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Book Review: The Boy who Bit Picasso

The Boy Who Bit Picasso is a book by Antony Penrose, the son of Lee Miller and painter-writer Sir Roland Penrose, whose childhood association with Picasso is the subject of this marvelously illustrated book for children and adults. It is a far cry from Ariaana Huffington’s biography that paints Picasso (no pun intended) as a dreadful, near-psychopathic misogynist, which unfortunately is truer to Picasso than Penrose’s version of the artist as a loving, humorous, indulgent uncle and  father.

It is left to be decided whether the book is for children or adults because some assumptions made in it are as much for adults unaccustomed to the paradigms of modern art, or otherwise intimidated by its ‘garbled nonsense’ as one buyer remarked recently. For example, Tony describes the portrait of his mother by Picasso done in what we now define as Analytical Cubism, and the horrified responses it elicited from his friends, which could just as well reflect the reaction of Picasso’s peers when he first broke, no shattered, the boundaries and perceptions of art and led the world into modernism.

Tony Penrose goes on to talk about the sculptures that Picasso made and how splendidly ingenious Picasso seemed to him because Picasso was able to fabricate fun, quirky coherent sculptures, by putting together found object s of everyday use. Tony talks of the woven basket that was used to make the belly of the goat sculpture and the metal tools he uses to reconstruct the human form. But perhaps the most intriguing part of the book is the understated references to real-life situations and objects from which Picasso’s art and sculpture issued, reminding us that though we may find abstraction and surrealism disconnected and opposed to all things ‘real’, in fact it is the artist’s perception of reality that we witness in every painting, whether we may understand it immediately or not. Tony says that the sculpture (the word installation may seem anomalous to the times in which Picasso lived but the fact is that these were more installations than sculptures) of the goat had an uncanny resemblance to Esmeralda, Picasso’s pet goat.

Tony talks about Picasso’s crazy chaotic house and he asks his mother whether Picasso had just moved in and hadn’t had time to unpack. These revelations describe in a child’s vocabulary that hallowed space that was Picasso’s studio, a scene perhaps no biographer could describe without becoming pedantic. He tells us that Picasso kept myriads of masks and liked the idea of putting on a face. These little details become significant when we read of Picasso’s art and his intense involvement with the primeval nuances of African art specially the ritualistic masks.

Some of the illustrations by children have been commissioned specifically for the publication and fit right into the mélange of paintings, drawings and photographs that fill the pages of the book, making it a fun way for children to explore the life and works of a genius who turned art on its head and propelled us to see everyday objects and ordinary people in ways we could never have once imagined.

Penrose has authored several books, articles and two plays but they all deal with his parents’ relationship with Picasso or the other great artists whom Lee Miller and Roland Penrose were associated with, like Miro or Tapies or Man Ray. How much of the insight has added to our knowledge of these great artists and how much of it has served to advance the validity and relevance of Antony Penrose as a writer is undeterminable. But the entertaining and captivating introduction of Picasso to children is an incalculably commendable and valuable service by Penrose.

ArtNow would like to thank Imran Mir for the loan of this wonderful book.

 

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