A LIFE OF PICASSO Volume I: 1881-1906 By John Richardson, with the Collaboration of Marilyn McCully Random House. 560 pp $39.95

WHY IS IT that there are so few good biographies of the great modern artists? We live in an era that takes justifiable pride in the excellence of its literary biographies. Leon Edel's Henry James, Richard Ellmann's James Joyce and George Painter's Marcel Proust are recognized classics of the genre, and in the first volume of Brian Boyd's Vladimir Nabokov -- published just a few months ago to considerable acclaim -- we are clearly in possession of another major addition to contemporary biographical literature. Yet what have we got to place beside them when it comes to the lives of the great modern artists? Not much.

Matisse, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Miro, Brancusi, Braque, Leger -- none has yet been the subject of a full-scale biography. The outstanding exception to this dismal record -- until now, anyway -- has been James Lord's Giacometti (1985), which was apparently modeled on Edel's James and resulted in a book of comparable distinction. Otherwise the cupboard, while not exactly bare, is mostly occupied with mythography and a good deal of mediocre muddle.

It is for this reason, among others, that the publication of the first volume of John Richardson's A Life of Picasso is a major event. This is a book that shows every sign of changing the course of biographical writing about the major figures of the modern movement.

Picasso obviously poses an immense challenge to the biographer. His career was the longest and most influential of any artist in this century. His artistic production was the most copious and protean. And his character was one of the most mesmerizing and monstrous. The magnitude of his achievement, though so familiar and so fundamental to our understanding of what art is in our time, is still very far from being fully comprehended. Still to be comprehended, too, are the dimensions of the wreckage -- the ruined lives and moral betrayals -- that Picasso's devouring and often paranoid personality left in its wake.

To write a life of Picasso on anything approaching the scale and candor and moral complexity the subject calls for is therefore to write one of the central chronicles of the modern age. This, amazingly, is what Richardson seems well on his way to accomplishing. We are promised four volumes in all, and if the sheer brilliance of this first installment can be sustained throughout the remainder of the work, Richardson will have written not only one of the great biographies but a book likely to illuminate a good deal -- including a good deal that is appalling -- about the life of the spirit in this turbulent century.

This opening volume encompasses the first 25 years of Picasso's life. It begins with the story of the artist's boyhood and youth in a Spain only just awakening to the modern world. It traces the sad tale of Picasso's father, a failed painter and art teacher who was but the first of the many artist-rivals the young genius would triumph over and eclipse. It also gives us a vivid account of Picasso's relations with women from an early age -- on the one hand, the doting mother and sister, who lavished on him an unquestioning devotion, and on the other, the prostitutes he frequented from the age of 14.

To devote a volume of more than 500 oversized pages to an artist's early years might seem excessive, but such isn't the case with Picasso. His entry into adult life came remarkably early -- virtually coinciding with the onset of puberty -- and his ravenous attachment to the life of art began even earlier. About the work Picasso produced as a fledgling art student Richardson has some very sharp things to say. He sweeps aside the myths carefully spun by Picasso about the artistic feats of his youth -- myths that have been endlessly repeated by credulous and admiring biographers -- to give us a more realistic account of the artist's early development.

It is indeed one of the great strengths of this book that Richardson is able to give us such a sharp critical account of every aspect of the art Picasso produced in these early years. His analysis of the paintings of the Blue period and the Rose period -- the high points of Picasso's achievement in the years covered by this first volume -- is the best I have read anywhere, and so is his account of the way Picasso responded to certain earlier artists -- Ingres and Gauguin, among many others -- in his own early work.

This aspect of Richardson's narrative achieves its finest moment in the attention given to the artist's response to Matisse, Picasso's only acknowledged equal among his rivals in the emerging School of Paris. The pages devoted to this early rivalry with Matisse and the role it would play in the creation of Picasso's most revolutionary work -- "Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon" -- shed an entirely new light on one of the pivotal chapters of modern art history.

But the entire volume abounds in vivid historical writing and shrewdly drawn sketches of the key actors in the drama. Barcelona in the 1890s, Paris at the turn of the century -- the city that Picasso attempted to storm again and again before he achieved his first fateful triumph -- these are evoked with an abundance of memorable details; and the portraits of Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire, Gertrude Stein and sundry other friends, admirers and supporters are fresh and often original. A good deal of the sentimental folklore that has accumulated around these much written-about subjects is discarded, and much new information introduced. The fun and high spirits of Picasso's bohemian milieu are frankly described, and so are the cruelty and callousness that were so often their accompaniment.

The Picasso who emerges from this book is in many respects a repugnant character -- an implacable misogynist secure in the sexual magnetism that made him so irresistible to the many women he treated so badly; an immoralist who delighted in humiliating even his most faithful friends and who seems never to have felt the slightest obligation to anyone but himself; a natural-born Nietzschean determined to reduce everyone within his reach to servitude and abjection. What is never in doubt, however, is the driving force of the talent and the vision that enlisted this Nietzschean energy in the service of art and left art so radically transformed as a result.

This Life of Picasso is not a pretty story, and the volumes to come are likely to be even more harrowing than the first installment. But it is a story to which John Richardson has brought the requisite combination of literary skill, aesthetic sensibility, moral candor and scholarly industry. It will stand as a challenge to future biographers -- and not only biographers of Picasso -- for many years to come.

Hilton Kramer is the editor of The New Criterion and the art critic for The New York Observer.