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A Life of Picasso Volume 1: 1881–1906

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,”1 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 their task.” No other biographer of Picasso seems so aware of what a mixed blessing this “diary” is, or how confusing the wealth of “factual” information about this artist can be. For if certain aspects of Picasso’s ongoing diary are fairly straightforward in their chronicle, other parts, Richardson observes,

are arcane or in code. And then we should remember that diaries are none the less interesting for fantasizing, embroidering and reordering the truth. This is very much the case with Picasso. He was such a mass of contradictions that, according to his son, he used to repeat again and again, “Truth is a lie; truth is a lie….”

A Life of Picasso is particularly impressive in the way the facts behind the narrative are constantly reconsidered and reevaluated. The book gives a clearer idea of who Picasso was, and how he lived and developed as an artist during this period, than anything else that has been written about him. Along the way, a number of the hallowed myths about Picasso are called into question. Richardson convincingly casts doubt upon a number of Picasso’s later claims about his childhood and youth, in which the artist tried to exaggerate the degree to which he stood apart from other people. Exceptional as he was, he felt impelled to make himself seem even more so by embellishing and reinventing parts of his past. In this undertaking he found a number of willing accomplices, notably Jaime Sabartès, his longtime secretary, general factotum, and eventual biographer, as well as other friendly biographers who were quite willing to take the artist at his own word.

Richardson is skeptical. He takes nothing for granted, and with the help of the art historian Marilyn McCully he has unearthed much new documentary material that (among other things) debunks some of the persistently repeated myths about Picasso’s early life. Richardson convincingly challenges Picasso’s claims that he never drew like a child, that he was a dunce at school barely capable of reading or adding numbers, and his claim that when he was thirteen his artist father turned over to him his brushes and palette and declared that in the face of his son’s genius he would never paint again. (In fact, whatever profession of faith he may have made to his son, the dismally mediocre Don José continued to paint for many years after this alleged incident.)

All his life, Picasso had ambivalent feelings toward authority. On the one hand, he disdained social conventions and official institutions, on the other he had a deep fear of officialdom, especially policemen. (Richardson gives a perceptive account of the young artist’s troubled relationship with his rich and pompous. Uncle Salvador, who reluctantly bought his nephew’s exemption from military service despite fears that his bad habits and seedy friends would bring disgrace to the family.) Some of this ambivalence seems to be reflected in the myths Picasso circulated about his early training, especially his accounts of his school experiences, in which he made it seem that he obeyed only his own laws. He convinced Roland Penrose and other biographers, for example, that in 1895 he had passed in one day the entrance examination for the La Llotja art school in Barcelona, which normally took a month. Richardson shows that only two days were normally allotted for the examination and he provides evidence that Picasso used both days to complete it.

Richardson similarly debunks the legends that have surrounded Picasso’s entrance examination and student activities at the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid a couple of years later. This does not mean that Richardson is entirely immune to such mythologizing, as when he acceptingly repeats Picasso’s mother’s testimony that her son “could draw before he could speak”—overlooking the fact that most children can. Still, Richardson makes clear that Picasso was not only one of the most naturally gifted artists of all time but also one of the most hard-working.

Although Richardson rightly emphasizes the quicksilver changeability of Picasso’s personality, he also points out two very important, and very Spanish, constants in Picasso’s character. These are his “duende” (translated rather summarily as “soul” and meaning here particularly his intense perception of a sacred element in life, and a constant awareness of death), and his obsession with “mirada fuerte” (“strong gazing”). Quoting the anthropologist David Gilmore, Richardson reminds us that in Andalusia, where Picasso grew up, “the eye is akin to a sexual organ…looking too intently at a woman is akin to ocular rape.” To which Richardson adds. “So is painting a woman, especially when Picasso wields the brush.” Richardson rightly characterizes the aggressive scrutiny of mirada fuerte as one of the keys to Picasso’s work as a whole, and he insists that although Picasso spent most of his working life in France, he is best understood as an essentially Spanish artist.

According to Richardson, his Spanishness is evident in his limited palette, his “tenebrism”—a term usually applied “to the dark religious works of Spanish painters”—and his emphasis on the underlying ideal of duende. This viewpoint gives us a very particular understanding of Picasso and his art, by throwing into sharp relief the contrasts between the Spanish experiences that were so important to the formation of his talents and predispositions, and his experience of France, where these talents and predispositions came to their first full fruition. The degree to which Picasso retained his Spanishness, even though he spent most of his working life in France, is often underestimated. But Richardson perhaps errs a bit in the other direction. Picasso’s French experience was absolutely essential to his art, not only because it allowed him to escape from the relative provincialism of Spain, but because being in France brought out different, one might say the more experimental, aspects of his character.

In fact, the French-Spanish duality of Picasso’s art was paralleled by a similar duality in his personality, remarked by his mistress Fernande Olivier when she traveled to Spain, with him during the summer of 1906. Noting that the atmosphere of his own country gave him a special inspiration, she wrote that

the Picasso I saw in Spain was completely different from the Paris Picasso; he was gay, less wild, more brilliant and lively and able to interest himself in things in a calmer, more balanced fashion; at ease in fact.

Olivier goes on to say that Picasso “would have been happier if he had lived in Spain.” But of course, as she learned to her regret, happiness was not what he was looking for.


John Richardson is remarkably alert to social situations and to the small but telling detail, both in events and in pictures. Unlike previous biographies of Picasso, which are skimpily illustrated and deal only superficially with the artist’s work,2 Richardson’s book discusses many works extensively and includes 675 black-and-white illustrations. These include many well-chosen photographs of the artist and his surroundings, but most of them reproduce works of art by Picasso and others. Moving back and forth between Picasso’s life and work, Richardson gradually builds a rich network of incidents and images. As the narrative progresses, the account becomes increasingly complex, and although it would be impossible for anyone to cover all the mutual implications of so rich a mixture of events, people, and pictures, Richardson makes a number of telling connections.

In order to do so, he moves up and back through Picasso’s entire oeuvre. He suggests, for example, that the early copies Picasso made in the Prado anticipate some of his late works and relates Picasso’s youthful paintings of female martyrs to his later harrowing portrayals of his wives and mistresses. Richardson also astutely observes how a series of portraits done in Barcelona in 1899 marked a turning point in Picasso’s working method. It was at this time that he began to work on linked series of paintings and drawings, frequently abandoning himself to a single theme or subject until he had exhausted it, a phenomenon remarked by Gertrude Stein when she wrote that “Picasso was always possessed by the necessity of emptying himself, of emptying himself completely, of always emptying himself….”

  1. 1

    Barbara Rose, “Picasso Biographer Tracks the Enfant Terrible,” The Journal of Art, February 1991, p. 73.

  2. 2

    See for example: Jaime Sabartès, Picasso: An Intimate Portrait (W.H. Allen, 1949); Roland Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work (Victor Gollancz, 1958; revised edition, Harper and Row, 1973; third edition, University of California Press, 1981); Patrick O’Brian, Pablo Ruiz Picasso (Putnam, 1976); Pierre Cabanne, Pablo Picasso: His Life and Times (Morrow, 1977); Pierre Daix, Picasso Créateur (Editions du Seuil, 1987); Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, Picasso: Creator and Destroyer (Simon and Schuster, 1988). In writings about Picasso, as in those on most other painters, there is generally a clear division between detailed studies of the work and general treatments of the life.

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