Two mountaineers roped together? A new biography of Picasso examines his love-hate links with Braque in creating cubism, `one of the most wonderful chapters in the whole history of art'
THERE must have been a lot of good fairies in attendance when John Richardson was born. He was given a sharp intelligence and wit, princely good looks, a discerning eye for art, an engaging prose style, energy, the knack of being serious or unserious as the occasion demands, and, neither last nor least, luck. The luck has landed him in two professional partnerships that have worked like magic.

One of these is his current relationship with Marilyn McCully, an American art historian whose collaboration with him on A Life of Picasso is credited on its title pages. A task of the magnitude in depth and breadth of this four-volume biography does demand more than one really good mind - in addition to the more routine help of diverse supporters - and Richardson has had the good fortune to find such a partner. His prefatory acknowledgement of her role could not be more fulsome, but I wish I had been able to get to the recent public duologue at the Almeida Theatre in London in which they explained their modus operandi. My uninformed guess as to what goes on would be an analogy with the early days of motor racing, when the mechanic was in the car alongside the driver.

The other crucial partnership happened at the outset of Richardson's career, when he became the protege of Douglas Cooper, a serious collector of cubist painting and its one even half-serious collector in this sorry country. (How sorry is clear when Richardson reminds us that, after Roger Fry and Vanessa Bell visited Picasso's studio in 1914, she wrote to Duncan Grant saying she had come to the conclusion that "he is probably one of the greatest geniuses that has ever lived", then reporting that on leaving him they rushed off to his dealer's, where they bought a landscape by Vlaminck: "perhaps you'll think it dull of us.")

Besides collecting cubist art, Cooper acquired a reputation as an authority upon it. This, plus being rich, plus having abominably bullying ways, made Cooper so greatly feared a character in the art world that, around 1950, when I pointed out a factual error in reviewing a book of his for the Burlington Magazine the Editor censored this for fear of reprisal. Despite his reputation, Cooper was a competent rather than an inspired historian and as a critic was a joke: he rated Marini and Manzu more highly than Giacometti, rated Sutherland more highly than Bacon, had no time for the abstract expressionists and even pompously and pathetically dismissed and denounced Picasso's late work.

However, he was a very amusing talker, and Picasso, Braque and Leger all enjoyed his society. He thereby made it possible for the young Richardson to hobnob with the three great cubist masters. There is no better education for a writer on art than to spend time with major artists and come to know how they act and how they think and how they do not think. But, if it was luck that gave Richardson access to such figures, it was his own qualities that won and retained their confidence and that of those close to them. And, being a good art historian, he not only basked in their presence but wittingly used their confidence to ask all sorts of important questions.

So his descriptions of Picasso's personality are based on direct observation and many of his reports about Picasso's doings and opinions are original (and, by the way, his attitude to his protagonist is exemplary - perfectly free of idolatry on the one hand, of debunking on the other). One of the great things about this biography is how it combines personal recollection and deep scholarship. The other is how it is packed with minute detail without losing momentum. It is a highly serious book which, helped by cunningly placed picaresque or gossipy interludes, is as difficult to put down as a detective story, not least because of the flowing way in which it moves between close-up, medium shot and long shot (posterity's view). Also, the integration into the text of hundreds of illustrations has been worked out in a user-friendly way by the designer, Michael Raeburn. But watch out for captions that are not properly co-ordinated with the text. For instance, the text establishes a revised dating to the spring of 1914 for the metal version - a key work in the history of modern art - of one of the relief constructions called "Guitar". But the caption to the picture of it in the margin gives the superseded dating, 1912-13, doubtless copied from the label on a photograph. The danger is that, in consulting the book, we'll pick up the false information clearly visible in the caption rather than the correct information buried in the text.

The topic which I had most looked forward to reading about here was Picasso's relationship with Braque during the time of high cubism, a relationship analogous to that between Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in the heyday of bebop - one between two young artists who were at once men of genius and great virtuosi and who had totally contrasting temperaments, collaborating in the creation of a revolutionary style, inspiring each other, guiding each other through a journey in the dark, goading each other with their intense rivalry, loving each other, often disliking and distrusting each other. (I have made a comparison with jazz musicians because the jam session presents the paradigm of a situation which is all about artists simultaneously supporting and trying to outdo each other.)

Braque's most famous description of the relationship was that they were like two mountaineers roped together; Picasso's that Braque was "my wife" - a phrase which, given his notoriety as a male chauvinist pig, is generally taken to be condescending. But Richardson throws new light on this.

When Braque was hospitalized in the late 1930s, Picasso rushed off to see him. "The nurse wouldn't let me into his room," he fumed on his return, "she said Madame Braque was with him. She didn't realise that I am Madame Braque."

