Picon, Gaëtan 1915-1976

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Picon, Gaëtan 1915-1976


Born 1915, in France; died, 1976.


Art critic. Director of arts and letters for French government, 1959-66.


André Malraux, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1945.

Georges Bernanos, R. Marin (Paris, France), 1948.

Panorama de la nouvelle littérature française: introductions, illustrations, documents, Éditions du Pont du Jour (Paris, France), 1949, revised edition, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1976, translated by Kelvin W. Scott and Graham D. Martin as Contemporary French Literature, 1945 and After, F. Ungar (New York, NY), 1974.

(With André Malraux) Malraux par lui-même, Éditions du Seuil (Paris, France), 1953.

Introduction à une esthétique de la littérature, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1953.

L'écrivain et son ombre, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1953.

Balzac par lui-même, Éditions du Seuil (Paris, France), 1956.

Panorama des idées contemporaines, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1957.

Ingres, Skira (Geneva, Switzerland), 1957, translated by Stuart Gilbert as Ingres: Biographical and Critical Study, Skira, 1967.

Poesie moderne itallienne, Mercure de France (Paris, France), 1959.

L'usage de la lecture, Mercure de France (Paris, France), 1960–61.

Lecture de Proust, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1963.

Culture et création, Estienne (Paris, France), 1964.

Kemeny: L'espace et l'image, Maeght (Paris, France), 1968.

Un champ de solitude, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1968.

Admirable tremblement du temps, Albert Skira (Geneva, Switzerland), 1970.

L'oeil double, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1970.

La chute d'Icare de Pablo Picasso, Albert Skira (Geneva, Switzerland), 1971.

Le travail de Jean Dubuffet, Albert Skira (Geneva, Switzerland), 1973.

1863: naissance de la peinture moderne, Albert Skira (Geneva, Switzerland), 1974, translated as The Birth of Modern Painting, Rizzoli (New York, NY), 1978.

Modern Painting, from 1800 to the Present, translated by Henry A. LaFarge, Newsweek Books (New York, NY), 1974.

Joan Miró, carnets catalans, Albert Skira (Geneva, Switzerland), 1976, translated by Dinah Harrison as Joan Miró: Catalan Notebooks: Unpublished Drawings and Writings, Rizzoli (New York, NY), 1977.

Journal du surréalisme, 1919-1939, Albert Skira (Geneva, Switzerland), 1976, new edition published as Le surréalisme, 1919-1939, Albert Skira (Geneva, Switzerland), 1988, first edition translated by James Emmons as Surrealists and Surrealism, 1919-1939, and new edition published as Surrealism: 1919-1939, Macmillan (London, England), 1977.

La vérité et les mythes: entretiens et essais, Mercure de France (Paris, France), 1979.

(With Geneviève Picon and Alain Bonfand) Nietzsche: la vérité de la vie intense: texte inédit (1937), preface by Marc de Launay, Hachette (Paris, France), 1998.

Author of preface to books, including Oeuvres romanesques: suivies de Dialogues des carmélites, Gal-

limard (Paris, France), 1961; and Illusions perdues, by Honoré de Balzac, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1999.


"In the international art world of his day, Gaëtan Picon was the very personification of French officialdom," stated New York Times Book Review art critic John Russell. "He spoke well, he lived well, and he knew something about everything. ;h3 Among men of letters he was known for his love of art. Among artists he was known for his panoramic powers of recall of the best that had ever been written and the best that had ever been said." Well before serving as director of arts and letters for the French government, where his friend André Malraux worked in the Ministry of Culture, Picon was considered a major figure in artistic circles.

In 1949 Picon published Panorama de la nouvelle littérature française: introductions, illustrations, documents, a survey of the "new French literature," which had begun to appear in the 1930s. "The critic successfully avoids the pitfalls of mere itemization, devoting his work instead to a detailed analysis of major literary movements and works," noted L. Becker in World Literature Today. Reviewing Contemporary French Literature, 1945 and After, a later English translation covering much of the same territory, Library Journal contributor Bettina Knapp recommended it "for those seeking a bird's-eye view of contemporary French writing," while a Choice reviewer found it "remarkable as the distillation of the thinking of a very good practicing critic."

