In the 1920s and 1930s several groups and individuals sought Pablo Picasso’s loyalty. Among them, John Richardson writes in A Life of Picasso: The Minotaur Years, 1933–1943, was André Breton, whose “blandishments, in the form of public statements, private letters, and published essays, began even before the official founding of surrealism” in 1924. In “Painting and Surrealism” (1925), an essay illustrated solely with works by Picasso, he wrote, “If surrealism must chart itself a moral line of conduct, it needs only find where Picasso has gone and where he will pass again.”

In 1929, when Breton excommunicated dissidents, including Georges Bataille, from the Surrealist movement, the two sides fought for the soul of Picasso. Michel Leiris, one of the anti-Breton faction, wrote that Picasso’s work was too down to earth, “never emanating from the foggy world of dreams, nor does it lend itself to symbolic exploitation—in other words, it is in no sense surrealist.” In 1930 Bataille dedicated an entire issue of his magazine Documents to Picasso. Richardson writes that in 1936, when Breton began to have differences with the poet Paul Éluard, “competition for Picasso’s friendship probably contributed to their feud. In a March 16 letter, Breton confessed to feeling ‘jealous of the evenings [Picasso] spent with Paul Éluard.’”

In Spain, the right wing also had its eye on Picasso. In 1934, while he was in San Sebastián on the last visit he would ever make to the country, Picasso encountered the writer and editor Ernesto Giménez Caballero, who was, according to Richardson, “formerly one of the most progressive intellectuals in Spain” but had “experienced a radical epiphany and reinvented himself as a fascist ideologue…. He had tried and failed to entice Lorca into his net, and in August 1934 he would try winning Picasso over to the fascist side.”

Giménez Caballero met him again the next day in the company of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the leader of the fascist Falange movement, to whom Picasso complained about the failure of the Republican government to come up with the funds to insure a retrospective of his work in Spain. Primo de Rivera assured him that he supported the retrospective, and Picasso later accepted an invitation from these men to the inaugural dinner of a club called GU without realizing that it “was the propagandist arm of the Falange.” Later he said, “I knew the people wining and dining me that night were very dangerous and as I remember I boarded the train for France that same evening. And that was my last day in Spain.”

Part of the value of Richardson’s work on Picasso—this final volume, published two years after his death in 2019, is the fourth in his biography of the artist—is his painstaking examination of evidence, taking no one, least of all Picasso, at their word. Richardson writes about his claim that he left for France “that same evening”: “This was not true. Far from returning by train to Paris, Picasso had stayed on to be feted by these ‘very dangerous’ people.” Soon he was attending bullfights in Barcelona in the company of Leiris, and he did not return to Paris until September.

In these years, Picasso was seeking to separate from his wife, Olga Khokhlova, and hoping to spend more time with Marie-Thérèse Walter, with whom he had a daughter in 1935. Richardson quotes him telling the painter Jacint Salvadó, “You see, Olga likes tea, caviar, pastries, and so on; me, I like sausage and beans.” He also quotes Françoise Gilot, who was Picasso’s lover for a decade beginning in 1943:

Olga’s social ambitions made increasingly greater demands on his time. In 1921 their son Paulo was born and then began his period of what the French call le high-life, with nurse, chambermaid, cook, chauffeur and all the rest, expensive and at the same time distracting.

Some of Picasso’s early portraits of Olga—such as Olga in a Mantilla (1917), Olga in an Armchair (1917), and Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (1923)—offer her a distant and formidable dignity; they suggest that she is someone who commands respect rather than a woman with whom the artist is in love. Part of this may arise from Picasso’s lack of interest in psychology as he sought to move from Cubism toward a neoclassical style. “Picasso’s portrayal of Olga may seem unflattering,” the art historian Michael FitzGerald writes in his essay “The Modernists’ Dilemma: Neoclassicism and the Portrayal of Olga Khokhlova,” but this harshness stems from his attention to style, not personality.* Richardson, on the other hand, connects the tone of Olga in a Mantilla with Picasso’s later depictions of her:

Despite its iconic importance as the first portrait of her, it is not particularly affectionate. Olga’s reproachful eyes and pursed lips look ahead to the cruel, exorcistic portraits Picasso would paint of her fifteen years later, when the marriage had soured. With hindsight, one can discern a certain inevitability.

In 1929, when Picasso painted Large Nude in a Red Armchair, there was no trace of the serenity apparent in the earlier portraits. Instead, Olga appears as a set of elongated shapes, her mouth facing the sky in an ungainly howl. The armchair, Richardson writes, “looks about as protective as an electric chair.”

