I Am Only a Public Entertainer Who Has Understood His Times

Pablo Picasso? Giovanni Papini? Apocryphal?

picasso07Dear Quote Investigator: Pablo Picasso reportedly admitted in a “Confession” that he did not consider himself a great artist; instead, he was an entertainer who shocked and amused the rich and indolent to gain fame and wealth. Did Picasso really say this?

Quote Investigator: No. The well-known “Confession” was invented by an Italian journalist and literary critic named Giovanni Papini who wrote two novels filled with fictional encounters between the main character, a businessman named Gog, and famous figures such as Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, and Pablo Picasso.

The first satirical work titled “Gog” was published in 1931, and the sequel “Il Libro Nero: Nuovo Diario di Gog” (The Black Book: New Gog Diary) was released in 1951. 1 Papini’s writings were not intended to mislead readers. Yet, the fascinating statements he crafted for the luminaries were compelling enough to be remembered and misremembered. Reprinted passages in periodicals and books sometimes incorrectly indicated that the words were genuine. For example, in 1993 the scholar Frederick Crews wrote a powerful essay titled “The Unknown Freud” in “The New York Review of Books”. Unfortunately, one segment of the essay presented a statement ascribed to Freud by Papini as authentic. During the subsequent discussion Crews apologized and stated that his error stemmed from other scholarly works that improperly ascribed the words to Freud. 2 3

A comparable misunderstanding occurred regarding Panini’s mock interview with Picasso. A columnist writing for “The Washington Post” in 1952 noticed that Paris newspapers were printing the interview. He accepted the Picasso attribution and shared fragments of the text with his readers: 4

Paris newspapers are agog. The story has been picked up by several American publications including Quick.

Admitting himself to be “a public entertainer” exploiting as best he could “the foolishness, the vanity and the greed” of his contemporaries, Picasso recently confessed that he merely sought to please master and critic with the “new, the strange, the original, the extravagant, the scandalous … the less they understood them the more they admired me.”

Over the years, multiple translations have been created, and sometimes the translations have been indirect, e.g., English text has been derived from French text created from Italian text.

A 1954 book lambasting modern art titled “Peril on Parnassus” by William F. Alder included a version of the fictive remarks. However, a reviewer in the “Los Angeles Times” responded skeptically: 5

Giovanni Papini’s alleged interview with Picasso, in which that painter was quoted as calling himself “a public clown, a mountebank,” is printed early in the book. But no mention is made of Picasso’s denial.

In January 1964 a journal of arts and literature called “Origin” published “A Confession” with a Pablo Picasso byline. The editor was unaware that the piece was based on “Il Libro Nero”. It began as follows: 6

When I was young, like all the young, art, great art, was my religion; but, with the years, I came to see that art, as it was understood until 1800, was henceforth finished, on its last legs, doomed, and that so-called artistic activity with all its abundance is only the many-formed manifestation of its agony. Men are detached from and more and more disinterested in painting, sculpture and poetry.

The imaginary Picasso suggested that modern artists resorted to “expedients of intellectual charlatanism”. Picasso’s own works, he felt, consisted of whims, tom-fooleries, brain-busters, and arabesques. He concluded his essay:

Today, as you know, I am famous and very rich. But when completely alone with myself, I haven’t the nerve to consider myself an artist in the great and ancient sense of the word. There have been great painters like Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt and Goya. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his time.

This is a bitter confession, mine, more painful indeed than it may seem, but it has the merit of being sincere.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A different English translation of Papini’s text appeared in a 1964 book of criticism titled “Art or Anarchy?: How the Extremists and Exploiters Have Reduced the Fine Arts to Chaos and Commercialism” by Huntington Hartford. Once again the ascription to Picasso was unchallenged. The fanciful Picasso viewed his evaluators with amusement: 7

I myself, since cubism, and even before, have satisfied these masters and critics, with all the changing oddities which passed through my head and the less they understood me, the more they admired me.

The conclusion was harsh toward contemporaries:

But when I am alone with myself, I have not the courage to think of myself as an artist in the great and ancient sense of the term. Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt, and Goya were great painters. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and has exhausted the best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries.

Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than it may appear, but it has the merit of being sincere.”

