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Three Books about Picasso

Le Bateau Lavoir from the rear, c. 1900
Continuing my Picasso obsession, I've read three books recently that focus on Picasso to a lesser or greater extent. Given how many books I've read about Picasso and his milieu (particularly in the early years of the twentieth century in Paris), my judgement usually rests not so much on whether I find out new information, but how well the author treats very familiar and often told stories.

The first one is In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse, and the Birth of Modernist Art, by Sue Roe.

I bought this one because I read a book by the same author about five years ago, The Private Lives of the Impressionists, which was full of interesting biographical information about Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pisarro, and others, a vivid recreation of Parisian life before and after the time of Commune (1871), and a real sense of the struggles of these artists during the early years of the first Impressionist exhibitions. Sadly, that perceptiveness seems to have deserted her when it came to talking about the artistic life of Montmartre thirty or so years later. She recounts familiar stories (Picasso's friendship with Apollinaire and Stein, his rivalry with Matisse, the chaos of the Bateau Lavoir) in a clumsy fashion, moving quickly from one thing to the next without adding new insights  or even perceiving the possible meanings and motivations of each outrageous incident. And she seems too often to end an anecdote with the most worthless and trivial descriptions of art, as if she has no understanding of Cubism except to say things like "and with one stroke of the brush, Cubism was born."

Dan Franck's book Bohemian Paris: Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, and the Birth of Modern Art is the polar opposite:

He takes familiar stories and retells them in a way that constantly reveals new facets to the relationships of the people involved, or he conveys a wealth of unfamiliar information and fits it neatly into a painting of the people and the time. He is actually a French writer who wrote a novel set in the bohemian Paris of the early 1900s, and this non-fiction book is basically a creative recreation of all his research. Perhaps the fact that he is a novelist, and clearly a gifted one, gives him the edge in storytelling, as he approaches even the tallest tales and the most often-told stories by looking for the oddest angle to approach it from, so that you feel you're hearing it for the first time. A great example occurs right at the start of the book, when he jumps right in to the scene of two young men walking up the rue Didot to visit a tattered old man dying in the Broussais Hospital. He describes their walk, the archway they enter through, the walls of the hospital, the old man lying in bed with his name written on a sign above his pillow, the newspapers strewn over the bed, their conversation in the courtyard, their farewell, then a year later, one of the young men seeing the old man in the street and barely recognizing him. Then the identities are revealed: one of the young students was Andre Gide, and the old tramp-like man was Paul Verlaine--two of the most significant French poets and writers, one at the end of his life, one at the beginning.

Franck uses similar shifts of perspective when he recounts the Picasso and Matisse stories. Again, I know most of them as if they had happened to friends of mine, but Franck seems to give you the feeling that they are happening for the first time, and he puts you into the world of 1905 or 1906 and makes you forget that you know what lies ahead (World War I, for example). Perhaps the greatest contribution that this book makes to one's knowledge of the era is how much time he spends on Modigliani's brief life, placing him on an equal footing to Picasso, Braque, and Matisse. You come away from this book feeling that Modigliani was key to Montparnasse becoming an artistic centre, in the way that Picasso became associated with the bohemian world of Montmartre. And although his behaviour was pretty self-destructive, you do feel a sense of loss at his early death, a mourning at the final passing of Bohemian Paris.

Final note on this book: the photographs he dug up for illustrations are superb, and include the rear view of the Bateau Lavoir that I included at the top of this blog post, and which I had never seen before.

Finally, I just finished reading a huge tome called Visiting Picasso: The Notebooks and Letters of Roland Penrose:

Penrose was an English surrealist who met Picasso in the 1930s, when Picasso was himself still under the influence of the French surrealists. He wrote a biography of Picasso, published in 1957, which was possibly the first Picasso biography I read when I was about fifteen. This book presents an extensive selection from the letters and notebooks of Penrose, many of which were published here for the first time. They cover Penrose's first meeting with Picasso in 1937, and go all the way up to a few weeks before Picasso's death in 1973, then beyond, to the exhibitions of Picasso's work that Penrose continued to arrange until his own death in the early 1980s. The extracts are woven together with a narrative by Picasso scholar Elizabeth Cowling, and they are accompanied by dozens of photos taken by Penrose and his wife Lee Miller, many of which are more vivid and interesting than Penrose's over-detailed notes. I have to admit that I skipped many pages in this book, mainly because the time period it covers happens to have been the least interesting, artistically, in Picasso's long life. When they first meet, Picasso is still to paint Guernica, but after that, Picasso's painting is always interesting but rarely essential. Penrose was so devoted to the cause that he treats almost everything as a masterpiece, and his encomia start to get tiring after several hundred pages. In the middle of the details of yet another Picasso exhibition arranged by Penrose, some memorable moments do emerge, however. This one, for example: At his chateau in the south of France in the late 1950s, the artist had set up a dovecote made out of upended wooden crates, and he liked to let the doves fly all over his bedroom, to the annoyance of his soon-to-be-wife Jacqueline Roque. One pigeon in particular would peck viciously at the other pigeons, and would torment one bird by pecking him almost to death, leaving him alone, then coming back at him when he had recovered a little. Penrose recounts how Picasso didn't intervene, but would watch this cruel spectacle with a great deal of fascination, even pleasure. If you read enough books about Picasso, you can't help seeing a metaphor here for the way Picasso liked to treat everyone who came close to him. He could be kind, he could be magnanimous, but eventually everyone would be subjected to sudden stabs of his beak and claws which would leave them bloody and exhausted.


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