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How useful is the concept of genius for understanding Picasso?

The notion of genius, though an old and problematic concept is still, to this day, an adjective
that seems irreversibly attached to the name of Pablo Picasso in modern scholarship, for
better or for worse. In 1957, George Braque lamented, Picasso used to be a great painter.
Now he is only a genius1.This essay seeks to find out how the notion of genius changed by
the time Braque uttered these words, and how Picasso himself, sought to change and control
it through his performance and art and its mediation in popular culture. The focus of this
essay will be a collection of 180 drawings made over a nine week period from November
1953 to February 1954.
An anecdote in Francoise Gilots autobiographical book Life with Picasso tells the story of
Picasso meeting Charlie Chaplin, a man he greatly admired, for the first time in Paris in 1952.
Picasso didnt speak English, nor Chaplin French, so Picasso decided to establish an alltogether different means of communication, omitting the help of translators:
I took him upstairs to see my painting studio and showed him the pictures I had been
working on recently. When I finished, I gave him a bow and a flourish to let him
know it was his turn. He understood at once...and performed that marvellous dance
with the rolls, from the New Years Eve dinner sequence in The Gold Rush.2
There are two interesting points at play here. Firstly, the treatment of art by Picasso as
performance, and secondly, this performance as a means of communication. Certainly, both
of these themes are apparent in the set of sketches that are the focus of this essay, but firstly
we shall discuss about the role of Picasso the celebrity, which had become as much a part of
his artistic agency as his role as genius by the 1950s.
Picasso had acquired the fame of an actor, and this was particularly apparent in the media
circulating at the time. An advert featured in a 1954 edition of The Aberdeen Evening
Express for the Sunday Graphic very clearly illustrates this. The tabloid newspaper has
chosen to equate the genius of Picasso to the fame of film stars such as Greta Garbo and
Audrey Hepburn; Cecil Beaton (a celebrity photographer), lift(ing) the curtain so that one
might observe the lives of the rich and famous as a parade of personalities. This celebrity
image certainly sought to ground Picasso in the everyday. Even a serious scholar like John

1
2

Hamilton, Hamish. Georges Braque: A Life. London, 2005. Pp. 346.


Gilot, Franoise, and Lake, Carlton. Life with Picasso. McGraw-Hill Inc, New York: 1964. Pp. 326-327.

Richardson, John Berger scoffs, describes what Picasso wears


and eats for breakfast. It is, after all, the very condition of the
celebrity that makes every act seem significant and it was the
appeal of Picassos charisma that invited such a status.3
Although, as C. F. B. Miller argues in his essay, The Formation
of Genius, this was perhaps but another facet of Picassos
artistic agency.4
This sense of the Personality Parade is particularly prevalent
in Picassos sketches, playing with identity with the ease of a
director. The role of the performer, which Picasso had been
aware of, and identified with ever since the beginning of his
career and his own formation of genius, spills across the page of
every drawing. Reality or make-believe? That is the essential
problem set us by the theatre, and indeed by every form of art
states Michel Leiris in his introduction to the publication of the
Figure 1. Image D.C.Thomson & Co. Ltd.
Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH
LIBRARY BOARD.

drawings.5 Scholars have firmly cited these works as deeply


autobiographical; Leiris terming them a day to day journal.6
This analysis seems likely to be correct as the overarching theme
of the 180 drawings is the artist and model. Picasso gives the
impression of questioning his own role as artist-creator
through a set of players: the clown, the monkey, the woman,
the old man and the acrobat. The multiplicity of forms are at
once both comedy and tragedy (figure two) and this is
reflected quite literally in Picassos use of masks, a motif that

Figure 2. Comic and Tragic masks from a mosaic in a


Roman Villa.

permeates the drawings throughout. In figure three, the man


and the woman hold up classical-style Comedy and Tragedy-

esque masks towards each other, in a position that reflects a conversational stance. These
masks, which are normally used as theatre aids are being used as a visual means of
communication between the two figures. Michel Leiris discusses these masked figures in
3

Berger, John. The Success and Failure of Picasso. Pantheon Books, New York: 1965. Pp. 179.
Miller, C. F. B. The Formation of Genius. In Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901. Ed. Barnaby Wright, London:
Courtauld Institute of Art; 2013. Pp. 88
5
Leiris, Michel. A Suite of 180 Drawings by Picasso; Picasso and the Human Comedy. Random House
Publishing, 1954. Pp. 2.
6
Leiris, Picasso and the Human Comedy, pp. 3.
4

Figure 3.

