Lesson One of Picasso Bio: Don’t Be a Muse!

A LIFE OF PICASSO: THE TRIUMPHANT YEARS, 1917-1932 By John Richardson Alfred A. Knopf, 592 pages, $40 In this, the

By John Richardson
Alfred A. Knopf, 592 pages, $40

In this, the third installment of John Richardson’s epic biography of Picasso, we find that the artist, age 36, having been spurned by two mistresses to whom he’d proposed marriage, has fled wartime Paris for Rome and fallen in with the Ballets Russes. Among their company he pursued a wife, made vivid theatrical decor and costumes and enjoyed visiting bordellos with the choreographer Massine, whose relationship of convenience with Diaghilev left room for such escapades. Subtitled “The Triumphant Years,” volume three takes Picasso from 1917 to 1932—it clocks in at about 33 pages per year. “How,” asked my mother as she perused my copy, “did he know Picasso had the sniffles?”

Well, because Mr. Richardson makes it his business to know—or to find out—everything; and because he knew Picasso, too. It’s the grand scope, the inclusiveness, that leads everyone to call this biography “magisterial,” and yet it’s the moments of intimacy that give the greatest pleasure. Not just intimacy with facts, but intimacy with us, the readers, with an immediacy particularly welcome in the commentary on Picasso’s work.

The singular virtue here is Mr. Richardson’s tone. Though from time to time it disappears under the great welter of detail, it always resurfaces, urbane, learned, direct, unfussy, suave, wicked, occasionally astringent and with an amusing vocabulary. (To wit: “The meddlesome Polish hostess Misia Sert had tried to scupper the project.”) Glimpses of the author’s suave contempt make one eager to encounter anyone he happens not to like—and there are more than a few. For Robert Delaunay he has no patience; for Gertrude Stein, he has only some.

Immersing oneself in this biography is like taking a grand tour through the life of the artist; a telegram home might read, “Apollinaire dead. Cocteau increasingly annoying.” (When Apollinaire dies, Mr. Richardson tells us, Picasso “sat down in front of the bathroom mirror and began to draw. … Self portraitists usually look lonely, but few as lonely as Picasso does in these drawings.” This is an arresting notion, a momentary jarring halt in the forward rush of the narrative.)


MAGISTERIALTY SHOULDN’T BE taken for granted. Not only is everything in here—a true omnium-gatherum of facts, many of them new—there are also wonderful notes, corrective remarks, records set straight, convoluted legal matters unraveled, recovered works and just plain dogged pursuit. If anything is missing, oddly, it’s a sense of what Picasso himself might have been like to hang around with, though some sense of him of course emerges, such as his “morbid fear of his genius rubbing off on other people.”

“When Picasso set out to charm,” we’re told, “he was fairly irresistible.” And yet we don’t see that, unless we look at the art. There, we’re often charmed—when we aren’t upset, which is another matter. And there Mr. Richardson tells us how, why and what. “Note how …” he will begin an analysis, looking at the work along with us, rather than from above us. “Look how …” he writes, encouragingly, conversationally. He tells us things about what we see, and we begin to see them, and more. For the explication of the paintings alone—Three Musicians (1921) is a good example—this book is worth having.

Of course, some of what we see is unpleasant, and with hindsight we want to warn off the two women who are the principals in this phase of the artist’s always prodigious output of portraiture. Poor “vulnerable” Olga Khokhlova, the Russian ballerina who became his first wife; and poor Marie-Thérèse Walter, the bodacious 17-year-old who would be model, inspiration, child-bearer, only to commit suicide four years after Picasso’s death. (If there’s a moral to this story, it’s don’t be a muse.) Picasso was voracious, but how not? You’d need every kind of fuel to stoke such an engine of ingenuity.

Whereas volume two established and explained Cubism, this volume three moves forward on multiple fronts, including stage work, tapestry and sculpture—not to mention drawing, which, as ever in art, is often the “sleeper” in any overview. (The late critic John Canaday particularly loved drawings, and looking at those reproduced here, it’s easy to see why: They’re so clear, so revealing, so directly felt, so like movement itself—the very opposite of the stasis inherent in work that, once made, lies still.)

Meanwhile, the Picassos traveled all over Europe, and in the process, seemed to meet and to know—or at least to run into—everyone of import in their day. There are numerous, shall we say, walk-ons: Picasso meeting Hemingway at a bullfight; Picasso and Charlie Chaplin. But there’s also something more complicated, which is the overlapping of various societies and inventories we tend to segregate on our bookshelves. Imagine Picasso as a maypole (he was priapic in every season), and look at where the ribbons connect: Bloomsbury (Clive Bell is perpetually turning up); the Gerald Murphys in the South of France; Chanel; Stravinsky; gypsies; a whole catalog of poets and other writers; and, of course, painter after painter.

Lesson One of Picasso Bio: Don’t Be a Muse!