Killing the Legends

Picasso: Creator and Destroyer

By Arianna Huffington, $22.95

Simon and Schuster: New York

558 pp.

AND Caesar is fallen, proclaimed Cassius.

Heroes, like kings and horse-drawn carriages, are irrelevant in the modern world, which is why assassins gather at every publishing house determined to eliminate the last vestiges of the old heroic myths.

"Picasso is dead," trumpets Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington in her new biography of the 20th century's most visible artist, Picasso: Creator and Destroyer. The book--and the concept behind it--is at one with the purpose of the other giant-killers, as it seeks to dismantle our comfortable and timehonored portrait of the artist.

The problem is that in destroying the myth of the man we receive no insights into the man as creator. We are told that our artistic hero--Picasso--was a human myth, as well. We learn that he had insecurities and parents and love affairs and friends and children. We learn that he often betrayed his parents, his lovers, his friends and his children.

But aside from facile parallels that Huffington draws between Picasso's treatment of his current lover and that woman's appearance in his work, there is no effort made to probe the source of Picasso's artistic wellspring. The biographer has taken Andy Warhol's dictum that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes too seriously, and, angered by Picasso's constant fame, she has tried to steal a few precious moments in the spotlight for herself at the artist's expense.

What is meant to be the true story of Picasso turns out to be nothing more than an expression of Huffington's personal agenda. In the preface, she compares Picasso to Don Juan and the god Krishna and says that writing his biography was like having an intimate relationship with the artist. Until she broke up with him, that is.

HUFFINGTON is determined to fit Picasso into a symbolic context--showing him to be alternately creator, then destroyer. But any biography with so rigid a framework invariably paints a black-and-white picture of the person it seeks to portray. To Huffington, Picasso was a destroyer and his art a negation of human values. Her evidence for this, however, is not drawn from the vast body of Picasso's works; it comes from the bitter testimony of the artist's former lovers and friends. His sex life, it would seem, was the expression of Picasso's true soul.

And it was a seamy and often sadistic sex life that Huffington chronicles in her book. From the age of 15, when Picasso discovered women in the brothels of Barcelona, to the antics of a 77-year old man, fighting back death with a continual succession of faceless women, Picasso had an infinite capacity to take and an inability to love, according to the book.

He was grasping and selfish, manipulative and impenetrable, mischevious and arbitrary. He had affairs with women half his age and he was incapable of breaking anything off, so he would string his admirers along even after he had found a replacement. Huffington cites these pyschological traits as evidence of Picasso's fatally flawed nature. But her analysis stems as much from animosity as from psychological insight.

The evidence of Picasso the destroyer is tragic. The suicides of his second wife, of his grandson and of Marie-Therese Walter, his mistress of many years; the psychic disintegration of his first wife; the nervous breakdowns of Dora Maar, the brilliant artist who was his mistress during the time of Guernica--all are part of a formidable list of casualties among those who came too close to the destructive fallout of his personality.

Such an approach to Picasso renders the book simplistic and biased. Huffington bases a large part of the last sections of the book on her interviews with Francoise Gilot, the woman who left Picasso after bearing him two children. And Huffington is so unabashedly admiring of Gilot that the reader wonders if a biography of her wouldn't have been a more appropriate subject for the author.

It is not that Huffington makes no interesting points about Picasso the man, only that she wants too much to thrust her conclusions upon the reader. To break down a myth is a difficult thing, though, and Huffington is not an effective enough demagogue to accomplish the task.

THE problematic aspects of her analysis are compounded by the breathless tone which infects the book. The author seems stunned to realize that Picasso ate, slept, drank, defecated, etc. And when she reveals that Picasso actually did mean and petty things, Huffington writes with a disdain and lack of comprehension that only reveal how deeply she still sees the master artist as a mythic figure.

Picasso's life "was, in a very real sense, the twentieth century's own autobiography," Huffington writes at one point. That statement can be seen as the epigraph for the book's failings, as well as for the man it seeks to portray, because the book embraces wholeheartedly the narrow commonplaces which comprise bestselling books today. If there are no heroes, only 15-minute celebrities, then the People magazine school of biography is appropriate for cultural figures.

But if there is still an Art that transcends sexual foibles and the quirks of personality, then Huffington's book--and her approach to the subject--is a failure. Her critique of Picasso the publicity seeker and sadist makes no contribution to our understanding of the artist at work and very little to our understanding of the artist at play.