In the first of a projected four volumes, John Richardson provides a fascinating, in-depth portrayal of Picasso’s life and art. In chapters that usually cover a year or less, the biographer re-creates the young artist’s explosive development, the family tensions that arose from Picasso’s iconoclastic canvases and boisterous behavior, his three journeys to Paris before permanently settling there, the brief periods of doubt and timidity when he seemed to pull back from his original insights, and his triumphant breakthrough at the age of twenty-five, producing not only several masterpieces but a body of work already the equal of the greatest long-lived artists.
In his father’s eye, Picasso was destined to be an artist; accordingly, he was given an education that would equip him for a distinguished academic career. Soon, however, Picasso rejected his father’s conventional, second-rate style of painting and sought out the most innovative and colorful personalities—first in Malaga, and then in Barcelona, Madrid, and Paris. In later life, Picasso would present himself as a self-made artist, claiming that he had never drawn or painted as a child but had somehow sprung fully formed and capable of creating mature works before his teenage years.
Richardson never doubts Picasso’s genius, but the biographer wisely threads his way through the artist’s self-aggrandizing reminiscences, ratifying, on the one hand, Picasso’s faith in his precocity, and on the other hand, rejecting his more outrageous claims. The artist did develop quickly—by sixteen he was capable of producing mature work—but there is no evidence that as a very young child Picasso ranked as a prodigy. Similarly, stories told by Jaime Sabartès and other Picasso intimates are subject to the biographer’s careful checking of time and place and are often corrected in the light of other evidence. Richardson often has to consider conflicting accounts, which leads him to conclude: “No wonder so much of what has been said about Picasso turns out to be equally true in reverse.”
One of the powerful unifying themes of Richardson’s biography is what he calls the mirada fuerte, the powerful gaze or stare that Picasso could turn on the people who became the subjects of his art. Viewing Picasso as essentially a Spanish artist—in spite of his many years in France and the undoubted influence of French art on his work—Richardson shows how this personal characteristic was also a cultural characteristic that pervaded Picasso’s life and work, manifesting itself in his stunningly original portraits and in his affairs with several women. He had a way of taking total possession of his subjects, virtually violating them, and Richardson does not excuse Picasso’s misogyny, recognizing that it is an indispensable part of the artist’s energy and motivation. Consequently, he presents (without using the word) a powerfully sinister view of Picasso’s genius.
At almost all periods of his life Picasso had “devoted dogsbodies,” often older men, artists, who supported his art, gave him places to stay and money, and who generally sacrificed themselves to his talent—just as Picasso’s father and Uncle Salvador had done. In at least one case, that of Carles Casagemas, who committed suicide in 1901, the attachment to Picasso proved disastrous. To remain strong within Picasso’s overwhelming artistic orbit required considerable personal strength and talent. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire successfully abetted and withstood Picasso’s genius, which had a ruthless, self-involved side apparently interested in others only as avenues to the creation of art or to the satisfaction of his appetite. Usually life and work were combined: Thus Fernande Olivier became not only the artist’s “first great love” but also his model, whom he would lock in his studio, forbidding the promiscuous Olivier to have friendships with other men, even though she was married to another man at the time of their liaison.
“Picasso lacked moral courage,” Richardson notes in making a distinction between the bravery of the artist’s work and his far from exemplary life: “In art Picasso was a hero, less so in life.” An artist with a growing “drama and style,” Picasso named himself, so to speak, taking his mother’s name (to the chagrin of his father’s family) and refusing (after his first pliant years) to follow his father’s advice.
Paris, Richardson shows, was an indispensable element in Picasso’s rapid mastery of art; it replaced the provinciality of Barcelona and Madrid and appealed to the artist’s open sensuality. In Paris, Picasso surrounded himself with poets—in later life, he wrote poetry himself, which Richardson suggests was of very high quality—and absorbed ideas that were quickly translated into paintings. In...