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.

Picasso seems to have been at little pains to disguise the jealousy, hostility and scorn he felt for his father, Don José. He is reported as saying to Bernareggi, his fellow student at the Madrid Academy in the winter of 1897-98, ‘In art one must kill the father,’ but the very frankness with which he made this confession may incline us to wonder quite how deep the impulse went. It was there, but how implacable was it? I feel that we would know more about Picasso’s fabled relations with his father if only we knew a bit more about the confidence he derived from his relations with his mother, seemingly so untroubled and so undemanding. In an appendix on sources, Richardson informs us that the mother’s letters to her son still remain classified in the archive of Musée Picasso: this means that the biography had to be written in ignorance of this correspondence, which, though most probably trivial in content, could be indicative in tone.

What we can say is that, however deep the son’s hostility to the father did or didn’t run, his attempts at reparation certainly went deep. It is Richardson who, in recent years, has done most to retrieve and consolidate the idea of Picasso as the self-conscious heir to the Spanish tradition, submitting himself to the influence of archaic Iberian art, Catalan Romanesque, El Greco, Goya, and it is in this identification of himself as a Spaniard, as a Spanish man – above all, as a Spanish artist – that he tried hardest to restore and repay his father, even if, in doing so, he once again outstripped him. They hero of Spanish art for Picasso was, we must believe, El Greco, but for Don José, the timid pedagogue, El Greco was a madman, a freak. Most writers on Picasso have spent a little while on his ‘Spanishness’, but before this biography the topic was given a very superficial treatment: ‘superficial’ because of the failure to appreciate how deeply embedded Picasso’s conception of picture-making was in the Spanish tradition, and because of the failure to realise how implicated these pictorial concerns were in his ongoing dialogue with his father.

The most conspicuous way in which this Spanishness manifested itself in Picasso’s art in the years covered by the present volume is the preponderance of the modelled figure, either free-standing or as part of a group, and the corresponding indifference to the ground, which is treated as a kind of nothingness. Interestingly enough, as the sentimentality, the bitter-sweetness, of the blue and the pink paintings is gradually burnt away, the immediate consequence, visible in the work of 1906, is that the modelling becomes even weightier. Richardson speculates that this move towards a greater heaviness goes along with a shift in Picasso’s attitude towards the female body and that this shift has something to do with the allure that Gertrude Stein’s presence exercised over him in the many sittings in which he struggled with her portrait. Whatever may be the inner momentum of Picasso’s concern with the modelled figure, at the expense of the ground, it effectively distanced him from much of the most advanced work going on in his adopted country. The interest in the figure allowed him to admire a few great French artists of the preceding century – Ingres, Manet, Gauguin – even if it kept him from a full understanding of their work. But it is also this special conception of picture-making that sustained one amazing blind-spot in Picasso’s sensibility at this period, which is in turn reflected in one intriguing lacuna in this volume of the biography. We must wait for Volume Two to read just what occurred in late 1907, in one single room in the Salon d’Automne, a room which has been movingly described for us by Rilke in a sequence of letters, a room in which, as Rilke put it, ‘all of reality’ lay on the painter’s side – for it was there that Picasso first experienced the impact of the great all-over canvasses of Cézanne, who had been dead a year.

Another great source of aggression, guilt and defence running through Picasso’s life and art, to be set beside the relations with his father, is his relations with women. Modern prudery does not make this an easy topic to discuss, and for those who cannot rise above a crude moralism the issue is and will be evidently distasteful. A word often use to describe Picasso is ‘misogynist’, and it is interesting to reflect that this word used to be used in pre-Wolfenden days as a synonym for ‘homosexual’. ‘Misogyny’, we might think, is a word used for a trait that the speaker finds unwholesome and hopes is not universal in the male sex. In this way, it is the correlate to ‘frigidity’, when used of the female sex, and has about the same explanatory value. About his relations with women, there are three things of which we can be reasonably confident and Richardson enlarges our perception of them all. In the first place, his love for women could be strong and genuine enough to win for him strong and genuine love in return. Fernande Olivier was probably the first real love of his life, and Picasso’s visit with her to the small village of Gosol high up in the Spanish Pyrenees, which consumed the summer of 1906 and provided, doubtless, much of the inspiration for the great years to come, reads in Richardson’s words like a wonderful idyll, reminiscent of the interlude in Doctor Zhivago. Secondly, Picasso’s love for women was never unalloyed. It opens our eyes to the meaning and the measure of ambivalence. It remains unclear what Picasso was incapable of. And thirdly, Picasso’s art provides a compendium of the many, many different ways in which he tried to defend his mistress and (we may think) himself from what was most ferocious in his love. The target that the woman’s body presents to the man’s violence is at one moment contracted towards invisibility; at another moment it is reinforced to resist any assault; at yet another moment it is dreamed of (if we may take seriously a hint from Apollinaire which Richardson quotes) as covered with a protective shield of hair. It is not, of course, always easy to separate off the solicitude Picasso felt for the woman’s body from the fresh delights he promised himself in (to use a Sadean term) ‘vexing’ it.

There is no short way of conveying the wealth, precision and imaginativeness of this book. Those insensitive to its qualities are probably those insensitive to the qualities of pictorial art, and one of the most interesting aspects of the success that A Life of Picasso has enjoyed since it was first published in the United States earlier this year is the following it has secured amongst artists, including (if the rumours that reach me are true) some of the best we have. There is barely a writer who lacks interest in the history of literature, barely a philosopher who lacks interest in the history of philosophy, barely a biologist who lacks interest in the history of biology: if it is something of a rarity for a work of art history to hold the attention of an artist, does this show something about the state of art history?

The reader who has just finished Richardson’s biography and is starting to wonder whether it is altogether right that coming to understand the work of a great artist should be such an enjoyable process may wish to consult the paperback of Rosalind Krauss’s The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Myths, a book, incidentally, much easier on the biceps. In this collection of essays, Krauss, an influential thinker, has an essay entitled ‘In the Name of Picasso’, which not only addresses itself to these very issues but also refers in critical terms to Richardson by name. Krauss argues that intentionalist art history, or art history that relates art to the psychology of the artist, is flawed, and biographical art history, or art history that then tries to filter this psychology through the narrative of the artist’s life, is in worse shape. The reader whom I am imagining will want to know why. The answer, when it comes, is this: biographical art history uses proper names. (So also, as we have just seen, though Krauss doesn’t mention this, does the attack on biographical art history.) And, the argument continues, what invalidates biographical art history is a flaw in the theory of the proper name, which was only exorcised by ‘the Frege/Russell/Wittgenstein notion’. Let us not concern ourselves with whether these three great thinkers did indeed converge on a single view of the proper name, and let us instead ask how the proper direction in which art history ought to go could depend on issues like this, and what it shows about the state of art history that one of its prominent professors should think that it does. The reader of Richardson’s Volume One who has made the detour through Krauss’s essay should come away able to wait for Volume Two with an easier conscience and grateful that there still exists a sense of what really aids and what really impedes human curiosity about the arts.