STUD WARS : When Norman Mailer lifts his pen to take on Pablo Picasso, it's machismo squared : PORTRAIT OF PICASSO AS A YOUNG MAN, By Norman Mailer (Atlantic Monthly Press: $35; 400 pp.)

Francine du Plessix Gray is the author, most recently, of "Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet." She is working on a book tentatively entitled "At Home With the Marquis de Sade."

Picasso studies are threatening to become the Kmart of 20th-Century art history. "My art is my diary," the master said, "it's even dated." Because of the close links between Picasso's work and his life, so intermeshed that every new mistress ushered a new style of painting, insights into the Picasso phenomenon are far cheaper to acquire than intuitions concerning Matisse or Miro; and because it concerns the most legendary celebrity icon of the postwar years, Picassology can be sold with a far larger margin of profit. So various members of the bande a Picasso have gainfully hawked their wares for the past decades--acolytes and early boon companions (Sabartes, Andre Salmon); literary peers (Apollinaire, Gertrude Stein, Max Jacob); former mistresses (Fernande Olivier, Francoise Gilot, Genvieve LaPorte); even the mistresses' acolytes (James Lord on Dora Marr).

In the past decade, however, we have been confronted with the novel phenomenon of pop-Picassology. An enterprising dilettante who had never so much as glimpsed Picasso in a crowd--Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington--incurred the derision of the art world in 1988 by retailing her two-pennies' worth of psycho-babble on the master. Unfortunately, one of our greatest writers, Norman Mailer, has now followed Huffington's treacherous path. His reasons remain somewhat opaque. For beyond the fact that they are two of the most phallocentric and self-mythologizing luminaries of modern times, the only discernible affinity between Pablo and Norman is their belief in the equivalence of artistic power and sexual energy: "Why not put sexual organs in place of eyes and eyes between legs?" Picasso once suggested in one of his frequent equations between the creative and the procreative act. "I write with my balls," Mailer declared in the early 1970s at a tumultuous symposium on art and politics. ("What color ink do you use, Norman?" a woman's voice piped up from the audience.)

Attempting to justify his ill-advised new venture, in the preface to "Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man," Mailer states that some decades ago he spent a summer studying the 33 volumes of Christien Zervos' Cahiers d'Art edition of Picasso (an experience "equal to reading all of Shakespeare in two months") but had not then felt "ready" to tackle this particular colossus of genius and lust. Such long-held reverence does not assure a successful text: In view of Mailer's habitual braggadocio, his new book, which attempts to document Picasso's first 35 years, is an impassioned, well-meaning, but curiously tentative and wobbly work. Lacking Huffington's presumptions, Mailer is too honest to feign confident intimacy with Picasso's oeuvre ; his efforts to decode the master's paintings, and the severe limitations of his aesthetic judgments, call to mind an equine veterinarian attempting microsurgery on the human eye. Assessing Picasso's period of Analytic Cubism as a style "centered on death and dissolution," Mailer speculates that it "grew out of the inside of the nose, for, indeed, its interior is often a cavernous, clotted, intricate web, full of bogs, stalactites . . . filament-like hairs." As for Picasso's later, "Synthetic" Cubism, he dismisses it as a shallow decorative exercise that merely "livened up the walls in a fashion that still puts interior decorators to shame."

So much for Picasso the artist. Mailer's insights into Picasso the man are made equally disconcerting by the woolly meta-religious lingo--derived from Mailer's familiar brand of Orphic sexology--in which they are cloaked. Striving to decipher Picasso's ambiguous blend of fierce misogyny and gaga woman-worship, Mailer ventures that women obsessed him because they were "the last available manifestation of that Creator whose secrets he had hoped to capture." There is also a scrumptious passage about Picasso's mistress Fernande Olivier, the beauty who dominated his life between the beginning of his Rose period (1905) and the onset of Analytic Cubism (1912) and whose lavishly quoted memoirs saturate Mailer's pages: "With Fernande, he had entered the essential ambiguity of deep sex, where . . . a phallus, once emplaced within a vagina, can become more aware [of] the vagina than of its own phallitude."

For sheer entertainment value, such howlers might be worth spending the book's $35 stud fee. But there is a far more fatal flaw to Mailer's text that makes it downright unsavory: His prime source of inspiration, the book which he confesses to have "needed" in order to "get started" again on his Picasso venture, was none other than Huffington's 1988 psychography, "Picasso: Creator and Destroyer." It is to Mailer's credit that he never falls into Huffington's nasty trap of demolishing Picasso's artistic stature on the basis of his brutality toward women. Strongly identifying with his subject, he remains far more generous, much fairer, and, if anything, adolescently reverential. Yet he does repeatedly emulate Huffington's dubious speculations on Picasso's latent homosexuality, and these surmises quite overwhelm any serious chronicling of the artist's stylistic evolution. (In neither text, for instance, is there any mention of Puvis de Chavanne's dominant influence on Picasso's Blue Period, an inspiration that Picasso often emphasized. Even more baffling is the failure, on the part of both biographers, to discuss the enormous impact of El Greco, whom the young Picasso so adulated that he grandly scribbled "Yo el Greco, Yo Greco" in his sketchbooks.)

One blatant example of the way both authors sacrifice art history to sensationalistic sexual theorizing is their gloss on the summer of 1898, when Picasso lived in the remote mountain village of Horta de Ebro, spending time with two young male companions. One needs no great expertise to discern Horta's only true importance: It enabled Picasso to make the technical breakthroughs (experimentation with color, defiance of art school strictures) that prolonged working in nature brings to any young artist. Yet, like Huffington, Mailer makes no mention whatever of Horta's impact on Picasso's painting. Instead, and even though John Richardson, in the first volume of his peerless 1991 study, "A Life of Picasso," magisterially dismantled Huffington's racy conjectures concerning Picasso's homosexual leanings, Mailer elaborates on them, intimating that Picasso's friendship with one of his Horta companions might have been more than Platonic, and that "there is every possibility that Picasso had a few homosexual episodes in his youth."

There are equally woolly homoerotic surmises in Mailer's account of Picasso's close friendship with Carles Casagemas, the Catalan aesthete whose suicide triggered the grief that suffuses the Blue Period. Commenting on Picasso's liaison with Casagemas' former lover, Germaine Gargallo, which began immediately after Casagemas' death, Mailer writes: "[Picasso] was immersed now in homosexual preoccupations . . . he absorb[ed] the loss of his friend by searching for Casagemas' presence in the body of the woman he had chosen . . . he became the dead man's sexual overlord."

By this time the author's covert agenda menaces to rise to the surface of this forlorn text: Might Mailer be plumbing the mystery of Picasso's legendary sexual magnetism to measure, for the umpteenth time, the dynamics of his own "phallitude"? Is Mailer's ego being boosted by the fantasy that his very macho brand of heterosexuality might be superior to the alleged androgyny of his idol? In these days of celebrity cultism, those who vend their wares in the Picasso mall seem to keep their true agendas to themselves.

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