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Recreating Picasso

Richardson’s pleasure in recounting such stories is evident, and yet there is a serious purpose to his method. It is a principle of the study, announced in the introduction of the first volume, that Picasso must be seen in relation to his tertulia, the large and ever-changing circle of friends who gathered around the artist.

In 1912 the poet Josep Junoy wrote that “an irresistible force pushes [Picasso] relentlessly towards new unknown horizons.” This force was still at work in the 1920s. By the middle of the decade Picasso had become increasingly impatient with the often frivolous atmosphere of high society. He began to avoid the company of the Murphys, the Beaumonts, and the other grandees whose friendship he previously had enjoyed. Although Picasso still went about town in a chauffeur-driven car, he posted a sign, “Je ne suis pas un gentleman,” on his studio door. Furthermore, his relationship with Olga steadily deteriorated. Whereas once he had portrayed her as a sensitive soul, already by 1923 he regularly depicted her as anxious and distant, and by 1925 he had begun to represent her as a monster with a vagina dentata for a mouth.

During 1925, Picasso started painting in a new and shockingly original style, featuring extreme and grotesque deformations of the human face and body. The breakthrough in this new approach came with The Dance, a work Picasso made to commemorate the death of his old friend Ramon Pichot. Painted in jagged blocks of garish color, this large canvas depicts three giant nudes—maenads fresh from the murder of Orpheus, in Richardson’s eloquent description—who flail and gyrate with wild abandon. This picture is frequently cited as a turning point in Picasso’s career almost as radical as that of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. From this point on, he invented fantastic mutations of the human body with ever greater freedom and expressive power. Writing of these works in 1928, Christian Zervos, the painter’s friend and biographer, said that Picasso was attempting “to attain art’s extreme visual limits.”

It is common to speak of this phase of Picasso’s output by referring to Surrealism and its emphasis on dream imagery and “convulsive beauty.” Indeed, in the mid-1920s André Breton and the other Surrealists did everything they could to win Picasso over to their side. They proclaimed him to be the indispensable precursor of their movement; with his permission, they published his photograph with that of other members of the group, and used his paintings and drawings, including The Dance, to illustrate articles in La Révolution surréaliste, a leading journal of the movement.

But Richardson cautions that Picasso’s relationship with Surrealism is easily overstated. He stresses that, unlike the Surrealists’, Picasso’s art was always rooted in some concrete reality, no matter how unreal the imagery may seem; even his most hallucinatory pictures are representations of the people in his life and of his emotions for them. He cites Picasso’s opinion that automatism, a Surrealist technique for generating pictures or texts without conscious control, was a fraud; he quotes the painter’s statement to Dora Maar that “the sources of Surrealism are a rather dubious mixture”; and he points out that Picasso himself did not lend any pictures to Breton’s exhibition “Surrealist Painting” in the fall of 1925. In Richardson’s view, Picasso differed fundamentally from the Surrealists and generally went his own way.

After the revolutionary works of 1925, the artist produced relatively little the following year. It was something of a fallow period for Picasso: he was looking for a new path in painting and for a new raison d’être in life. On January 8, 1927, he found it. Cruising the streets of Paris in search for l’amour fou he came upon a seventeen-year-old girl standing outside the Galeries Lafayette. Intrigued by her looks, he asked to do her portrait and announced, “I am Picasso.” She had never heard of him; he took her to a bookstore and showed her a book about his work to prove that he was a famous artist. Thus began his affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, one of the great loves of his life.

Over the next eight years Picasso’s passion for Marie-Thérèse inspired a furor of creativity in the artist unmatched since the invention of Cubism. The twinned themes of his new works were his erotic rapture for his mistress and his anger and loathing for his wife. To capture the absorption he felt for Marie-Thérèse he invented a new figure type that combined her breasts and his penis in a biomorphic fantasy, a hybrid Richardson calls the femme-phallus. Picasso also regularly depicted her in the throes of passion, most memorably in the series of orgasmic paintings he made of her in 1931 and 1932, including The Dream (see illustration on page 16) and Girl Before a Mirror. At the same time, he made demonic images of Olga as a kind of tortured and murderous monster, all teeth and claws and octopus limbs. Whether moved by love or by hate, in these images Picasso attained a lyrical intensity and a freedom of invention the likes of which had rarely been seen in European art. Richardson summarizes the new dynamic:

Like many another two-timing husband, Picasso soon found himself leading two separate lives: as an overtly respectable père de famille—weekends at smart Normandy resorts—and as a secluded Bohemian with a mistress, whom none of his friends, except possibly for Leiris and Tzara, was allowed to meet. This pattern would be reflected in Picasso’s imagery. Marie-Thérèse’s images would be suffused with errant sexuality; whereas those of Olga, who appears far more often in his work than people realize, would be suffused with fear, anger, and despair—the consequences of Picasso’s shamanic effort to exorcise her psychological as well as physical maladies….

Desire for Marie-Thérèse would engender some of his most romantic and erotic works, but by virtue of their Goyesque darkness, the images fueled by Olga’s problems would be more disturbingly powerful.

