Portrait photograph of Pablo Picasso, 1908. Photo: RMN-Grand Palais

The strong should go ahead and take what they want.
—Picasso to Leo Stein, 1906.

With the publication of the first volume of John Richardson’s new biography of Picasso, we now have the most complete account of the artist’s early years we are likely to be given for the foreseeable future.[1] The first thing to be said about this book is that it is at once a triumph of the biographer’s art and one of the most illuminating studies yet written about a major figure of the modern movement. It is certainly one of the most absorbing books about an artist of any period that I have read—one of the most troubling, too —and the completed work is likely to stand as a landmark in the historiography of modern art. With three more volumes still to come, the most momentous artistic achievements of Picasso’s long and tumultuous career remain, of course, to be charted by Mr. Richardson. But the essential lineaments of the artist’s character, the shaping of the outlook on art and life that governed his many subsequent endeavors, and what in general may be called the nature of the moral universe inhabited by Picasso from an early age—these are already clearly in focus in this first volume, which closes in 1906.

Picasso is twenty-five and enjoying his first taste of fame at the end of Volume I. He is about to embark on the painting that Mr. Richardson describes, without hyperbole, as “the first unequivocally twentieth-century masterpiece, a principal detonator of the modern movement, the corner-stone of twentieth-century art”—Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Yet this first volume is by no means all prologue. Its cast of characters is large and crucial to our understanding of Picasso’s development, its historical mise en scène teeming with the ideas, ambitions, and conflicts that set the course of art and culture for decades to come (and that, in many respects, set it still). At the center of the drama so vividly rendered in these pages is the transformation of the young aspiring artist—le petit Goya from provincial Malaga —into le grand Picasso, “this Nietzschean Dionysos,” as Mr. Richardson calls him, “a new champion ready to take on all comers.”

About this transformation, which changed the face of art so decisively in this century, Mr. Richardson has many new things to tell us, and much that we already know—or think we know—is somewhat altered by the new context in which he places it. About his own life Picasso was a tireless mythmaker, and he made a point of surrounding himself with writers who could be relied upon to support the fictions he so much preferred to the reality of his early struggles. By and large, it is these fictions that have dominated previous biographies of the artist, and not the least of Mr. Richardson’s achievements in this book is his refusal to go along with them. He takes nothing for granted, and he is expert at establishing precisely the kind of distinctions that Picasso lavished much effort on concealing.

Take, for example, what Mr. Richardson describes as “Picasso’s retrospective view of himself as a prodigy who was endowed from earliest days with the mastery of a Raphael.” Studying the drawings that Picasso was obliged to complete in order to gain entrance to the art academy called La Llotja in Barcelona in 1895, Mr. Richardson offers the following analysis:

The famous legend launched by his friend and biographer Roland Penrose and repeated by virtually every other authority—that this “test, for which one month was prescribed, was completed by [Picasso] in exactly one day”—does not stand up to investigation. Although the standard Llotja test involved three drawing categories, there was no question of its taking a month. . . . Any halfway gifted student could have completed these drawings in a day, but two days were allotted for the task.... Penrose maintains that members of the jury “were at once convinced that they were faced, for the first and perhaps the last time, with a prodigy,” but there is no evidence of any such conviction; nor do these run-of-the-mill drawings proclaim the prodigy.

This leads Mr. Richardson to an even more important point. By perpetuating the myth of the prodigy, he writes, Penrose actually “belittles the young artist’s unremitting efforts to perfect his technique.”

We need only compare these curiously tentative “test” drawings [Mr. Richardson writes] with one done the following year to see that Picasso’s development depended at least as much on the infinite pains he took as on the infinite gifts with which he was born.

He then goes on to underscore another important aspect of this episode that has been obscured with the passage of time:

Pablo actually respected the director of the school—an indifferent portraitist called Antoni Caba—respected him for insisting that students draw and draw from the model, a discipline that Picasso advocated to his dying day. Picasso may have despised academicism; he did not despise academic teaching.

This example will have to stand for the many other revisions that Mr. Richardson has brought to the story of Picasso’s early artistic development. He is similarly illuminating about the intellectual influences, first in Barcelona and then in Paris, that shaped Picasso’s view of art and culture and society, not to mention life itself. In his account of the intellectual bohemia that Picasso, in his teens and still living at home with his parents, frequented in Barcelona in the 1890s—a world that offered a heady amalgam of political anarchism, Catalan nationalism, Nineties aestheticism, and Nietzschean immoralism—Mr. Richardson proves to be an accomplished cultural historian. We seldom think of Picasso as a typical product of the Nineties, yet in some respects he was. Certainly the Blue Period paintings owe much to Nineties aestheticism, and the radical ethos of the period played a definitive role in a good deal that followed. What Mr. Richardson describes as “the focal point of [Picasso’s] life” in Barcelona, the cafe called Els Quatre Gats, was, as he writes, “a rallying place for supporters of the Catalan Renaixenca, whether they were modernistes, anarquistas, or decadentes, whether interested in symbolism, Kropotkin, or Oscar Wilde.” It was in this milieu that the young artist repudiated his bourgeois origins for a more or less permanent bohemianism, and renounced the feeble academicism associated with his father—a failed artist and art teacher—for the modernism that would later bring him his greatest glory. Mr. Richardson also suggests that it may have been at this time, as the result of the emotions aroused by the Spanish-American War, that Picasso began to nurture the hostile political attitudes toward the United States so familiar to us from the Cold War period.

