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…

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