Beginning with their honeymoon days, things tended to go as follows:

In this friendly but deadly game of one-upmanship it is impossible to say which of the two players had the upper hand. At the height of cubism it was, surprisingly, the mercurial and temperamental Picasso who would repeatedly urge the cooler, more phlegmatic Braque to come and work with him. Later, Picasso would race ahead on his own. Emotionally, however, he would always need Braque rather more than Braque needed him. Only Picasso's tall, reserved dandy of a father, don Jose, had taught him as much as this tall, reserved dandy of a Norman.

In the end, the proud Spaniard was increasingly the pursuer:

For instance, when Picasso offered him accommodation at La Californie, the vast villa above Cannes that he bought in 1954, in the hope that they would work together again, just as they had at Ceret [in 1911], Braque failed to show the slightest interest. On his annual visit to the Cote d'Azur, Braque made a point of staying with his dealer, Aime Maeght. Picasso, who loathed Maeght, was mortified.

In matters of renown and wealth, however, Picasso far outdid Braque from the start. Braque is famous among lovers of modern art, Picasso is as famous as Brigitte Bardot. Yet Picasso was not a much greater painter than Braque, though his additional greatness as a sculptor and draughtsman makes him the bigger artist. Above all, there was little to choose between them as painters at the turn of 1912-13, when they were both finally given formal contracts by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, their principal dealer since 1907. The amount to be paid for a work by Picasso was larger than that for a work of the same size by Braque - five times larger.

This book is good enough to make me want perfection. Now, the story of the rise of cubism seems to me one of the most wonderful chapters in the whole history of art. There is something deeply moving about the way this pair of artists in their late twenties found themselves subverting six centuries of European painting while seeing themselves - quite rightly - as the successors to a line that stretched from Poussin to Chardin to Corot to Cezanne. Moving and mysterious. I cannot look at a roomful of Picassos and Braques of 1907-14 without marvelling at how cubism evolved. It continues to amaze me as if it had happened yesterday. The heroic pair moved through uncertainty with certainty, like sleepwalkers crossing narrow bridges over chasms. While nothing if not experimental in approach, they kept on ending up with artefacts that have an unassailable authority. They achieved a perfect combination of intellectual curiosity and instinctive response as they worked away as if under a spell. The mystery isn't quite evoked by Richardson's book. But perhaps that is asking too much. Perhaps it is simply impossible for a book to be at the same time a thorough biography and a completely satisfying critical study.

Nevertheless, Richardson does have one shortcoming in this area that has to be regretted. In 1910, Braque and Picasso brought cubism to the brink of abstraction. Following in their wake, Mondrian took the plunge into abstraction - thereby preparing the way for a typical art of our time. Braque and Picasso kept their feet on the ground, and it was clearly not from fear of the unknown. What was it that made them insist on retaining the presence of objects in their images and consequently inventing collage - thereby preparing the way for another typical art of our time? Richardson does not, I think, satisfactorily explain their motives. He anticipates the question when he writes:

As the critic Roger Allard saw, as early as 1912, cubism was a means of registering "mass, volume and weight." Henceforth, everything had to be tactile and palpable, not least space. Palpability made for reality, and it was the real rather than the realistic that Picasso was out to capture. A cup or a jug or a pair of binoculars should not be a copy of the real thing, it need not even look like the real thing; it simply had to be as real as the real thing.

Later, Richardson picks this up:

The Cadaques paintings are indeed milestones, in that they constitute the crux of what would eventually become one of the most momentous issues of modernism: figurative versus non-figurative. If in the end Picasso stopped short of abstraction, it was not a failure of nerve but his conviction that art - his art - should be as real as the real thing. For Picasso, reality (as opposed to realism) is what his painting would always be about. Cubism was a means of enhancing, not dissipating, that reality. He did not want a painting to be an abstraction any more than he wanted it to be a facsimile. He wanted it to constitute a fact, a very specific fact.

But being a fact is not the same as signifying a fact and "reality . . . is what his painting would always be about" is a dodgy formulation semantically.

For Richardson's talk of "the real" opens up a can of worms. The cubists' insistence that the image "simply had to be as real as the real thing" led to the abstractionists' insistence on the reality of the art object itself. This was why one important group of abstractionists called their work "concrete art". This was why an exhibition at the Tate in 1969 of paintings and sculptures by Pollock, Newman, Kelly, Noland, Stella, Judd, Andre and others of that ilk was called "The Art of the Real".

! John Richardson's `A Life of Picasso: Vol II 1907-1917' is published by Cape at pounds 30