Pablo Picasso’s artistic evolution culminated in one huge, irreverent, iconoclastic painting.
Economist contributor Unger (Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces, 2014, etc.), former managing editor of Art New England, focuses on Picasso’s masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to examine the artist’s early career. This period of Picasso’s life has been recounted in detail in memoirs (by his mistress Fernande Olivier, for example, and his friends André Salmon and Gertrude Stein), histories (Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years stands out), and biographies by art historians and scholars. Unger synthesizes this material into a graceful narrative but offers little new. He has uncovered, however, an unpleasant episode in Picasso’s life when he and Fernande adopted a 13-year-old orphan, perhaps because Fernande “thought that a child in their life would bring them closer together.” The project failed: after four months, it became clear that the girl’s presence “was putting unbearable strains on an already strained situation,” and the girl was sent back to the orphanage, escorted by their ever patient and loyal friend Max Jacob. Unger’s Picasso is intense, brilliant—exuding “a dangerous charisma”—and selfish: his ability to compartmentalize “often amounted to callousness, particularly when an emotional entanglement threatened to interfere with his work.” He was superstitious, seeing “magic in form and meaning in coincidence.” For Picasso, Unger asserts, “art was not primarily a visual language but a method of manipulating unseen forces. Cubism was an attempt to invest the image with a potency greater than mere illusion.” His belief in magical forces attracted him to African art, especially fetishes, and to “worn, rubbed, threadbare objects that carry the marks of human usage.” He was a hoarder, as well, and many of his “humble scraps” made their ways into his paintings and sculptures. Unger offers perceptive descriptions of many of Picasso’s major works, not least Les Demoiselles, a painting “too desperate, too restless, too multivalent, to serve as the manifesto of any movement.”
A fine, if familiar, portrayal of a bold, vulnerable, questing artist.