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Two years earlier, Picasso had begun his relationship with the seventeen-year-old Marie-Thérèse. His portraits of her are filled with tenderness and passion. Picasso dramatized the gap between his visions of the two women. For example, in a painting based on the death of Marat that was done in July 1934, he has a woman—Olga—with a viciously contorted face brandish a knife over the body of a possible version of Marie-Thérèse.

In October 1935 Picasso wrote a note to himself about how to make an image of Olga looking in a mirror more grotesque: “In the picture of April 30…put on the floor a comb containing between its teeth some hairs and some lice on her hair too…and if possible on her hair some crabs (pleasant idea to add to the lot).” In 1938 he had Olga appear “in a surreal crucifixion scene…in which she drinks the blood of the impaled figure.”

There are times in Richardson’s book when he is too anxious to join Picasso in his view of the women in his life, referring, for example, to Olga on the very first page as “a termagant” and insisting on the very last page that Dora Maar, a later lover, “thrived on punishment.” Still, one of the reasons why Richardson’s life of Picasso is essential is that he is always willing to seek biographical sources for Picasso’s images. He leaves it to the reader to conclude that many of the paintings that are filled with hatred are not among Picasso’s best, that the tensions and high emotions that poisoned his personal life are sometimes too graphically apparent in them, with no room for mystery, or indeed subtlety. He also leaves it to the reader to face the uncomfortable fact that other such paintings have a startling energy, a rich and dynamic power.

Toward the end of 1935, Picasso met Dora Maar. In her memoir of her life with Picasso, Gilot recalled:

Pablo told me that one of the first times he saw Dora she was sitting at the Deux Magots. She was wearing black gloves with little pink flowers appliquéed on them. She took off the gloves and picked up a long, pointed knife, which she began to drive into the table between her outstretched fingers to see how close she could come to each finger without actually cutting herself.

“Picasso’s intense fascination with Dora’s face,” Richardson writes, “a face that would soon become a major motif in his work—is first seen in the small portrait drawings” done near Cannes in the summer of 1936. “The charcoal, india ink, and crayon drawing from September 5 of Dora being ravished by Picasso in the guise of a minotaur is one of his most viscerally erotic images of her.” But there are also drawings that are bloated and quite ludicrous, such as one from August 1936, in which Dora, wearing a headscarf, is opening a door with a key. On the other side is Picasso as a Greek god carrying a dog.

Woman at the Sideboard; painting by Pablo Picasso

Musée national Picasso, Paris/RMN-Grand Palais/Adrien Didierjean/Art Resource/© 2022 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Pablo Picasso: Woman at the Sideboard, 1936

Picasso, having been forced to give his country house to Olga, found another house outside Paris for Marie-Thérèse and their daughter, Maya. Later, in an interview, Marie-Thérèse said, “Picasso would come from Friday to Sunday evening. He worked and worked, like an angel. We lived this way for years.” During the week, he was in Paris with Dora.

In January 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Picasso was asked by representatives of the Republican government to paint a mural in the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair. He eventually agreed, thinking at first that he would create a large image of a painter’s studio. But he made little progress in March and April of that year, producing just twelve preliminary sketches of a painter and his model.

On April 26, a market day, the town of Guernica in the Basque country was bombed by German planes. The attack was designed to kill as many civilians as possible and to destroy a place that was sacred to the Basques. On April 29 Picasso, who had already been told about the bombing, read an account of it in the Communist Party newspaper L’Humanité by the journalist George Steer: “When I entered Guernica after midnight houses were crashing on either side, and it was utterly impossible even for firemen to enter the centre of the town.”

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Soon Picasso ordered a huge canvas. The young Catalan painter who delivered it at ten o’clock in the morning remembered:

Picasso was already up and overexcited, asking me why I was arriving so late and shouting at me. We unrolled the canvas and stretched it, then nailed it to a frame. On the floor lay a dozen drawings. I barely had time to fix the first half of the canvas when Picasso climbed on a ladder and started drawing with charcoal.

Dora Maar photographed the painting at each stage of its development, her pictures becoming, Richardson writes, “the first photographic record of the creation of a modern artwork from start to finish.” Picasso, who had made his first sketches on May 1, finished the work on June 4.

