“A life of Picasso” explores the passionate intensity of the painter
Pablo Picasso was perhaps the greatest artist of the twentieth century. Creative and fiercely productive over a long career, he reshaped the way artists see the world and their role in it. All the adjectives associated with artistic greatness – brilliant, illustrious, precursor – have been applied to him. Major exhibitions of his works are almost always blockbusters.
There are shelves of biographies that explain what made Picasso thrill. But no one has written about him with more clarity and insight than legendary British art historian John Richardson. As a friend of the artist, Richardson had access to Picasso for many years, and he used this personal connection to provide a full and richer, but still honest, portrait of the painter.
“A Life of Picasso: The Years of the Minotaur, 1933-1943” is the fourth in the series of biographies of Picasso that Richardson, who died in 2019, began writing in the 1980s. The first volumes retrace his life and career of the artist from his youth in Barcelona, Spain, until his early years in Paris. The last opus was released posthumously in November, and its subtitle refers to the mythical half-man, half-bull who often replaces the artist in his images. The book is just as enriching and impressive as the three that came before it.
The most famous anti-war paint in the world
We begin with Picasso, now middle-aged, at the height of his artistic power. The book covers in detail the extraordinary sculptural works created in Boisgeloup, the Norman castle he bought in 1930; his flirtation with the surrealists; his poetic experimentation and his decision to give up painting for a year to give him time to write; the series of paintings known as “Weeping Women”; his summers on the Côte d’Azur; the table “Night fishing in Antibes” as well as “Guernica”; and Picasso’s decision to stay in Paris during World War II.
The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War was traumatic for Picasso, who was still a Spanish citizen. He was squarely on the side of the Republicans – who fought against the nationalists led by General Francisco Franco – and provided them with significant financial support.
He was asked to prepare a painting for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, and his initial concept was a painting of an artist in his studio with a model. But then, on April 26, 1937, the Germans bombed Guernica and the direction of the project changed completely. Picasso quickly completed a massive painting that graphically details the violence of the attack and the chaos and suffering that resulted from it. Now considered one of the most important paintings of the twentieth century, the work was coldly received in Paris.
Picasso had a dark side: he was a longtime misogynist, and his abusive treatment of those close to him is legendary. In this book, we look at the psychological collapse of his first wife, Olga; the institutionalization of the son he tried to ignore; and the toxic and destructive relationship with Dora Maar, his mistress when he painted “Guernica”. Maar was the subject of the “Weping Woman” paintings, and Richardson notes that Picasso’s treatment of her image “has disturbing echoes of cruelty, confinement and torture.” Still in the background, his first mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, and their daughter, Maya.
It’s not just women, of course. Richardson documents the occasional cruelty that Picasso inflicted on men, women, family members and close friends. He was an equal opportunity executioner.
Formerly, such behavior among great artists was explained by invoking the term “artistic temperament”. Those days are long gone. The biographer does not speculate as to why Picasso was capable of great cruelty – such an assessment would require a deep dive into psychology, which is outside the expertise of an art historian. On the contrary, Richardson’s accomplishment is to enable us to see Picasso in his entirety – as an artist with enormous consequences and as a terribly imperfect human being.
Impressed by Van Gogh
Richardson provides personal and artistic details that enrich the story. We learn, for example, that Picasso, who loved beautiful cars, never drove and ridiculed artists like Georges Braque (who drove a Rolls-Royce) and André Derain (who favored Bugattis) who did so. His younger sister, Conchita, whose death in 1895 haunted Picasso, appears in “Guernica” as an adult woman holding a lamp. It is well known that Picasso admired Vincent van Gogh, but Richardson increases this information by noting that Picasso carried in his wallet until the day of his death an original newspaper article about Van Gogh’s attempt to cut off his ear. And it’s fun to imagine André Breton, nicknamed the Pope of Surrealism for his arrogance and imperiousness, trying to fit into Picasso’s life in order to draw the artist into the surrealist movement. He failed.
Richardson’s death meant that the multi-volume series “A Life of Picasso” ended in the early 1940s. Picasso lived another 30 years. How sad that the biographer could not complete the project. But what luck that he finished four volumes.
Many other biographies will be written on Picasso. But it is difficult to imagine that any of them will surpass the realization of Richardson’s “Life of Picasso”. For readers seeking to fully understand Picasso as an artist and as a person, Richardson’s books are the indispensable starting point. A great artist now enjoys a biography worthy of at least a part of his life and his work.