Picasso studies are threatening to become the Kmart of 20th-Century art history. "My art is my diary," the master said, "it's even dated." Because of the close links between Picasso's work and his life, so intermeshed that every new mistress ushered a new style of painting, insights into the Picasso phenomenon are far cheaper to acquire than intuitions concerning Matisse or Miro; and because it concerns the most legendary celebrity icon of the postwar years, Picassology can be sold with a far larger margin of profit. So various members of the bande a Picasso have gainfully hawked their wares for the past decades--acolytes and early boon companions (Sabartes, Andre Salmon); literary peers (Apollinaire, Gertrude Stein, Max Jacob); former mistresses (Fernande Olivier, Francoise Gilot, Genvieve LaPorte); even the mistresses' acolytes (James Lord on Dora Marr).
In the past decade, however, we have been confronted with the novel phenomenon of pop-Picassology. An enterprising dilettante who had never so much as glimpsed Picasso in a crowd--Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington--incurred the derision of the art world in 1988 by retailing her two-pennies' worth of psycho-babble on the master. Unfortunately, one of our greatest writers, Norman Mailer, has now followed Huffington's treacherous path. His reasons remain somewhat opaque. For beyond the fact that they are two of the most phallocentric and self-mythologizing luminaries of modern times, the only discernible affinity between Pablo and Norman is their belief in the equivalence of artistic power and sexual energy: "Why not put sexual organs in place of eyes and eyes between legs?" Picasso once suggested in one of his frequent equations between the creative and the procreative act. "I write with my balls," Mailer declared in the early 1970s at a tumultuous symposium on art and politics. ("What color ink do you use, Norman?" a woman's voice piped up from the audience.)
Attempting to justify his ill-advised new venture, in the preface to "Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man," Mailer states that some decades ago he spent a summer studying the 33 volumes of Christien Zervos' Cahiers d'Art edition of Picasso (an experience "equal to reading all of Shakespeare in two months") but had not then felt "ready" to tackle this particular colossus of genius and lust. Such long-held reverence does not assure a successful text: In view of Mailer's habitual braggadocio, his new book, which attempts to document Picasso's first 35 years, is an impassioned, well-meaning, but curiously tentative and wobbly work. Lacking Huffington's presumptions, Mailer is too honest to feign confident intimacy with Picasso's oeuvre ; his efforts to decode the master's paintings, and the severe limitations of his aesthetic judgments, call to mind an equine veterinarian attempting microsurgery on the human eye. Assessing Picasso's period of Analytic Cubism as a style "centered on death and dissolution," Mailer speculates that it "grew out of the inside of the nose, for, indeed, its interior is often a cavernous, clotted, intricate web, full of bogs, stalactites . . . filament-like hairs." As for Picasso's later, "Synthetic" Cubism, he dismisses it as a shallow decorative exercise that merely "livened up the walls in a fashion that still puts interior decorators to shame."
So much for Picasso the artist. Mailer's insights into Picasso the man are made equally disconcerting by the woolly meta-religious lingo--derived from Mailer's familiar brand of Orphic sexology--in which they are cloaked. Striving to decipher Picasso's ambiguous blend of fierce misogyny and gaga woman-worship, Mailer ventures that women obsessed him because they were "the last available manifestation of that Creator whose secrets he had hoped to capture." There is also a scrumptious passage about Picasso's mistress Fernande Olivier, the beauty who dominated his life between the beginning of his Rose period (1905) and the onset of Analytic Cubism (1912) and whose lavishly quoted memoirs saturate Mailer's pages: "With Fernande, he had entered the essential ambiguity of deep sex, where . . . a phallus, once emplaced within a vagina, can become more aware [of] the vagina than of its own phallitude."