In his analysis of the imagery in Guernica, Richardson is convincing when he asserts that it is “pervaded with Picasso’s own problems and preoccupations,” rather than depicting aspects of the bombing or the town. His interpretation of the figure of the woman holding the lamp in the painting is new and involves several other works. In the previous volume, he identified the woman in Picasso’s 1933 sculpture Woman with a Lamp, also known as Woman with Vase—which the painter later chose to be on his grave—as Marie-Thérèse. In this new volume, he proposes “a new identification of the girl who presides over the artist’s grave. It is no less than his long-dead sister, Conchita.” Conchita, aged seven, died of diphtheria in 1895, when Picasso was thirteen. As she lay ill, according to Richardson,

Pablo had vowed to God that he would never paint again if his sister’s life was spared. He did paint again…. The beloved child’s early death would cast an inescapable shadow over virtually all of Picasso’s relationships with women…. According to [his wife] Jacqueline Roque, half a century later, the secret of the broken vow had never been divulged to anyone else but the women in his life.

Richardson acknowledges that the figure in Woman with a Lamp “does not represent a seven-year-old; [Picasso] preferred to immortalize her as a grown woman.” He does not give a source for this. In the engraving Minotauromachie (1935), he sees the young girl holding the light as representing “Conchita, and her presence is central to the meaning of the composition…. The flame represents the art Picasso had vowed to abandon if Conchita lived.” This interpretation is certainly possible, but since he offers no evidence for it either, it remains in the realm of conjecture.

In Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon (2005), Gijs van Hensbergen writes, “Marie-Thérèse’s Grecian profile was instantly recognisable in the woman holding the lamp.” Richardson, on the other hand, writes:

Understanding the artist’s votive obsession and the significance of his broken vow, we can now identify the image of his long-dead sister Conchita…. Conchita no longer figures as a child, as she does in Minotauromachie, but has been transformed into an adult who thrusts out the sacred lamp clutched in her hand in order to have it lit by the Mithraic sun.

In the weeks when Picasso worked feverishly on the painting, he continued to spend the weekends in the countryside with Marie-Thérèse. Thirty years later he remembered:

Every chance I got to take a break, I would go out into the country for a breather. But I would begin to draw and paint from the moment I got there. And what did I paint, coming fresh from the work on Guernica? Flowers and fruit—never anything else.

Woman with a Cockerel; painting by Pablo Picasso

Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart/bpk Bildagentur/Art Resource/© 2022 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Pablo Picasso: Woman with a Cockerel, 1938

Although Picasso would return to painting the women who obsessed him in the aftermath of Guernica, Richardson reads other paintings, such as Woman with a Cockerel (1938; see illustration on right), as evoking “the atmosphere of helplessness and hysteria soon to become reality not only in Spain but throughout Europe.”

Just as Picasso had made an image that included both Olga and Marie-Thérèse, he did a portrait of Dora that slowly merged with an image of Marie-Thérèse. The figure in it, Richardson writes, is “black-haired and big chinned” like Dora, “but in most other respects it is a portrait of Marie-Thérèse. Her breasts bulge out and her expression is bland and cheerful, the antithesis of Dora’s usual demeanor.”

Picasso began the Weeping Woman series of portraits of Dora while he was still at work on Guernica. He later said, “For me she’s the weeping woman. For years I’ve painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me.” Dora, it seems, did indeed weep. In April 1937, for example, she asked Picasso to forgive her for

those scenes, do not take them seriously, you have to take them lightly, as a joke. I will try to correct myself. Behave with me as you have behaved with me before, that is, if I haven’t already ruined everything; come find me whenever you want, I will wait for you as long as you want me to, years if you so desire…I will not cry, I will not scream, that is over now.

Picasso had allowed Olga to be “identified with the monstrous, horselike women that appeared in his painting since the 1920s”; now, Richardson writes, as he fell out of love with Dora, he “fixated on the pictorial deformation of her face, both on canvas and in the series of newspaper paintings and drawings executed between 1941 and 1943.”

Although the first three magisterial volumes of Richardson’s biography supersede any other version of the painter’s life in the years leading up to 1933, this last volume, roughly half the size of the others, can be most usefully read alongside Josep Palau i Fabre’s Picasso 1927–1939: From the Minotaur to Guernica (2011). It, too, was the fourth volume in a study of Picasso’s work and was published after the author’s death. Like Richardson, Palau had been a friend of Picasso’s. His approach tended to be more intuitive and less analytical than Richardson’s. Because, unlike Richardson, he could use color illustrations on every page, his books offer a more concrete, graphic account of Picasso’s progress.

We see more vividly in Palau’s book Picasso’s obsessive engagement with Marie-Thérèse. What is strange is that on the very day that he created his Dream and Lie of Franco, a sort of antifascist cartoon, he also painted, in tender tones, an oval portrait of her. What is strange too is that certain paintings that seem distant from each other in style and texture, such as Marie-Thérèse with Garland of Flowers and Portrait of a Woman with Beret, were actually done on the same day.

