Last week a friend showed me an article by Lady Muriel Wheeler, a fine painter and sculptor who was the wife of the President of the Royal Academy. In it she quotes a passage as follows.
‘in his Libro Nero, published in 1952, Giovanni Papini described a visit to Picasso, when the artist delivered himself as follows:
‘In art the mass of the people no longer seek consolation and exultation, but those who are refined, rich, leisured, who are distillers of quintessence’s , seek what is new, strange original, scandalous. I myself, since cubism and even before, have satisfied these masters and critics with all the changing oddities that passed through my head, and the less they understood me, the more they admired me. By amusing myself with all these puzzles, rebuses and arabesques, I became famous and that very quickly. And fame for a painter means sales, gains, fortune, riches. And today as you know, I am celebrated, I am rich. But when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. Giotto, Rembrandt and Goya were great painters. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and has exhausted as best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries. Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than it may appear. But it has the merit of being sincere.’
Pretty damming stuff to come out of the mouth of one of the world’s great artists and you would be right to think so. However, there is more to this than meets the eye. Papini had been (and probably still was), an enthusiastic Fascist and Picasso flirted with communism. In the 1950’s the Royal Academy was very conservative in outlook exemplified by the presidencies of Wheeler and Sir Alfred Munnings. Munnings especially detested Picasso and all things ‘modern’ in art. So it is no surprise that Lady Wheeeler would reproduce this passage from Papini’s book.
There is only one problem with this and that is she left out one word from the original, either accidently or intentionally we will never know. That word was ‘imagined’. All the conversations that the character ‘Gog’ has in Libro Nero’ are imagined, and imagined in a way that suited the political aspirations of the writer.
When I read the article for the first time my reaction was, well if you believe that you will believe anything. My friend said, ‘you’ve nailed it, he made it all up!’ 60 or so years later we can look back and be amazement, but just how many people who read it thought that Picasso’s ‘confession’ was anything other than genuine. All you have to do is leave out one small word!
Anthony Mortimer Fine Art. 30 years experience as an art expert and curator.