relation to the theme of metamorphosis. The couple hold the masks slightly away from their
faces, which are just as visible. The serene, beautiful woman and the small, bizarre man have
used their masks to swap genders, but the audience is not duped because their naked bodies
and genitalia are fully exposed. So this is a failed metamorphosis a botched attempt at
transformation and can only be regarded as a fraud or a buffoon, that is to say, a comic
figure.7
The reoccurring clich of these works is that of the sad clown: Picasso is clearly referencing
the motif of the circus that he began to employ near the start of his career. A second Charlie
Chaplin anecdote from Gilots book may help to shed some light:
The real tragedy (Picasso) said, lies in the fact that Chaplin can no longer assume
the physical appearance of the clown because hes no longer slender, no longer
young, and no longer has the face and expression of his little man but that of a man
whos grown old. His body isnt really him anymoreAnd now hes a lost soul just
another actor in search of his individuality, and he wont be able to make anybody
laugh.8

7
8

Leiris, Picasso and the Human Comedy, pp. 10.


Gilot, and Lake. Life with Picasso. Pp. 327.

Figure 4.

Figure 5.

Picasso, who was seventy-two at the time the drawings were executed, seems to make the
audience acutely aware of his disdain for aging; the figure of the old man looming absurd and

grotesque in almost all of the sketches. Figure four, when compared to figure five seems
almost to be a visual manifestation of Picassos words about Chaplin, though we may be able
to apply them to Picassos fear of aging and death. In figure four, the woman is posed sitting
down, positioned vulnerably, and pulling up her stockings, her genitals are exposed to the
circus performer in the right-hand side of the picture. The position of the woman explicitly
suggests that the pair are post-coitus. The clowns features are non-descript and anonymous,
they are simply human, but they are at least young. In contrast to the old man that has lost his
individuality, this clown is young enough to pick and choose his, demonstrated by the careful
application of stage make-up as he looks up into a mirror. He is self-absorbed for a minute,
he does not need the woman presently, but he can have her if he wants. In comparison, the
clown in figure five must watch from the side-lines, his make-up is old and ugly, it runs down
his face but he is powerless to change it, it makes him look like every other old clown. He
looks longingly down at the sexual milieu in front of him, yet he can only sit and stare, his
hands clasped on his lap, calm, yet unanimated. He is not ready for a performance, he is not
ready to make anyone laugh.
Perhaps then, these pictures demonstrate a deep-rooted frustration with the aging process:
making a man out of touch with the world and its earthly pleasures, therefore detaching him
from his own identity. The impotence of the clown demonstrated in figure five could not only
point to a sexual frustration within the aging body of Picasso, but this theme of pro-creation,
of life (represented by the woman), could easily be mapped onto Picassos artistic-creative
output itself. In Linda Neads article Seductive Canvases, Nead genders the production
process of the artist-genius. This artist is masculine and virile, the canvas is, as Frenhofer puts
it, not a canvasbut a woman, white and virginal;9 creativity is a labour of love, a moment
charged with sexual energy. Although this is a heavily romanticized reading of the notion of
artistic genius, it does hold some resonance with Picassos sketches. The sad clown for
instance, in figure five, cannot pro-create, and perhaps that is to say that he cannot create, for
this romantic reading of genius attaches artistic creation to the corporeal. Perhaps Berger
would agree with this analysis, as he states that as Picasso grew older, He had to discount

Nead, Linda. Seductive Canvases: Visual Mythologies of the Artist and Artistic Creativity. Oxford Art Journal,
Vol. 18, No. 2 (1995), pp. 59-69. Pp. 59.

his own body and with it, its subjects.10 Is Picasso questioning himself as creator? As
Father, lover, god11?
A viewer must be cautious however. If we look at the complete set of drawings, the multiple
layers created; the various characters, the masks and the duality of Comedy and Tragedy
serve to confound the viewer, their meaning so personal, that it renders the question of Who
is the real Picasso and what is he trying to convey in these drawings? almost obsolete; the
theme of confession, as a whole, is quite ambiguous12, Berger delineated. Since these
drawings are regarded by scholars as Picassos confession13 or journal14 then it follows
that they would serve to make the man himself more mysterious, and, as a result, more

Figure 6

inviting. Perhaps Picasso was also aware of this status as a shape-shifting enigma that meant
he was in some way identity-less in the public conscience. Figure six conceivably
demonstrates that he was. A woman sits, wearing a mask in a classic pose that is evocative of
10

Berger. The Success and Failure of Picasso. Pp. 172.


