“Pablo’s many stories and reminiscences about Olga and Marie-Thérèse and Dora Maar [his former wife and lovers], as well as their continuing presence just off-stage in our own life together, gradually made me realize that he had a kind of Bluebeard complex that made him want to cut off the heads of all the women he had collected in his little private museum. But he didn’t cut the heads entirely off. He preferred to have life go on and to have all those women who had shared his life at one moment or another still letting out little peeps and cries of joy or pain and making a few gestures like disjointed dolls, just to prove there was some life left in them, that hung by a thread, and that he held the other end of the thread. From time to time they would provide a humorous or dramatic or sometimes tragic side to things, and that was all grist to his mill.”
-Françoise Gilot, My Life With Picasso, 218.
When an artist becomes an icon, they are stripped of all of the mundane and relatable things that make up a human life. They become a synthesis of metaphor and myth, one that often becomes complicated with and by their work. They become untouchable, their influence rarefied, overbearing, and unstoppable. For this reason, I seek out the books that defy these insurmountable mythologies. They are not written by biographers, who, I feel, often feed needlessly into this type of hagiography. They are written by intimates of the artist. These accounts offer us sketches that restore the former icon to human status, complicating their legacy, and offering us glimpses of their foibles. These are messy, complex, and sometimes grueling stories, but they offer refreshingly life-like portraits that make us question the foundations of veneration and the veracity of certain societal and cultural myths. Finally, they urge us to face the human expense of objects generally referred to as great works of art. These books cover the works and lives of Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger, and Pablo Picasso, including their contexts and their influence. They are written by women close to the artists, which, I believe, serves to highlight the expectations that we, as a society, foist upon women, forcing them to become caregivers in service to the often preposterous egos of men. These books reassess those paradigms and force us to complicate our interactions with works of art, seeing the works of these men not as static, but as fluid and variable and deeply complicated. The books that I have listed below accomplish that without sensationalism and with a deftness that, I like to imagine, would inspire envy in their subjects.
- My Life With Picasso by Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake
- Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson
- At Home in the World: A Memoir by Joyce Maynard