By Norman Mailer

Atlantic Monthly Press

Copyright © 1995 Norman Mailer.All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-87113-608-2


Picasso, delivered at 11:15 p.m. in the city of Malaga. October 25, 1881, cameout still born. He did not breath neither did he cry. The midwife gave upand turned her attention to the mother. If it had not been for the presence ofhis uncle Dr. Salvador Ruiz, the infant might never have come to life. Don Salvadorhowever leaned over the stillbirth and exhaled cigar smoke into its nostrils.Picasso stirred. Picasso screamed. A genius came to life. His first breath must haveentered on a rush of smoke, searing to the throat scorching to the lungs, and lacedwith the stimulants of nicotine. It is not unfair to say that the harsh spirit oftobacco is seldom absent from his work.

Since such family accounts are open to exaggeration. Don Salvador may notactually have shocked the newborn into life. All the same, the story is agreeable. Itexplains much. Spanish surgeons, for example, do not like to give painskillers togored toreros when cleaning out the wound. Their premise is that the body willheal faster if it has suffered the torment: it must be quintessentially Spanish toassume that reality is the indispensable element in a cure. Don Salvador could havebeen offering that whiff of smoke as an objective correlative: "Wake up, nino"might have been the message. "Life in these parts will seldom smell better thanthis."

While rapid summary is seldom satisfactory, a quick description can probablybe given of the relatives surrounding the infant. Picasso's father, Jose Ruiz Blasco,was the next-to-youngest son in a large family which was proud to trace its wayback to a few aristocratic ancestors. One of them, "Juan de Almoguera, born inCordova in 1605, became both an Archbishop and the Viceroy and Captain Generalof Peru." (He even "became famous for his forceful denunciation of the corruptionprevalent at that time in monasteries or convents.") By 1850, however,the family was no better than middle-class. Commerce had beckoned - Picasso'spaternal grandfather manufactured gloves. In turn, several of his sons became successfulprofessionals: a doctor; a diplomat of lower rank; a canon in the cathedral.Picasso's father, however, called himself a painter, and did not work too hard at itwhen young. He was better known, for a time, as a man about town.

Tall, elegant, blue-eyed, "thin and fair, he wassometimes called `the Englishman'" by hisMalagueno friends and was easily the mostspoiled member of the family, even managing fora number of years to live rent-free with his olderbrother Pablo, the canon, while developing hisown reputation as a bachelor sport. (He was oneof the regulars at an upper-class brothel run byLola La Chata where the whores would awaittheir clients "in a conventional sitting-roomalmost as if they were daughters of the bourgeoisie,"and the mise-en-scene would includeknitting, sewing, reading.)

It was not until the age of thirty-seven thatJose Ruiz was finally obliged to go to work. Hebecame an art instructor at the Escuela de BellasArtes in Malaga, and five years later marriedMaria Picasso Lopez who was then twenty-five.

He had married down. His bride was "small and vivacious with black eyes anddark hair," but she was without a dowry. In Malaga, the family Picasso washardly in social balance to the family Ruiz. What she could offer to the marriagewere large funds of energy and a set of thrifty habits well equipped to make themost of the restricted income that came in from her husband's two low-payingjobs: He was also curator at the local museum.

His wife breought in tow the women of her family - her widowed mother, hertwo spinster sisters, Eladia and Eliodora, and a maid. So, the child of Jose Ruizand Maria Picasso, first to be sired by any of the Ruiz Blasco brothers, would nowspend his next few years surrounded by five women all eager to be service tohim, all ready to take delight in his everymove. They make up his first royalentourage. He was christened Pablo DiegoJose Francisco de Paulo Juan NepomucenoMaria de los Remedios Crispin CrispianoSantisima Trinidad ruiz y Picasso or, inbrief, Pablo Ruiz. As an example of prevailingsentiment, his mother would later say,- He was an angel and a devil in beauty. Noone could erase looking at him." Of course,his mother claimed to have told him: "If youbecome a soldier, you'll be a general. If youbecome a priest, you'll end up as the Pope!"