With the arrival of Marie-Thérèse, the character of Richardson’s book changes. In the first two thirds, Richardson is at pains to balance the account of Picasso’s life with a description of his work, and he sometimes seems even more interested in the biography than the art. By contrast the last third of the book is a kind of extended essay in critical interpretation, and it is among the most deeply inspired accounts of an artist’s work that I have read. Consider, for example, the following passage:

Unlike the Large Nude in a Red Armchair, which is very much a painting, the next tragic portrayal of Olga, the Large Bather (May 26, 1929) [see illustration on page 14], is a conceptual sculpture—a monument that Picasso treats with the dignity and solemnity due to a sacrificial victim. It is dusk. A naked Olga stands, like a pillar of chalk carved from the cliffs of Pourville, staring numbly out to sea, her angular arms clasped in the fifth position above her head. Her skinny body—note the protruding ribs—is cloaked in a dark shroud, whose craquelure is certainly intentional. The light is northern, the sky a thunderous gray, the beach is the color and texture of coffee grounds. And yet, despite the gloom, this portrayal of Olga is one of the few of the great late denunciations in which Picasso shows a glimmer of mercy….

For all the violence of his imagery and his cult of Sade, Picasso deplored physical violence. To fight back at Olga, he used his paintbrush, and only resorted to force to protect himself. These cruel paintings acted as lightning conductors, and they apparently worked. Home movies Picasso made two years later, around the time he was working on the convulsively cruel Repose, reveal a seemingly united family at play in the garden at Boisgeloup.

Not only is the language here decisive and fresh; Richardson writes about Picasso, Olga, and Marie-Thérèse with a degree of empathy rarely found in discussion of the visual arts. Richardson does not idealize Picasso, showing how he could cruelly turn against people once close to him, as if to exorcise any lingering hold they might have on him.

Picasso was omnivorous in his interests and Richardson is excellent in tracking down the texts and images that the painter assimilated into his work. Richardson shows, for example, that some of the most seemingly fantastical images had their inspiration in the plates of Gray’s Anatomy and Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica. He also convincingly suggests that the artist derived the bizarre and interlocking forms of his painting Figures on the Seashore from an illustration of a pile of phallic ex-votos in the eighteenth-century text A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus. In a similar manner, Richardson demonstrates that the legs of the Nude Standing by the Sea are a visual pun on the famous cliffs of Etretat, celebrated in the paintings of Monet and Courbet. Of course Picasso’s pictures can be enjoyed and interpreted without knowledge of such references; but by revealing these sources Richardson takes us one step closer both to seeing how his mind worked and to understanding the often private code of his art.

Richardson is especially judicious in the use of quotations by the painter and his friends to explicate aspects of Picasso’s art. For example, seeking illumination of Picasso’s free manipulation of human proportions, Richardson cites the artist’s memory of a dream:

When I was a child, I often had a dream that used to frighten me greatly. I dreamed that my legs and arms grew to an enormous size and then shrank back just as much in the other direction. And all around me, in my dream, I saw other people going through the same transformations, getting huge or very tiny. I felt terribly anguished every time I dreamed about that.

Obsession with Marie-Thérèse helped inspire Picasso to make sculptures again for the first time in many years. The chapters Richardson dedicates to this undertaking are among the finest ever written on Picasso as a sculptor. Picasso wanted to make a monument for the grave of Guillaume Apollinaire, one that would be sufficiently outrageous to celebrate the revolutionary spirit of his iconoclastic friend. The new femme-phallus figure type seemed fitting for this task.

At the same time, Picasso also began making wiry constructions out of welded iron—sculptures not defined by their mass, but rather by the way that they “partake of space and air,” as the critic and publisher Tériade said in 1928. The first culmination of this new endeavor was Picasso’s Woman in the Garden, a joyful image that resembles something like a large bouquet of swaying and unfurling flowers. As Richardson surprisingly establishes, this sculpture was Picasso’s response to Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne at the Villa Borghese in Rome. In the end the oversight committee for the Apollinaire monument rejected this and all of Picasso’s other proposals. But in the course of making these sculptures, Picasso dispensed forever with the ideal of representational sculpture he had inherited from Rodin, replacing it instead with something more totemic and fetishistic. Picasso continued to pursue this new concept of statuary in the figures and heads of Marie-Thérèse that he made at his studio at Boisgeloup.

To celebrate his fiftieth birthday in 1931, Picasso published a set of his new engravings illustrating scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The painter loved Ovid’s poem, and as Richardson suggests, the first line of the text comes astonishingly close to Picasso’s own view of his art: “My soul would sing of metamorphoses./But since, o gods, you were the source of these/bodies becoming other bodies, breathe/ your breath into my book of changes.” To seek divine inspiration both for and through the transfiguration of the body is a fundamental principle in his work.

For over one hundred years, nearly all the fundamental accounts of Picasso have been by the poets and critics who frequented for a time the artist’s inner circle. Guillaume Apollinaire, Gertrude Stein, André Malraux, Roland Penrose, and Michel Leiris are among the distinguished figures who have written about Picasso and together these texts constitute something like a group portrait of the artist. John Richardson’s A Life of Picasso is the last work that will ever be written by a friend of the painter, and it is the culminating effort in this series of biographies. It is a magnificent achievement. Sixteen years ago in a review of the first volume in The Burlington Magazine, the historian, painter, and critic John Golding said that when completed A Life of Picasso might prove to be the most remarkable biography of an artist ever written. Now that three volumes have been published, this prediction seems likely to be true. That the fourth and final volume will include the years in which Richardson knew Picasso makes the reader hope all the more that it will appear before long.

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