Picasso: Creator and Destroyer

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

A FIGURE who began to appear, though in considerable disguise, in Picasso's work in the spring of 1905 was the young poet Guillaume Apollinaire. His first portrayal was in the Family of Saltimbanques, as a big buffoon who presides over the group and combines the qualities of two major archetypes, the jester and the wise old man. He also soon appeared as a youthful giant, hardly an accurate reflection of the plump Apollinaire's physical prowess, but more a subjective portrayal of the poet's intellectual powers and understanding of the ways of the world—qualities that Picasso admired and on which he would often lean as he negotiated his way through the minefield of his life in Paris.

Within days of meeting Picasso this illegitimate son of the daughter of a Polish papal chamberlain, this former tutor and writer-of-all-work, was writing his first promotional piece on him. It also happened to be his first piece of art criticism. He had never before taken any interest in the visual arts and had an even scantier knowledge of them than he had of Prague, where he had set a short story that left readers convinced he had spent his life there.

What he did for Prague he did for the Blue Period. When its existence was revealed to him in Picasso's studio at the Bateau-Lavoir, two days after they met, it was alien to anything he had ever seen or thought about. But when he wrote about it, it was as if he had been its creator.

These children, who have no one to caress them, understand everything. These women whom no one loves now, are remembering. They shrink back into the shadows as if into some ancient church. They disappear at daybreak, having attained consolation through silence. Old men stand about, wrapped in icy fog. These old men have the right to beg without humility.

In Apollinaire, Picasso had also found an advocate who was big enough to contain his contradictions. "It has been said that Picasso's work shows a precocious disillusionment," Apollinaire wrote in the first issue of a small review he was editing.

In my opinion the contrary is true. Everything he sees enchants him and it seems to me that he uses his incontestable talent in the service of an imagination that mingles delight and horror, abjection and delicacy. His naturalism, with its loving precision, has a counterpart in the mysticism which, in Spain, is to be found deeply rooted in even the least religious mind.

These two brilliantly gifted outsiders had first met, toward the end of 1904, at an English bar near the Gare Saint-Lazare. Apollinaire was there, waiting for the train to Le Vesinet, the suburb where he lived with his mother and his brother. The money he made from editing and writing was far too meager to allow him the freedom to live in Paris, away from his increasingly eccentric mother and close to his artist friends.

THE harbingers of freedom from want were Gertrude and Leo Stein. Gertrude Stein, whom Picasso later described as his only woman friend, was in fact more masculine than many of his men friends. "Masculine, in her voice, in all her walk" was the way Fernande described her. "Fat, short, massive, beautiful head, strong, with noble features, accentuated regular, intelligent eyes." She also had a large independent income, superlatively managed by her elder brother, Michael, back in the States, which made her rebellions as well as her independent views and bohemian life-style much easier to sustain. She was twenty-nine when she left Baltimore, having completed her medical studies, which had included a course in surgery. Her brother Leo, bald and bearded and wearing goldrimmed glasses, had in the meantime been living in Florence, painting and immersing himself in art. Fernande remembered, "Too intelligent to care about ridicule, too sure of themselves to bother about what other people thought, they were rich and he wanted to paint." They soon provided the informal focal point of contemporary art. They inspired, they catalyzed, and, even more important at this precarious surge of Picasso's existence, they bought.

Picasso met the Steins at the establishment of Clovis Sagot, a former clown who had turned a pharmacy into an informal art gallery. "Who is the lady?" Picasso asked Sagot. "Ask her if she will pose for me." Leo Stein recalled later that "at the very moment when Picasso was demurely awaiting her word of acceptance, Gertrude was vocally expressing total dislike of the painting they had come to see." The painting was Young Girl With a Basket of Flowers, and Gertrude so hated the girl's feet that she even suggested cutting them out and keeping only the head. Finally Leo prevailed, and the first Picasso, "with feet like a monkey's," entered the Steins' apartment, at 27 rue de Fleurus, intact.

