The Success and Failure of Picasso

During my first trip to Europe in late 1990’s, I fell in love with impressionist and Picasso. Came back to the states, I feverishly scouted bookstore after bookstore, hoping to find a biography on Picasso that will quench my thirst of information. A friend recommended John Berger’s “The Success and Failure of Picasso”, saying, “It is the best book I’ve ever read.”

I picked it up, among the Picasso reprint books and biographies I carried out of the bookstore.

All I remembered from that reading experience was that it was exceptionally well-written. I wasn’t satisfied with the book itself because at the time, I was thirsty for facts and events that had happened to the great painter. I was not ready for such a thorough critique of the master’s work. Not yet.

Recently I’ve been spending lots of time on a new Chinese website: It is a book review centric social networkish website. There dotann, my trust-worthy fellow book lover , recommended two books by John Berger: “Way of Seeing” and “About Looking.” Her review sparked my interest again, and I dug up my own copy of “The Success and Failure of Picasso”, the only John Berger book I’ve ever read.

I started re-reading “The Success and Failure of Picasso” late last night, and couldn’t bear to put it down. Such excellent art critique! I wish I could spend the next 24 hours reading this non-stop, what a feast to the mind!

In Preface, regarding Picasso’s Self-Portrait, 1906:

“Painting is the art which reminds us that time and the visible come into being together, as a pair. The place of their coming into being is the human mind, which can coordinate events into a time sequence and appearances into a world seen. With this coming into being of time and the visible, a dialogue between presence and absence begins. We all live this dialogue.

“Consider Picasso’s Self-Portrait, of 1906. What is happening in this painting? Why can this apparently uneventful images move us so deeply?

“The young man’s expression – not untypical for a man of twenty-five – is solitary, attentive, and searching. It is an expression in which loss and waiting combine. yet this is at the level of literature.

“What is happening plastically? The head and body are pressing towards the visible, are searching for a perceptible form, and have not fully found it. They are just at the point of finding it, of alighting on it – like a bird on a roof. The image is moving because it represents a presence striving to beome seen.”

More quotes that I liked, so far:

For Picasso, what he is is far more important than what he does.

The creative spirit, genius as a state of being was celebrated as an end in itself because it alone did not have a price and was unbuyable.

Exile is a state which, in its subjective effects, never stands still: you either feel increasingly exiled as time passes, or increasingly absorbed by your adopted country.

It is – by a paradox – the loneliness of self-sufficiency.

I’m still in chapter 1, page 23/215. Berger is picking Spanish history apart, bit by bit, to demonstrate where Picasso’s spirit came from. Fascinating stuff, i’m telling ya! The book also has many Picasso’s famous paintings in black and white.

I have a feeling that this re-read will present itself as a wonderful lesson, not just on Picasso, but on modern European history/society and of course, art.

One thought on “The Success and Failure of Picasso

  1. Thanks for the hint!

    Well, I can understand the initial fascination with Berger, but he is, of course, trapped in his own idiosyncrasies. (See also )

    Apart from this objection, his book is by far the best to tell the good and the bad from Picassos work apart. In other words, a real attempt to do so still has to be undertaken.

    (See also the last part of my series on Rembrandt’s Bathsheba: Bathsheba by Picasso, )

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