This is an odd little book on the early years of Picasso's life, Mailer simultaneously proffering penetrating insight and stodgily grandiloquent verbosity. The 370 pages, stripped of the large quantity of illustrations and quotes, might be reduced (I'm guessing) to perhaps just 200 or so, perhaps less. And this portion, Mailer's portion, could've very happily and profitably have been even further reduced, through better and more focused writing (or editing). Nevertheless, this remains a valuable and interesting, even in places exciting, rendering of the early years of this artistic Titan's hugely fascinating life.
Mailer's heavy reliance on the writings of others could appear to be a form of laziness, and he makes several special pleas, both in his introduction and elsewhere, to excuse himself. Personally I'm not bothered so much about this (one of the very best depictions of Napoleon's 1812 campaign in Russia* is made up almost entirely from what it's author calls a 'word film' collage of primary sources). Indeed, it's Mailer's marshalling of such sources that is often the best aspect of the content. I have to say that I find a lot of his literary style (heavy over use of such phrases as 'we have to assume', or 'we have to remind ourselves') annoying and clumsy. However, despite this, he does frequently draw out insights both useful, plausible and sometimes even quite profound, such as when he examines the place of Demoiselles D'Avignon in both Picasso's oeuvre and the modernist canon.
Reading this makes one - well, me at any rate - want to read more of his sources, such as Gertrude and Leo Stein, and the work or memoirs of other artists, poets, dealers, and assorted characters, perhaps most of all Fernande Olivier, Picasso's 'main squeeze' of this period. Or indeed other more scholarly/historical books covering this era in Picasso's life and work: I'm now very keen to read Josep Palau I Fabre's massive tome, and part I of Richardson's four volume epic.
Other than occasionally having to slog through the sometimes stodgy porridge of Mailer's overwrought prose this is a quick, easy read, divided into XI parts, each of which is subdivided into several tiny chapters. There's no index, and the font used (in the Abacus edition) isn't the easiest to read but, despite all the problems, if you're interested in Picasso and art and culture of the turn of the 19th/20th century, this is worth reading.
* I've occasionally thought that there was a link to be made between Boney and Pablo, and I enjoyed noting that Mailer does this also, early on in the book.
Who would have figured that Norman Mailer would have been so interested in Pablo Picasso as to write a partial biography of the artist? Maybe the similarity in artistic egos? In any event, this book is labeled an "interpretive biography" and covers the period from Picasso's birth (1881) to 1916, by which time the artist had experienced the loss of two great loves and come through the great experimental period of Cubism. In his history of the artist's early life, Mailer draws on a variety of sources, but rather heavily on the memoirs of Fernande Olivier, Picasso's first great love and muse(?) and Gertrude Stein, Picasso's most important early patron and someone Mailer often pokes fun at. Sex, women, egotism, insecurity, jealousy, and bourgeois striving were all significant factors driving Picasso's life and art according to Mailer, who does a rather good job of supporting these ideas in the book.
There are times when the author goes overboard on the art criticism and artspeak (my opinion). He is dismissive, for example, of Picasso's collaborator and rival in the development of cubism. Henri Matisse also suffers the back of the hand. At other times, the "interpretive" element of Picasso's mindset and relations with friends and lovers seems a bit overstated and/or high handed. Nevertheless, the writing and perspective are credible most of the time. The illustrations are pretty good, ample and mostly appropriate to the text.
As the book closes in 1916, Mailer gives the reader what seems a pretty good measure of the man and observes that the painter:has "not only an armory of cruel and intimate weapons with which to protect himself and injure lovers and friends, but he is obviously in possession of the secret of youth." At this point Picasso will live another 50+ years and become an international icon.
I read this biography after visiting the terrific Picasso drawing exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The show is also devoted to Picasso's early years when his personal life and art were evolving into something unique.
on 13 July 2000
My significant introduction to Picasso was through the work of Joseph Campbell. J.C. praised P. highly, perceiving strongly delineated mythological themes throughout P.'s work.
This book will not provide any exposition of these themes for you...
Mailer starts off in grand style by relating that P. was stillborn, and it was his deliverybed-side uncle who animated the infant by a puff of cigar smoke blown directly into the boy's face. Perhaps this acrid first breath accounts for the child's subsequent exceptional view of the world, Mailer suggests...
Mailer's writing is very crisp and clean. P.'s personal details are juxtaposed throughout with contemporaneous artistic influences & developments, which helps to acquire a sense of the personality behind the visions...
Also, there are numerous colour plates (blue period and cubism), and raunchy cartoons (woman has sex with squid, par example). These substantially assist a rather lyrical, if well-organized and insightful, presentation which does tend to hover dangerously close to the banal, despite these virtues.
Particularly enjoyable for the modest wealth of photographs, perceptive descriptions of Picasso's cronies and their views on his work, (including Gertrude Stein - "the high priestess of high colonic", a la Mailer), and blow-by-blow acounts of the hard times suffered and (numerous) racy personal details, but very likely not a book one will pick up again and again...
on 3 September 2002
It's a very good book on Picasso. You get to know the time he lived in, the artists he knew, the facts that pulled his work in this or that direction. It's not a biography of his live but a biography of his work, that was obviously influenced by facts of his live. You get the know the pulsions that made him start a new phase and see his work progress - you see him strugle to get where he always wanted to, through his art. Mailer's inteligence and sensitiveness is at his top. Makes you learn about life, art and Picasso. His special care for Fernande, one of Picasso's lovers, is charming. She knew Picasso well... and there are several extracts from her personal diary, which are nice literature and acurate descriptions. One book to read over and over again...