It was at the rue de Fleurus that Picasso met Henri Matisse. They were Gertrude Stein's two great loves, and she wrote a short story, "Matisse, Picasso and Gertrude Stein," to celebrate that love.

Matisse was "very much master of himself," Fernande remembered. "Unlike Picasso, who was usually rather sullen and inhibited at occasions like the Steins' Saturdays, Matisse shone and impressed people.... With his regular features and his thick, golden beard, he really looked like a grand old man of art. He seemed to be hiding though, behind his thick spectacles, and his expression was opaque, gave nothing away, though he always talked for ages as soon as the conversation moved on to painting.

"He would argue, assert and endeavor to persuade. He had an astonishing lucidity of mind: precise, concise and intelligent."

Matisse thought that Picasso and he were "as different as the North Pole is from the South Pole." While Matisse pursued serenity in his life no less than in his art, Picasso was a mirror for the conflicts and anxieties of his age. Matisse's objective was to give expression to what he described as "the religious feeling I have for life.... What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, free of disturbing or disquieting subjects . . . an appeasing influence." Picasso had no clear intellectual objective, only a vague but all-consuming urge to challenge, to shock, to destroy and remake the world. The fascination they extended over each other was the foundation of the relationship that began in Gertrude Stein's living room and that, despite all its up and downs, lasted until Matisse's death, in 1954. It was the fascination of opposites.

"ON the rue de Rennes," Matisse wrote, "I often passed the shop of Père Sauvage. There were Negro statuettes in his window. I was struck by their character, their purity of line. It was as fine as Egyptian art. So I bought one and showed it to Gertrude Stein. And then Picasso arrived. He took to it immediately." Max Jacob's recollection was much more dramatic. "Picasso held it in his hands all evening. The next morning, when I came to his studio, the floor was strewn with sheets of drawing paper. Each sheet had virtually the same drawing on it, a big woman's face with a single eye, a nose too long that merged into the mouth, a lock of hair on the shoulder. Cubism was born."

Cubism was not yet born, but in the fall and winter of 1906 Picasso was definitely pregnant with it. And preparations were under way for the momentous event. He had a canvas mounted on specially strong material as reinforcement and ordered a stretcher of massive dimensions. Years later he talked to Andre Malraux of the moment of conception.

All alone in that awful museum with masks, dolls made by the redskins, dusty manikins. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon must have come to me that very day, but not at all because of the forms; because it was my first exorcism painting -- yes absolutely!...When I went to the old Trocadero, it was disgusting. The Flea Market. The smell. I was all alone. I wanted to get away. But I didn't leave. I stayed. I stayed. I understood that it was very important: something was happening to me, right?

The masks weren't just like any other pieces of sculpture. Not at all. They were magic things. But why weren't the Egyptian pieces or the Chaldean? We hadn't realized it. 'Those were primitive, not magic things. The Negro pieces were intercesseurs, mediators; ever since then I've known the word in French. They were against everything—against unknown, threatening spirits. I always looked at fetishes. I understood; I too am against everything. I too believe that everything is unknown, that everything is an enemy! Everything! Not the details— women, children, babies, tobacco, playing—but the whole of it! I understood what the Negroes used their sculpture for. Why sculpt like that and not some other way? After all, they weren't Cubists! Since Cubism didn't exist. It was clear that some guys had invented the models, and others had imitated them, right? Isn't that what we call tradition? But all the fetishes were used for the same thing. They were weapons. To help people avoid coming under the influence of spirits again, to help them become independent. They're tools. If we give spirits a form, we become independent. Spirits, the unconscious (people still weren't talking about that very much), emotion -- they're all the same thing. I understood why I was a painter.

Everything, the whole of creation, was an enemy, and he was a painter in order to fashion not works of art—he despised that term—but weapons: defensive weapons against the spell of the spirit that fills creation, and offensive weapons against everything outside man, against every emotion of belonging in creation, against nature, human nature, and the God who created it all. "Obviously," he said, "nature has to exist so that we may rape it!"

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