A Life of Picasso (Magill Book Reviews)
This second volume of John Richardson’s projected four-volume biography of Pablo Picasso continues what is sure to be one of the twentieth century’s landmark studies of an artist’s life. Richardson has several advantages over earlier Picasso biographers. He benefits from generations of scholarly and biographical research on his subject, from the cooperation of Picasso’s widow and other family members, and from his firsthand knowledge of the artist’s life and work. Richardson first met Picasso in the 1950’s and became one of his friends. Thus Richardson is able to draw on this intimacy, integrating his own sense of the man and the artist with the copious literature on Picasso. Richardson has also had the good fortune to have a scholarly collaborator, Marilyn McCully, whose key contribution to the biography is acknowledged on the title page.
Because he has the luxury of four copiously illustrated volumes, Richardson solves the problem that bedevils most writers of one-volume biographies. He can devote almost as much space to social context and to the characters who befriended his subject as he does to the subject himself. Thus the biographer provides beautifully realized portraits of Fernande Olivier, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, and all those who became a part of Picasso’s cadre of supporters.
If there is a weakness in Richardson’s biography, it can be found in his touchy and rather peremptory dismissal of feminist...
(The entire section is 451 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
A Life of Picasso (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
This second volume of John Richardson’s projected four- volume biography of Pablo Picasso continues what is sure to be one of the century’s landmark studies of an artist’s life. Richardson has several advantages over earlier Picasso biographers. He benefits from generations of scholarly and biographical research on his subject, from the cooperation of Picasso’s widow and other family members, and from his firsthand knowledge of the artist’s life and work. Richardson first met Picasso in the 1950’s and became one of his friends. At several points, Richardson is able to draw on this intimacy, integrating his own sense of the man and the artist with the copious literature on Picasso. Richardson has also had the good fortune to have a scholarly collaborator, Marilyn McCully, whose key contribution to the biography is acknowledged on the title page.
One of the pleasures of reading Richardson is derived from his elegant reconstructions of each defining moment in the artist’s life. Richardson gives a sense in the narrative of having carefully considered the evidence from every angle. He gives due credit to both primary and secondary sources. When the facts are in doubt, he says so. When it seems necessary to provide a judgment or to offer an interpretation, he obliges, demonstrating why he thinks his account is right. Occasionally he transcends the evidence and simply relies on his own authority, on his profound sense of the man and artist. At such junctures, Richardson resorts to the first person, making his work more intimate and immediate. It is the multilayered sensibility of the narrative that is especially impressive. Even a reader of several Picasso biographies will find Richardson’s work a revelation.
Because he has the luxury of four copiously illustrated volumes, Richardson solves the problem that bedevils most writers of single-volume biographies. Richardson can devote almost as much space to social context and to the characters who befriended his subject as he does to the subject himself. Thus, the biographer provides beautifully realized portraits of Fernande Olivier, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, and all those who became a part of Picasso’s cadre of supporters and promoters. Unlike Jean Cocteau, a one-man self-promoting band, Picasso could remain in his studio or huddle in a café with friends, confident that they would spread the knowledge of his great work.
The first part of Volume II is dominated by an account of the genesis and reception of Picasso’s great painting, Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. Even to modern viewers, it seems a strange painting: Five naked women face forward and in profile, exposing themselves—one on the right squatting as if on a bidet and staring out from a masked face, above her another masked figure, and to that figure’s right two women with arms raised and projecting breasts, flanked on their right by another masked woman, standing stiffly like an Egyptian sculpture, holding aside what looks like a curtain. The viewer has invaded a boudoir or a brothel, perhaps, although the lack of perspective makes the scene look like a cave painting. The work seems primeval, a product of a kind of conceptual art associated with the pre-Renaissance, in which human eyes are drawn bigger than life so that they are clearly visible frontally and in profile.
This painting disconcerted even Picasso’s closest confidants. They simply did not understand it, and it was not recognized as a seminal work of twentieth century art until more than a decade after its creation. Richardson does not belabor the painting’s meaning. Instead, he fits it into the context of Picasso’s development—his effort to find a new style that rejected the traditional pictorialism and figuration of Western art. As Richardson puts it, Picasso wanted to find a reality for his canvases that did not mimic the reality outside art but could be seen, rather, as constructing its own reality. The point of Les Demoiselles D’Avignon is that it represents a challenge to the viewer. The women stare out as if taking the measure of the viewer; they also form a self-contained world, not easily assimilated by the viewer. The painting is certainly about their raw sexuality, and the artist’s refusal to sentimentalize femininity. Richardson is quite willing to concede that such work is the product of Picasso’s misogyny. A part of him distrusted and even hated women, even as they proved to be his inspiration.
In his thirties, Picasso embarked on a vigorous program of establishing himself. He had moved beyond his early hungry years in Paris. He knew how to make his seclusion work for him. Dealers such as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler came to the artist, and Picasso would dicker with them, suggesting a certain painting had been promised...
(The entire section is 1963 words.)
A Life of Picasso (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
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...
(The entire section is 1982 words.)
A Life of Picasso (Magill's Literary Annual 2008)
This volume of John Richardson’s biography of Pablo Picasso, the undisputed genius of modern art and, with Georges Braque, the founder of cubism, chronicles the years from 1917, when World War I was being fought, to 1932, when the world was in the throes of a severe financial depression. In this decade and a half, Picasso, already recognized as one of the leading artists in Europe, emerged triumphantly as the century’s most inventive artist, a judgment generally confirmed in subsequent years. He captured in his work, as Peter Plagens has noted, the dual stimuli of his times, fracture and invention, which lie at the heart of cubism with its spatial and conceptual distortions that reflect the ambiguities of the era in which...
(The entire section is 1764 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 2008)
ARTnews. XC, May, 1991, p. 99.
Booklist. XCIII, October 15, 1996, p. 396.
Boston Globe. November 24, 1996, p. N15.
The Economist 385 (November 17, 2007): 99-100.
Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 19 (October 1, 2007): 1040.
Library Journal. CXXI, October 15, 1996, p. 55.
London Review of Books 30, no. 1 (January 3, 2008): 19-21.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 24, 1991, p. 1.
New Criterion 26, no. 3 (November, 2007): 78-82.
The New Republic. CCIV, April 22,...
(The entire section is 186 words.)