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Recreating Picasso

Volume three of John Richardson’s A Life of Picasso has now appeared and, like the first two installments of the biography,* it is a work so rich with information and insight that it will forever change our understanding of the artist. The book opens in 1917 when Picasso was thirty-five and closes in 1932 when he was fifty-one; it was during this span that he became the richest and most famous painter on earth. Yet the volume’s subtitle, “The Triumphant Years,” refers more to his sustained artistic success than to his worldly prosperity.

Throughout this period, in a rush of ceaseless creativity, Picasso devised and explored one new experiment in style after another, shifting back and forth between many different modes of representation at a rate of speed and with a measure of confidence unmatched in the history of art. It was for Picasso a time of innovation nearly as bold and original as that of the first Cubist period that began with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, but the very diversity of his experiments has made them difficult for historians to grasp or explain. Revealing himself to be a master of criticism as well as of biography, Richardson not only casts new light on each of the innovations Picasso discovered, he also shows, better than anyone has before, how the various experiments were interrelated.

The book starts with Picasso’s trip to Italy in the spring of 1917 in the company of Jean Cocteau, Sergei Diaghilev, and Léonide Massine, three of his four collaborators on the ballet Parade that they were then planning. Erik Satie, the composer of Parade, stayed home in Paris, but Igor Stravinsky joined the group in Rome and swiftly became close friends with Picasso. Stravinsky and Picasso studied the Sistine Chapel and the museums of Rome, and with Massine and Cocteau explored the ruins of Pompei and Herculaneum. In Rome they went to the puppet theater, and in Naples they attended performances of commedia dell’arte, experiences that not only helped shape Parade but later directly inspired the ballet Pulcinella which Stravinsky, Massine, and Picasso created in 1920.

The trip to Italy lasted a mere ten weeks but with it nearly everything changed in Picasso’s life and work. The encounter with classical sculpture in Rome and Naples helped the artist begin a new style, one that often featured large and volumetric figures, either nude or wearing Greco-Roman drapery, and seemingly set on the shores of the timeless Mediterranean sea. These works are dreamy and poetical as if illustrating scenes from an unknown idyll by Virgil or Ovid. After Picasso’s nearly ten-year engagement with the flat and angular planes of Cubist still lifes, portraits, and harlequins, it was a major departure in both style and subject matter. For Picasso throughout much of the 1920s classical imagery was to remain a vital alternative to his ongoing experiments with Cubism. As Richardson explains:

For Picasso, far and away the greatest revelation of Naples was the incomparable Farnese collection of monumental Greek and Roman sculptures, which are the principal glory of the Museo Nazionale. The influence of these marbles would take three years or more to percolate fully into Picasso’s work. Signs that their three-dimensional monumentality would alternate with the flatness of synthetic cubism first occur in his 1920 figure paintings. From then on the gigantism of the Farnese marbles will make itself felt in the increasingly sculptural look of his paintings as well as in his actual sculptures. Indeed, one might say that Picasso’s rebirth as a great sculptor was a direct consequence of the revelation of the Farnese galleries. The marbles would give Picasso back the sense of scale that cubism had denied him by limiting the image to the size of the subject. They would classicize his work far more effectively that the antiquities he had studied in the Louvre. And they would embody the sacred fire—in this case the sacred fire of Olympus—for which he was always searching.

Another consequence of the trip was the beginning of his long association with the theater. Over the next seven years, Picasso created the costumes and settings for several major ballets, not only Parade and Pulcinella, but Tricorne and Cuadro Flamenco, all for Diaghilev’s company, the Ballets Russes. In addition, he designed Satie’s ballet Mercure, made the drop curtain for another Diaghilev ballet, Le Train bleu, and conceived the sets for Cocteau’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone. Work for the theater enabled him to design on a larger scale than he ever had before, and, more importantly, to collaborate with three of the greatest modern composers, de Falla, Satie, and Stravinsky. The hours he spent watching dancers also profoundly affected his art: during the 1920s for the first time figures in motion became an important part of his imagery. According to Richardson, Picasso’s 1925 masterpiece, The Dance, owes some of its demonic energy to memories of women shimmying to ragtime in Massine and Vladimir Dukelsky’s ballet Zéphire et Flore.

It was on his trip to Italy, too, that Picasso first met Olga Khokhlova, a dancer with the Ballets Russes. At the outset of 1917 Picasso was determined to get married; he had recently proposed to and been rejected by two women in quick succession. He now set his sights on Olga. Her appeal for Picasso mystified his friends and continues to puzzle historians. More than one contemporary described her as a “nothing,” and about the best anyone could think to say of her was that she had good taste in clothing. Picasso’s earlier girlfriends had all been bohemians; the woman he had proposed to just a few months before was a high-spirited, bisexual nymphomaniac. By contrast Olga was the proper and snobbish daughter of a Russian colonel and still a virgin. Picasso’s early portraits of her have a tender and melancholy air and Richardson plausibly suggests that it was Olga’s vulnerability that attracted the painter to her. He argues, too, that her social ambition appealed to Picasso’s secret bourgeois streak.

