Fourth time: the last volume of Picasso’s biography by John Richardson
A LIFE OF PICASSO
The Minotaur years, 1933-1943
By John Richardson with the collaboration of Ross Finocchio and Delphine Huisinga
“Picasso” is a name that has come to mean “greatness”. Only “Einstein” rivals him as a shorthand for “genius”. The first three volumes of “A Life of Picasso” by John Richardson, published between 1991 and 2007 and now followed by a fourth, rest on the undisputed assumption that Picasso represents the pinnacle of artistic success. Richardson, who had no training as an art historian, was a friend of Picasso, a fluent writer with a knack for storytelling and a sensitive ability to read the artist’s work in relation to his life. . “The Years of the Minotaur” ends before the end of World War II. Picasso lived another three decades, but this is the last volume. John Richardson died at age 95 in 2019.
There is a growing body of evidence in cognitive science that expectations, past context-dependent beliefs, are crucial for perception. We are all biased by our past experiences, which shape what we see and how we value it. The “great artist” was born out of a complex consensus created over time between experts, institutions, media and the public within the broader context of cultural values and hierarchies.
Debates about the possibility of separating the lives of artists from their art have taken on new urgency in a changing political climate. Picasso called his work a “journal”. In the introduction to the first volume, Richardson writes: “It must be painful, Picasso would say with more pride than guilt, for a woman to see herself transformed into a monster, or disappear from her work, while a new favorite materializes in all its glory. Women, whom Picasso described as “goddesses” or “doormats”, have become essential in interpreting both his life and his work.
Throughout the biography, Richardson invariably refers to women by first name and men by last name, although the unmistakably masculine Gertrude Stein is sometimes given the dignity of her last name. Once out of the shorts, Pablo becomes Picasso. The infantilizing gesture towards female figures, no doubt unconscious, is revealing. While Richardson is blunt about Picasso’s misogyny, his tone is playful. In the third volume, the reader is alerted to the hideous images of the artist’s wife, Olga Khokhlova, contrasting with the sweet interpretations of his young mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom Picasso literally picked up on the street at age 17 and initiated into the mysteries of sadomasochistic sexual games. “The anger in these images suggests that Picasso suffered from the atavistic misogyny… which supposedly lurks in the psyche of every pure-blooded Andalusian man. Relying on the work of anthropologist David Gilmore, who researched hatred of women in Picasso’s birthplace, Richardson does not recognize Gilmore’s thesis. In “Misogyny: The Male Malady” he argues that this hatred crosses cultures and stems from an intense need and fear of the mother.
The decade covered by this volume, which revolves around Picasso’s identification with the mythical half-beast, half-man Minotaur, is tumultuous, in both public and private life. Picasso’s relations with the surrealists; his anti-fascist politics and art in response to the war in Spain, and later the Nazi occupation; his affair with the photographer, painter and intellectual Dora Maar, who collaborated with him on photographic prints, documented the making of “Guernica” (named after the Spanish city bombarded in ruins by the fascists in 1937) and replaced his female as public bride, while Walter has remained in hiding and gave birth to their child, Maya, are ably featured as Richardson moves from man in his circle to his art to more significant historical events.
The book, however, is compromised by the timid enlargement of the artist’s work and complicity with his demeanor. Gertrude Stein, wonders the biographer, did she realize that “Picasso’s lack of words was much more avant-garde than hers?” The writing of the Spaniard had more in common with the Irishman James Joyce. No evidence is given for this surprising opinion. “As the war dragged on, the images of Dora became more and more distressing. Picasso used his tears to defend those of humanity. Picasso’s treatment of Maar had also become increasingly sadistic. Richardson recounts Lucian Freud’s visit to Picasso in the early 1950s with his wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood. Picasso insisted that Blackwood accompany him down a narrow staircase to see Paris from the roof: “This interlude took longer than it should have. Freud was not happy. But Blackwood herself told this story. The 72-year-old artist threw himself on her: “Picasso was as old as the hills, an old letch, genius or not.”
Moral purity should not be a requirement for making art. If so, most artists of all genres would have to leave the scene immediately. Picasso’s malignant narcissism, however, is in his art and an important ingredient in his fame. Although he was extraordinarily inventive stylistically and engulfed the work of other artists, as well as myths, symbols and superstitions to brilliantly transform them, the emotional repertoire of the work, all the more as it ages, is much narrower than we often think. Picasso’s feminine imagery of this period, both idealized and cruel, is still stereotypical.
In a catalog essay for the exhibition “Women: Picasso, Beckmann, de Kooning” at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich (2012), I argued that Picasso’s “Woman in Tears” (1937) by Dora Maar, who supposedly evokes the horrors of war, transforms grief into a ridiculous, feminine alien. After seeing Picasso’s work in 1932, Carl Jung wrote an article in which he distinguished between neurotic images and schizophrenic images: “The image leaves cold, or disturbs by its paradoxical, insensitive and grotesque carelessness for the viewer. This is the group to which Picasso belongs. Richardson addresses Jung in Volume Three, but not this preview. In “Life with Picasso”, Françoise Gilot, who followed Maar as a lover and muse, quotes the artist: “No one really matters to me. As far as I’m concerned, the others are like those little specks of dust floating in the sun. All it takes is a sweep and they are gone.
Meaning is created between the viewer and the work of art. These meanings are variable and depend on who is looking and the expectations brought to the canvas, which include the cultural imprimatur of genius. Despite the decent tone of Richardson’s account and his scrupulous avoidance of his subject’s pathology, the man who emerges from these pages is so dependent and afraid of women that he is incapable of a reciprocal relationship. He’s also a wealthy man, whose sadistic urges are nurtured and celebrated by flattering friends and adoring audiences. Picasso’s hatred for women is not only an unhappy fact of his life, it is central to his work and his continued attraction as a preening priapic god. As a 2011 exhibition in San Francisco at the de Young Museum announced: “Discover the women, passion and heartbreak behind the work of Pablo Picasso featured in ‘Picasso: Masterpieces of the National Picasso Museum, Paris.’ “
There are both living wonders and shriveled miscarriages in Picasso’s work, but the little Spaniard with a big chest and lean legs has become so much more than his job. It is a signifier of the male genius who deals with a collective disease, which takes pleasure in the denigration and the punishment of women. It is this larger cultural myth, based on prior context-dependent beliefs, that needs to be questioned, not by censorship, but by discussion, a discussion that is absent from Richardson’s biography.