Picasso: Creator and Destroyer

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

ONE of Picasso's favorite pastimes during the first winter of the First World War was learning Russian. It was a project born partly of his fascination with Russia and mostly of his fascination with the Baroness Helene d'Oettingen. Part of Picasso's seductiveness was his willingness to be seduced, and he and the baroness spent many long evenings together, absorbed, as far as the world was concerned, in advancing his knowledge of Russian. Eva, left behind, found herself increasingly often at the mercy of coughing fits. She did everything she could to conceal from Picasso the fact that she was suffering not from a passing bout of bronchitis but from tuberculosis. She hid the bloodstained handkerchiefs and applied thicker and thicker layers of rouge to disguise the pallor of her cheeks. She was terrified that if he knew, he would leave her.

At cafés and in the streets men and women stared at Picasso, full of contempt for an able-bodied man who had stayed behind. He took refuge in sarcasm. "Will it not be awful," he said to Gertrude Stein, "when Braque and Derain and all the rest of them put their wooden legs up on a chair and tell about the fighting?" His humor seemed even blacker when news reached Paris that Braque and Apollinaire had received dreadful head wounds and both would have to be trepanned.

By fall Eva had to be hospitalized. Picasso was living alone for the first time in years. He went to the clinic every day, but he needed someone to console him during the long, lonely nights. He found that someone in Gaby Lespinasse a beautiful twenty-seven-year-old Parisian who had been his neighbor at the boulevard Raspail. She had taken the name of the American-born artist Herbert Lespinasse, who was her lover when her affair with Picasso began. "My life is hell," he wrote to Gertrude Stein. But the sensual drawings of Gaby naked and the whimsical watercolors like The Moonlit Bedroom and The Provencal Dining Room belie his protestations with their playfulness and their ardent inscriptions: "Gaby my love my angel I love you my darling and I think only of you I don't want you to be sad To take your mind off things look at the little dining room I will be so happy with you . . . you know how much I love you . . . Till tomorrow my love it is very late at night with all my heart Picasso."

IN DECEMBER, 1915, the composer Edgar Varese brought Jean Cocteau, the young poet of the glittering salons, to meet Picasso. Cocteau, then twenty-six, had been variously described as walking "with the pride of a wild bird that had dropped by chance into a poultry yard," as evoking more strongly than any other young man Wordsworth's "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," and simply as "the frivolous prince"-- the title of a volume of poems he had published at twenty-one. Impeccably elegant, he wore in his buttonhole one of the gardenias that, rumor had it, he received every day from London. Picasso told his two visitors that he was very much in love with a young woman who was about to die. "I have never forgotten Picasso's studio," Cocteau said forty years later,

because the whole height of its prowlike bay window looked out on the Montparnasse cemetery.... Picasso and I eyed each other for quite a while. I admired his intelligence, and clung to everything he said, for he spoke litte; I kept still so as not to miss a word. There were long silences and Varèse could not understand why we stared wordlessly at each other. In talking, Picasso used a visual syntax, and you could immediately see what he was. saying. He liked formulas and summed himself up in his statements as he summed himself and sculpted himself in objects that he immediately made tangible.

The long silences, the wordless staring, the clinging to Picasso's every word: Cocteau was in love and on the scent of something ultimate. "He fell under Picasso's spell and remained there for the rest of his days," wrote Francis Steegmuller, while Cocteau described their meeting as having been "written in the stars." As for Picasso, the frivolous prince was his bridge to a world he had barely glimpsed, of society, balls and banquets, princesses and counts, virtuosity and yet more uncritical idealization.

A FEW days later, on December 14, Eva died. "My poor Eva is dead," he wrote to Gertrude Stein. "It was a great sorrow . . . she was always so good to me." Ever since his little sister had so suddenly died, it seemed that death was always winning.

IT was the saddest Christmas of Picasso's life. Alone at the rue Schoelcher, haunted by memories of Eva, by sickness and death, he was too distraught even to find refuge in work. Discharged from the Marines, his war over while the war still raged, Cocteau decided to bring Picasso into Sergei Diaghilev's circle. Cocteau's vision was for Erik Satie to write the music and for Picasso to design the costumes and stage sets for a new ballet, Parade. Picasso threw himself wholeheartedly into his new project. On February 16, 1917, he took Cocteau to Gertrude Stein's to introduce him and to announce that they were leaving the next day for Rome. "Voila," they exclaimed on arriving at the rue de Fleurus, "we are leaving on our wedding trip."

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