A Life of Picasso: Vol 3 The Triumphant Years 1917-1932, By John Richardson

Generous, intelligent, superstitious, cruel: the latest instalment of Picasso's life presents a complex portrait
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John Richardson's monumental life of Picasso dwarfs in length – and, possibly, time spent in composing it – such biographical classics as George Painter's Proust, David Cairns's Berlioz and Hilary Spurling's Matisse. Richardson, like the others, is English and bears out the view that Britons outstrip Europeans in general and the French in particular when it comes to tackling the life and works of the school of genius. Richardson's first volume appeared in 1990, the second in 1997 and this, the third of a projected four has taken a further 10 years. The author is already 83 and, while one wishes him a long life, it's difficult to know when volume four will appear and even whether it will be the last. If I were a betting man I'd reckon on a volume five being likely. Happily his principal collaborator Marilyn McCully is still young and will doubtless conclude the task.

Volume III begins with Picasso and Jean Cocteau going to Rome in 1917 to work on Diaghilev's ballet Parade and Picasso meeting one of the principal dancers of the Ballets Russes, Olga Khokhlova. Olga was probably the first beautiful woman to resist his advances and resolutely continued that way until assured of becoming the first Madame Picasso. The book ends with Picasso's first major retrospective exhibitions, when he was already 50, in Paris and then Zurich in 1932.

Even to a balletophobe, Richardson's narrative of the antics of Diaghilev and the intertwined lives of Picasso's circle makes compulsive reading. Apart from Cocteau and Diaghilev's principal male dancer and choreographer Léonid Massine – who, when not pleasuring Diaghilev, was, like Picasso, a compulsive womaniser – there was Stravinsky and his sometime mistress Coco Chanel and, perhaps surprisingly, the café society of the Twenties. It seems barely credible that a genius like Picasso could spend so much time with the Princesse de Polignac (the Singer sewing machine heiress) and various duchesses and countesses and their husbands with their excruciatingly elaborate costume balls and endless lunch parties. You wonder continually how Picasso could produce so huge and varied an output and continue to have affairs and still need to refresh himself in brothels.

While Picasso was in love with Olga she figured in many of his paintings and continued to do so long after he had become bored by her growing pretentiousness. Picasso, with deadly irony, pretended to assume the role of bourgeois paterfamilias at the same time as being rejuvenated by his discovery and seduction of the 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter. Marie-Thérèse was the personification of pneumatic bliss and the ideal, even perfect, mistress since she had no wish to become the second Madame Picasso. He, Spanish to the last, did not believe in divorce. Olga, her status and wealth secure, tolerated Marie-Thérèse but threw out a Japanese model who bedded Picasso as well as posing for him. It's in the Marie-Thérèse-obsessed years that Picasso first seriously tackled, and mastered, the art of sculpture in his studio at the Château de Boisgeloup. As Richardson points out, he anticipated both Giacometti's spindly forms and the divided monumental shapes of Henry Moore.

While Richardson clearly worships Picasso he is no hagiographer. He deals frankly with the downs and ups of his relationships with his rivals, notably Braque, Matisse and Brancusi. He makes clear that the priapic, even sometimes satyr-like Picasso was deeply sadistic both towards his women and towards the homosexual men who were hopelessly in love with him, such as Max Jacob and Cocteau. Conversely he reveals Picasso's deeply superstitious nature, his religiosity, his generosity towards those in trouble and his fear of both illness and death. His Picasso is a sun-worshipper, happiest when on one of the Mediterranean beaches he frequents and includes in his paintings. On page after page there are examples of Picasso's intransigence, born largely out of his huge intelligence, which gave him not only a creative edge but also an extraordinary worldly and political wisdom which enabled him to run rings rounds his dealers, his publishers and the hangers-on who wanted, unsurprisingly, a piece of him. His charm was almost palpable and was certainly mesmeric. Richardson is not afraid to correct errors and sheer wrong-headedness in the writings of others – he appears to have read everything ever written about Picasso – and does it with deftness, brevity and wit. He is particularly scathing about the monstrously solipsistic Gertrude Stein and makes it clear that it was not Gertrude but her brother Leo who first mounted the Picasso critical bandwagon. His own judgements and analyses seem to me spot on and expressed with a refreshing absence of art-speak.

Perhaps the epilogue is the most intriguing chapter, in that it gives a superb vignette of Picasso's cousin, General Juan Picasso González, a genuine military and moral hero. This precedes a masterly summary of the origins of the Spanish Civil War and shows how the Falange tried to get Lorca and Picasso on their side. Lorca, as we know, was executed by the Fascists. They then tried to seduce Picasso but failed dismally when they publicly claimed the then essentially non-political artist as one of their own. This folly turned Picasso into an instant Republican, thus preparing the ground for what became Guernica and giving Richardson his tantalising trailer for the account of that masterpiece which will surely be the beginning of the next volume. The last words of the current book are a quotation from Picasso to a Spanish friend: "God is really another artist... like me... I am God, I am God, I am God."

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