Brief Book Reviews - A Life of Picasso

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''A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932'' by John Richardson; Knopf; 592 pages; $40.

In the 1950s, a youngish art scholar named John Richardson met Pablo Picasso and became part of the small circle of curators and historians who had access to him. The initial entree was from Richardson's partner of 12 years, Douglas Cooper, a noted collector of Picasso and of cubist art.

Then, 25 years ago, Richardson began working on a biography. Two installments of "A Life of Picasso" appeared in the 1990s, and they have just been reissued in handsome trade paperbacks. Now there is a third, which was 11 years in the making.

One can only wish Richardson, now 83, has many more years to pursue his passion for this subject. "The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932," as the new book is subtitled, is one of the great biographies of any artist in any discipline. It is beautifully written and remarkably researched.

Four volumes were originally projected, but that would mean the next one would have to cover 41 years. This doesn't sound plausible. (Richardson's biography, if completed, would likely rival Leon Edel's great life of Henry James, which spanned five volumes.)

Is Picasso deserving of this sort of effort? Positively. He not only revolutionized painting and sculpture, but he kept reinventing his work in fascinating ways until his death in 1973. No artist is more crucial to the 20th century, though Matisse is his equal and Duchamp and Warhol's influence is wider.

This biography is also a great tale. Picasso's life was complex, fascinating, disturbing and dramatic. It's thick with plot twists. And Richardson knows how to shape this story.

In the first volume, "The Prodigy, 1881-1906," Richardson tracks the artist's rebellion against his father, who was a competent but undistinguished painter, and his decision to leave behind moderate success in Barcelona for abject poverty and struggle for recognition in Bohemian Paris. His Blue Period paintings embody the atmosphere of that struggle.

In the second, "The Cubist Rebel, 1907-1916," Picasso's work turns revolutionary, first with the fierce "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907) and then in the invention of cubism along with close collaborator and lifelong friend Georges Braque. In his personal life, there is the vital friendship with Gertrude Stein as well as the brutal breakup with his longtime companion Fernande Olivier and the death of the woman he planned to marry, Eva Gouel.

As the third book opens, Picasso is already a financial success and will only become wealthier as the 1920s progress. He was astute in his dealings with art dealers.

"The Triumphant Years" conveys the range of Picasso's friends and acquaintances. You learn a good deal about Picasso's close friendships with the likes of Erik Satie and Jean Cocteau, among others. There are enticing asides too, like an anecdote involving the artist's derisive attitude toward Hemingway's "expertise" on bullfighting.

In Picasso's love life, one thing remained constant: turmoil. It was a byproduct of his restless temperament as an artist.

"Picasso felt far more intensely about his art," writes Richardson, "to which all the women in his life would ultimately be sacrificed."

One of two major women in his life during these years is the beautiful Russian dancer Olga Khokhlova, whom he met while working on the decor for Diaghilev's new ballet, "Parade." Picasso begins wooing her in 1917 and marries her the next year. They lead a lavish life, attending formal balls and summering in the south of France.

Richardson finds supreme irony in this development. Picasso criticized his parents for being, as he puts it, "bourgeois, bourgeois, bourgeois." But during his first years with Olga, his own life fit that description to a T.

The 17-year-old Marie-Therese Walter became his way out. His affair with her began in 1927, lasted about nine years and produced a daughter, Maya.

"He told me that I had saved his life," Walter would recall. And reflecting on her words, Richardson writes, "She had indeed saved him: from the psychic stress of his marriage and the bourgeois restraints that it imposed."

Khokhlova never really acquires flesh and blood in these pages, and neither does Walter. This is the book's one notable weakness.

Richardson is much better at looking at how Picasso's art echoed his life with the women. In the first flush of happiness with Khokhlova, he paints her in his gorgeous neoclassical style of the 1920s. When things turned sour, she becomes a sort of biomorphic beast, with elastic limbs and a ferocious-looking vaginal mouth. (Khokhlova and Picasso separated in 1935 but never divorced. She died 20 years later.)

It's hard to reconcile yourself to the notion that such sensitivity and savagery could exist in the same artist's work. Picasso's portraits of his and Olga's son, Paulo, in harlequin costume have a heartrending tenderness to them.

Richardson never shies away from Picasso's prominent dark side. Some found the artist sinister, as if he were feeding off their energy and ideas: "Picasso is a cannibal," the great sculptor Constantin Brancusi said.

Richardson doesn't ultimately agree, but it is a measure of his skill as a biographer that he can convey the profundity of the art and the many limitations of the man. You are likely to hate Picasso at one moment and admire him at another, all the while compulsively turning the pages to see what happens next.

- Robert L. Pincus
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