Sunday, 20 October 2013

Picasso by Patrick O'Brian

What prompted me to read this biography of Picasso was the fact that it was written by Patrick O'Brian. In case you haven't heard of him — O'Brian, that is — he wrote the marvellous Aubrey-Maturin series of naval adventures. They are beautifully written and highly intelligent and if you haven't encountered them, seek them out. (I suggest you don't start with the first book in the series, Master and Commander, which I think is the dullest. Perhaps try The Nutmeg of Consolation instead.)

O'Brian is not only a fine writer with a deep knowledge of art, he also had the benefit of personally knowing Picasso, so his biography of the man is uniquely advantaged. It's an absorbing book and brings its subject emphatically to life.

Indeed, it even got me off my ass and down to the Courtauld Gallery in the Strand on a bright wintry morning to see an exhibition of Picasso's early paintings, for which I'm duly grateful.

Picasso's life was an eventful one, marked by love and war. When France fell to the Nazis in May 1940, thanks to incompetence of the French high command, Matisse likened the Generals to the hidebound French art establishment and said, "If everyone did his job as Picasso and I do ours, this would not have happened." 

But in many ways Picasso remained unmoved by the currents of history, a rock in the middle of a river. He lived for his work, which he turned out at a prodigious rate. O'Brian brings his extraordinary talent to life on the page, and it's clear that he regards the artist as something unique among human beings — if not something more than human — and he communicates this admiration to the reader.

O'Brian offers thoughtful commentary on Picasso's works of art, from famous masterpieces like Guernica to the metal sculpture of a goat which originally featured a rubber bulb you could squeeze to emit a farting noise... and the monkey-mother whose head is formed from a toy car that belonged to Picasso's son (see left).

But the writer never takes his own commentary too seriously, adding "This is mere interpretation."

By the 1950s Picasso had become about as famous as it's possible for a man to be. Yet, if anything, that fame grew in the following years, as did the desire of just about everyone to have a piece of Picasso. O'Brian ironically recounts how Franco's government came begging for Guernica in 1969, when they were the very same people whose atrocities had inspired the painting in the first place.

Picasso's tremendously productive life was also impressively long and healthy, perhaps because he followed his doctor's prescription for  "Plenty of sex and red wine."

Although Picasso was often a difficult and even a brutal man, he was more often a kind and likable one. One of the surprises in the book is his love of animals. The sculpture of his pet Afghan hound Kabul can be seen here in Chicago's Daley Plaza (below right), and it's wonderful.

O'Brian's excellent book does full justice to his subject. I suspect it's unsurpassed as a biography of the great man and may remain unsurpassable.

The only thing that could improve it would be a lavishly illustrated edition (the book, frustratingly, has no pictures) or, better yet, an electronic edition where you could just click on the title of any of the art works mentioned and see an image of it displayed on your screen.

(Image credits: The 1907 self portrait at the top of the post is the cover of the edition of O'Brian's book which I read — search as I might I couldn't find this cover anywhere on the world wide web, except for a miserable postage stamp sized image, quite unusable. Grrr. Anyway, this self portrait is from Graphical Gods. The sculpture of Kabul the dog is from Dog Art Today (!) which has a nice article on Picasso and his pooches. 

The blue nude ('Women of Algiers') is from SFMOMA. The lovely tomato plant — grown in his Paris window when food was scarce during the Nazi occupation — is from Feedio. The monkey and her baby is from AC Grenoble. The ravishing full face sketch just above of Sylvette David, the striking blonde with the pony tail, is from a Picasso website. The full face photograph of Sylvette to the right is from Pinterest. The profile drawing of her further above is from Site VIP. The blue abstract profile of her is from Picasa. )


  1. Well, that is good to know. I DID try to read the first of those naval adventures, and was bored and did not continue. So it wasn't just me.

  2. Yes, it's a real shame that Master and Commander is so stodgy. I suggest dipping into the series later on. You may find when you've read some of the other novels that you're so taken with the characters that the first book becomes a lot more engaging. That was certainly my experience. The series is definitely worth another shot. It's outstanding.