The artist, cubed

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

IN the fall of 1917, Pablo Picasso attended a bullfight with Ernest Ansermet and unwittingly gave the Swiss conductor a tutorial on one of the central issues in modern art: How do you represent a thing? Picasso had brought a sketchbook to the corrida and proceeded to fill it with drawing after drawing of the bull as it was being jabbed by picadors. “[H]e skipped back and forth between cubist and more traditional methods of representation,” John Richardson writes in the latest installment of his four-volume biography. Ansermet, baffled and fascinated, recalled Picasso explaining to him, as an art teacher might to a student, “But can’t you see? It’s the same thing! It’s the same bull seen in a different way.”

Between 1880 and 1970, the world of modern art, which Picasso created and then exploded through his ceaseless innovation, went through a series of revolutions over just this question -- how best to see -- until virtually all that remained were garage-door-sized blocks of color in Ad Reinhardt’s paintings. Picasso thrust his work to the center of nearly all these battles, borrowing from one camp, stealing from another, all the while keeping close and greedy watch over his own artistic flame. He did this with a virile physical restlessness. Almost no medium was beyond his reach -- sculpture, painting, ceramics, set design -- and he earned the envy of his contemporaries for this virtuosity.

To read Richardson’s third volume of “A Life of Picasso,” then, is to understand why a man with such abilities would find himself at the swirling center of malice and flattery, money and attention -- in other words, fame. The book opens in February 1917, in Rome, where Picasso is holed up in a studio working on sets and costumes for Sergei Diaghilev’s carnivalesque dance performance, “Parade.” The ballet’s scenarist, campy young poet Jean Cocteau, was so dutiful in paying Picasso court that he even took a female lover. Picasso dedicated his energies to winning over Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova. “I heard Picasso in the passage knocking at her door,” Ansermet recalled of one night at his hotel, “and Olga on the other side of it saying, ‘No, no, Monsieur Picasso, I’m not going to let you in.’ ”


It is with deep foreboding that the reader follows Picasso into his bourgeois marriage. Olga knew what she was getting, even if the knowledge would eventually eat away at her (a transformation Picasso would cruelly capture in paint). Within a few years, Picasso sold “Demoiselles d’Avignon” at far below market price to buy a studio in their Paris building for greater privacy -- and his philandering took off. Richardson steers clear of scolding or overtly analyzing Picasso’s sexual needs (aside from using the word “addiction”), choosing instead to follow the incredible string of works that grew out of the artist’s emotional (and physical) entanglements.

The evidence is manifest on canvas after canvas. Falling in love with Olga, Picasso produced some exquisite portraits in numerous styles, such as the deeply shadowed “Portrait of Olga, 1918,” reproduced here in a generous color insert. Falling out of love with her inspired just as many if not more works, viciously fractured and frightfully evocative, with her body parts rearranged and festering, such as “Bust of a Woman With a Self Portrait” -- not to mention the masterpiece “Large Nude in a Red Armchair, (Olga),” which pits Olga’s demons against his own, as Richardson coolly puts it.

The closest Richardson comes to giving the trajectory of their relationship any gloss is in his telling of Picasso’s affair with Marie-Therese Walter, which began in 1927. Picasso, then 45, met the 17-year-old on a promenade and reportedly said, “You have an interesting face. I would like to do a portrait of you,” adding, “I am Picasso.” When she expressed bafflement, he took her to a bookstore to show her pictures of his work. Richardson skillfully sweeps up the mess of several inelegant forays into art history and rights their story, showing how the game of hiding his mistress within his work sparked yet more innovation: “[I]n certain cubist paintings, he transforms Marie-Therese into a stringed instrument”; in one such, “[a] bulbous doorknob . . . stands for him.”

At moments like these, one senses how perfectly matched Richardson is to his subject. Formerly head of Christie’s U.S. operations, he has the authority of someone who both valued and studied Picasso’s work. And as a friend from the artist’s later years, he has the tactile receptivity of someone personally acquainted with his subject and the omnivorous anecdote-hunting curiosity of a first-rate gossip who knows when to parse hearsay for truth. Nearly 2,000 pages into the project (Volume I, subtitled “The Prodigy, 1881-1906,” came out in 1991; Volume II, “The Cubist Rebel, 1907-1916,” in 1996; Knopf has reissued both in paperback to accompany the new volume), the Book purrs onward, without showing any signs of fatigue. Richardson’s prose still sparkles, light and transparent, occasionally naughtily arch when he wants to nudge the reader toward a (sometimes unflattering) observation about one of the painters, poets and dealers circling his subject.

It’s amazing that in a biography of the world’s most important modern painter, the supporting cast steals the show, but they do. Picasso’s early benefactors Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, Andre Breton (whom Richardson portrays as determined to crush Cocteau), Picasso’s great rival, Matisse -- they swirl and swirl. No one was capable of playing happily with any of the others, and this volume deliciously tots up the score. Picasso “would have to sneak off” to see poet Max Jacob “on the sly,” since he knew Olga disapproved of Jacob’s crush on Picasso. Robert Desnos and other Surrealists plagued Cocteau’s mother with harassing phone calls. Erik Satie, whose score for Cocteau’s “Parade” was savaged, reciprocated in kind to the critic who strung him up, which earned him a slander suit. It’s astounding too that to a group who survived the corona of World War I such squabbles mattered, but they did -- while Picasso watched like some bird of prey. Indeed, although this book spans years of intense privation and wartime suffering, Picasso seems to have undergone very little of it. Even after the stock-market crash of 1929, he sat on a comfortable fortune, thanks to his banker’s astute management and art dealer Paul Rosenberg’s successive hikes in his prices in the decade after the war.

The artist who emerges from this volume remains -- even when flaunting his wealth with ridiculous cars and stacks of cash -- above the fray. As Olga succumbed to various health crises, he got fatter and fatter. He would later remark to Richardson, “Women’s illnesses are women’s fault.” In the early ‘30s, while the Surrealists moved into politics, Picasso moved into sculpting, working even with “bits of driftwood and metal, toy boats, palm fronds, rope, rags, roots, and seaweed” and whatever else he found on the beach near his summer house at Juan-les-Pins. He was at play in the world, and sometimes other people’s demons got swept up into the game. This aloofness was a luxury his talent and temperament afforded him, a disposition that would change -- as anyone who has ever laid eyes on “Guernica” can see -- with the war to come.