Nead. Seductive Canvases: Visual Mythologies of the Artist and Artistic Creativity. Pp. 61.
12
Berger. The Success and Failure of Picasso. Pp. 186.
13
Ibid.
14
Leiris, Picasso and the Human Comedy, pp. 3.
11

an artists model, she seems almost to be raised on a platform, dominating the left side of the
sketch. On the right stands a canvas, Picasso deals the viewer another trick, as we expect her
to be reflected in paint within it, however, this is a self-portrait. The role of the artist is
assigned by the three paintbrushes it holds in its right hand. The plain canvas is marked only
by a shape that realises a human being with a child-like sensibility in a uniform washed black
watercolour, contrasted by the white of the canvas, which almost fades into air. It is
genderless and devoid of any distinguishing features, save the paintbrushes. It could be
almost anything if it was only positioned in a
different way, an animal, for instance, if it was
portrayed on all fours. Picasso plays his cards close to
his chest in his treatment of the background, which
reveals little to nothing about its counterpart in the
foreground. Abstracted forms like the black crosses
intersecting a diamond pattern, (are they errors?
Roman numerals?) and a concertina-like construction
on the far right side with what looks to be a faint bust
of a woman on top of it. These features provide no
insight and only make the drawing thoroughly
unreadable.
This is what Nead terms as a process of the
disembodiment15 which removes the persona of the
artist from the work. Figure 6, is eerily similar to a
photo (figure 7) taken on the set of Henri-Georges
Figure 7. Portrait of Picasso on the set of La Mystire
Picasso, 1956, by Edward Quinn.

Clouzots film Le Mystire Picasso, even though it


was filmed over two years later. The black silhouette

of Picasso, which we only know to be the artist because we are told, against the white
potentiality of a blank canvas. The film, in part, sought to remove Picasso from the method of
his artistic creation by filling the entire screen with the other side of the paper that the artist
worked on, the colour and shapes leaking through. Cinema must defer to painting in order to
maintain the myth of the Picasso mystery16, observes Nead. The agency of Picasso was not
short of myth and magic, as many writers of the time, sought to enshrine him within a

15
16

Nead. Seductive Canvases: Visual Mythologies of the Artist and Artistic Creativity. Pp. 62.
Nead. Seductive Canvases: Visual Mythologies of the Artist and Artistic Creativity. Pp. 64.

thoroughly supernatural tradition. Teriade imagines Picassos lonely nights at Vallauris


where Women, paintersthe horses and the monkeys and the clowns (wait) to be conjured
up by his brush17.
Roland Penrose wrote in his introduction to Edward Quinns book Picasso at Work that
although cameras have recorded thousands, perhaps millions of pictures of him, there
remains a desire to know more, a desire which is based on our lack of understanding of how
the mind of an artist functions18. This treatment of Picasso the famous performer contrasted
with Picasso the ethereal genius which began during his lifetime and was formalised after his
death was really due to the condition of Picassos age. As John Berger highlights; Success
had been Picassos destiny, and that is what makes him the typical artist of our time, as Van
Gogh was of his19, no longer did the genius have to be a martyr, fame and prosperity were
now available to the artist during their lifetime. It is Picassos masterful mediation of these
two, conceivably very different worlds, that surrounded him with both ambiguity and a public
desire to unravel the mystery, serving to engender a truly modern mythology that has lasted
into the twenty-first
century and looks set to
remain for much longer.

Brigitte Bardot visits Picasso in Vallauris, 1956.

17

Leiris, Picasso and the Human Comedy, np.


Quinn, Edward. Picasso: Photographs from 1951-1972. Barron's, New York, 1980, np.
19
Berger. The Success and Failure of Picasso. Pp. 202.
18

Words: 2, 543
Bibliography
Nead, Linda. Seductive Canvases: Visual Mythologies of the Artist and Artistic Creativity.
Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 18, No. 2 (1995), pp. 59-69.
Berger, John. The Success and Failure of Picasso. Pantheon Books, New York: 1965.
Miller, C. F. B. The Formation of Genius. In Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901. Ed. Barnaby
Wright, London: Courtauld Institute of Art; 2013.

Leiris, Michel. A Suite of 180 Drawings by Picasso; Picasso and the Human Comedy.
Random House Publishing, 1954.
Quinn, Edward. Picasso: Photographs from 1951-1972. Barron's, New York, 1980.
Gilot, Franoise, and Lake, Carlton. Life with Picasso. McGraw-Hill Inc, New York: 1964.
Hamilton, Hamish. Georges Braque: A Life. London, 2005.