‘A Life of Picasso’ explores the painter’s passionate intensity

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Pablo Picasso was perhaps the greatest artist of the 20th century. Over a long career he has been creative and extremely productive, shaping the way artists see the world and their role in it. Every adjective associated with artistic greatness – brilliant, illustrative, groundbreaking – has been applied to him. Large exhibitions of his works are almost always blockbusters.

There are shelves with biographies explaining what made Picasso tick. But no one has written about him with more clarity and insight than the legendary British art historian John Richardson. As a friend of the artist, Richardson had access to Picasso for many years and used that personal connection to create a full and richer, yet honest, portrait of the painter.

“A Life of Picasso: The Minotaur Years, 1933-1943” is the fourth in the Picasso biography series that Richardson, who died in 2019, began to write in the 1980s. The earlier volumes depict the artist’s life and career from his youth in Barcelona, ​​Spain, to his early years in Paris. The latest part appeared posthumously in November and refers in the subtitle to the mythical half-man-half-bull, who often appears in his pictures as the artist’s proxy. The book is just as rewarding and impressive as its three predecessors.

The most famous anti-war painting in the world

We’ll start with Picasso, now middle-aged, at the peak of his artistic prowess. The book covers in detail the extraordinary sculptural works created in Boisgeloup, the Norman castle that he acquired in 1930; his flirt with the surrealists; his experimentation with poetry and his decision to give up painting for a year to give him time to write; the series of paintings “Weeping Women”; his summers on the French Riviera; the painting “Night fishing in Antibes” and “Guernica”; and Picasso’s decision to stay in Paris during World War II.

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War was traumatic for Picasso, who was still a Spanish citizen. He stood directly on the side of the Republicans – who fought against the nationalists led by General Francisco Franco – and provided them with significant financial support.

He was asked to make a painting for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, and his original concept was a painting by an artist in his studio with a model. But then, on April 26, 1937, the Germans bombed Guernica and the direction of the project completely changed. Picasso quickly made a huge painting that graphically depicts the violence of the attack and the resulting chaos and suffering. Today, as one of the most important paintings of the 20th century, the work is coldly received in Paris.

Downside

Picasso had a dark side: he was a lifelong misogynist, and his abuses with his neighbors are legendary. In this book we observe the psychological breakdown of his first wife, Olga; he tried to ignore the institutionalization of his son; and the toxic and destructive relationship with Dora Maar, his lover, when he painted “Guernica”. Maar was the subject of the Weeping Woman paintings, and Richardson notes that Picasso’s handling of her picture “has disturbing echoes of cruelty, imprisonment and torture.” His first lover Marie-Thérèse Walter and her daughter Maya are always in the background.

It’s not just women, of course. Richardson documents the casual cruelty that Picasso inflicted on men, women, family members and close friends. He was an equal opportunity tormentor.

In the past, such behavior was explained away by great artists with the term “artistic temperament”. Those days are long gone. The biographer does not speculate why Picasso was capable of great cruelty – such an assessment would require a deep look into psychology, which is beyond the expertise of an art historian. Rather, Richardson’s accomplishment is to allow Picasso to be seen to the full – as an artist of enormous importance and as a terribly flawed person.

Impressed with Van Gogh

Richardson provides personal and artistic details that enrich the story. We learn, for example, that Picasso, who loved beautiful cars, never drove and mocked artists like Georges Braque (who drove a Rolls-Royce) and André Derain (who preferred Bugattis) who did. His younger sister Conchita, whose death Picasso pursued in 1895, appears in “Guernica” as a grown woman with a lamp. It is well known that Picasso admired Vincent van Gogh, but Richardson adds to this information by stating that Picasso carried an original newspaper report of Van Gogh’s attempt to cut off his ear in his wallet until his death. And it’s entertaining to imagine André Breton, dubbed the Pope of Surrealism for his arrogance and glory, trying to ingratiate himself into Picasso’s life in an attempt to lure the artist into the surrealist movement. He failed.

The multi-volume series “A Life of Picasso” ended with Richardson’s death in the early 1940s. Picasso lived another 30 years. How sad that the biographer was unable to complete the project. But how happy that he has completed four volumes.

Many other biographies are written about Picasso. But it’s hard to imagine that any of them will surpass the performance of Richardson’s “Life of Picasso”. For readers who want to fully understand Picasso as an artist and as a person, Richardson’s books are the indispensable starting point. A great artist now enjoys a biography worthy of at least part of his life and work.


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