The Tribune - Spectrum


, March 17, 2002

Picasso’s flight of the spirit
Review by Shelley Walia

Picasso's Mask
by Andre Malraux. De Capo Press, New York. Pages 271. $16.95

SHE resembled her portraits: the pretty Arlesian type, a Roman model with an aquiline nose. This is how Andre Malraux saw her that morning following Pablo Picasso's death. When he died on April 8, 1973, in Mougins, his friend the French art critic and political activist, Andre Malraux was invited by Picasso's widow, Jacqueline Roque, to have a last look at his collection. It had snowed unusually on April 10 when his coffin was brought to a 14th century Chateau Vauvenargues from Mougins. Though he had bought the chateau, he fell in love with a small village Mougins some miles from Cannes, deciding to settle there. It is in the chateau that, surrounded by Picasso's last paintings 'painted face to face with death' and his collection, Malraux reminisced his friend's defiant life and the transmutation of his art. Picasso's Mask is a defence of modernism where Malraux examines African art that deeply influenced Picasso. The imperialist scramble for 'savage' cultures had enabled artists like Picasso to legitimise alternative views reflecting aboriginal impulses common to all people. Malraux knew him well and recollects the memorable conversations which conveyed Picasso's sensitivity to ancient forms. The encounter with his wife is more of a revelation of Picasso's life, his moods, his likes and dislikes all emerging from the widow's disconsolate past permeated with her love for him.


Entering the farmhouse, Malraux confronts two small portraits by Douanier Rousseau, a figure by Derain, and looking down from above, Douanier's life-size head of 'Yadwiga'. His Renoirs, his Chardin, his Cézannes and the serenity of a Matisse are shattered by his works which inherently are in conflict with nature: 'Obviously nature has to exist so that we may rape it.' His laughing Satyr seemed to be laughing at all those paintings, stressing that continuity of style for him was being against God: 'Down with style! Does God have a style? He made a guitar, the Harlequin, the dachshund, the cat, the owl, the dove. The elephant and the whale, fine — but the elephant and the squirrel? A real hodgepodge! He made what does not exist. So did I. He even made paint. So did I.' His working principle was: 'One must do everything on the condition that one never does it again.

Picasso's collection of some more Matisses, Cézanne's 'Bathers', a figure by Carot, a Van Dongen fauve crowd the room along with two dominating works by Braque who had loved 'Negro' masks only because they were 'good sculptures'. As Picasso put it, 'he did not find them hostile or foreign, he doesn't understand these things at all: he is not superstitious!' But Picasso had found the masks 'magical intercesseurs'. They were against everything — against the unknown and threatening spirits. They were arms to assist people wrestle spirits. Picasso believed strongly that the great masterpiece 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' came to him because 'it was my first exorcism-painting.' Here lay the metamorphosis of the soul, a view that painting and sculpture does nothing but save the soul. Here was his deep sensitivity to ancient forms, forms like the bull, the skull, the horse that are present in 'Guernica'.

These were toys he had played with all his life. The 'Woman with Baby Carriage', the 'Little Girl Skipping', 'The Reaper', all he had frolicked with. He had played at making a woman out of a packet of cigarettes; not a string lying on the floor escaped his eye. A pebble on the road, if it took his fancy, went into his pocket to be used later. He was delighted when he put together a bicycle seat and handlebars, but he was even more elated when he created a horse out of them. But the secret language of all these works is their unity.

The reaction in the late 19th century against naturalism in art led to a progression of various movements in the 20th century. In each of these periods of advancement Picasso played a central part. His subject matter grew less gloomy as he developed and included dancers, acrobats, and harlequins. In 1907, Picasso set off in an entirely unusual direction with 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon'. This painting demonstrates the weight of his new absorption with primitive art and carvings, principally those of African derivation. The picture epitomizes a foremost defining moment in art because it opened the door to cubism and the later abstract movement. By the time he painted 'Guernica', his stirring vision of the Spanish Civil War, the straight lines of early cubism had given way to curved forms.

The book is amazing for its animating force, with the 'mask' in the title representing a range of facets of the artist's life. It is not only a warm memoir, but a meticulous commentary and investigation of much of his work that brings out its worth to modernism as well as the palpable presence of the 'Museum Without Walls' felt in the very ambience of Picasso's house at Mougins, a response to art works in the same way as one discovers objects and feelings.