Pablo, Pagan God

While staunchly insisting that Picasso was the 20th century's greatest artist, Richardson refuses to be seduced by his subject's narrative in this latest, spellbinding biographical volume

"A Life of Picasso, Vol. III: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932" by John Richardson, Jonathan Cape, 592 pages, $30

In my glowing tribute to the tremendous accomplishment of John Richardson, when the second volume of his biography of one of the giants of 20th-century art, Pablo Ruiz Picasso, came out in 1997 - I joined critics and readers around the world in wishing the biographer many more years of good health to allow him to write the next volume. Richardson was not a young man even then. But now, at the age of 84, he has published the third volume of his spellbinding biography, and we can only hope that the fourth and final volume of this remarkable endeavor will reach us one day.

Richardson's uniqueness as a biographer lies in the fact that he knew Pablo Picasso personally, and spent a great deal of time in his company and in that of those who knew him. He also knew Picasso's wives and hobnobbed with the curators and art dealers who bought and sold his greatest masterpieces. He knows all the stories from the "inside," and kept a careful record of his fascinating conversations with the artist. This intimate acquaintance with Picasso enabled him to crack all the secret codes and get around the artist's evasiveness and attempts to lead people down the wrong trail: Picasso was not fond of talking about his work, and got a kick out of seeing the nonsense he spouted about his art being taken seriously.

But Richardson's books are not in the "memories of life with Picasso" category. He has written a serious, well-researched critical biography laden with insight. Unlike his protagonist, Richardson puts on no airs. He does not hide his admiration for Picasso's work. This admiration is expressed, for example, in his staunch insistence that Picasso was the greatest artist of the 20th century. Richardson also knew another serious contender for that title - painter Henri Matisse - and he has written interesting and important articles about him, too. But when it comes to the debate that has long preoccupied art and culture critics, the author votes hands down for Picasso as the champion. All the other candidates are easily dismissed. He says that Salvador Dali, for instance, put on a show for the public, while Picasso wrestled with his private demons.

On the other hand, Richardson does not conceal from his readers the ugly sides of Picasso's character. He writes about the suffering the man caused those around him, pokes fun at his superstitions and minces no words about the selfishness of this cruel genius. The author does not feel obligated to love him, no matter how brilliant he finds his work.

Richardson's great test as a biographer is the connection he establishes between Picasso's work and his life. Many biographers treat artistic output as a body of evidence from which they can draw conclusions about the artist's life. Indeed, Picasso was very good at hiding the keys to his personal life in his art. His wives were a constant source of inspiration for him, and he immortalized them and revealed his attitude toward them in his paintings and sculptures.

Leading ladies

The two leading ladies in the time frame of this volume were Olga Khokhlova and Marie-Therese Walter. Olga, whom Picasso met toward the end of World War I, was a beautiful, lithe ballet dancer who had been cut off from her family in the old country by the Russian Revolution. Richardson, like most of Picasso's friends, did not like Olga. They blamed her and her demands on him for the fact that he drifted away from the Bohemian art world. They say she turned the tempestuous and free-spirited artist into a respectable member of the bourgeoisie, in dress and manner. They claim she pressured him to cave in to his art dealers and to paint "pretty" academic pictures, decorative portraits and other pieces that were easy to sell.

As was his wont, Picasso did not bother to contradict these claims. How nice to be able to blame the women around him for all his flaws. It is not hard to identify Olga, even in his most abstract work. An arm held above the head in a ballet pose gives her away. When the attraction of this respectable woman wore off, and he grew tired of her physical complaints and demands, the "alley cat" went hunting for fresh prey, which he had no trouble tracking down. Olga became the subject of Picasso's cruelest and coarsest paintings. The artist replaced her with Marie-Therese, who was only 17 years old when they met. A full-figured young woman, bursting with life and health, she became his new muse. She appears everywhere in his work, taken apart and put together in 1,000 different ways, and permeates his art with open eroticism.

As a biographer who does not just describe but analyzes (as a biographer should), Richardson has two sets of explanations for this crude behavior, which followed a pattern. Picasso's behavior remained the same, but the victims changed. In this case, the term "victim" is appropriate. First, Richardson claims that Picasso never stopped being an average Andalusian male, despite all the macho hype: Women were there to serve him. But this does not account for everything - especially not the attitude toward women manifested in his art. Picasso, he argues, was the Minotaur, a pagan god hungry for human sacrifice. Many young girls were sacrificed on his altar, but he was never satisfied.

Picasso was not a religious man, but he had many superstitions. He believed that living in proximity to a sick woman would hasten his own death. He never attended funerals, even of his closest friends, so as not to be contaminated by the spirit of the dead. Early on, he was fascinated by pagan beliefs and shamanism. In the days when his infatuation and awe of Marie-Therese were at their height, he painted her as a sun goddess. Many of his close friends later confessed to having heard him proclaim that he himself was God. "God is really another artist ... like me," he told them. "I am God. I am God, I am God." Picasso was a jealous, cruel and merciless God, who had no patience for underlings unable to perform their one and only duty, which was to serve him.

Picasso, writes Richardson, loved to pose as the intuitive artist, and he told anyone who asked him to explain his art that he could not. He felt good playing a fool with a direct and unexplained link to the muses. That way he could say he was not influenced by anybody and had no teacher. But Richardson, who refuses to be seduced by Picasso's narrative, reveals the sources of his inspiration and those who did influence him.

