No writer could have invented Pablo Picasso, Laura Freeman said in The times. “Life is better than fiction.” And it is a life that has a perfect chronicler in the art historian John Richardson.
The first three volumes of Richardson’s “monumental biography” covered Picasso’s life up to his 50th year. Richardson was not even in his fourth year when he died in 2019 at the age of 95. And so this last part breaks off in 1943 Picasso at the age of 61 – and destined to “live, paint and love another 30 years”. Although it was written under difficult circumstances – Richardson’s eyesight was failing – there is not the slightest “decline” in quality. This volume is as “clever, amusing, extravagant” as ever.
“The years considered here are among the most turbulent in Picasso’s long and checkered life,” said Waldemar Januszczak in The Sunday Times. As always, his love life was complex, his dealings with women “unforgivably callous”. He broke out of his “ugly marriage” to Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova and struck up contact with surrealist photographer Dora Maar – while regularly visiting an older flame, “sensual” model Marie-Thérèse Walter.
This volume also sees the emergence of “Picasso, the Political Artist”. The Spanish Civil War prompted him to get involved in politics: Gernika, his 1937 masterpiece, was a response to the Nazis’ “brutal annihilation” of the Basque city. After the outbreak of war, Picasso made the “extraordinary decision” to remain in Paris, despite being an outspoken anti-fascist. It’s just a pity that this project suddenly ended in 1943. This biography is a ‘masterpiece’, albeit an ‘incomplete’ one.
Written in a style that is “simultaneously authoritative and indiscreet,” it makes for “compelling reading,” said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. And yet it feels strikingly “out of step” in many ways because the cultural landscape has changed so much since the previous parts came out.
Richardson “seems happy to echo the misogyny of others”: Thus Olga (he calls women by their first names) is a “termagante” and a “madwoman,” while Marie-Thérèse is “immature” and “ordinary” — “except in Bed”. And Richardson’s strictly biographical approach to the artist Picasso – with his lovers who inspired his various “periods” – is one that younger scholars have largely “turned away” from.
As flawed as it may be, this book is still “amazing,” Sebastian Smee said in The Washington Post. With his earlier volumes, Richardson “set the standard for modern artist biographies.” This is a “worthy” opt-out.
Jonathan Cape 368 pp. £35; The bookstore of the week £27.99 (including postage)
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https://www.theweek.co.uk/arts-life/culture/books/956299/a-life-of-picasso-vol-iv-a-flawed-but-astounding-book A Life of Picasso: Vol. IV Review