An American in Picasso's Paris enjoys close encounters of the sycophantic kind

June 27, 1993|By Daniel Grant

PICASSO AND DORA:

A PERSONAL MEMOIR

James Lord

Farrar, Strauss & Giroux

340 pages; $35 James Lord quickly and easily entered the world of Picasso sycophancy, once the young, somewhat aimless G.I. from New Jersey gained admittance into the artist's studio toward the end of World War II. The unwritten rule was that Picasso was to be admired, amused, listened to (and agreed with) and never contradicted, and Mr. Lord adopted many of Picasso's attitudes as his own. Mr. Lord condescends to the artist's personal secretary, Jaime Sebartes, just as Picasso does; Paulo Picasso, the son from his first marriage, is seen as an object of pity and generally dismissed, also in line with the artist's own thinking.

Mr. Lord rarely got on well with other hangers-on around Picasso, which the artist himself enjoyed and encouraged. The changing crowd of sycophants viewed each other as rivals -- delighting in insulting, never interfering with one another's periodic humiliation -- and all of them hoped to contract genius from Picasso "as one contracts a disease."

What is remarkable in this account is Mr. Lord's honesty in dredging up a side of himself most others would quickly and deeply bury. This book is a memoir about Picasso and his longtime model and lover, Dora Maar, but it is also the coming to maturity -- through understanding his own feelings about the artist -- of a one-time wannabe.

Mr. Lord, who was born in 1922 (41 years younger than Picasso, 15 years younger than Dora Maar), went to France in 1944 as part of the U.S. Army's intelligence branch. He appeared to have little aptitude in spying or interrogation, but he did have a fluency in French that went a long way. Following up a whim -- and much of the success in his life, we discover, appears to stem from chance encounters, luck and timing -- he knocked on the door of Picasso's studio in Paris.

He learned later that Picasso let him in, fantasizing that the young soldier was gathering information about him for secret files. Mr. Lord seemed to grow on the artist, who liked having him around, probably because the young man was so awe-struck and submissive, qualities essential to any dealings the artist would have with the world.

Mr. Lord claims convincingly that his knowledge of art (modern or past) was limited, so it could not have been his erudition that appealed to Picasso, although we do see over time that Mr. Lord is learning more and more. Presumably, he was a good listener and pleasant conversationalist. We are told early on that Mr. Lord is homosexual, which perhaps made his presence less of a personal challenge to an artist feeling the effects of age.

Through repeated visits with Picasso, Mr. Lord meets Dora Maar, the mistress whom the artist had let go in favor of a woman, Francoise Gilot, who was closer to Mr. Lord's own age. Eventually, he begins to see Picasso less and Dora Maar more, squiring her around to dinner, countless parties, summer vacations and other social activities in a nonsexual version of the relationship she herself had with Picasso. Where Picasso was abrupt, illogical, stimulating, domineering, flattering, rude, gracious and conniving with her, Dora Maar was that to Mr. Lord. He seemed to have a large appetite for tension-filled swings of affection and abuse, perhaps because it allowed a better understanding of Picasso himself as a man and as a presence.

Mr. Lord and Dora Maar talked constantly about Picasso -- it was their mutual obsession. He writes: "There were mornings when I woke up with the sun dappling my room and swore to myself that for one day, at least, we would never once mention his name. I didn't know whether we hated him or loved him, were afraid of him or sought his protection, lived for each other by virtue of having known him or merely survived together as an outcome of that ordeal."

She, like Gilot, fancied herself an artist but found her place in art history as Picasso's most famous model. She also gained a sort of infamy by experiencing a mental breakdown when Picasso abandoned her -- which, until the rise of a more militant feminist reappraisal of the artist, added to Picasso's prestige. For the remaining 40-odd years in her life, Maar would never have another lover (a homosexual such as Mr. Lord might have eased the social stigma, to her mind, of being alone) and became to the world only a source of Picasso anecdotes.

"Picasso and Dora" is really about Dora Maar, partly because the author spent far more time with her and the fact that he has little to add about Picasso's life than what has been otherwise written -- and in part because he, too, used her. Their hot-cold relationship over a five-year period in the early 1950s was a way of working Picasso out of his system. However, Dora Maar does emerge in these pages as a fully realized person, despite her own best efforts to turn herself into a living shrine of a long-past era in the great artist's life.

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