The Success and Failure of Picasso

ISBN: 0679737251
ISBN 13: 9780679737254
By: John Berger

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About this book

   At the height of his powers, Pablo Picasso was the artist as revolutionary, breaking through the niceties of form in order to mount a direct challenge to the values of his time. At the height of his fame, he was the artist as royalty: incalculably wealthy, universally idolized−and wholly isolated.   In this stunning critical assessment, John Berger−one of this century's most insightful cultural historians−trains his penetrating gaze upon this most prodigious and enigmatic painter and on the Spanish landscape and very particular culture that shpaed his life and work. Writing with a novelist's sensuous evocation of character and detail, and drawing on an erudition that embraces history, politics, and art, Berger follows Picasso from his childhood in Malaga to the Blue Period and Cubism, from the creation of Guernica to the pained etchings of his final years. He gives us the full measure of Picasso's triumphs and an unsparing reckoning of their cost−in exile, in loneliness, and in a desolation that drove him, in his last works, into an old man's furious and desperate frenzy at the beauty of what he could no longer create.

Reader's Thoughts


Berger presents a fair analysis that blasts blind adoration of Picasso. I understand this artist better that I would have predicted. His mindset was removed mostly from the social mechanisms of his time. His Spanish roots, particularly about duende (macabre look about spiritualism), cast him as a charmer, yet he stayed away from his homeland soon after his youth. A child prodigy, Picasso's father vowed never to paint again when viewing his 14 year old son's works. Pablo became an island. Only in the Cubist years where Braque and Picasso enacted a tennis match with paintings did he opt for a harder path. Post WWI, he returned to being an oracle which the muse of creativity flowed through him. Berger captured the last portion of Picasso's oeuvre excellently as a crying despair about his break with the sexual verve he subsisted upon. Essentially, he swears in his paintings is how Berger creates the analogy. Unlike Picasso, Rembrandt and Titian found solace in the social fabric that they felt connections. Picasso went digging in time to converse with Delacroix and Velasquez, but it was a futile effort when the other side has long passed. As Berger aptly wrote, paint communicates sexual urgency by the color of flesh. The agony of sexual death haunted Picasso acutely in the last two decades of his life. In sex, you escape and come closer to death. Without it, you yearn for the escapism aspect and can only wallow in its absence.

Kenneth Smith

Berger wrote this while Picasso was still alive. Quite interesting to read why this Marxist critic thinks the communist artist failed.

Nick Ziegler

One of the most enjoyable reading experiences I've had in a while. Berger's erudition and analytic acumen are sharp and wide-ranging, but the book is presented more as the notes of a learned man than a rigorous academic work. And this is good, because Berger manages to give us an entirely new appreciation of a familiar forest by presenting us with a provocative account of several of its most significant trees. That is to say, the book is not comprehensive; it is guided by its argument, not by an attempt to demonstrate mastery and effort. And that is its great virtue.Provocative is a good word to describe much of it. I don't here refer to what was apparently controversial about the book upon its publication (the focus on Picasso's wealth, and the refusal to countenance hagiography). I'm referring to the way in which Berger announces a hypothesis, and runs with it as if it were true. The riskiness of his inquiry is presented to the reader without any attempt to hide it. So while his demonstrated understanding of Marxism seems at times a bit dim, and his generalizations about Spain seem questionable if not potentially offensive, Berger admirably constructs a series of conclusions from the edifice of symbols he conjured into being, and the total effect is a fully-formed vision of one way of viewing Picasso's achievements, and how they relate to contemporaneous historical events.I have great sympathy for Berger's insistence on visual art objects as documents embedded in, emergent from, and eventually constitutive of social relations. Berger never abandons the view that art has the potential of conjuring into discursive reality, if not social reality, utopia; he admires painters who can either embody the contradictions of the present or who paint truth for a "future society," but doesn't hesitate to disparage works that merely wallow in and do not challenge the present. Berger has exceeded the mundane conventions of both biography and the let's-appreciate-art genre of criticism, and instead has created a work of art criticism that is simultaneously an important account the particular challenges, pressures, and opportunities (seized or lost) of the 20th century.

Conrad frankel

a good book, worth the read, helps demistify this popular yet misty artist


Berger delves into the variety of influences on Picasso's life and work, from the history of Spanish feudalism, bourgeois Europe, WWI &II, anarchy, physics, the rise of European industrialism, American capitalism, Communism, Cubism, the birth of Surrealism, and other fun-filled topics. He even gets around to Picasso's mistresses, too.


. . . still mulling it over . . .It took me a long time to get through this book, even though Berger is one of my favorite writers. What Berger writes about Picasso is enlightening, perplexing, thought-provoking, annoying, spot-on, dead-wrong. This is an incredible piece of work for anyone interested in Picasso, or more widely, what "makes" an artist.I will likely read it again.


Excelente aproximación objetiva a un personaje paradigmático del siglo XX como Pablo Picasso. Con un fino y preciso análisis de sus obras. Polémico y muy recomendable


Classic comment that I remember from this book was where Berger pointed out that after a certain point in Picasso's life, if he wanted anything all he had to do was draw it.


This 1989 edition of the book includes a brief intro by the author explaining the book's initial reception in 1965 when its subject was still living; and a third chapter written in the '80s, after Picasso's death. In a way a response to the ineffectual hagiography that surrounded Picasso, Berger, a Marxist, attempts to explain the artist as a product of his place (feudal, anarchistic Spain), his time, his personal isolation as an exile and deified celebrity. Berger shows how Picasso's style was a new primitive expression, a rejection of intellectual analysis. His success was this creation, painting as stark emotional experience. His failures, Berger suggests, lay in several works that are rooted in nothing and are thus absurd; his acceptance of bourgeois values that offered nothing of substance; and his lack of originality in his later years. The essay is learned, if a bit erratic as it swerves from notion to notion; Berger's assessment of Picasso's '50s self-mocking drawings is especially good.


Eye opening view of Picasso situated in social-cultural historical account that will allow you to reconsider Picasso and Cubism in particular.

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