While this interest in writers remained a strong one throughout his career, Picon mixed it with a deep appreciation for the visual arts. Over the years, he produced works on a number of painters, including Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Jean Dubuffet. In his later years, he published 1863: naissance de la peinture moderne, translated as The Birth of Modern Painting. The French title refers to the year when Napoleon III permitted artists rejected by the official and deeply traditional Paris Salon to display their works in a specially designated place. Many credit this "Salon des Refuses" with launching modern painting, particularly when the artist Manet displayed his work there. Reviewing the English translation, a Choice contributor wrote: "He does not provide new insights but rather consolidates ideas that have been present in secondary literature for some time." Library Journal reviewer Randall Bond felt that it "does not add much that is new to our understanding of these events."

In the final years of his life, Picon produced a much more substantial work, Journal du surréalisme, 1919- 1939. "This last work of the late distinguished French art critic is easily the most comprehensive, as well as the most beautifully produced musée imaginarie available on this controversial subject," related Burlington Magazine contributor René Elvin. Here, Picon covers the ideas and careers of the revolutionary artists and poets, such as Max Ernst, Miró, and Salvador Dali, who sought to overturn all artistic conventions. "Picon charts, without retrospective mockery, those dizzy radical shifts of direction," according to New Statesman contributor George Melly, referring to the movement's flirtations with communism and mysticism. At the same time, Picon's work focused on the commanding presence of André Breton, the "Pope of Surrealism," whose decrees could welcome artists to the movement, or banish them.

For some critics, the treatment was a little incomplete. "The scanty attention paid to surrealist literature mars the volume," insisted Apollo reviewer Nicholas Robinson. For a Choice reviewer, "despite the excellent bibliography, and even despite the brilliance of the concise text, this is not a very useful volume for the general student." Other critics were more complimentary to Picon. "Picon's text is a valuable clarification of the contradictory position of Surrealism in the between-the-wars period," commented Harold Rosenberg in the New York Times Book Review. Noting that surrealism had been treated too reverently in many books, New Republic contributor John Canady praised Picon for "playing up the high jinks, the crass showmanship, narcissism, impertinence and general neurotic tomfoolery in the name of art" affected by a number of surrealists.

A few years after his death, publisher Mercure de France released La vérité et les mythes: entretiens et essais, a collection of writings and interviews conducted by Picon. Reviewing this collection in World Literature Today, Edouard Roditi wrote: "Picon's most powerful pages are … the few in which he describes and analyzes, however briefly, the political and spiritual decadence of the Third Republic between the two world wars, the defeat of 1940 and the ignominies of the Vichy regime;h3 . [He] appears never to have fully recovered from the disillusionment and despair of these few years."



Apollo, August, 1978, Nicholas Robinson, review of Surrealism: 1919-1939, p. 141.

Burlington Magazine, July, 1977, René Elvin, review of Journal du surréalisme, 1919-1939, p. 514.

Choice, November, 1977, review of Surrealist and Surrealism, 1919-1939, p. 1199; September, 1979, review of The Birth of Modern Painting, p. 816.

Library Journal, December 15, 1973, Bettina Knapp, review of Contemporary French Literature: 1945 and After, p. 3637; May 1, 1979, Randall Bond, review of The Birth of Modern Painting, p. 1046.

New Republic, November 26, 1977, John Canady, "John Canady on Art Books," pp. 29-32.

New Statesman, July 8, 1977, George Melly, "The Centre Holds," p. 59.

New York Times Book Review, July 31, 1977, Harold Rosenberg, review of Surrealists and Surrealism, 1919-1939, pp. 6, 24; April 8, 1979, John Russell, review of The Birth of Modern Painting, p. 29.

World Literature Today, winter, 1978, L. Becker, review of Panorama de la nouvelle littérature française, p. 82; spring, 1980, Edouard Roditi, review of La vérité et les mythes: entretiens et essais, p. 253.