In 1990, just before embarking for Parison his first visit at the age of nineteen, hewould do a self-potrait (now lost) that hetitled Vo-el Rey, and he would sign it threetimes for emphasis. "I, the King; 1, the King;1, the King." It helps us to take measure of the self-importance that burgeons in asmall boy adored by so many women. Of course, be only remains a king within theworld of maiden aunts: he is defenseless as soon as he steps outside.

His sister Lola was born three years after Pablo and just three days after anearthquake devastated Malaga. The family fled their apartment on the Plaza de laMerced to stay for a few nights in the studio of don Jose's most prestigious friend(and employer), Munoz Degrain, who had an atelier built on a high rock outcrop.Two huge happenings in the life of a three-year-old were now powerfully associated.Just seventy-two hours before the massive disruption to his royal existencecaused by a baby sister entering his life, the earth began to move beneath his feet;he was swept up in a blanket and carried to a house that was deemed by his parentsto be secure against these terrifying convulsions. Nor was it irrelevant that theplace belonged to a man of the first importnace to his parents. Munoz Degrain wasnot only principal tof the Escuela de Bellas Artes, but the most established painterin Malaga. To the child it must have seemed as if the best protection against earthquakesresided in the house of the best painter in town.

Of course, other psychic equations would follow. Since his sister Lola was sosoon to follow, the three-year-old boy may have a assumed was the after-effect of a cataclysm. Were women with large bellies omens of earthquake andbirth? It is interesting to note the huge misshapen females he would paint in the1920s. For that matter, his maternal grandmother, still living with them, was avery fat lady with a powerful presence.

By the 1950s and 1960s, when Picasso, in his seventies and eighties, hadbecome a gargantuan phenomenon to the media, one theme often appears in hisinterviews. It is that as he paints, something is happening. He is not alone. Aprocess, separate from himself, is working through him. As in Zen, it is doing thejob: " One line attracts the other and at the point of maximum attraction, the linescurve in toward the attracting point and form is altered." Again, in 1964, at theage of eighty-three, he made an unusual remark for a man who was now a Communist,and long a dedicated atheist. Referring to the act of putting pigment oncanvas, he said to Helene Parmelin: "Something sacred, that's it. It's a word thatwe should be able to use, but people would take it in the wrong way. You ought tobe able to say a painting is as it is, with its capacity to move us, because it is asthough it were touched by God . . . that is what's nearest to the truth."

Let us entertain the speculation that after the earthquake of 1884, the three-year-oldsaw birth and cataclysm as closely linked to the same force. Separate fromall that was daily and predictable in life, this force was what others referred to asGod. If disasters were clear expressions of God's presence, there were positive onesas well - the drawings that emerged from his hand. At the heart of the universe,therefore, was a disruptive power never too far away from this mysterious act ofdrawing. The family legend, according to Palau, who cites Penrose, is that his firstword was piz, for lapiz, a pencil. Put a pencil in his hand and he could do astonishinglywell for a child still looking for his first few workds. We can pass over thestates of excitement engendered in the court of five women at their beloved's displayof early talent, but contemplate the depth of emotion in the father. An academicartist who worked slavishly for his realistic effects, don Jose had becomelocally celebrated by now as a painter of pigeons. They were not only his favoritesubject but his commercial trademark. If you happened to live in Malaga and werelooking for an oil painting full of pigeons to hang in your living room, don Josewas the painter whose wares you bought. Trapped at his own competent level ofrnediocrity, don Jose must have had the same sense of mission (and redemption)that an ex-athlete of no particular renown might feel if his son demonstratedexceptional ability at his father's sport. The father would now have a future. Onecould be manager for a prodigious talent. To the photographer Brassai, Picassosaid in 1966: "My first drawings could never be exhibited in an exposition of children'sdrawings. The awkwardness and naivete of childhood were almost absentfrom them . . . Their precision their exactitude, frightens me . . . My father was aprofessor of drawing, and it was probably he who pushed me prematurely in thatdirection."

