Magazine article The Spectator

In the Steps of the Master

Magazine article The Spectator

In the Steps of the Master

Article excerpt

PICASSO: STYLE AND MEANING by Elizabeth Cowling Phaidon, L75, pp. 703, ISBN 0714829501

This is quite a good book, but perhaps not a very necessary one. For over a decade now, works of Picasso scholarship have been scurrying like white mice round the feet of a periodically awakening lion, in the shape of the slowly issuing volumes of John Richardson's magisterial biography of the artist. The first volume came out in 1991; the second, which takes the story up to 1917, in 1996; and the third volume is eagerly awaited.

The quality, depth and novelty of the two volumes of Richardson's work are such that it is a brave scholar who embarks on any study of Picasso now. In a year or two, your elegant monograph may be completely eclipsed by a volume of `Richardson's Picasso', a book everyone will read and which will be much more informative than anything you have to say. In its command of a social and artistic milieu, its depth of research, its worldliness and entertainment value, the biography is practically unprecedented among works of art history, and, to be blunt, nobody is going to make his reputation as a Picasso scholar for at least a generation apart from those who have directly contributed to Richardson's work.

Elizabeth Cowling brave woman has produced what in other circumstances would be considered a very big book, but I don't think we need trouble with it. It is perfectly OK; it is thoughtful, it is readable, it goes down some of the conventional routes of influence and imagery while registering some useful scepticism on the very basis of these terms of discussion. If I had the thankless task, like Dr Cowling, of interesting the youth of Edinburgh University in Picasso, this is much more the sort of book that I would recommend than Richardson's. Adults will greatly prefer Richardson, which is full of fascinating material about Harry Kessler and the Mona Lisa theft and what-the-pianistsaid-to-Stravinsky-about-the-police man. Children of Edinburgh University, you are not going to be examined upon any of that.

The general thinness of Dr Cowling's book comes home when you reach the passages about the Diaghilev collaborations. Although, unlike some art historians, she does acknowledge that ballets had composers, and there is a certain nodding towards the Diaghilev stable of Satie and Stravinsky and the whole lot, her research stops fairly quickly. I'm not surprised that she was entranced and amused by Stravinsky's published conversations with Robert Craft about the whole period, they are extremely funny books. Someone should have told her what a complete pack of lies they are, however.

But Picasso, what about him? One of the reasons he has established himself as the central figure of 20th-century art is that, as the century went on, we grew less and less convinced of the idea of the coherent, unified human personality. A human being, in Freud, seems like Hamlet with his inescapable dilemmas; one in Lacan, 50 years later, seems like a troupe of commedia dell'arte players, taking on roles according to whim and convention. Picasso alarmed observers from the beginning of his career with his apparently low boredom threshold and ability to be Ingres at one moment, a seat-slashing Apache the next. Painters subsequently, such as Gerhard Richter, have made a conscious effort to deny the idea that le style, c'est l'homme and made mannered attempts to move from one style to another inconsistently. Picasso is alarming because his astonishing technical proficiency, it seemed, allowed him to do anything at all, and we don't see an end to what he might have chosen to do. …

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