Picasso: Creator and Destroyer

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

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon may have come to Picasso in the Trocadero, but there were Iberian influences, Egyptian influences, and many unconscious philosophical influences whose principal perpetrator was a man scarcely five feet tall, with long black hair parted on his large head and falling on his narrow shoulders, and with mad, deep, black eyes. It was Alfred Jarry, the creator of Father Ubu, who in his play Ubu Roi summed up his philosophy of destruction: "Hornsocket! We will not have demolished everything if we don't demolish even the ruins!" Jarry abhorred every aspect of contemporary society -- its bourgeois pretensions, sham, and hypocrisy—and his life no less than his art was devoted to its destruction. He carried a pair of pistols and contrived opportunities to use them to underscore his social role.

Destructiveness was Jarry's rallying call, and a deep, barbaric destructiveness was at the center of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. When Jarry gave Picasso his revolver, he knew that he had found the man who would carry out his mission of destruction. It was a ritual act and was seen as such by all those present at the supper at which Jarry passed on the sacred symbol. "The revolver sought its natural owner," Max Jacob wrote. "It was really the harbinger comet of the new century." So was the explosion that was named Les Demoiselles d'Avignon: five horrifying women, prostitutes who repel rather than attract and whose faces are primitive masks that challenge not only society but humanity itself. Even the Picasso bande was horrified. "It was the ugliness of the faces," the young poet André Salmon wrote, "that froze with horror the half-converted." Apollinaire murmured about revolution, Leo Stein burst into embarrassed, uncomprehending laughter, Gertrude Stein lapsed into unaccustomed silence, Matisse swore revenge on this barbaric mockery of modern painting, and Andre Derain expressed his wry concern that "one day Picasso would be found hanging behind his big picture."

Georges Braque, who had just met Picasso when he saw Les Demoiselles d 'Avignon, in the fall of 1907, knew immediately that nothing less than a revolution was intended. "It made me feel," he said, "as if someone was drinking gasoline and spitting fire." He was shocked, but he was also stirred as he had never been before. Seven months younger than Picasso, he was to become his partner not only in the great pioneering adventure of twentieth-century art but also in a shared intimacy that was rare in Picasso's relationships and unique in his relationships with other painters. "The things Picasso and I said to each other during these years," Braque remembered, "will never be said again, and even if they were, no one would understand them anymore. It was like being two mountaineers roped together."

To the extent that Picasso felt himself part of a movement, it was a movement made of two. "We worked with enthusiasm," he later said, "and that was the main thing, putting much more into our efforts than usual, for we were involved in them body and soul." It was a quest that transcended ego and personal ambition, and to underline that what they sought was "pure truth without pretension, tricks, or malice," they signed their canvases only on the back to preserve anonymity uncontaminated by personal glory. "Picasso and I were engaged in what we felt was a search for the anonymous personality," Braque said. "We were inclined to efface our own personalities in order to find originality. Thus it often happened that amateurs mistook Picasso's painting for mine and mine for Picasso's. This was a matter of indifference to us, because we were primarily interested in our work and in the new problem it presented."

ON AUGUST 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre, a theft that led to national outrage over the security arrangements at the nation's great museum. On August 28 Géry Pieret, a young Belgian dilettante straddling the fence between amusing, unscrupulous inventiveness and mild crookedness, went to the offices of the Paris Journal with an Iberian statuette he had stolen from the Louvre, proudly demonstrating how easy it was to rob the place. Apollinaire read the headline in the next day's Paris Journal and was horrified. Pieret had been working as his secretary and the statuette had been at his home ever since Pieret had removed it from the Louvre. Even worse, a few years earlier Pieret had sold Picasso two other Iberian statuettes, which he had similarly acquired by removing them from the museum. Picasso was enchanted by them and, following Pieret's advice, had kept them hidden at the bottom of an old Norman cupboard. He had hardly given them any further thought until "the Louvre burglaries" hit the front pages of the French press.

Apollinaire and Picasso went into a frantic huddle at the boulevard de Clichy. Terrified that they might be implicated, they decided they had to act. Their first thought, born of their growing panic, was to flee the country. Fortunately, Fernande's common sense prevailed and they decided instead to dispose of the incriminating evidence by throwing the statuettes into the Seine.

