This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
“You are what I love most in the world”, wrote the poet and catholic convert Max Jacob, “after God and the Saints who regard you as one of them.” The subject of such praise was born Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno Maria de los Remedios Crispin Crispiniano Santisima Trinidad Ruiz, in Malaga in 1881, but quickly discovered that none of those names would do.
He took another, one whose three forceful syllables now vibrate like the primary colours of twentieth-century art. It was a killing kind of self-invention that severed him from his father, a painter who had done everything he could to help his son. “In art, it is necessary to kill one’s father,” he commented later.
Creative destruction or destructive creation? If there is a difference, it will matter with Picasso, who turned human suffering into rocket fuel for his galactic ambition. He made his mistresses read the Marquis de Sade. He left notes in the bin saying “tú es un con” for his secretary, who emptied them, to enjoy. He played sycophants off against each other and turned his firstborn son into his chauffeur. He tortured women when he loved them and he tortured them more when he didn’t. He was the twentieth century’s greatest artist.
“Of all the problems besetting Picasso in late 1932”, begins this final volume of John Richardson’s masterful biography, “foremost was the misery of married life with his late wife Olga.” Misery for Picasso inevitably meant misery for the woman who loved him, which is how we get this period’s other name: the annus mirabilis.
It’s one of Richardson’s dictums that when the woman in the artist’s life changed, almost everything else changed, too. That meant not just a new house, new friends and new servants but new human territory for his ravening genius to colonise. In the period covered, which runs from 1932 to 1943, Picasso’s priapism was unabated. Along with Olga, who appears in his work as a series of gored and shrieking horses, Picasso was making pictorial use of his very young mistress, Marie Therese Walter. As the book opens Picasso is 51, five years into his affair with Walter, who was just 17 when he picked her up.
Some of his mistresses ultimately committed suicide
Halfway through we meet Dora Maar, a gifted surrealist photographer whose mental breakdown Picasso unchivalrously immortalised in a series of feverish, tragic portraits. While these “weeping woman” portraits initially seem cruel — shattered, twisted, sickly — the terms of the written metaphor tend to be more degrading than Picasso’s brush. It’s the pictures of Marie Therese Walter that perturb me the most: skin pink, head thrown back orgasmically in thoughtless sleep, her trunk sprouting erogenous tentacles or shrunk to a cluster of buttocks and breasts, the mouth mere orifice, the face half-contained by a punning penis (see Le Rêve). They ought to be grotesque. What disturbs is their beauty.
“He never forced anyone to sacrifice a wife, a mistress or career. They were the ones who insisted on doing so”, wrote Richardson in an earlier volume. It’s true of the women in his life, too, that many of them avidly sought him out. Still, look what happened. “It is too painful to love you. I don’t have the courage to live without you,” wrote Alice Paalen, when their affair was ending in 1936. “Behave with me as you behaved before”, wrote Dora Maar the next year, reduced to bouts of rage and begging regret by his serial cruelty: “that is, if I haven’t already ruined everything; come find me whenever you want, I will wait for you as long as you want me to, years if you so desire.”
Picasso destroyed people. Some of his mistresses ultimately committed suicide, others spent self-destructive years longing for his return. Maar had a breakdown, was treated by Jacques Lacan and ultimately transformed into a conservative Catholic. “After Picasso”, she said, “there is only God.”
It’s traditional to think of Picasso as the chief exponent, almost the ultimate human expression of the century itself, but in Richardson’s books, political chaos seems to bounce off the artist. The great pacifist was uninterested by the setmana tragica, an anti-military uprising that enveloped Catalonia in 1909. He didn’t fight in the First World War.
When the great depression hit, he was hardly affected (he kept almost all his money in a bank vault). Even under Nazi occupation, Picasso bamboozles the soldiers sent to make an inventory of his vaults into massively undervaluing the stock, outwitting history again like a figure from myth.
It’s hard not to wonder how this volume was put together
In previous volumes, Richardson hinted at a change of heart about the interrelation of art and politics in this period. That certainly happened, but a full account of it is missing from this book and it’s not the only absence one notices. I struggle to put into words how good the first three volumes of this biography are: sensitive, idiosyncratic, funny, superbly written, books that dancingly traverse decades to connect disparate works. Richardson knew Picasso well, and it’s thrilling to read conversational asides beginning “as Picasso told me once …” As a biographical achievement they merit comparison to Robert Caro’s life of Lyndon Johnson, and if Caro’s mode is Tolstoyan — vast, driving, imbued with a clear sense of its own grandeur — Richardson’s is more reminiscent of Proust in his comic mode: delicate, witty, opinionated, snobbish, closely concerned with how social life affects the life within.
John Richardson died in 2019, so it’s hard not to wonder how this volume was put together. This volume is roughly half the length of its predecessors, and where those books unearthed insights from sketchbook curios and stray remarks, this one seems to glide above the surface of Picasso’s life. In 1935, as the political situation in Spain worsened, Picasso stopped making art for almost a year, but going on Richardson’s book alone I’d be hard pressed to tell you about the psychology of that moment.
In 1937 he painted Guernica for the Spanish Pavilion at the world fair. The most avidly documented of masterpieces, it seems to slip by in a matter of minutes. Compare that to the dazzling multi-chapter account, given at the end of volume one, of everything Picasso needed to internalise before he could paint Les Demoiselles D’Avignon and one has a sense that, in this volume, Richardson is only doing the hands and faces.
The author’s critical eye, too, is not what it was. The readings feel schematic, too interested in the hunt for hidden meanings or the creation of stiff allegories. Encountering Minotauromachie, for instance, the artist’s most famous etching, we learn that Picasso is the bull, Marie Therese the dying matadora, the artist’s long-dead sister is the little girl holding a light, and the light represents art. It feels like a guidebook account, one that gets us no closer to the print’s monstrous vulnerability, its dark tenderness and glamour.
In the print, a blind, tor-headed minotaur fumbles towards a light, absent-mindedly stabbing at a naked woman borne on a shrieking horse. It is the most seductive, astute, moving, wryly pathetic rendering of the artist’s own life that I can think of. One sees the self-conscious sensitivity, the sudden intelligence that made him so attractive. In this book, by contrast, that feeling human germ has disappeared behind Picasso’s myth and his magical name. I mostly sympathise. It can be hard to believe he was just a man. Sometimes he forgot it himself. “Can you imagine if I was called Ruiz?” he was once heard to ask. “Pablo Ruiz?”
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