On the other hand, the boy, not yet six, had difficulty in reading and writingand was wholly unable to comprehend arithmetic. He was petrified when he hadto go to school. The man who would become his dedicated memoirist. JaimeSabartes, describes the process: Each morning, on his way to class, the maiddragged an hysterical little boy through the streets and into the classroom.

At his desk, the child could not concentrate. No matter what the teacher wasinstructing, he would devote himself to drawing. Sometimes, he would get up andtap on the window at people passing below on the street. He might just as wellhave been a young prince thrown into the bull pen of a county jail. The contrastbetween his commanding presence at home and these humiliating entrances into aroom full of boys his age may have created a fear of the social world that wouldnot leave him for the rest of his life. He showed such panic at these new surroundingsthat his father had to transfer him to a small private institution, theColegio de San Rafael, presided over by a friend. The new headmaster, apprised ofthe boy's unique artistic abilities and exceptional terrors, permitted him to leaveclass and sit in the kitchen with his wife while she was preparing a meal. There, hewas able to draw until his father came to take him home.

There was good reason for the child's inability to learn arithmetic: The numbersdid not impinge on him as concepts. Rather, they struck his eye as forms.Later, he would remark that he used to see the number seven as a nose drawnupside-down. Jaime Sabartes has Picasso recalling a few verbal sentiments whengoing home from school: "I'll show them what I can do! They'll see how I canconcentrate. I won't miss a single detail . . . The little eye of the pigeon is roundlike an 0. Under the 0 is a 6 for the breast, underneath that a 3. The eyes are like2's, and so are the wings . . ."

We can propose that if the 0 was an eye, then the integer 1 might have signifieda person in the distance and 2 was a man or woman kneeling in prayer. If 3was turned on its side, it became breasts or buttocks - what childish glee! Yes,how he could concentrate on his studies! The number 4 might seem a sailboat inthe Mediterranean, 5 a phallus and testicles, 6 a wineskin that men drank from atbullfights, 7 is our friend the nose, and 8 is a head on a body, his fat grandmotherperhaps, while 9 might be a flower on a curved stem.

The examples are arbitrary. In whatever manners he saw each number, it issafe to assume they lived in him as forms; he could not, therefore, comprehendthem as ciphers. In any case, he was drawing all the time. We have to conceive ofwhat a small miracle in these early years where lines on a piece of paper. ToPicasso, a face emerging under his pencil could transport him to the world outside,a process altogether equal to another child's wonder at the fact that being able tospeak could bring food or comfort. Since the forms inscribed by his pencil were asreal to him as words, it must have been reasonable to believe that pictures producedresults as simply and directly as spoken language; both were magicalprocesses: A small cuase produced a large effect! So it was not unnatural toassume that as one drew, one steered one's way through a field of forces capable ofproducing earthquakes or infants. Yet, by dint of his drawing, he could be relativelysafe. Fifty years later, he would tell Rolland Penrose that among the firstthings he would draw were spirals. In Spain, one could buy churros, spiral-shapedfritters. Draw a spiral and he would receive a churro from his mother or his aunts.Early magic!

A second sister, Concepcion (Concha), was born when he was six; a few yearslater, the family for economic reasons was obliged to move to Corunna, on thenorthern coast of Spain. The municipal museum of Malaga, where don Jose hadearned a good part of his income by serving as curator, had now closed down.

In Corunna, however, that once-petrified boy who could not bear to go toschool became more manly, at least by his own latter-day accountin an interviewnot published until 1982. He speaks of becoming a prime member of a gang. It is far from impossible. One of the mysteries of boyhood is that one does grow outof fears which but a few years before were seemingly permanent. Whether heactually chased cats with a shotgun, as he claimed, or served as maestro to theother eleven-year-olds when it came to mock bullfightsis dubious. What may bemore likely is that his ability to draw won some admiration from the gang. If heseems to have thrived in Corunna, that was not true for his parents. Uprootedfrom Malaga, where they had lived for all of their lived, they soon becamedepressed in the new city.

Of course, one of these drawings (above) was made but ten days before theiryoungest daughter would die of diphtheria, on January 10, 1895, at the age ofseven. The sketch of Conchita was probablydone by Pablo in the previous spring.

