Richardson’s Rex

Richard Wollheim

Written in a strong, clear, slightly salty style, carrying effortlessly a great deal of information, much of it new, and illustrated so profusely that at every turn the narrative seems to play itself out before our eyes, the first volume of John Richardson’s long-awaited Life of Picasso will leave its readers waiting impatiently for Volume Two. Long may it go on. Meanwhile it is a special kind of pleasure to be able to praise the book of an old and close friend, and be confident that the praise has nothing to do with the friendship.

Volume One has an extraordinary story to tell. We might have expected to find it as the plot, of perhaps as a sub-plot, in one of the great compendious novels of the 19th century. It is the story of a young man with burning eyes, born in a country outside the orbit of advanced art, the son of a mediocre painter, brought up in a succession of provincial cities, acquiring some reputation as a prodigy, fiercely attached to the artistic traditions of his own country, needy for the company of men and the sexual favours of women, capable of Herculean work, prey to envy, guilt and fantasies of omnipotence – and suddenly this young man, not quite nineteen, paints a portait of himself, inscribes it three times ‘I, the king’ and goes off to another country, to the great metropolis of art, where he can’t speak the language, and sets himself to cultivate the genius he is now convinced that he has and thereby to win fame and glory.

If this were Flaubert, or Dickens, or Dostoevsky, or Proust, we know how the story would end: we can reconstruct the special form of ignominy that each would lay up for this hubristic young provincial. But this is real life, and in Richardson’s biography, a few setbacks apart, things turn out otherwise and the greatness its hero achieves, though not exactly by the time this first volume comes to an end, goes beyond his wildest dreams. In the telling of the story, Richardson, drawing on his recollections of the artist, is able to suggest, deftly, some of the pain this excess of victory caused Picasso and to conjure up the haze of sentiment in which he liked to drape the early, noisy, penniless days in Montmartre. But, more to the point, the book provides us with a mass of material out of which we can, in accordance with our own views of art and of human nature, provide answers to such questions as: when was Picasso first confident of his genius? When did his work first justify such confidence? And, supremely: how did he ever succeed in reconciling, even if only intermittently, those fierce, turbulent destructive sides of his inner life so as to become and remain the great artist that, as he recognised, he had it in him to be? If I had to limit myself to one virtue of this book, I would say that it permits us to answer this last question without ever attempting to do so itself.

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