Picasso: Creator and Destroyer

Picasso's art enacted the violent passions and twisted energies of the twentieth century. So did his life.

PICASSO was sick, and the couples that filled his work in 1969, kissing, copulating, and suffocating each other, bore the stamp of his sickness. His body was a sack of ills and frustrated desires. The body that had for so long served him so admirably had turned against him. He could not see well, he could not hear well, his lungs fought for breath, his limbs fought for the strength to sustain him, and he fought for the unconsciousness of sleep. But a sickness much more frightening than the inevitable sicknesses of a man close to ninety was the soul-sickness of a man close to death and utterly disconnected from the source of life, a man staring at death and seeing his own fearful imaginings.

On June 30, 1972, Picasso faced the terror that consumed him and drew it. It was his last self-portrait. The next day the art historian Pierre Daix came to visit him. "I made a drawing yesterday," he told him. "I think I have touched on something there.... It is not like anything ever done. " He took the drawing and held it up to his face, and then put it down, without comment. It was a face of frozen anguish and primordial horror held next to the mask that he had worn for so long and that had fooled so many. It was the horror he had painted and the anguish he had caused and which, in his own anguish, he continued to cause. Two months after he drew his last self-portrait, Pablito, his first grandson, tried to see him. He arrived on his motorcycle and showed his identity card. He was turned away, and when he persisted, the dogs were let loose on him and his motorcycle was thrown into a ditch.

On April 1, 1973, Picasso wrote to Marie-Thérèse, telling her again that she was the only woman he had loved. Was he seeing her then as she had first been for him—a vision of beauty and purity, a promise of entering together a forbidden world where abandoned sexuality would lead to a heightened state of being? Or was the letter a Mephistophelian April Fool's joke, the last lie with which to secure her bondage to him, disorient her a little more, and put one more nail in her cross? Perhaps he wrote her from mere force of habit. Perhaps he spoke the truth.

ON THE SUNDAY morning of April 8 Jacqueline called Pierre Bernal, Picasso's cardiologist in Paris. Dawn had barely broken. Bernal took the first plane to Nice. Florenz Rance, the local doctor, was already there when he arrived. Sitting up painfully against the pillows, in his beige pajamas, Picasso was gasping for breath. The fingers of the hand he extended to the doctor were blue and swollen. While Dr. Bernal was confirming with his instruments what his professional eye had already seen, Jacqueline, trailing her long red dressing gown, paced up and down the room. The cardiogram showed rattles in both lungs and a dangerously large congestion in the left lung.

"I knew the minute I walked in," Bernal said, "that it was the end. He asked me no questions. He did not realize that he was going to die. I tried to make Jacqueline understand that it was going badly."

"We have already saved him," she said. "You are here. We are going to save him. He doesn't have the right to do this to me, he doesn't have the right to leave me . . . " These were the words she kept repeating through the morning, like an incantation: "He doesn't have the right to do this to me, he doesn't have the right to leave me . . . "

"Where are you, Jacqueline?" Picasso cried from his bedroom. His heart and his lungs were both fast giving out. He tried to talk, but he was suffocating. His words, coming through his gasps for air, sounded like wailing, hard to understand. He mentioned Apollinaire and seemed far away from Notre-Dame-de-Vie, in the spectral world of his past. Then he was once again back in his room "Where are you, Jacqueline?" He turned to Dr. Bernal. "You are wrong not to be married. It's useful." They were his last coherent words.

"WHEN I DIE," Picasso had prophesied, "It will be a shipwreck, and as when a huge ship sinks, many people all around will be sucked down with it."

On the morning of Picasso's burial Pablito, excluded from his grandfather's funeral, drank a container of potassium-chloride bleach. He was taken to the hospital in Antibes, where the doctors found that it was too late to save his digestive organs. He died three months later, on July 11, 1973, of starvation.

On October 20, 1977, in the year of the fiftieth anniversary of their meeting, Marie-Thérèse hanged herself in the garage of her house in Juan-les-Pins. She was sixty-eight years old. In a farewell letter to Maya, she wrote of an "irresistible compulsion." "You have to know what his life had meant to her," Maya said later "It wasn't just his dying that drove her to it. It was much, much more than that.... Their relationship was crazy. She felt she had to look after him—even when he was dead! She couldn't bear the thought of him alone, his grave surrounded by people who could not possibly give him what she had given him."

Just after midnight on October 15, 1986, Jacqueline called Aurelio Torrente, the director of the Spanish Museum of Contemporary Art, in Madrid, to discuss the final details of the exhibition of her personal selection of Picasso's paintings that was to open in Madrid ten days later. She assured him that she would be there for the opening. At three o'clock in the morning she lay on her bed, pulled the sheet up to her chin, and shot herself in the temple. She had left behind a list of everyone she wanted at her funeral .

These events were part of the dark, tragic legacy Picasso left behind in his life. The legacy of his art has to be seen in conjunction with the legacy of our time. He brought to fullest expression the shattered vision of a century that perhaps could be understood in no other terms; and he brought to painting the vision of disintegration that Schoenberg and Bartók brought to music, Kafka and Beckett to literature. He took to its uttermost conclusion the negative vision of the modernist world—so much that has followed has been footnotes to Picasso. His tragedy was that he longed for the ultimate in painting and died knowing that it had eluded him. Unlike Shakespeare and Mozart, whose prolific creativity he shared, Picasso was not a timeless genius. He was in fact a time-bound genius, a seismograph for the turmoil, doubts, and anguish of the twentieth century. From the time that he shook the art world with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Picasso was out of love with the world. He saw his role as a painter as fashioning weapons of combat against every emotion of belonging in creation and celebrating life, against nature, human nature, and the God who created it all. "How difficult it is," Picasso had said soon after his eighty-fifth birthday, "to get something of the absolute into the frog pond." But however difficult, is it not the highest function of art to try to get something of the absolute into the frog pond of this world? With prodigious skill, complete mastery of the language of painting, inexhaustible versatility, and monumental virtuosity, ingenuity, and imagination, Picasso showed us the mud in our frog pond and the night over it. Yet there is a sense in all great art that beyond the darkness and the nightmares that it portrays, beyond humanity's anguished cries that it gives voice to, there is harmony, order, and peace. There is fear in Shakespeare's Tempest and in Mozart's Magic Flute, but it is cast out by love; there is horror and ugliness, but a new order of harmony and beauty evolves out of them; there is evil, but it is overcome by good.

Picasso's advanced age was filled with despair and fueled by hatred. As for his art, he had told André Malraux that "he had no need of style, because his rage would become a prime factor in the style of our time." And his rage has become the dominant style of our time. As we move toward the beginning of a new century, what will Picasso, so irrevocably tied to the age that is dying, have to say to the age being born?

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