An Omnivorous Talent
Lawrence S. Cunningham May 5, 2008 - 11:20am
The Triumphant Years: 1917–1932
Alfred A. Knopf, $40, 608 pp.
This third volume of John Richardson’s monumental biography of Pablo Picasso is divided into thirty-nine chapters plus an epilogue. This division seems natural enough once one has finished reading the book, for Picasso’s life during the period this volume covers had at least thirty-nine chapters. From the end of World War I to the early 1930s, he was constantly changing apartments, traveling to the South of France, making trips to Italy and to his native Spain—and all the while producing a prodigious amount of work. His projects included not only painting and sculpture, but also stage scenery for ballets (like the famous set for Parade) and his first ceramic works. This artistic deluge is described in meticulous detail by Richardson, who brings to his study an intimate knowledge of both Picasso in particular and his whole artistic milieu.
What a parade of personalities pass by in these pages! There is a dinner attended by Picasso, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust. We read about Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein. Max Jacob and Jean Cocteau appear (and reappear), as do Igor Stravinsky, Jean Arp, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, the Scott Fitzgeralds, Georges Braque, Serge Diaghilev, with cameos by, among others, the American chanteuse Josephine Baker. It is a mark of Richardson’s sophistication that he manages to portray this period without ever reaching for clichés about the Roaring Twenties or the Lost Generation.
Richardson shows in detail how Picasso’s life intersected with, and reacted against, the surrealists (led by André Breton), and how it was challenged by his main rival, Henri Matisse. Richardson is also quite good on Picasso’s connection with the Cubist movement. The painter’s curiosity and his skills as a draftsman permitted him to include in his own work much of what had come before him; his genius allowed him to transform it. In Naples, just after World War I, he saw monumental Hellenistic and Roman sculptures in the national museum. A few years later he “reread” these sources in giant neoclassical paintings such as Large Bather (1921) and The Pipes of Pan (1923). Despite his frequent moves and busy social life, Picasso was a prodigiously disciplined worker till the end of his life. He was always sketching, always thinking about new projects, new exhibitions. Everything else—and everyone else—was ancillary to his art.
Significant for both his personal and artistic growth was his marriage in 1918 to the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova. Olga was a model of respectability (she refused to share his bed until they were properly married). She managed to rein in some of her husband’s most unconventional inclinations, and acted as a gatekeeper for their home. As Picasso began to achieve financial success, Olga turned him into a respectable member of Parisian society: the man we see photographed in the 1920s no longer looks like a bohemian-he wears a suit, a fedora, and spats. He was driven about by a liveried chauffeur in an elegant Hispano-Suiza and became the owner of an expensive estate outside Paris. Olga also gave Picasso a son, Paulo, on whom he doted.
It would be an exaggeration to say that everything Picasso created was autobiographical, but his paintings do often reflect his passions and personal history. Richardson is very good at showing how Picasso’s paintings of women in this period relate to his love for Olga: she is present not only in his chaste portraits of her but also in the works where he gives free play to his erotic imagination. When, toward the end of the period Richardson covers in this volume, Picasso took a mistress, his work began to reflect a terrifying reaction against his wife.
Picasso’s family in Spain had a deeply Catholic background. Several of its members were prominent clergymen, and Picasso’s father was a maker of religious art. Pablo was an anticlerical agnostic, but he was also very superstitious, and not so militant as to shun all religious events. After their civil marriage was official, he and Olga had a second wedding in a Russian Orthodox Church. Their son Paulo was baptized and made his first Communion.
Picasso was also Spanish enough to be haunted by the image of the crucifixion. He once made a special trip to Colmar to view the famous Isenheim altarpiece, with its famous crucifixion painted by Matthias Grünewald. Picasso would turn his impressions of that masterpiece into his own crucifixion scene, painted in 1930 after a series of preliminary sketches. Many critical studies have tried to unlock the other sources Picasso drew on for this enigmatic work. If one can credit Richardson’s interpretation of the painting—and I can think of no reason not to—Picasso’s representation of the crucifixion is far from orthodox. Richardson concludes this volume with an account of the retrospective of Picasso’s work held in Paris when the artist was fifty years old. His marriage to Olga was soon to unravel, the Spanish Civil War was looming, and totalitarian regimes in Italy and Germany were on the horizon. Ten years later Picasso’s life, and Picasso’s Paris, would be very different. The world so beautifully described in this book was to be radically altered by occupation and another war. This reader hopes that Richardson, now in his early eighties, will have the stamina to tell us the next part of this story.