With his marriage to Olga in 1918 Picasso entered into what his friend Max Jacob called his “époque des duchesses.” Picasso shed his espadrilles and overalls and starting wearing bespoke suits instead. He moved to Paris’s fashionable eighth arrondissement, taking an apartment next door to the gallery of his principal dealer, Paul Rosenberg. He discarded and estranged old companions from his early days in Paris, and lost his closest friend, Guillaume Apollinaire, who died in the influenza epidemic. That Picasso told Gertrude Stein in the same letter of his move and of Apollinaire’s death shows how quick was the break from his former way of life.

Picasso joined the heady world of high society in Paris. He became a friend of Étienne de Beaumont, Winnie de Polignac, and the Vicomte de Noailles, characters literally out of the pages of Proust (another acquaintance of Picasso in this period). Richardson is astonishingly successful at recreating this lost world. He lovingly describes one of those rare periods when genius, wealth, and fashion all aligned in the creation of art that was both startlingly new and of permanent value. It was a world in which the premiere of Louis Buñuel’s film L’Âge d’or was held in the magnificent hôtel particulier of the Noailles, the film’s patrons, in a room with gilded and mirrored walls and beneath a gigantic baroque painting on the ceiling; a world where Coco Chanel collaborated with Cocteau on creating an avant-garde play, where Gerald Murphy and John Dos Passos helped paint the sets for a new Stravinsky ballet, and where Beaumont commissioned Picasso, Satie, and Massine to devise an entertainment, La statue retrouvée, for the delight of the guests at one of the many costume balls he gave.

Richardson makes it clear that the seemingly endless rounds of parties, premieres, and happenings were amusing for the beau monde and vital for the avant-garde of Paris in the 1920s. Picasso was an observer and participant at many of these affairs. For example, just a few days after Beaumont’s ball, Picasso attended a private performance of Stravinsky’s new work, Les Noces, given at the hôtel particulier of Winnie de Polignac. The following night he went to the public premiere of the ballet, and later attended a party to commemorate the occasion, hosted by Gerald and Sara Murphy on a barge in the Seine. As Richardson describes it:

In the annals of social history, the Murphys’ party rates almost as high as the Rousseau banquet in 1908. Stravinsky switched the place cards; Gontcharova read palms; Marcelle Meyer played Scarlatti; and, as usual, Cocteau tried to steal the show…. As dawn broke, Kochno and Ansermet (the conductor of Les Noces) took down the gigantic laurel wreath, inscribed “Les Noces—Hommages,” which Sara had put in the main saloon, and held it like a hoop for Stravinsky to take a running jump through.

Two weeks after that celebrated affair, Picasso attended another legendary event, Tristan Tzara’s Evening of the Bearded Heart at the Théâtre Michel. The night began peaceably enough with music by Stravinsky, Georges Auric, and Darius Milhaud, but it soon degenerated into a violent brawl between the Dadaists and the Surrealists, and the police had to intervene. Picasso thoroughly enjoyed that evening.

When not working in his studio, Picasso had a nearly inexhaustible need for social and intellectual stimulus, and he fed off the energy, and sometimes the ideas, of friends and acquaintances. According to Coco Chanel, “Picasso did a great job of hoovering up anyone in his path.” Others used more violent metaphors. Friends of the painter, especially fellow artists, sometimes compared him to a vampire, cannibal, bandit, or thief. Nonetheless many were drawn to the painter not so much because of his fame but because of his extraordinary vitality. To be in his presence was to be filled with expectation that something important or magical still could happen. Hence Gerald Murphy, for example, said of one gathering in 1923, “[Gertrude Stein] and Picasso were phenomenal together, each stimulated the other to such an extent that everyone felt recharged witnessing it.” In 1929 Léonide Massine wrote to Étienne de Beaumont, “Picasso will help us…. I am full of enthusiasm…. We will take another direction—there are so many beautiful things to be done—discuss all of this with Picasso.”

A staggering number of poets, painters, critics, patrons, collectors, and socialites cross paths with Picasso in Richardson’s book. The author is a portraitist of uncommon skill and in a page or two he is able to sketch with vivid detail each of these many characters. He dashes off short and memorable biographies of Jean Cocteau, Coco Chanel, Michel Leiris, Léonide Massine, and dozens of other remarkable figures. Richardson is especially good at keeping track of how the personal lives of all these men and women were interrelated:

On August 6, shortly after returning to Paris, Picasso had a visit from Jean Hugo and his fiancée Valentine Gross—portraitist, balletomane, bluestocking, muse—who had kept the peace when Picasso and Satie were working on Parade and having problems with Cocteau’s pop gimmicks. Valentine was famously à la page. She knew everything that was going on in contemporary art, literature, music, and ballet as well as society. She kept Picasso, who relished gossip, abreast of Cocteau’s capers, Satie’s witticisms, and the sayings of the “new Rimbaud,” the barely sixteen-year-old writer Raymond Radiguet, nicknamed “Monsieur Bébé.” Radiguet had been discovered by the writer André Salmon, passed on to Max Jacob, seduced by Picasso’s former fiancée, Irène Lagut, and served up to Cocteau, who would fall obsessively in love with him. Picasso would soon take him under his powerful wing.

  1. *

    The first two volumes, A Life of Picasso: The Prodigy, 1881–1906 (1991) and A Life of Picasso: The Cubist Rebel, 1907–1916 (1996), have just been reissued in paperback by Knopf.

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