Both these paintings dramatize the sitter’s eyes and pale skin, but the first one is all naive suggestion, soft colors, the mild face encased by a single black line from left eye to right ear, while in the second, with a red background and a red beret, her gaze is more worldly and sophisticated, like the painting itself. The two could have been made decades apart or by different artists.

There are other times in these years when we can further observe Picasso’s interest, repetitive and restless, in the pictorial possibilities offered by Marie-Thérèse. Between April 9 and April 30, 1936, for example, he worked obsessively on images of her, beginning with a painting of her at a dressing table on April 9, with another version two days later, then the following day the same scene recreated, but this time Marie-Thérèse is in the form of a primitive piece of sculpture against the realistic table. The following day, Picasso worked on two further portraits of her, and then two days later painted an exciting, amorphous set of shapes that he called Woman and also a beautifully painted double head, with an eye in each head, called Head of a Woman. Five days later, he painted a portrait of Marie-Thérèse reading, and two days after that a pointillist version of her writing a letter.

It might be easy to read these paintings against the background of the news from Spain and the threats from Germany, and to suggest that they were painted in so many styles and with such speed because the time for that would soon be scarce. But there is something too direct and natural about the way each choice of image and pictorial system was made, each variation worked out. There was no evidence that Picasso was thinking about war or the news of the day at all as he made these paintings. Instead he was gazing busily, greedily at Marie-Thérèse’s face as though nothing else would ever matter.

When war broke out in Europe, Picasso was in Antibes with Dora, working on Night Fishing at Antibes. The artist and writer Roland Penrose, who was with him, wrote:

He was particularly irritated to have been interrupted just as he had begun to see more clearly the path his new work was to take. Joking with us he said they must be making a war just to annoy him when he was starting on a good line.

Jaime Sabartés, his secretary, said, “What he dreaded in war was its menace to his work; as though peace were indispensable to this being who cannot live without mental strife.”

In July 1939 Picasso had installed Marie-Thérèse, their daughter, Maya, and Marie-Thérèse’s mother and sister in Royan on the French Atlantic coast. On September 1 his chauffeur drove the painter, Dora, his dog Kazbek, and Sabartés and his wife to the same town, where they lodged in a dingy hotel. Picasso at first had his studio in the comfortable house he rented for Marie-Thérèse, and thus he saw her every day. “Dora remembered Royan as hell,” Richardson writes. “Letters to her mother indicate that she was miserable from nearly the moment they arrived.” Although the two entourages, which soon included Breton’s wife and daughter, gradually got to know one another, Dora and Marie-Thérèse kept apart.

That November, a Picasso retrospective, which included Guernica, opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Alfred Barr, the director, cabled Picasso: “COLOSSAL SUCCESS. IT ATTRACTS ENORMOUS CROWDS, 60,000 VISITORS, SURPASSING [1935] VAN GOGH EXHIBITION.” Picasso, in the meantime, was, as a Spanish citizen, concerned about his safety in France and set about obtaining French citizenship. “His application,” according to Richardson, “was denied on the basis of a trumped-up report…claiming that Picasso, at a Saint-Germain café, had been overheard criticizing French institutions and openly supporting the Soviet Union.” In his police file it was also noted that “he had failed to fight for France in World War I; he supported the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.” Richardson adds: “Without French citizenship, the fear of extradition would continue to hang over the artist’s head.”

In June 1940 Nazi troops arrived in Royan and established themselves in the hotel next to a studio that Picasso was renting. Much of his work was in storage in a Paris bank vault; he was warned that his absence from the city meant that it could be easily seized. Others had gone back to Paris, such as Éluard and his wife Nusch, who were Picasso’s close friends, as well as Leiris. On August 25 Picasso decided to return, moving into the large studio where he had painted Guernica and making it his living quarters. Dora traveled with him. In December Marie-Thérèse and her family moved from Royan to a Paris suburb.

When Picasso arrived in Paris, he found notices posted on the door of his studio and his apartment “claiming authority to confiscate his works in lieu of unpaid Spanish taxes.” Although he had received American offers of asylum and the promise of a Mexican visa, he decided not to leave France. Later in the war, he told Gilot:

I’m not looking for risks to take, but in a sort of passive way I don’t care to yield to either force or terror. I want to stay here because I’m here. The only kind of force that could make me leave would be the desire to leave. Staying on isn’t really a manifestation of courage; it’s just a form of inertia. I suppose it’s simply that I prefer to be here. So I’ll stay whatever the cost.

Paris in late 1940 was, the photographer Brassaï recalled, a city

of queues and ration tickets, of curfews and jammed radios, of propaganda newspapers and films, a Paris of German patrols, of yellow stars, of alerts and searches, of arrests and bulletins of executions.

