How Picasso Became Picasso

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Pablo Picasso in 1946. Credit ~ George Konig/Keystone Features, via Getty Images

PICASSO AND THE PAINTING THAT SHOCKED THE WORLD
By Miles J. Unger
Illustrated. 470 pp. Simon & Schuster. $32.50

In biography, struggle is invariably more interesting than success. The most irresistible memoirs prefigure celebrity entirely, from Moss Hart’s “Act One” and Emlyn Williams’s “George” to David Niven’s “The Moon’s a Balloon” and Dirk Bogarde’s “A Postillion Struck by Lightning.” These are tales of lightness, possibility and wonder. It was in this spirit that I welcomed Miles J. Unger’s “Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World,” which traces the artist’s childhood in Spain through the creation of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907, to the otherwise heaving shelves of Picasso literature.

“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”Credit2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Picasso’s pre-1900 work is marked by his father’s art-school conservatism, as seen in the dark, unpainterly “First Communion” of 1896 and “Science and Charity” from the following year. Picasso was liberated from the 19th century’s heavy-handed conventions in Paris, which he first visited with his friend and fellow aesthete Carles Casagemas in October 1900. There he found inspiration in the Louvre, in the retrospectives of the flickering Impressionist generation, in his acquaintance with would-be painters and poets and, it appears, in the invigorating camaraderie of la Vie Bohème.

On the way to the hothouse, proto-Cubist summer of the “Demoiselles,” the shocker of his book’s title, Unger ably covers the El Greco-influenced “Blue”and “Rose” periods; the patronage of the Steins; and Picasso’s path-altering discovery of African art in the collection of the Trocadéro museum, the precise dating of which has divided scholars.

Unfortunately, insistent platitudes and pigeonholing tend to mar Unger’s efforts. Picasso is “bathed in the dazzling aura that surrounds all famous men”; Montmartre is the “ground zero of the worldwide avant-garde”; Picasso is compared to “an athlete before the big game,” an actor on “the stage of history” and “an ingénue making her way to Hollywood.” In one passage, Picasso’s rivalry with Matisse is described as an aesthetic “game of thrones.” Elsewhere, Picasso and Braque are said to knock Matisse “from his perch atop the leadership of the avant-garde,” imbuing painting with all the nuance of Flywheel. Unger plays up the “tortoise-and-hare” caricature of the contest of Matisse and Picasso, “the plodding striver against the facile genius, the introvert against the extroverted gadfly.” In his view, “Picasso was a born rebel, Matisse a rebel through circumstance, and a reluctant one at that.”

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