| The last self-portrait
The Ultimate Picasso By Brigitte Léal, Christine Piot and Marie-Laure Bernadac, Harry N. Abrams, £ 60
The name of a book, the spin doctors tell us these days, is nothing more than a marketing device. The name of this book will invariably raise the question: can there be “the ultimate Picasso”' Is it possible to contain the almost impossible genius of the 20th century’s greatest artist within the covers of a volume as the last word for all time to come' The impossibility of the project is embedded in its very definition. Notwithstanding this, the volume under review comes very close to all that one can ever hope to say and depict in one volume on Picasso.
The book is lavishly illustrated, virtually every single major work of the artist is vividly represented here. All the periods of Picasso’s versatile career are covered. The text is as rich in detail, insight and analysis as John Richardson’s biography of Picasso, of which only two volumes have been published. In terms of a commentary on Picasso, there can be no praise higher than that. Brigitte Léal, the curator of the Musée Picasso, Paris, covers the formative years and comes right upto 1916. She thus includes Picasso’s invention of Cubism with Georges Braque. Christine Piot, the co-author of the catalogue raisonné of Picasso’s sculpture, covers the period between 1917 and 1952, a period that was rich in innovations and saw Picasso’s most memorable work, Guernica. Marie-Laure Bernadac, a former curator of the Musée Picasso in Paris, and now the curator of the Musée National d’Art Moderne (the Georges Pompidou Centre) writes on Picasso’s final phase, from 1953 to his death in 1973.
Picasso, as is well known, was not a modest man, he had nothing to be modest about. He once said that a book would have to be written on him every day to keep up with his creativity, its surges and its rhythms. The basis of this claim, despite its apparent exaggeration, was the enormous record that Picasso kept of his own creativity. Unlike the old masters, Picasso did not destroy preliminary studies. For him the process was as important as the finished composition. This book, to take just one example, reproduces the studies he did of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. These studies in no way erode the magic of a canvas as breathtaking as this one. On the contrary, they enrich our understanding of its genesis.
It is possible, because of Picasso’s incredible versatility and creative energy, to mark out a number of phases in his work. One period would inevitably open with his first visit to Paris in 1900. The anxieties and tensions of this period are reflected in his self-portraits; his famous Blue Period captures the poverty and the suffering of human beings. One has only to recall the haunting quality of The Old Guitarist or The Blind Man’s Meal. Wandering acrobats abound in the paintings of the Rose Period.
In 1905, he met Gertrude Stein, who introduced him to Matisse, thus inaugurating a great rivalry and a great friendship. In 1906, Picasso wrote almost like a prophet that he was like “a tenor who reaches a note higher than any in the score.” The boast-cum-prediction was fulfilled in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Between 1908 and 1914, occurred the partnership with Braque and the invention of Cubism which replaced traditional perspective. In 1912, Picasso invented collage and Braque the papiers collés. He also sculpted two revolutionary pieces: Head of Fernande in 1909 and Guitar in 1912. The sculptures multiplied between 1928 and 1934. His paintings became more influenced by the complex period of his mature life.
If in his youth, the Harlequin had been Picasso’s alter ego, between 1928 and 1937, the Minotaur became the painter’s twin. “Through the many transformations and ambivalent nature of the Minotaur, Picasso revealed his unconscious Eros and his contradictory impulses.” In Guernica, the horse and the bull became the protagonists. The horror of the war left its mark on the paintings he did of Dora Maar, distorting her face in anguish, and in canvases like The Charnel House
Picasso’s later works were explosive in their power: “He used speed to capture and halt the movement of time, to resist the inevitability of death; he used repetition to access the truth, of which there is not just one but many.”
This book charts compell- ingly the life and work of Picasso. The concluding lines of the book are worth quoting: “Picasso lived to the fullest, loved to the fullest, created to the fullest, setting the example of having achieved art’s return to childhood, to that moment when everything is ready to begin.” The lines challenge the name of the book. How can there be an ultimate statement on an artist perpetually poised, even after his death, on the discovery and depiction of something new and revolutionary'