John Richardson, who died in 2019, set the standard for modern artists’ biographies (and we are living through a golden age of the genre) with the first three volumes of his Pablo Picasso biography. The first volume was published in 1991.
The volume, subtitled “The Minotaur Years,” unfolds against the backdrop of the rise of fascism, the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. It covers Picasso’s complicated relations with the Surrealists; his engagement with the irrational side of Greek mythology; his fraught relationship with his native Spain; a period when he decided to stop painting and focus on writing poetry; the creation of his masterpiece “Guernica”; and his experiences during the Nazi occupation of Paris.
Picasso was deeply involved in the formation of the myth that surrounds him, which presents a problem for would-be biographers. The myth was of unbridled invention, of creative fecundity almost as an end in itself. And it was successful self-marketing: The name “Picasso” has become a byword for audacious invention.
Of course, if you have seen a lot of Picassos, you know that not everything he made was of great interest. And yet those who seek to dismiss the prolific Spaniard as some sort of unstoppable gusher or helpless savant are responding to a caricature. Picasso made masterpieces galore. He was not only absurdly gifted; he was terrifyingly intelligent.
And he was also, of course, immensely manipulative. Despite his charm and the long line of smart and formidable women who fell in love with him, he was also — as Richardson makes clear — an emotional monster, whose urge to humiliate was constantly manifesting itself in his art.
What biographer would contemplate taking on such a complicated subject? You would need to be the perfect person for the job — to have just the right combination of masochism, tenacity, disinterest and dauntlessness.
Richardson was the perfect person — a marvelous, no-nonsense prose stylist with a gift for bold character sketches, a fierce dedication to concrete facts, deep curiosity about images and a command of irony. The most entertaining and well-connected of men, Richardson had befriended Picasso in the 1950s. At the time, Richardson was in a relationship with the collector and art historian Douglas Cooper (described in Richardson’s marvelous memoir, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”). After he and Cooper broke up, he maintained good relations not only with Picasso but also with his heirs and ex-lovers.
The first three volumes, published at increasingly lengthy intervals, were written with a collaborator, Marilyn McCully. This fourth volume was made possible by Delphine Huisinga and Ross Finocchio, who did much of the research, allowing Richardson to concentrate on the writing. According to Richardson’s friend David Dawson, Finocchio “sat with [Richardson] every morning rereading his writing back to him as John’s eyesight was failing,” while Huisinga would work in the library checking historical notes Richardson had made, in many cases, decades earlier.
In 1933, when the book starts, Picasso’s private life was engulfed in a melodrama of his own making. At the same time, different factions of the Surrealists were fighting over him in ways that mirrored his love life. It feels like pop psychology to say so, but on some level, he seemed to need to be fought over. Part of him clearly welcomed the chaos.
Richardson has consistently emphasized Picasso’s relationships with women as a key to understanding his art. So here we learn about the bitter and protracted end of his marriage to the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, his affair with photographer and painter Dora Maar, his ongoing relationship with model Marie-Thérèse Walter and his first meeting with painter Françoise Gilot.
Given the psychosexual complexity he cultivated, it’s little surprise that Picasso identified with the Minotaur — part bull, part man — who did battle in Greek mythology with Theseus in King Minos’s Cretan labyrinth. Some of his greatest works from this decade — from “Blind Minotaur Guided by a Young Girl at Night,” the most famous of his Vollard Suite prints, through to “Guernica” — draw on the Minotaur, or on bulls and bullfighting, always with some degree of identification.
The blind Minotaur, in particular, haunted Picasso. “For a superstitious artist whose creativity derived in part from the mirada fuerte (strong gaze), prized by Andalusians as a source of sexual power, blindness represented a vital loss,” Richardson wrote. “The equation of vision, sexuality, and art making is the key that often unlocks the meaning of Picasso’s work.”
Cubism, which Picasso invented together with Georges Braque, had made an asset of concealment and ambiguity, firmly establishing an idea that, for better or worse, prevailed over the rest of Picasso’s career: that his paintings are there to be “solved.” (Tellingly, the same assumption never applies to Matisse.)
When it suited him, Picasso freely handed out interpretive “keys” to his own work. He once turned to Richardson, as the two sat in the crowd at a bullfight in Nimes, in southern France, and said: “Those horses” — he meant the horses the tormented bulls were trying to disembowel — “are the women in my life.” (According to Richardson, Picasso’s then wife, Jacqueline Roque, overheard the comment and winced.)
“One has to commit a painting in the same way one commits a crime,” said Edgar Degas, an artist Picasso revered. So it seems fitting that Richardson has approached Picasso’s oeuvre in the spirit of a detective. The life, in a sense, is the crime scene. His speculations can be thrilling. There are many Eureka moments, often relating to the ongoing significance of the death of Picasso’s sister Conchita. But he never claims his interpretations are definitive.
Of a charcoal drawing made at the end of 1933, Richardson suggests that the Surrealist figure’s “disembodied eyeballs” may be related to a horrific crime committed that year. Two sisters, Christine and Léa Papin, who worked as maids, had murdered the mistress of the house and her daughter. They gouged out their victims’ eyes and slashed the mother’s “thighs and buttocks in the same way she would score a rabbit for roasting.” During the trial, Christine Papin had violent fits and tried to pluck out her own eyes.
The trial caused a sensation in the French press. Marxists wrote about the class implications of the crime, while the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, in an essay published in “Minotaure” (a Surrealist publication to which Picasso had also contributed) attributed the sisters’ “orgie sanglante” (bloody orgy) to psychosis. Picasso discussed the crime with Lacan. But he was not convinced that the sisters were insane. His objection was philosophical. “Today’s psychiatrists are the enemies of tragedy, and of saintliness,” he said. “Saying that the Papin sisters are mad means getting rid of that admirable thing called sin.”
In interesting ways, Picasso’s stance here reflects back on Richardson’s project. A brilliant detective, Richardson is continually solving “crimes” (read “artworks”) by tracing them back to Picasso’s lovers and his dead sister. It’s mostly convincing, but it starts to feel reductive.
Just as Picasso saw psychiatrists as the enemies of a deeper vision of life and death, biographers may be the enemies of a deeper conception of art. If everything is explained in biographical terms, you may lose “that admirable thing” called ambiguity.
Richardson’s big thesis is that Picasso saw art in terms of magic, especially of exorcism and sacrifice. I think he is basically right. What is hard to swallow is the repetitiveness of Richardson’s idea of Picasso’s particular brand of “magic,” which so often sprouts from his feelings about the women in his life.
The fault, perhaps, is not Richardson’s. You expect a biographer to emphasize biographical readings. But it’s a caution that we might apply more generally. What we know about an artist’s life shouldn’t be recruited to secure us against what is wild and unknown in his or her art. Art — and modern art in particular — can be puzzling, but that doesn’t mean we have to solve it. The will to “solve” or even “understand” art is not the only — and not the best — form of attention we can pay it.
Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post.
A Life of Picasso
The Minotaur Years 1933-1943
By John Richardson
Knopf. 320 pp. $40
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