Matthew Price, writer and book critic
Pablo Picasso: The Master and His Muses
In his latest, biographer John Richardson captures a post-Cubist Picasso making new conquests—in life as in art.
By Matthew Price. Vogue, November 2007

A Life of Picasso, by John RichardsonWith A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 (Knopf), the third volume of his dazzling, epic, decades-in-the-making biography, John Richardson drops us in on the artist’s life at a crucial moment, as the painter, his cubist years behind him, seeks out new inspiration—and new circles—in Rome, London, and the south of France.

As Richardson deftly shows, if Picasso was relentless in his artistic quest, he was equally relentless in his pursuit of women. With his earthy Andalucian vitality, this small, assertive Spaniard exerted a powerful hold on his lovers, who in turn stoked his imagination and inspired several of his greatest paintings. Richardson argues it was a cruel dynamic: Picasso may have needed women in his life, but he ultimately sacrificed them for his art. Over the years, the artist’s sundry mistresses have fueled an entire genre of psychosexual books and movies. Here Richardson, without losing sight of the work, offers rich, sympathetic portraits of Picasso’s first wife, Olga Khokhlova, and one of the artist’s greatest loves, Marie-Thérèse Walter.

We pick up in 1917 with the 35-year-old artist, his fame growing ever wider, living in Rome. Weary of Paris, which suffered as the First World War raged, Picasso had escaped to the Eternal City with Jean Cocteau to design sets for Serge Diaghilev, the colorful impresario of the Ballet Russes. Holed up in one of the renowned Patrizi studios, Picasso produced the cubist-inspired costumes and backdrops for the avant-garde spectacle Parade. He was also nursing a broken heart—two of his French mistresses had spurned offers of marriage—and under pressure from his family to produce an heir.

He quickly fell for Olga, a lissome Russian dancer ten years his junior. Fending off his sexual advances—”No, no, Monsieur Picasso, I won’t let you in,” she was heard saying one night as he banged on the door of her hotel room—the exceedingly demure Olga nonetheless accepted his proposal. They were married the following year in Paris amid murmurs of disapproval from Picasso’s artist friends, who scorned Olga’s bourgeois pretensions. Having made a good match, Olga expected to live “le highlife,” and the besotted Picasso set her up with a cook, hired a chauffeur, and kept her dressed in the latest Chanel.

Olga took to the role of Madame Picasso with aplomb, and, initially, Picasso was proud to put her on display in his work, rendering her in brooding, pensive studies that fused cubist effects with the delicacy of French masters like Ingres. Yet the restless artist could not find happiness with Olga. Even if he liked expensive cars, Picasso still fancied himself a bohemian at heart, and was soon disparaging his wife behind her back. “You see, Olga likes tea, caviar and pastries, and so on,” he told a friend. “Me, I like sausage and beans.”

After the birth of their son Paulo in 1921, a disenchanted Picasso began frequenting brothels again; ironically, there was also a dalliance with Coco Chanel. (“He was the only one in that milieu that really turned me on, but he was not free,” she confessed years later). But, as Richardson carefully reveals, in Picasso’s drift away from Olga lay the seeds of an extraordinary if disturbing creative burst that would culminate in the late twenties and early thirties. Though he distanced himself from André Breton, the Surrealist ringleader, Picasso started to rearrange the human body on canvas, feverishly mixing breasts, limbs, and faces in charged, distorted combinations that seemed to gesture toward Surrealism.

A decisive moment came in 1927, when Picasso, now 45, was strolling the streets of Paris one evening and met Marie-Thérèse, a voluptuous seventeen-year-old with striking blue eyes. “I feel we are going to do great things together,” he told her. Though he went to great lengths to conceal the affair, even from close friends, Picasso coyly showed her off in his art, playfully transforming her into guitars, jugs, and fruit dishes. In other works, he portrayed her as a mass of sticks, beach balls—she loved to cavort by the seaside—and boomerangs. Examining countless paintings and sculpture, Richardson pinpoints how Picasso’s provocative new muse unleashed a powerful sexual strain in his work.

Beset by ill health, Olga refused to relinquish her husband. She paid for it dearly, however. As Richardson writes: “To fight back at Olga, he used his paintbrush, never brute force.” The result was a series of pitiless masterpieces that depict Olga as a grotesque, sinister spirit. Richardson suggests that these works are all the more powerful for their cruelty, and none more so than the ironically titled Repose (1932), which viciously parodies Olga in a dancer’s position, in the throws of a hysterical performance. It was an exorcism through art that, however troubling, pointed Picasso in new directions and spurred him on to greater feats.

Richardson, who knew Picasso (1881-1973) in the last two decades of his life, is an authoritative critic and fluent writer. If he presumes a certain familiarity with the artist¹s early years, he more than makes up for it with his exacting considerations of Picasso’s personal magnetism, his titanic sense of self, and protean inventiveness. The book closes with Picasso indeed triumphant, not only as a painter but as a sculptor of the first order, poised to grapple with the political turmoil of his time in masterworks like Guernica (1937), which would be inspired by the Spanish Civil War. If his love affairs drove his art, Richardson suggests his greatest inspiration always remained himself. After all, Picasso’s sense of his own powers was staggering: “God is really an artist,” he once mused, “like me…. I am God, I am God, I am God…”

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