At the beginning of his thirteenth year,therefore, he would experience a traumathat would be the very stuff of futureobsession. To conceal from his little sisterhow grave was her condition, thefamily had celebrated the Christmas seasonas usual, but they knew: Conchita,confined to bed, was mortally ill. Herthirteen-year-old brother - in what stateof desperation and noble resolve we canonly surmise - took a vow directed to oneno less than God: If Conchita's life couldbe spared, he would give up all thoughtof painting again.

Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man

We know from John Richardson that some sixty years later Picasso toldJacqueline Roque, his second and last wife, of this vow. A few years earlier he hadalso recounted to Francoise Gilot his anguish as he watched Conchita deteriorate:

. . . he was torn between wanting her saved and wanting her dead so that his gift would be saved. When she died, he decided that God was evil and destiny an enemy. At the same time he was convinced that it was his ambivalence that had made it possible for God to kill Conchita. His guilt was enormous, the other side of his belief in his enormous power to affect the world around him. And it was compounded by his primitive, almost magical conviction that his little sister's death had released him to be a painter and follow the call of the power he had been given whatever the consequences.

Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington may be too complete in her assessment ofthe power of this incident: even for a genius, the age of thirteen is a little early todecide that God is evil - but then if Picasso was telling the truth to Gilot andJacqueline Roque, he had taken a prodigious vow. Only a saint would not havehad some afterthoughts about the cost of offering up one's talent for a sacrifice,and only a remarkably virtuous child would not have slipped back to drawing onthe sly even as Conchita was failing.

What we do know is that Picasso safeguarded this story for close to six decades.That suggests he gave his word and betrayed it. How could he not feel tainted whenshe died? God was not only overlord of the field of forces but a judge, doubtless,who kept records of broken vows.

His father suffered noticeably from Conchita's death. Depressed already by thethree and a half years he had spent in Corunna, don Jose would walk each day to the school where he taught, then, after work, come back the few blocks to his houseand stare out the window. He would study the rain. In place of that coterie offriends and relatives who shared the warm air of Malaga with him, he now had nocompany for these cold and northern reaches. He was marooned in a seaport on thewinter Atlantic: he did not even have an occasional patron for his pigeons. InMalaga, he had enjoyed taking his son to bullfights, and "once," says Huffingjton,"the little boy was so taken by a bullfighter's `suit of lights' that he would not stopcrying until he had touched it." According to a later interviewer, the boy sat onthe torero's lap, "looking at him, overwhelmed."

Yes, a suit of lights could produce a primal excitement, and don Jose had beenthe agent of such joy for his son. Now, in Corunna, don Jose was surrounded by hisdark little wife, dark little son, and dark little daughter. Lost was the one child,Conchita, who had offered promise of being tall and fair. He grieved. As thePicasso legend developed forty and fifty years later, often with the aid of Sabartes,we are asked to believe that don Jose gave up painting and bestowed his brushes onhis son, whose talent was already demonsrating more than exceptional promise.According to an interview conducted by Pierre Cabanne with Manuel Pallares, soonto be Picasso's best friend in Barcelona, it was "made up out of whole cloth,"and, for that matter, there are, according to Richard Son, paintings by don Josedated later than this period. The story, as related by Picasso forty years later toSabartes, is better appreciated its subtext. The boy may have decided that therewas little to pick up any longer from his father's maxims on how to paint.

This siege of tedium came to an end, however, for don Jose. A teacher at LaLlotja School of Fine Arts in Barcelona was ready to exchange his post for one inCorunna. So the Ruiz family was soon able to transfer to Barcelona. There theynot only arrived with the knowledge that the move was major for the family - ashift from a provincial town to an artistic center - but that they were arriving with ason who was exceptionally accomplished for his age. The oil of Aunt Pepa, paintedduring a stop for a family visit in Malaga en route by sea from Corunna to Barcelonais there to impress us. At the sign of such talent in a fourteen-year-old, we can understandhow he had to break his vow.