The April 1964 issue of “Origin” contained a letter pointing out the spurious nature of the essay in the previous issue: 8

You kindly sent me a copy of Picasso’s alleged “confession.” You should know that this is a bogus document which has been repeatedly exposed. The author of it is Giovanni Papini and you will find a complete account of the affair in an Art News editorial by Alfred Frankfurter in the September 1952 issue of that journal (page 13). A more recent exposure appeared in the New York Times on February 11, 1962.

In December 1964 “Art or Anarchy?” was evaluated in the pages of “The Saturday Review”, and the reviewer was impressed by the spurious Picasso quotation which he reprinted: 9

The [quotation] attributed to Picasso, seems almost unbelievably truthful: “Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt, and Goya were great painters. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his times and has exhausted the best he could the imbecility, the vanity, the cupidity of his contemporaries.”

Circa 1965 the journal “Arts in Society” reprinted the piece from “Origin”, but the editor provided a valuable investigative introduction describing its provenance: 10

The following piece, purportedly written by Pablo Picasso, recently appeared in ORIGIN (Number 12, 1964), a journal published in Japan. It is, needless to say, a startling statement, and in endeavoring to ascertain its authenticity the editors wrote to Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the head of Galerie Louise Leiris, which handles Picasso’s work. Mr. Kahnweiler responded as follows:

Of course, there is no such confession by Picasso. What has been reproduced in many newspapers years ago and reappears from time to time is an extract of a story by the late Giovanni Papini called “II libro nero” where the hero, a scottish millionaire, called Gog, visits strange places and among them Picasso’s studio, where the artist makes this confession to him. When the whole thing started, Papini, who had not died then, loyally declared in the Nuovo Giornale of Florence that there had never really been such a confession and that he had not seen Picasso since 1918, but that it was fiction.

In December 1968 the popular magazine “LIFE” published an issue dedicated to Picasso and mistakenly included a passage very similar to the one given in “Art or Anarchy?” 11 In January 1969 “LIFE” magazine acknowledged its error: 12

However, the statement LIFE published was never made by Picasso. It was the fabrication of an Italian writer, Giovanni Papini, who in 1951 published a work of fiction called Il Libro Nero (The Black Book). Papini’s book was presented in the form of a diary of an imaginary character named Gog, who reports his “interviews” with such notables as Hitler, Marconi, Frank Lloyd Wright and Dali, as well as Picasso. In the bogus visit with Picasso, the artist was made to express a cynical view of modern art and of himself which was in fact the antagonistic attitude of Papini.

Within a short time, excerpts from the fake Picasso interview were picked up and passed off as authentic by other publications. In the course of being translated, used and reused, the source of the original was obscured, its hostility blunted and its credibility increased. Picasso—and others-repudiated the “interview,” but the repudiations never received wide publicity and hence failed to put it out of circulation.

In 1973 a columnist named Robert Taylor reprinted a passage he ascribed to Giovanni Papini while stating unequivocally that another journalist was mistaken when he credited the words to Picasso: 13

“Art is a saleable commodity. When I am alone I do not have the effrontery to consider myself an artist, not in the grand old sense of the word. I am only a clown, a mountebank. I have understood my time and have exploited the imbecility and vanity and greed of my contemporaries.”

The misquotation has continued to circulate for decades. In 1993 a letter published in “The Spectator” of London highlighted an erroneous example: 14

Sir: ‘I am only a joker who has understood his epoch and has extracted all he possibly could from the stupidity, greed and vanity of his contemporaries.’ Pablo Picasso’s critics always offer this famous quotation as proof that he was nothing more than a charlatan who duped the 20th century into accepting him as its greatest artist.

These words, together with the rest of the passage quoted by Mr George Odgers in your Letters column (20 February), are not Picasso’s.

In 1996 computer scientist and critic David Gelernter published an article about Picasso in “The Weekly Standard”. He referred to the quotation he saw in “LIFE” when he was a child. He had not seen the retraction: 15

In 1968 Life magazine published a special issue on Picasso. “Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt and Goya,” he is quoted as saying, “were great painters; I am only a public entertainer. . . . Mine is a bitter confession, more painful than it may appear, but it has the merit of being sincere.” I was no great judge of character at age 13 when the piece appeared, but I was a longstanding Picasso fan, and the statement astonished me. I saved the magazine and have it beside me as I write.