After midnight they walked up and down the Seine looking for the right moment to get rid of their burden, but all moments seemed equally filled with risk. Finally, they gave up and returned to Picasso's apartment, where they spent the rest of the night plotting their next course of action. Early the following morning Apollinaire went to the offices of the Paris Journal and delivered the stolen treasures and a major scoop, on condition that the source would not be revealed. The condition was accepted and instantly breached. On the evening of September 7 the police arrived at Apollinaire's apartment, searched all his papers, found letters from Géry Pieret, and arrested him.

Two days later, at seven o'clock in the morning, there was a knock at Picasso's door "As the maid had not come down yet," Fernande remembered, "it was I who opened the door to a plainclothes policeman, who flashed his card, introduced himself and summoned Picasso to follow him in order to appear before the examining magistrate at nine o'clock. Trembling, Picasso dressed with haste, and I had to help him, as he was almost out of his mind with fear.... The bus between Pigalle and the Halle-aux-Vins, in which he had to ride, was haunted for many a day by those unfortunate memories. The detective was not allowed to take a taxi at his client's expense."

The rising anxiety of the past few days, the long wait at the police station, and finally the sight of Apollinaire, being led into the magistrate's office "pale, disheveled and unshaven," according to Fernande, "with his collar torn, his shirt unbuttoned . . . a lamentable scarecrow," completely unbalanced Picasso and drove from his mind every thought of friendship, every vestige of loyalty, and all sense of truth. Only an animal instinct for survival was left, and if that meant denying his friend, so be it. And deny him he did, when he claimed that he had only the most superficial acquaintance with the man who stood before him in trouble and in need of help. Apollinaire started to cry, and Picasso, as if to outdo him, began to tremble and cry at the same time The magistrate discharged him with a warning to stay within reach in case further examination was necessary, and Apollinaire was sent back to the Sante prison.

He was held at the prison for a total of five days, during which he was interrogated again and again regarding the theft not only of the statuettes but also of the Mona Lisa. It was the most devastating experience of the poet's life. From the moment he had been photographed for the criminal records, with handcuffs and without his belt, his tie, or his shoelaces, to his betrayal by the man he had loved and championed, and then to his provisional release by the magistrate, at seven o'clock on September 12, he had endured a nightmare that gave form to his deepest fears and insecurities. But in public he acted as if nothing had changed between him and Picasso, hiding both his dismay and his hurt. Even when he wrote about the whole affair to a friend, he referred to Picasso as "X," never by name.

AT the end of November 1911, there appeared a review by the critic John Middleton Murry in The New Age, of London, which struck a chord that was to reverberate through the years in the response to Picasso's work. "I frankly disclaim any pretension to an understanding or even an appreciation of Picasso," Murry wrote. "I am awed by him.... I stand aside, knowing too much to condemn, knowing too little to praise— for praise needs understanding if it is to be more than empty mouthing." This was the first time that the leitmotif of awe mixed with incomprehension was sounded so clearly in relation to Picasso's work. In the future, praise, not just awe, would unblushingly become a constant companion of incomprehension. The reason for this unlikely pairing was stated by Murry in comparing Plato and Picasso: "I feel convinced," he wrote, "that it is but my weakness that prevents my following them to the heights they reach."

In The Republic Plato expelled all artists from his ideal state, because they merely copied nature, which, in turn, was only a copy of the ultimate reality. "In fact," Picasso said, "one never copies nature, neither does one imitate it.... For many years, cubism had only one objective: painting for painting's sake. We rejected every element that was not part of essential reality." As Murry put it,"Plato was seeking for a Picasso." When, in 1912, Picasso painted the first collage of the twentieth century, Still-Life With Chair-Caning, with a printed oilcloth across the bottom of an oval canvas and a newspaper, a glass, a pipe, and a sliced lemon, he was no longer imitating reality but displacing it. "When people believed in immortal beauty and all that crap," he would say, "it was simple. But now? . . . The painter takes whatever it is and destroys it. At the same time he gives it another life. For himself. Later on, for other people. But he must pierce through what others see—to the reality of it. He must destroy. He must demolish the framework itself." It was the beginning of synthetic Cubism, along the path Picasso had embarked on toward an art of essentials rather than an art of imitation.

