Thursday, September 1, 2016

Picasso: Creator and Destroyer

The Weeping Woman - Picasso - 1937
I am about two-thirds of the way through the biography of Picasso written by Arianna Huffington which first appeared in 1988.  The author does a thorough job of documenting the artist's manipulative, sadistic personality.  His talent and fame enabled consistent and prolonged duplicitous behavior toward every friend as well as the severe mental and physical abuse of every woman with whom he had any prolonged relationship.  His long-time housekeeper, Inès Sassier, seemed one of very few able to withstand Picasso's cruelty, perhaps because of an unusual talent for isolating her relationship to him from the rest of her life.

Huffington presents a compelling, damning picture of the artist that seems unassailable in regard to the facts.  She does not, however, really explain the artist's outrageous personality and behavior.  Picasso is presented, instead, as a totally unique and essentially unexplainable phenomenon, cast in a mythological light.  It seems likely to me that Picasso's behavior toward others was not so unique as the author implies.

I think it more likely that much of Picasso's personality, attitudes and behavior represented expressions of learned behavior endemic in the French, Spanish and Catalan cultures from which he came.  Many in those societies clearly supported traditional gender roles which gave permission to men to abuse women and required the women to accept such treatment. Picasso may have been more extreme in his abusive behavior than the average, but the patterns and character of the abuse were part of a continuum, as were the submissive responses of the people he abused.

It is a little hard now to understand how someone with Huffington's education and European background could gloss over the societal context of Picasso's story.  It is likely relevant that in the 1970s she wrote a book expressing opposition to the growing Women's Lib movement.  In the 1980s she was married to a Republican who ran for the Senate, and she remained aligned with the Republicans through the 1990s.  Since then, Huffington has clearly drifted leftward, though how deeply that has really affected her world view is hard to judge.  It would be interesting to ask her now, nearly three decades later, if she would like to add anything to her portrait of the artist.

I picked up this paperback about Picasso for fifty cents at my local thrift shop.  That price and venue may be some reflection on the book's relevance and importance at this point, but I think that the issues raised in it are still very much with us.  The rightward swing of French society has been clearly expressed in the popular effort to dictate how Muslim women should dress in public, only thinly disguised as liberal secularism.  That current of misogyny and xenophobia, of course, is not confined to France.

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