a common reader

John Berger, The Success and Failure of Picasso

· 10 August 2007 |  by Janantoon
· Published in: beaux arts · English texts
· Tagged with: ·

Success and Failure of PicassoIn July I went to see some friends in the beautiful city of Münster in Germany. Usually, I combine this with a visit to the fine Graphikmuseum Pablo Picasso. At that moment there was a guest exposition of drawings and paintings from the collection of the Antibes Picasso Museum.

I didn’t stay long. I love Picasso’s work, but sometimes it is too obvious that he was working just for money’s sake. The main work was La joie de vivre, a big canvas, but not one of his better works. This painting was accompanied by several sketches: pencil on paper. That is: very neat pencil drawings on Arches Rives hand made paper. I know the paper because I used it for print making. It is expensive now, it must have been more expensive still in 1946. Not the kind of paper to use for preliminary studies, unless of course you know that every line you put on paper has real money value. In 1946, Picasso was aware of this. When I heard the German guide utter cliché upon cliché, I had to leave.

Picasso himself suffered from this lack of critical approach. Even a genius, which he was, needs a sounding board, needs friends and critics that dare to make sensible remarks.
I was happy to find this very honest study by John Berger. As always, his view is sharp and clear and he knows how to express his thoughts.

This study of Picasso’s work (it is not a biography, although I learned more about his life here than from reading some biographies) was already published in 1965 and later re-edited in 1989. In 1965 — Picasso was still alive — the book must have been a shock. In the preface the author confirms:

I wrote this book more than twenty years ago. When it first came out, in 1965, it was attacked in many places, if not everywhere, as being insolent, insensitive, doctrinaire and perverse. In England, the land of the Gentlemen, it was also dismissed as being in bad taste. Picasso was still alive and at the height of his fame. Hagiographic books and articles came out every year. The critical response to my book somewhat surprised me. I thought I had written an essay informed by sympathy for the artist and the man it concerned. Perhaps now, with the passing of the years, this sympathy for the protagonist of the story I tell is more evident.


This was written in 1989, now almost twenty years ago, but the book is still as vivid as when it was first published. John Berger opened my eyes on several aspects of Picasso’s life and work: about the nature of his genius and the drama of his solitude. About the curious ups and downs in his work and about his lack of subjects.
It is certainly the best study I ever read about Picasso, apart from photo books like those by David Duncan Douglas.

John Berger
Pablo Picasso

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