At the same time, he had set out on another journey. He was falling in love. During numerous evenings Picasso spent at the Ermitage, his new favorite brasserie, with Fernande, the Polish painter Louis Marcoussis, and Marcelle Humbert, with whom Marcoussis had been living for the past three years, his waning attachment to Fernande was replaced by a growing passion for Marcelle.

The two women were a study in contrast. Gertrude Stein always referred to Fernande as "very large," but she was never larger than when next to Marcelle, who was very small. Fernande was older than Picasso—only four months older, but she suddenly seemed very much older. Marcelle was younger than Picasso -- only four years younger, but next to Fernande, she appeared very much younger. Fernando was temperamental, sometimes unfaithful, sometimes angry-- once so angry that she shook Picasso with enough vigor to shake off a button. Marcelle was so gentle and delicate that she was almost ethereal. Fernande had the flair to be extravagant even when she was starving, while Marcelle had the talent to make the tiniest budget stretch to permit delicious meals and a cozy home. Fernande was a seductress who allowed herself to be seduced, but always with her eyes open. Marcelle was ready to be swept off her feet, to surrender, to love without conditions. Fernande lived as if the world owed her a living. Marcelle did not have the strength to take on the world; she needed someone to protect her, and in return, she gave all of herself. Fernando gave herself if she felt like it, and knew she could survive alone—giving French lessons or pawning her earrings or breaking the rules.

When the increasing distance between her and Picasso became too much for her to bear, Fernando let herself surrender to the charms of Ubaldo Oppi, a young Italian painter who had been introduced to them at the Ermitage by the Futurist Gino Severini. "To live on one woman," Picasso would say later, ". . . was not to be thought of." But to leave a woman was for him emotionally no less difficult. So he waited for Fernande to take the first step. "Fernande left yesterday with a Futurist painter," he wrote to Braque. "What will I do about the dog?" Within twenty-four hours of Fernande's running off with Oppi he had lured Marcelle away from Marcoussis.

To demonstrate how precious Marcelle was to him, Picasso renamed her Eva. It was the name she had been given when she was born, at Vincennes, outside Paris, to Marie-Louise and Adrien Gouel. But, following the fashion of the times, she had invented a new name for herself, and no one knew her any longer as Eva Gouel. By renaming her Eva, Picasso was not only giving her back her original name but also sealing her place in his life as the first woman he truly loved. "Yes, we are together and I'm very happy" was all that he was prepared to disclose even to as trusted a friend as Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler. "But don't say anything to anyone," he admonished his dealer.

LIKE a spoiled child who cannot bear sharing affection, Picasso whined to Kahnweiler, who loved Juan Gris and his work, "You know very well that Gris never painted any important pictures." He could not talk away Gris's importance, but neither could he learn to coexist with the younger Spaniard, whom Kahnweiler called the "modest genius," no doubt to distinguish him from his compatriot. Despite calling Picasso "cher maître" and exhibiting his portrait under the title Homage to Pablo Picasso, Gris had become very much his own painter and his own man. And the slightest tinge of rivalry brought out in Picasso the pout, the bark, and the bite. Gris was a Spaniard and yet he had become attached to Matisse, which, in the war going on in Picasso's mind, meant that he had crossed the enemy lines and was siding with the Frenchman.

But there was something about Gris that continued to draw Picasso to him despite his irrational antagonism. Kahnweiler later described Gris as a "firm hand serving a pure soul and a clear mind," and it was this purity that attracted Picasso. In his work he was trying to portray the essence of things, and in his life, despite himself, he kept being pulled to people who seemed closer to that essence. "I felt his friendly presence, his affection always about us," Kahnweiler wrote about Gris. "He was gentle, affectionate, unassuming, but he knew his work was important and he was firm in defending his ideas.... That is what makes Juan Gris such an outstanding figure in art: The complete identity of his life and art . . . He was not only a great painter, but a great man." Picasso's antagonism toward Gris was to become even more virulent as he was confronted with growing evidence of Gris's integrity and his goodness. It was as if he had to disparage and destroy what he did not have or could not possess on his own terms.

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