But according to Richardson:

Prewar social routines would never entirely disappear from the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood…. Picasso was back at his old haunts…. At lunchtime, he was often spotted at the Catalan beside Dora, Éluard, and Cocteau.

That November, a friend wrote to Matisse, “Picasso is just as he always was—a true Bohemian, taking his meals here, there and everywhere.”

Just as Picasso had enjoyed the attention of both factions of the Surrealists, just as he had enjoyed the rivalry between Olga and Marie-Thérèse and the even more intense rivalry between Marie-Thérèse and Dora, he now drew energy from the divisions between Éluard, who had joined the Resistance, and Jean Cocteau, who, Richardson writes, “was reinventing himself as a social superstar.” Cocteau “had sided with the sophisticated collaborationist gang of chic socialites and celebrities. Éluard, on the other hand, belonged to the left-wing circle of surrealist writers and clandestine Resistance activities.”

Although Picasso accepted hospitality from pro-German hosts and hostesses, he was careful to avoid figures such as Coco Chanel, who began a romance with a Nazi intelligence officer, and the socialite Marie-Laure Noailles, who took up with an Austrian officer. (“She wasn’t at all pro-Nazi,” Claude Arnaud writes of Noailles in his biography of Cocteau, “or even in favor of collaboration; she just wanted to be fashionable.”)

Picasso enjoyed mocking Cocteau. He told Brassaï, “For as long as I have known him, his pleats have always been perfect…Cocteau was born…ironed.” In 1957, when Richardson and his partner Douglas Cooper were invited to lunch by Picasso, with Cocteau coming for coffee, Picasso warned his guests, “Don’t, for God’s sake, let him embrace you. He’s suffering from a nasty skin disease that he caught from the Germans during the war.”

Both Cocteau and Picasso had powerful protectors during the occupation, including Arno Breker, Hitler’s favorite sculptor, and André-Louis Dubois, a former assistant director of the National Police who was now “working undercover for the police force.” Dubois, Richardson writes, “arranged for Dora and Sabartés to have permanent telephone access to him, in case of any emergency that might befall Picasso.” One day, when he received a call, he made his way to the studio and found two Nazi officers, who quickly departed as soon as they saw his papers:

Dubois found Picasso’s studio in disarray, paintings ripped and roughed up. The artist remained impassive, smoking a cigarette as he told Dubois: “They have insulted me as a degenerate, a Communist, a Jew. They kicked in my canvases and said to me, ‘We’re coming back. That’s all for now.’”

Dubois wrote that the Nazis did not return after that visit, but Gilot, in her memoir, wrote that they came “every week or two” on the pretext that the studio belonged to a Jewish artist. One of these visits gave rise to a story, possibly apocryphal, that when an intruding Nazi found a photograph of Guernica, he asked Picasso, “Did you do that?” Picasso, it is claimed, replied, “No, you did.”

Officially Picasso was not allowed to show his work during the Nazi occupation of Paris, but according to Arnaud,

the censors had been able to order that one of his paintings be taken down from its place in the Galerie Charpentier. At the same time they could be found everywhere at the Galerie Louise Leiris [formerly owned by Picasso’s dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who, as a Jew, had to go into hiding]; certain German officers…even came to admire them in Picasso’s studio.

Picasso never stopped working during the war years. He was careful; he was often silent. Cocteau, on the other hand, repaid his debt to Breker by attending the opening of an exhibition of his nudes at the Jeu de Paume in April 1942 and publishing a “Salute to Breker” in a literary paper, causing Éluard to write, “Freud, Kafka, and Chaplin have been banned by the same people who honor Breker. You were believed to be among those forbidden…. The best of those who admire you and love you have had a painful surprise.”

“Picasso paints more and more like God or the Devil,” Éluard wrote to Penrose after the liberation of Paris. “He has been one of the rare painters who have behaved well and he continues to do so.” Picasso accepted no support from the Nazis, and a few times he performed small acts of bravery, such as attending the memorial service for his old friend Max Jacob, who died in a concentration camp in the spring of 1944. But he did not speak out or do anything to assist Jacob, who was born Jewish, when he was arrested.

By this time, Dora was out of his life. He began his affair with Gilot in the second half of 1943, when she was twenty-two. “Her arrival on the scene,” Richardson writes, “brought about the long denouement of Dora Maar’s reign as maîtress-en-titre and self-sacrificial victim…. He had destroyed Dora, beaten her to bits, and cut her up in paint.” With the help of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, she began to heal herself. Eventually, she became a fervent Catholic. Richardson gives her the last word, but it is unclear whether she was joking or not when she said, “After Picasso, there is only God.”