that any reason why I should renounce the ideals I believe in? Let's say I were a Catholic and I met a priest who was no good—a worthless type in every sense of the word. He's all the bad things you can think of. Is that any reason why I should give up believing in Christianity? There are all kinds of perfectly authentic stories about the sins of the Church in the Middle Ages. Some of the Popes were horrible creatures. But should I—as a Christian—in view of that, give up my adherence to the ideals I believe in ? Eh bien, non!"

Jacqueline leaned toward Picasso. "Perhaps you should make things perfectly clear," she suggested, "by saying you have no intention of resigning from the Party."

Picasso nodded. "That's right. I have no intention of resigning. Things look bad in Poland and Hungary, I know, but I'm not quitting the Party just for that. I don't say the world can't find the cure for its ills under the capitalist system, but thus far it hasn't made very impressive headway." He studied me for a brief moment, then said, "I don't understand why Americans are so concerned about Communism, anyway. Especially, about whether some individual is a Communist or not." I had the impression, from the way he put it, that he was not expecting an answer. I shifted my gaze to Jacqueline. She had slumped back into her easy chair. Picasso stayed silent. I felt that he had talked politics as long as he cared to.

JUST then my eye was caught by an unframed canvas standing on a shelf above Jacqueline's head and to the right. It was a portrait of a girl—Jacqueline, I would have said—in tones of green and black and white. She was shown in profile, looking off to the left, and Picasso had given the face a mildly geometrical stylization built up of triangular forms which emphasized the linear treatment but at the same time preserved the likeness. I pointed to the painting. "How would you explain to a person whose training made him look on that as deformation, rather than formation, why you had done it that way?" I asked him.

"Let me tell you a story," Picasso said. "Right after the Liberation, lots of GIs came to my studio in Paris. I would show them my work, and some of them understood and admired more than others. Almost all of them, though, before they left, would show me pictures of their wives or girl friends. One day one of them who had made some kind of remark, as I showed him one of my paintings, about how 'It doesn't really look like that, though,' got to talking about his wife and he pulled out a tiny passport-size picture of her to show me. I said to him, 'But she's so tiny, your wife. I didn't realize from what you said that she was so small.' He looked at me very seriously. 'Oh, she's not really so small,' he said. 'It's just that this is a very small photograph.'"

Picasso burst out laughing. He turned to Jacqueline. "It sounds silly, I know, but it's true." Then he turned back to me. "Eh bien, it's the same story here—" he pointed to the canvas above Jacqueline's head—"it's a question of optique."

That brought us to talk of the conventional canons of beauty and ugliness. I mentioned to Picasso that critics of widely differing political and aesthetic opinions frequently explained—or defended—what would be considered mutilations of the female face, for example, in some of his paintings by urging viewers not to consider such a face as subject, but rather as merely an object in space, divorced from subjective involvements. But, I wanted to know, what about those idyllic wash drawings he had shown at the Maison de la Pensée Française in 1950—the lover, the poet, the artist watching over his sleeping lady—all very recognizable, all very classical? He himself had said, I reminded him, that in the act of painting, a painter empties himself of his emotions. So, then, were those 1950 Sleeping Beauties only objects in space, too, or was it permissible in such cases to consider that subject-painting, with all its "normal" emotional overtones?

"That's all literature," he said, "from start to finish. On the part of those writers and, I must admit, on my part as well. That kind of writing is just literature, and what I was drawing, in that case—well, that was literature, too. I might just as well have written about those scenes as drawn them."

I thought of his picture Guitar—one can't quite say "painted," but executed, at least, in 1926. It is a canvas slightly over three feet by four (or four feet by three, depending on which way it is hung— and there is no agreement on that point) to which a piece of coarse cloth has been affixed. The cloth has a hole in its center and is pierced by about a dozen and a half two-inch nails. A piece of string, two parallel black lines, and a one-column-wide news clipping help to round out the illusion, so that when the picture is hung in width, it presents a form assimilable, in its main lines, to that of a guitar hanging on a wall and casting its shadow (the newspaper cutting) beneath it. In his assemblage of the materials Picasso strayed pretty far from the average person's image of a guitar; yet the link with visual reality is by no means entirely broken.

I asked Picasso how he would analyze that version of a guitar.

"Go back for a minute to what I said about the color red and those apples and oranges or"— pointing over the top of the fruit bowl—"that bottle of water or that bottle of wine. That is my guitar. It may not be yours. It may not be Jacqueline's. But it's mine. You see, we go to the Beaux-Arts. They try to teach us everything. They wind up by teaching us nothing. They have us make copies of everybody, trying to turn us into another Velasquez or another Goya or maybe Poussin, and we remain nobody. Art begins with the individual. When the individuality appears, that's the beginning of art. So much for my Guitar.

"The trouble is," he went on, "we've been taught what to see and how to render what we see. If we could only be in the position of the men who did those wonderful drawings in the caves at Lascaux and Altamira! They had nothing to go by, nothing to build on. They had to start from scratch." Picasso raised his hands in a gesture of resignation.

"Well, we can't, of course. That was the Golden Age and we can't dream of bringing it back. So we have to resort to all kinds of intellectual devices to re-establish the vigor and validity of our vision. That's the Guitar again."

"But," I said, "people who don't understand the intellectual process that lies behind a work like that don't understand the result—even those who might like to."

Picasso cocked his head to one side. "Eh bien, tant pis! I don't paint pictures in the hope that people will understand them. They understand or not, according to their capacity. It's wrong to be so concerned about people's understanding, anyway."

"Then you think that the critic or whoever puts himself in the position of trying to help people to see or to understand things like that is performing a useless function?" I asked.

Picasso shook his head vigorously. "No. The critic or any intermediary must build a bridge people can walk over to join the artist."

"But in building that bridge," I said, "he has to make use of materials -- ideas, symbols, reasoning —that have meaning for them; otherwise it's just so much poetry."

Picasso grinned, reached for a cigarette. "Poetry's all right," he said. "Perhaps it would be better if all critics were poets and wrote poetry instead of pedantry."

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