The book begins with a trip to Rome taken by Jean Cocteau and Picasso in 1917, when the Ballets Russes was performing there. The young Picasso, mesmerized, made the rounds of the museums and traveled to other parts of Italy. Richardson describes the artist's visit to Naples and how impressed he was by the ruins of Pompeii. The author traces the influence of a Roman sculpture of the young Hercules on Picasso's paintings and sculptures in the 1920s, and draws a direct connection between the visit and "The Bathers" series.

Using Picasso's sketchbooks, the biographer tracks down the various influences that lead, in the end, to the final artistic product. Picasso absorbed influences and even conducted a dialogue with artists of the past and those of his own generation, but went on to create something fresh, new and revolutionary that was all his. Richardson is a biographer with tremendous scope. His life of Picasso is always the life of the times and the environment in which he worked. Thus he embarks on fascinating sorties outside the artist's atelier, bringing in subplots and secondary characters that are no less interesting than the main character. When Picasso painted Marie-Therese and Olga in his studio, sitting in a red armchair, new art movements were raging outside. International politics was not exactly out to lunch, either.

Picasso categorically rejected Andre Breton's attempts to claim him as a fellow Surrealist, and no amount of flattery or praise would change his mind. On the other hand, he was also not anxious to join Cocteau's band of admirers. It seems he derived quite a bit of sadistic pleasure from the blows (verbal, but also sometimes physical) that they traded. Here again Richardson has no problem taking off his objective biographer's hat. He mocks Cocteau and his public relations ploys.

New admirers abroad

As in the first two volumes, the author devotes lengthy but interesting chapters to the financial aspect of Picasso's work. He had already broken into the art market before World War I erupted, and was no longer the young, starving artist he was in his early days in Paris. By the time the war was over, Picasso was well established and his work was much in demand. Dealers and collectors were willing to pay hefty sums for his canvases. During this period, he was quite a wealthy man. He owned apartments and assets, and even a fancy car driven by a chauffeur. And yet his relationship with those who marketed his art was still fraught with suspicion.

In that respect, Picasso, even when he was rich, continued to be a true Andalusian. According to one of the artist's friends, the great economic crisis in the late 1920s didn't hurt him at all. Picasso, who didn't believe in stocks and bonds, took this friend of his to the bank where he had a vault in which he kept his vast fortune - all in cash.

In the period before the war, for some reason, the French perceived Picasso as having a connection to German art. Indeed, when few were buying his work in France, he had many fans in Germany and Russia, which is why so many of his Cubist paintings are in museums and private collections there. After the war, the Russians and Germans stopped buying his work, but by that time, he had found new admirers across the ocean: American art dealers and collectors discovered Picasso. When Europe was in the doldrums, curators in New York and Washington bought up his work. Indeed, thanks to Alfred H. Barr, one of the first to offer a critical interpretation of his work - and later the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) - Manhattan became one of the leading repositories of Picasso's art.

In his previous volume, Richardson shines the spotlight on Picasso's revolutionary masterpiece "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907). He writes about what inspired the work, the stages it went though and Picasso's special feeling for it. Worried that it was too avant-garde, the artist initially hid it from the public eye and only brought it out a decade later. As befitting a work of such importance, in this volume Richardson tells the long, adventure-packed story of what happened to the painting after it was exhibited.

Picasso was already a respected and well-known artist, and his work fetched relatively substantial prices on the market, but he was still not ready to part from this beloved painting. In the end, he agreed to sell it to a French millionaire for only 25,000 francs. Why? Richardson speculates that even in the Roaring Twenties, there were not many people willing to hang a Picasso painting of prostitutes in their living rooms. Or perhaps he was prepared to sell it so cheaply because the buyer, who was no longer young, signed a contract that upon his death, the painting would be transferred to the Louvre. Maybe Picasso thought this was a good way of insuring that his beloved painting would live forever. The new owner did expire within a short time, but his heirs refused to honor his will. In the next volume, Richardson will probably tell us how Barr managed to get hold of it.

During this period, Picasso focused his attention on sculpture. At first he tried metal sculptures, with the assistance of his Spanish friend Julio Gonzalez, a welder-artist who executed his work following Picasso's instructions. Picasso shied away from making the sculptures himself - which required physical labor and a high degree of technical skill - among other things because he was worried about possible injury to his divine hands. Later, when he bought a country home outside the capital, he built a studio fitted for sculpture where he also worked in stone and plaster.

"La Femme au Jardin," a splendid metal sculpture created in 1932, which is now at Musee National Picasso in Paris, is without doubt the best of his sculptural work in those years. When Richardson takes us down the path of how it came into being, we understand what Picasso meant when he claimed that for him there was no difference between sculpture and painting. Indeed, many of the sculptures from those days began as paintings or drawings in his sketchbooks. Looking at his 1931 painting "Young Girl Throwing a Rock," also at the Paris museum, it is not hard to discern the transition to his "Tete de Femme" sculpture series in 1931.

As befitting a biography about the life of an artist, the book is abundantly illustrated. Unlike the previous volumes, the publishers have added a section containing a relatively wide selection of color prints, which enriches the reading experience substantially. This time, however, there are far fewer black-and-white illustrations accompanying the text. Nevertheless, like all the reviewers who have rejoiced over the publication of this book and expressed sincere wishes for the continued good health of the author - I, too, await the final volume of this great endeavor.