An Unflattering Portrait of Picasso Leaves Art Critics in a Hanging Frame of Mind

updated 07/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As a sanctuary from the workaday world, the weekend retreat of the Michael Huffingtons near Santa Barbara has much to recommend it. On its 4½ lush acres are terraced gardens, a tennis court, a pool house, a deep, black swimming pool and a spacious pink villa in the Italian style. All it needs are a few discreetly hung masterpieces—say a Picasso here and there—to complete the picture of fashionable opulence.

Don't hold your breath. It isn't that the Huffingtons can't afford Picassos; Michael, 40, is, after all, the co-owner (with his sister Terry Huffington) of the Huffco oil company in Houston, which, by his own offhand estimate, is worth "a couple hundred million probably." Rather, in the opinion of his wife, author Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, 38, Picasso was the sort of man no one should ever have to put up with—on the wall or anywhere else.

Arianna has made her feelings clear in the recently published blockbuster biography, Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, the darkest portrayal yet of the celebrated titan of 20th-century painting. The Picasso of Huffington's book is a wretchedly flawed genius, sadistic and treacherous, a liar who betrayed friends and colleagues, a misogynist who tormented a succession of wives and mistresses. As the author tells it, he beat one of his women into unconsciousness, seared the cheek of another with a burning cigarette and caused several women, in their pain and confusion, to end their lives in madness or suicide. It is, in short, the kind of story for which gossips—and scriptwriters—would kill.

According to Arianna, Picasso believed that the world was ruled by malevolent forces, and the misshapen female figures of his art reflected his rage. Before he died in 1973, at the age of 91, he had turned, she says, against everyone in his life who might have represented love and humanity or challenged his towering ego—his four children and five grandchildren included. His tragedy was that he longed to make an ultimate statement in painting that would be a culmination of his life and work, says Huffington, "and died knowing that it had eluded him."

This portrait of the artist as monster could hardly fail to provoke outraged responses, and critics have been all but tumbling over one another in their haste to let fly. Creator and Destroyer has been scorned as soap opera, ridiculed for its florid prose and derided as factually inaccurate. Huffington "has no credentials and has not emerged as any kind of Picasso scholar," snorts TIME art critic Robert Hughes, whose review dismissed Huffington's bio as "mere fluff" best suited to "talk shows and gossip columnists—her real constituency." Says Hughes: "The main problem is that she does not know how to read a painting. It's as if someone working on a serious biography of Churchill knew nothing about British politics." Art writer John Richardson, himself the author of an upcoming Picasso bio, was equally outraged, calling the book "as dim-witted as it is mean-spirited." Huffington "wanted to write a negative book," he concluded, "and so she believed the negative evidence."

Indeed, Huffington's detractors have good reason to cite her lack of art expertise. She majored in economics at Cambridge University and, until now, seems to have limited her study of painting to what hung on the walls of her wealthy friends' homes. Moreover, her $500,000 advance for the book, plus a like amount from impresario David Wolper for film and TV rights, suggests an interest in commerce as much as culture.

Sales are hardly likely to suffer as a result of the fireworks, and Huffington does not seem unhappy. On the contrary, she says, "I find the controversy exhilarating." Home in Santa Barbara on a break from her book tour, she produces reams of photocopied materials to refute her critics. "Every time you challenge a cult figure, those who regard themselves as custodians of the icon defend it in ways more raving than rational."

Burned by accusations of plagiarism following the publication of Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend, her 1981 biography of the famed diva (the case was settled out of court for less than $100,000, she says), Arianna took special care to cite her sources this time, packing her latest effort with 66 pages of notes, bibliography and acknowledgments. In addition, she credits Francoise Gilot, 66, the mother of two of Picasso's children, with previously unpublished material that gives Creator and Destroyer much of its bite. The only one of Picasso's women to leave him, Gilot supplied intimate details withheld even from her own largely negative Life with Picasso, published in 1964 when her children were still teenagers. Now married to Dr. Jonas Salk, Gilot declined Huffington's interview requests for two years before she agreed to talk. "Whenever a woman has written about Picasso, the book has always been attacked," Gilot says in the author's defense. "There is an assumption it is for men only, that when women reveal the truth, we are trampling on men's territory."

Among the claimed revelations in Huffington's book are accounts of the artist's sadomasochistic experiments with a 17-year-old mistress and suggestions of a homosexual encounter between the 17-year-old Picasso and a Gypsy boy. "I'm not saying he preferred men to women," says Arianna, who denies that such reporting verges on sensationalism. "This man was a major experimenter in every way. It's not shocking or even particularly significant. It's just a fact of his life and, as a biographer, I report it."

As for her lack of artistic credentials, she finds the accusation "bizarre" as well as irrelevant. "Art," she says, "is not neurosurgery; you don't have to have a five-year residency before you can express an opinion. Besides, I wrote a biography, not a book of art criticism." The real reason she has been so angrily attacked, she argues, is that the art establishment perceives her as a dilettante and arriviste. "It's not a question of having an art degree," she says, "but whether or not you have been certified by the clique."

Heretofore, Arianna Stassinopoulos has rarely had to fear being snubbed. The Greek-born daughter of a financial-newspaper publisher, she and a younger sister, Agapi, grew up in a cosmopolitan environment, and at 18, Arianna went off to Cambridge. As president of the Cambridge Union, she became a skilled debater and once even took on William F. Buckley Jr. ("He made mashed potatoes of me.") Her first book, The Female Woman, was a call for women to regard their desire for family as important as equal rights and established her as a minor celebrity in London cultural circles. Her standing rose a notch with the Callas biography, despite a chorus of catcalls from the opera crowd. Socially, her must-meet reputation traveled with her to America in 1981, where her escorts included publisher and real estate developer Mort Zuckerman, est founder Werner Erhard and California Gov. Jerry Brown. In 1985 fellow socialite Ann Getty introduced Arianna to Huffington, and their splashy wedding in New York two years ago (at which Barbara Walters and White House Chief of Protocol Selwa Roosevelt were pressed into service as attendants) sent gossip columnists into a frenzy.

Arianna signed a contract for the Picasso book with Simon and Schuster in 1982 and spent the next three years amassing 60 cartons of research data. Last year she—and the cartons—wound up in Washington, D.C., while Michael served briefly as a deputy assistant secretary of defense. After suffering a miscarriage, she moved back to Houston, where Michael began planning for his company's diversification into media. In a sense, the couple's new Santa Barbara estate is a beach-head in the Huffington empire's westward expansion.

For the moment, though, neither Huffington has much to say about their plans post Picasso. Arianna downplays the suggestion that her book will lessen the value of the master's art but is certain that Creator and Destroyer will at least alter the public's perception of Picasso. "People will now look at his work, not at the legend," she predicts. "What the book has done is to strip away the legend, exposing the rage, the loathing, the cruelty. I know that what is considered at first shocking will later become conventional wisdom. I have no doubt this will happen to Picasso."

—By Dan Chu, with Lee Wohlfert in Santa Barbara

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