A Life of Picasso Volume 1: 18811906
by John Richardson, with the collaboration of Marilyn McCully
Random House, 548 pp., $39.95
No artist is better known, or has been written about more or in greater detail, than Pablo Picasso. Hardly a year passes without some major book or exhibition being devoted to him. Hence all the pitfalls that await biographers of artists—particularly the need to move back and forth from the life to the works—are greatly magnified for anyone courageous or foolhardy enough to tackle a full-scale biography of Picasso. John Richardson’s A Life of Picasso, the first of a projected four volumes, deals with Picasso’s life from his birth in 1881 until the time that he prepared the canvas on which he would paint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In it Richardson has managed to confront many of the problems inherent in such an undertaking and to produce an account of the artist’s first twentyfive years that is so absorbing and stimulating, so detailed and so evenhanded, that it should remain the standard biography for many years to come.
Richardson has made many of the potential pitfalls of writing such a biography work for him rather than against him. His success in doing so seems to be a direct consequence of the clarity of his approach to his subject. Although Richardson’s stated goal was to “set forth the facts as clearly and accurately as possible,” his book offers a version of Picasso’s life that is at once “objective” and personal, balanced and fairminded—and bracingly opinionated.
As if to provide a fixed point in a narrative about someone as mercurial and contradictory as Picasso, Richardson has placed himself firmly at the margin of the narrative—somewhat in the way that Renaissance painters sometimes included themselves at the edges of large compositions. He starts his book with an account of how he met Picasso in the south of France in 1953 and how their friendship grew; he writes in the first person (which seems at the start somewhat jarring, but which in the end works well); and he lets the reader know right off that his immense admiration for Picasso’s art has not blinded him to the man’s many shortcomings. One of the qualities of this book that sets it apart from most other biographical studies of Picasso is that it is neither hagiography nor demonology.
Nor is it a book that looks for easy answers. Having known the artist himself, and having apparently read just about everything that has been written about him, Richardson is willing to accept both the contradictory nature of the man and the different ways in which his work may be interpreted. Richardson’s open-mindedness and willingness to accept these contradictions gives his narrative a refreshing directness. He has no particular ideological axes to grind and tries his best to let the story tell itself.
At the outset, Richardson informs us that Picasso used to tell biographers, “My work is like a diary.” To which Richardson adds, not without a note of exasperation, “as if this facilitated …