If I had an Amazon wish list, this new book from Paul Johnson would be on it. If you haven’t yet read “Intellectuals”, you must do so. His prison rape of Jean-Jacque Rousseau’s reputation is to be treasured.
The biggest offender in Johnson’s menagerie is undoubtedly Picasso, one of the most curious cultural figures of the 20th century. Long before his death in 1973, Picasso had emerged in the public imagination as perhaps the creative artistic genius of the period. For many, Picasso was to art as Einstein was to science. Of course, not everyone was susceptible. Few perhaps went as far as Evelyn Waugh, who for a period ended his letters with the valediction “Death to Picasso.” But there were many who contemplated Picasso’s deliberate assault upon nature and the human figure with horror, not admiration. What seems clear from our vantage point thirty-odd years after Picasso’s death is that his reputation owed as much to the public intoxication as to his achievement. Picasso may have been, as Johnson observes, “the most restless, experimental, and productive artist who ever lived,” but he was also an artist whose primary endowment was the ability to sense “exactly how much the vanguard of the art world would take.”
The two words that best describe Picasso’s activities as an artist — as a man, too — are “cunning” and “rage.” From an early age, Picasso knew (in Gertrude Stein’s phrase) exactly how far to go in going too far. The astonishingly protean quality of Picasso’s work — from the sentimentalities of the Blue Period to the depredations of his cubist and post-cubist “portraits” — bespeaks not only an abundance of creative élan but also a fundamental vacuum at the center of his art. “Obviously,” Picasso said in an aside that speaks volumes about his attitude toward his art, “Nature exists so that we can rape it.” Johnson describes Picasso as “essentially a fashion designer,” catering with perfect pitch to the fickle vicissitudes of avant-garde taste. It is worth noting, I think, how much smaller Picasso’s achievement seems now than it did even a decade ago. In time, I predict, he will be seen primarily as a gifted caricaturist who also happened to be a thoroughly repulsive man.
I’m with Waugh. Unlike most of those he influenced, Picasso was a very skilled artisan. But in choosing not to use those skills in favor of creating his lurid and cartoonish monstrosities, he revealed the petty, brutish, kitschmonger’s soul that lurked within him.