Picasso by Norman Mailer

Yo–el Rey. I, the king. Pablo Ruiz y Picasso wrote that three times on a self portrait painted when he was just 19 and about to leave his native Spain for Paris, where he became even more than a king. The funny thing about a grotesquely outsized ego is that very occasionally it is actually representing an equally legendary and outsized talent, intellect, beauty or charismatic personality; the deep flaws of entitlement, narcissism and infidelity such an ego sanctions can be overlooked, even forgiven.

I was nearly finished with this surprisingly (because I’d always been turned off by Norman Mailer’s short and stocky macho posturing) enjoyable biography when my husband of nearly two decades announced he was leaving me to move in with our personal trainer and yoga instructor, 23 years his junior. My husband was a man that–although he was a difficult “my way or the highway,” iconoclastic, sometime alcoholic cowboy with family money–was thought of by friends and family as having the highest character. “He will never cheat on you,” was something I was told many times by his friends when they blessed me for taking on such an old, moody bachelor. So I was unprepared for infidelity, and probably missed a million clues.

Picasso was a very self-motivated talent, but his belle de jour was always most definitely a muse. Though usually thought of as an unfaithful lover, he actually more of a serial monogamist, although the lines between muses were quite blurry. Interestingly, I don’t think he ever had a serious relationship with a blonde. His women were strong, interesting, beautiful and dark haired. My husband’s mistress is a blonde. I’ve never understood blondes and hate them a little.

Mailer quotes one of Picasso’s early and important lovers, Fernande Olivier, at such length that I wished he would not have put the quoted sections in a smaller font; they often went on for pages and pages, and it began to strain the eyes. It seemed like laziness at first to quote someone else so lengthily and frequently, but since her book is not available in English translation and is such an excellent account of Picasso’s life during this period, it actually becomes a positive choice on Mailer’s part.

Mailer also takes care to teach us about Picasso’s artistic choices. He emphasizes certain shapes, images and faces Picasso encounters early on that influence his work forever. A boyhood friend, an old man’s face, a pigeon, the shape of numbers. There are also plenty of photographs of the people mentioned and  illustrations and color plates of paintings and drawings by Picasso and his contemporaries, which are so important in a book that discusses them; it’s surprising how many books on art and artists are lacking in photographs of the work. This book excels in that regard.

I stopped reading with only one chapter to go because of the shock of my husband’s betrayal. People have always said he reminds them of famous philanderer Jack Nicholson–it’s the eyebrows, and the gut he had before the personal trainer. It was Jack himself who said, “This flat-belly bullshit is ruining the country.” Yeah, it ruins marriages too.

I’ve always both admired and been repelled by Jack’s longtime long-suffering girlfriend Anjelica Huston, who looks eerily like my paternal grandmother–unfortunately my face, like hers, has become horsier with age. I picked up her biography “Watch Me,” and distracted myself with her stories of Jack, his Picasso-sized talent, and his constant inconstancy. I have a little ego of my own. You think I won’t get through this and come out the other side stronger and happier? Yo–la Reina. Watch me.

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