Balanced look at Picasso's early life lacks real understanding of art history


A LIFE OF PICASSO, VOLUME 1. John Richardson. Random House. 521 pages. $39.95. Why "A Life" of Picasso, as opposed to "The Life" or just "Picasso"? The reason becomes evident as one keeps reading -- much of the source material here for understanding the life of the most important artist of the 20th century is his art itself. Picasso (1881-1973) was one of the most prolific artists ever, drawing and painting (later also sculpting and printmaking) almost incessantly from before the age of 10, and those works chronicled his family, friends, neighbors, influences and surroundings, and it is a very tempting way to examine him.

This is the first of a four-volume set on the artist by John Richardson, a writer on art who was a neighbor and friend of the artist for the last 20 years of Picasso's life. As with many of the people around Picasso, Mr. Richardson kept a diary, later backing up his observations with research into the artist's life and art. This book covers the years 1881 to 1906, leaving off just as he was about to paint one of his most famous works, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," and begin his great cubist phase.

Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga, Spain, the grandson of a man who wished he had been a painter and the son of another who painted but poorly. Jose Ruiz Blasco -- Pablo took his mother's last name instead of his father's "Ruiz" -- earned the small amount of money he did as an art instructor, failing most of his life to sell any of the paintings of pigeons he created in great number.

For Picasso, his father's great value was to encourage his artistry as well as to provide an example of what the son did not want to become by settling for second-rate. As soon as possible, the precocious Picasso left his parent's household in Barcelona for Madrid (at age 15) to study and, four years later, he went to Paris. He absorbed ideas quickly and thoroughly in Spain and Paris, showing a restlessness and incipient greatness that attracted many men and women to him even as a teen-ager. He exhausted ideas in a few years that would last lesser talents their whole lives, as his Blue, Rose and Negro periods would demonstrate between 1901 and 1906 in Paris.

Mr. Richardson clearly didn't have the insider view of the artist of someone like Francoise Gilot, Picasso's mistress and wife from 1944 to 1953, nor her ability to recall the artist's lengthy discussions on art, published in her 1964 "Life With Picasso." He doesn't have, either, a feminist ax to grind, as Arianna S. Huffington did in her "Picasso, Creator and Destroyer," published a few years ago, nor a Marxist complaint against the artist, as John Berger did in his 1965 study "The Success and Failure of Picasso." Mr. Richardson also is not the art history scholar that other biographers of Picasso, such as Timothy Hilton, have been.

Mr. Richardson is not a hero worshiper. "In art Picasso was a hero, less so in life," he writes. "An obsessive concern with self-preservation was one of his most consistent characteristics." Richardson gives the impression of having read all of the other writers on the artist, finally arriving at a balanced view that mixes the good with the bad, neither diminishing nor overstating the former while denying or overemphasizing the latter.

"A Life of Picasso" squeezes into the massive library of Picasso literature through its concentration on the artist's life as reflected in his art. As a means of approaching such a towering figure as Picasso, it is an acceptable technique, but one rife with potential traps that the author occasionally falls into.

One of those traps is psychoanalyzing works of art to better understand the artist. "Again at the end of his life," he writes, "when the sexual act and creative act become metaphors for each other, the work gapes with vaginas, which the artist's loaded brush -- his surrogate penis -- would remorselessly probe." Elsewhere, Mr. Richardson makes a jump from Picasso's portraits around him to how the artist saw the world: "If Picasso saw women as harlot-Madonnas, he saw men as El Greco saints."

Perhaps so, but that omits the fact that much turn-of-the-century figurative art was devoted to women as sick or victim (of the modern age); this was an artistic conceit, identifiable in such diverse painters as Aubrey Beardsley, Pierre Bonnard, Edvard Munch and Toulouse-Lautrec. There is a need to understand where the art is coming from.

One approaches the main weakness in Mr. Richardson's discussion, that he is not a true art scholar, often substituting sources (who the picture is of and some information about that person) for analysis, providing biographical rather than appreciative comments on art.

Where does Picasso's famed Blue Period of 1901-'04 come from, for instance? Mr. Richardson doesn't vote yea or nay on these heavily stylized images of the poor, only examining them as an outgrowth of Picasso's personality.

The other problem with composing a life of Picasso based on what he drew or painted is that the narrative proceeds from person to person in the artist's life rather than from a larger idea into which these various people fit. In this sense, the story is almost picaresque, with every other page introducing us to the next person who glommed onto Picasso, many of whom are clearly inconsequential but for the fact that the artist did their portrait.

It is difficult to know what new information or insights Mr. Richardson can add to the next volumes. Cubism and the story of Picasso's crazy-quilt family (all victims in some way of a man who was at times just difficult and, at other times horrid) are well-known. The artist's youth and pre-Paris life is less understood, if only in comparison to the heavily documented time that came after and also because Picasso did seek to rewrite his own past to fit into "the legend" of his genius. This may well be the best of the four books to read.

Mr. Grant is a writer living in Amherst, Mass.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad