A LIFE OF PICASSO: THE TRIUMPHANT YEARS, 1917-1932 by John Richardson (Knopf), 499 pages, $50 cloth. Rating: NNNN
A Life of Picasso is biography as it should be – thorough, enlightening and compulsively readable.
Mining letters, books, monographs and his own personal experiences with the artist, author John Richardson gives us vivid detail on Picasso’s opinions (abstract art, for example, is just decoration), his conversations with the likes of Diaghilev, Apollinaire, Cocteau, Stein and Toklas or the creation of some of the century’s most awesome art works.
This third volume about the artist begins as Picasso falls in love with Olga Khokhlova, a dancer he meets while creating stage designs for the Ballets Russes. Eventually he marries her, though that doesn’t stop him from getting a bit on the side, in particular from Marie-Thérèse, who becomes his mistress and muse in 1929, when she was barely 18 and he over 45 and who remains with him through the end of this volume.
It’s a total page-turner. The portrait we get here is of a complicated artist consumed by ego, drive – he seems to have produced multiple works on a daily basis – and the pleasure he took in shocking the establishment.
At the same time, he wasn’t a hard-ass Bohemian by any stretch. Khokhlova loved the bourgeois life – chalets, chauffeurs, summers in the Riviera – and Picasso had no trouble adapting.
He was a misogynist, yes, but actually cruel to women only in the work he created. Generous to friends, hugely competitive, especially with Henri Matisse, he was completely convinced of his own artistic importance.
Who can blame him?
The book is full of visual testimony to Picasso’s power – plates, photos of works never seen and of the stellar cast of characters – making the $50 freight perfectly reasonable.
At the same time, it’s strangely apolitical. Richardson evokes the undertones of anti-Semitism in high society but contends that Picasso stayed above politics until forced into the fray by Franco.
The story’s not over. Fortunately, volume four is in the works.
Richardson appears at Innis Town Hall on Tuesday (February 26).