In conclusion, the remarks ascribed to Picasso in his supposed “Confession” were actually derived from the fictional depiction of the famous painter in Giovanni Papini’s book “Il Libro Nero”. Multiple translations produced varying renditions.

Image Notes: Portrait of Pablo Picasso circa 1908 via Wikimedia Commons. Oil painting titled “Au Lapin Agile” (At the Lapin Agile) by Pablo Picasso circa 1905 in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; image from Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Storybrain whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. WorldCat Entry, Year: 1951, Title: Il Libro Nero: Nuovo Diario di Gog, Author: Giovanni Papini, Publisher: [Firenze]: Vallecchi, Language: Italian, (English Title Translation: The Black Book: New Gog Diary)
  2. 1993 December 16, The New York Review of Books, Footnote to Freud by Frederick C. Crews, Publisher: Rea S. Hederman, New York. (Online archive at nybooks.com) link
  3. 1994 February 3, The New York Review of Books, The Unknown Freud: An Exchange, (Letters responding to “The Unknown Freud” by Frederick Crews from J. Schimek, James Hopkins, Herbert S. Peyser, David D. Olds, and Marian Tolpin, et al. Also several replies from Frederick Crews), Publisher: Rea S. Hederman, New York. (Online archive at nybooks.com) link
  4. 1952 August 3, The Washington Post, Four Books About Art: Picasso Gave His ‘Silly’ Era in Painting a Blow, (Several books reviewed by Sterling North), Quote Page B7, Column 4, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  5. 1954 September 19, Los Angeles Times, New Art Books by A.M., Quote Page D7, Column 5, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  6. 1964 January, Origin, Second Series, Issue 12, Pablo Picasso: A Confession, (Note: The article presents an incorrect ascription to Picasso), Start Page 1, End Page 2, Editor: Cid Corman, Yamaha Art Gallery, Kyoto, Japan. (Verified with scans; thanks to the librarians of Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison)
  7. 1964, Art or Anarchy?: How the Extremists and Exploiters Have Reduced the Fine Arts to Chaos and Commercialism by Huntington Hartford, Quote Page 163 and 164, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans) (Hartford acknowledged the source of the quotation as: “Mirage of Africa” by Alan Houghton Broderick)
  8. 1964 April, Origin, Second Series, Issue 13, Letters about “The Picasso Confession”, (Letter dated December 7, 1963 from Herbert Read to the editor Cid Corman), Quote Page 2, Editor: Cid Corman, Yamaha Art Gallery, Kyoto, Japan. (Verified with scans; thanks to the librarians of Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison)
  9. 1964 December 12, The Saturday Review, Lament for Latter-day Painting, by Selden Rodman, (Book Review of “The Irresponsible Arts” by William Snaith and “Art or Anarchy?” by Huntington Hartford), Quote Page 46 and 47, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)
  10. Circa 1965, Arts in Society, Volume 3, Number 1, Editor: Edward L. Kamarck, A Confession by Pablo Picasso, (The ascription to Pablo Picasso is incorrect), (Reprinted from “Origin” Number 12, 1964), Start Page 140, Quote Page 140, Published by The University of Wisconsin Extension Division, Madison, Wisconsin. (Digital Collections, University of Wisconsin-Madison, digicoll.library.wisc.edu) link
  11. 1968 December 27, LIFE, Pablo Ruiz Picasso, Quote Page 134, Time Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View)
  12. 1969 January 17, LIFE, Apology for a False Picasso ‘Quote’, Quote Page 18B, Time Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View)
  13. 1973 April 24, Boston Globe, Picasso ‘clown’ quote was faked by another by Robert Taylor, Quote Page 16, Column 4, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  14. 1993 April 3, The Spectator, False Attribution, (Letter from Richard Dorment, London), Quote Page 24, London, England. (Online archive at archive.spectator.co.uk; accessed September 8, 2016) link
  15. 1996 August 4, The Weekly Standard, Picasso by David Gelernter, The Weekly Standard, Washington, D.C., Clarity Media Group, New York. (Online archive at weeklystandard.com) link