About the artist’s much written-about first attempts to establish himself in Paris at the turn of the century, Mr. Richardson also gives us the best account that we have. As we would expect from so knowledgeable a writer, every shift in style and subject matter in Picasso’s art is traced with close attention, and so are the artist’s relations with the first Parisian dealers he had any contact with. Yet of even greater importance, perhaps, is Mr. Richardson’s detailed account of the ideas that exerted a decisive influence on his art —ideas that, in a good many cases, outlived the early styles that gave them their first expression.

It was in this respect that the writers to whom Picasso responded so shrewdly came to play a major role in his thought. Writers had already served this purpose for Picasso in Barcelona and Madrid, but in Paris they were to prove of even greater importance to him. The first “to guide his steps through the maze of French culture,” as Mr. Richardson writes, was the poet Max Jacob, who also taught him the language he could not yet speak with any fluency or ease. “If Picasso eventually learned to speak French that was idiomatic and witty, and on occasion eloquent (despite a heavy Spanish accent), it was almost entirely due to the poet’s tuition,” Mr. Richardson writes, and then adds:

Jacob’s place in Picasso’s life would be usurped but never left unfilled. For the next sixty years or so the artist would always have his own poet laureate—preferably someone with the advantage of a painterly as well as poetic sensibility, the better to crossfertilize his imagination. Max Jacob was the first in a line that would later include Apollinaire, Cocteau, Breton and Eluard (some might add Gertrude Stein), each of whom influenced Picasso’s life as well as his work. Jacob opened up Picasso’s mind to the beauty of the French language by putting him through an intensive course in French literature. His gifts as a performer brought new life to poets that Picasso had known only in translation: Racine, Corneille, Baudelaire, above all Verlaine. Jacob’s dislikes should also be taken into consideration. He dismissed Mallarmé as a stilted obscurantist . . . and he accused Rimbaud of standing for disorder, which he abhorred. (Jacob’s successor, Apollinaire, would be the one to convert Picasso to the view that “there are no other poets. Rimbaud is the only one.”)

Apollinaire’s taste and influence was indeed a good deal more radical.

He opened up [Picasso’s] imagination to a vast new range of intellectual stimuli: to new concepts of black humor, to the pagan past and the wilder shores of sex. Apollinaire, who was already obsessed by the works of the Marquis de Sade—“the freest spirit that has ever existed,” he wrote—had no difficulty converting Picasso to the cult of the Divine Marquis, not just his pornography but his philosophy, his definition of art as “the perpetual immoral subversion of the existing order.”

All of which was to have an impact on the conception of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—and much else—as were the work and example of Alfred Jarry.

The role of Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo was rather different, though not unrelated. The Steins came into Picasso’s life as collectors of his work, but Gertrude was to become something more—a friend and muse of a sort. “Picasso,” Mr. Richardson writes, “felt some kind of visceral reverence for Gertrude,” and his famous portrait of her was, among much else, a monument to his special feeling for her. It was also through the Steins that Picasso met Matisse, the only artist he ever acknowledged as an equal among his rivals in the Paris avant-garde, and it was they, too, who incited Picasso’s fierce sense of competition with Matisse, who, until the creation of Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon, remained the recognized leader of the avant-garde.

One of the critical high points of this book is, in fact, Mr. Richardson’s account of the extent to which Matisse’s painting called Le Bonheur de Vivre (1905-6), in the Barnes Foundation, had, as he says, “fired Picasso, once and for all, to go one better” by creating Les Desmoiselles, Matisse’s Le Bonheur de Vivre was far more advanced than anything Picasso had yet attempted, and as Mr. Richardson writes, “he could no longer allow Matisse’s supremacy to go unchallenged."

But in everything that Mr. Richardson writes about the kind of interest Picasso took in other artists, we are treated to criticism of a high order. The pages devoted to the discovery of Gauguin and Ingres, and to the use Picasso made of them, are particularly fine. No work of art is reduced to a biographical datum, however, though many are properly used to illuminate the biographical narrative.

As to the man whose early fife is retraced so brilliantly in this book, it must be said that he comes through, more often than not, as an even more appalling character than the one we thought we knew—a genius no doubt, but an appalling one, all the same. From his days as an adolescent freeloader and whore-master to his career as, in Mr. Richardson’s words, a “lifelong misogynist”; from the spoiled youth who was so conspicuously lacking in what Mr. Richardson calls “moral courage” to the grown man who delighted in humiliating those who had served him most faithfully—in virtually every phase of his extraordinary youth and early manhood, Picasso showed himself to be the very model of the Nietzschean immoralist. That he was a great artist—great even in this early period of his development—there can be no question. That he was a terrible man, there can also, I believe, be no question. And there is surely worse to come in the remaining volumes of this biography. It is Mr. Richardson’s achievement in this book to have given lis the most intelligent and unblinking account of both the monster and the genius that we have.

  1. A Life of Picasso. Volume I: 1881-1906, by John Richardson, with the collaboration of Marilyn McCully; Random House, 560 pages, $39.95. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 6, on page 3
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