Sunday, March 18, 2018

Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man (1995)

When you think about it, it's not surprising that, if Norman Mailer were going to write a book about art, it would be about Picasso. He always preferred his giants to be 20th-century egomaniacs—perhaps something about the reflection in the mirror. To some degree I'm on board with that myself, at least a little. There was a lot I didn't know about Picasso, so among other things I have to count Mailer's "interpretive biography" as informative. "Interpretive biography" means very little original research (even Marilyn had some), but rather a survey of select existing literature, major biographies and some criticism, along with his own take on Picasso and his work. Mailer's main idea here is that all of Picasso's innovations were done by the time he was 35, in 1916, effectively discounting one of the most prolific careers in art history. Mailer sees an incident involving the Louvre and stolen pieces of art (including da Vinci's Mona Lisa) as the point where something in Picasso broke. It's a tumultuous time in his life—a breakup of a long-term relationship, the death by cancer a few years later of his next girlfriend, and the coming of World War I are all equal contributors, along with plain old aging. I'm not even sure there was such a drop-off. A few samples of Picasso's art after 1916 in this book are pretty impressive. In fact, all the pictures, including color plates, are among the best reasons to dawdle along with Mailer through the Picasso story. I hadn't known what a prodigy Picasso was as a child. I didn't know how the Blue Period, Rose Period, and Cubism fit, exactly. I suspect someone with more background might get more out of this, but I'm not sure how much they'd like it—that's the pugnacious Mailer problem. Mailer notes early that Picasso was a project he'd been giving thought to since 1962, when he was close to a book deal. He has an interesting eye and his discussions of the art are often lucid. It didn't entirely surprise me, given his versatility as a writer, but I hadn't expected him to be so good in the realm of art, a pleasant surprise. He is dismissive of Gertrude Stein but I enjoyed the discussion of her, and again, this was my first exposure to so many details and so much context about Picasso's life, work, and art. Weirdly, perhaps, Picasso in this telling reminded me a lot of Andy Warhol—maybe it's the combination of celebrity and work ethic. Picasso's art speaks for itself, and if I have any complaint here it's that there's not more art. Mailer generally stays out of his own way.

In case it's not at the library.

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