Picasso has become the object of a myth to the detriment of the understanding of his work and what makes its originality. As long ago as 1930, Georges Bataille and Carl Einstein, in the magazine Documents, warned that he represented both all the freedom of the time and everything people strove to divert and simplify in exchange for a little comfort. Finding out received ideas was in a way the price to pay to face a work which challenged all normalization of the artistic experience. A recent symposium aimed at discussing the many recurring clichés and the various aspects of the construction of the myth.
It took place in the Chapel of the French National School of Fine Arts(Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts), on November 29 and 30, 2002, on the initiative of Bertrand Dorléac and Androula Michaël, with the support of the National School of Fine Arts, the French National Art History Institute, the French University Institute, the Center of 20th Century European History, (Political Science National Foundation)*. It was introduced by the archeologist and director of the National Art History Institute, Alain Schnapp, and by the art historian and director of the National School of Fine Arts, Henry-Claude Cousseau.
The proceedings have not been published yet, but the first conclusions drew from 17 high-level speeches, given by Picasso specialists and non-specialists alike, during 4 meetings presided by art historian Marc Dachy and curators Claire Stoullig, Marie-Laure Bernadac and Thomas Llorens, director of the Thyssen Foundation in Madrid.
Eric Michaud opened the first session by studying Matisse’s and Picasso’s different visions of the world. He set off Matisse’s redeeming conception of art against Picasso’s construction of an uninhabitable art in a world which had became uninhabitable. Laurence Bertrand Dorléac then evoked the way in which the myth of a resistant Picasso during the German occupation of France was the fruit of a long historical process. This founded a double artistic and political heroism which made useless any justification from the acts, as they had become less significant than the symbolic dimension of the work, seen as revolutionnary and capable of changing the world in itself. The Canadian art historian Serge Guibault praised Picasso’s ability to sit on the fence after the war, caught between the French Communist Party, the Soviets and the Americans, and attacked in turn by each of them. The artist Jean-Jacques Lebel went back over the subversive content of Picasso’s work, in particular in terms of erotism, an aspect regularly censured. Philippe Dagen and later Didier Ottinger assessed Picasso’s importance for contemporary artists which, contrary to received ideas, is apparently still genuine. Françoise Levaillant studied the way in which the historian can still find a place in the identification process with the painful figure of Dora Maar who holds a prime position in the Picassian mythology. Androula Michaël and Marc Guastavino used precise examples to show that Picasso’s writing was not a light-hearted game but a construction to which he dedicated time, especially as regards mathematics, a little known aspect of his work which does not correspond to the idea of an artist perceived as being spontaneous or even brutal. Anne Baldassari showed, through a series of photographic self-portraits, how Picasso contributed to the construction of his own myth as a modern painter. Michel Poivert recalled and analyzed the relationship of the artist with Brassaï. This helps explaining Picasso’s conception of photography as being historically caught between its function as an art-document and its status as a work of art in its own right, Brassaï’s photographs probably extending in the end the aura of the original work. Emmanuel Pernoud gave his own answer to Picasso’s detractors, who accused him of drawing “like a child”, by analyzing the relationship he had with the genre and recalling the instrumentalizing conceptions of the time. Maurice Fréchuret attacked the myth of an exuberant and prolix Picasso in a plethoric work. He relied on a series of works which, on the contrary, preserved strange, silent and empty spaces : black windows, blind mirrorsor blank canvases. The Belgian art historian Michel Draguet questioned Picasso’s relation with abstraction (which is never really acknowledged), and thus helped to provide arguments to critics who soon shunned his “hermetic” production in favour of ananchoring in the real. Picasso, here as elsewhere, did not bring things to a close and allowed the ambiguity to remain. Laurent Gervereau, fighting against the idea of Picasso seen as an eternal revolutionnary, pointed out his contradictions and the various paths he refused in terms of modernity, while he remained attached to artistic figures and positions which he labelled conservative, creating a strong public reaction. Serge Bismuth, following the thinking of Charles S. Peirce,questionned the anchoring of his work divided between an assured drawing and “casual” treatment of painting. Bernard Marcadé reconsidered the question of the signature, the brand and the brand image, showing how his art is also an art of the attitude and how Picasso has become a generic term, a common noun which reaches far beyond the scope of art history. And finally Brigitte Léal studied a large corpus and established a typology of the numerous Picassian biographies. She analyzed their contents between reality, fiction, legend and mythology. She carried this out without retrospective mockery and respecting the tone of a symposium which avoided all historical triomphalism, such as “how stupid were those who fell into mythology !”.
After the symposium, it appeared that the myth obviously keeps reappearing at all times and in all places. It is therefore not by coincidence that Georges Bataille had been invoked, as he had effectively diagnosed in the 1920s and 1930s the disappearance of the traditional myths, and warned that there would necessarily be displacements elsewhere, towards foul places, and that men in the end needed superlative beliefs.
This symposium, set from the beginning in the wake of an historical thought which has taken anthropology into account, showed in a practical way how history is made. Regarding Picasso, and all the more so as he is the subject of an extensive historiography, the meeting has shown through the best examples, how there is in the historical process itself, in the practice of history, a quest for truth which has nothing to do with moralism and idolatry. Yet there is also in past – and present – history all that is needed to nurture the myth, as the myth is by defintion an historical account. This symposium avoided many pitfalls, above all the most conventional one, which consists in an easy overstatement of a new mythology based on the overestimation of Picasso’s power on the world, had it been proven that he had been the conscious and diabolical creator of his own myth. This was not the case, even if the interventions showed his capacities in terms of discernement and social imagination, in art and in politics, in poetry, in mathematics, in love, in self-image (in this famous “perpetual self-portrait”, to use Anne Baldassari’s expression, in words given to others so that they can be stolen and end up “nearly true” (as Bernard Marcadé recalled citing the words of Simone Théry). One has to be quite functionnalist . Picasso’s opportunism was recalled more than once, but it did not create a conflict with his courageous stands. He appears as resolutely playful and as the creator of a kind of arena in which the art of dodging and attacking is alternatively mastered nearly from the beginning. Emmanuel Pernoud recalled that as a very young man, he gave his father, on the same drawing, skillful and academic pidgeons, imposing on him at the same time, by dividing the sheet (and the world) into two parts, a free and rebellious bullfight. If there exists a tendancy to trivialize the past, and if historical thinking has always consisted in a fight against this tendancy, this symposium has exemplified this, by attacking clichés. It did not necessarily entail falling under the spell of its “hero” (title of the book on Picasso published by Philippe Sollers in 1996), but also acknowledged the virtues of his recurring fight against reassuring practices. Regarding this, Eric Michaud brilliantly opened the symposium by showing that, contrary to Matisse who wants to draw the spectator away from the chaos of the world, Picasso, while he also wishes to psychically transform the spectator through ” physical” means, undertakes this without seducing him, and if needs be through repulsion, taking him back to his downfall without promising him salvation through the image, but a journey to the end of the strangeness and violence of the world.