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Portrait of Picasso as Young Man.

In Miami a few years back, during a reading of his novel Harlot's Ghost, Norman Mailer told the audience that "authors reveal more about themselves through their choice of words than with the subjects they write about." Then he went on to use words like rage, psychopath, revenge, violence, chaos, and fury.

If this was irony, Mailer seemed oblivious.

After taking on the life of Marilyn Monroe in an early-'70s "interpretive biography" - a hodge-podge of facts woven together with bits of psychosexual speculation - Mailer has now done the same for Pablo Picasso. Borrowing liberally from other sources, Mailer starts with the artist's birth in 1881 and stays with him for the next 34 years. This must have been a glorious time in Picasso's life: he moved to Paris, formed friendships with Gertrude Stein, Matisse, Apollinaire, Henri Rousseau, to name only a few. He traveled, he drank, he laughed it up with his contemporaries, illustrious and otherwise. Bohemian life never had more ardent supporters. During this period, Picasso and Georges Braque invented Cubism, and Picasso created some of the strangest and most notable paintings of the century. He painted prolifically, working throughout the night, driven on by his inner demons. By the time Mailer leaves him in 1915, the artist had already gained a degree of notoriety and had made the jump from being a penniless, artist to living in a grand home with servants.

During this time women came and went, great loves and lesser ones, leaving their mark on the man and his art. They were loyal and submissive, feisty and independent, in awe and, at the same time, repelled by him. He was impossible to satisfy, so great was his wanting, his need. He painted his women as they were, then repainted them as gross caricatures of themselves. Their breasts were unattached to their bodies, floating in space, drowning him. They were Madonnas and whores, and he makes no excuses.

Armed with this wealth of juicy material, how then did Mailer succeed in making Picasso into such a bore?

Part of the problem is those other sources. Nearly half the book is drawn from previous biographies of Picasso, most notably Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington's Picasso: Creator and Destroyer (Mailer is much kinder to her than her critics were), and Fernande Olivier's two books on the artist (she was Picasso's mistress for many of the years covered in Mailer's book; these books, which have never been translated into English, also turn out to be plodding and morose).

Whole chapters are quoted from these (and other) sources. Mailer links excerpts from these books with little asides, often nonsensical and childish. Describing how Picasso had trouble in school, Mailer quotes Jaime Sabartes, to whom Picasso recalled that his difficulty with math stemmed from seeing the number seven as a nose.

From this, Mailer takes the following leap: "We can propose that if the 0 was an eye, then the integer 1 might have signified a person in the distance and a 2 was a man or a woman kneeling in prayer. If 3 was turned on its side, it became breasts or buttocks - what childish glee! Yes, how he could concentrate on his studies! The number 4 might seem a sailboat in the Mediterranean, 5 a phallus and testicles, 6 a wineskin that men drank from at bullfights, 7 is our friend the nose, and 8 is a head on a body, his fat grandmother perhaps, while 9 might be a flower on a curved stem. The examples are arbitrary. . . ."

Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man reads like a bad term paper, a book slapped together to pay the rent. While Mailer insists that this study of Picasso is something that he has been obsessed over for years, none of that obsession is evident. While some of the sources he relies on make Picasso seem alive and vibrant, Mailer's offerings, when not simply silly and irrelevant, seem pale and disjointed.

What we can wish for is that Mailer had written this as fiction, letting his mind wander to imagine what Picasso was like during this time of change. There he might have hit his stride. For it's hard not to think of the two of them, Mailer and Picasso, as very much the same man.

Their affairs with women are legendary. They have both been called geniuses, and then been vilifled by those same fans. Even their bodies are alike - thick in the middle, short in the legs.

The text even makes the reproductions of Picasso's work seem pale; while they stand as proof that what we are reading really happened, it's hard to feel their breath and urgency when accompanied by this dreary text.

And what words does Mailer use to describe the greatest artist of this century? Depressed, gloomy, unpleasant, monster. The forthcoming second volume of John Richardson's biography of Picasso covers the same years. Don't be fooled into reading the lesser of these two works.

Martha Frankel is a contributing editor of Movieline.
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Author:Frankel, Martha
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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