Myths of the Artist’s Youth

Nicholas Penny resumes the discussion of John Richardson’s biography of Picasso

Picasso was no lover of truth: his own accounts of his childhood in Andalusia and his youth in Barcelona, as recorded by pious biographers in his own lifetime, notably Sabartes and Penrose, are riddled with hyperbole which Richardson, in the first volume of his biography, is careful to question and is sometimes able to correct – thanks to the scrupulous record-keeping of the Spanish state schools. He is also able to reveal some things which Picasso either forgot or concealed. The census of 1885 records a younger brother, Jose, then aged one, never, it seems, mentioned by the painter. Jose may be a clerical error, but more probably he lived only for a short time. In any case, no male sibling survived as a rival for the love of Picasso’s mother, on whose support he could always count. Little is known about her, and Richardson, while acknowledging the importance of Picasso’s relationship with her, cannot expand on it with authority.

He might have been able to had he been permitted to consult the hundreds of letters to the artist from his parents (and especially his mother) now in the Picasso museum. In addition, these letters would surely have supplied numerous small facts which would enable the biographer to patch together a fuller account of the artist’s early life. Since Picasso is unlikely ever to find a more judicious or industrious biographer this obstruction on the part of the artist’s heirs must be deplored with a strength which Richardson in his note on ‘principal sources’ denies himself. It is hard to believe that it is motivated by a desire to protect anyone’s reputation.

After the discovery of Jose, the most fascinating novelty here must be the poster for a benefit performance at the circus on 30 July 1897 for la graciosa estrella del arte ecuestre Rosita del Oro, featuring a photograph of a buxom, dark-eyed equestrienne wearing ostrich feathers, white tights and a fetching pout. Rosita was the artist’s lover when he was a 15-year-old student in Barcelona. She has previously been described as a prostitute rather than a circus star. With the poster, Richardson illustrates a page from a sketchbook of the same period. It includes a study of a model (probably done in school hours) together with a clown, a masked woman and what may be a woman on horseback. The third illustration Richardson supplies here is one of the erotic autobiographical fantasies, half-tragic, half-burlesque, etched by Picasso in 1970, where the artist, an infantile old man, is dwarfed by a circus equestrienne. Here we find Rosita resurrected in the phantasmagoric circus, brothel, bullring and studio of Picasso’s imagination nearly three-quarters of a century later.

The way these particular illustrations both illuminate each other and complement the text is not at all unusual in this exceptionally well-planned and well-designed book. But the text on this pair of pages reveals that some of the potent myths of the artist’s youth have resisted even this sceptical enquirer. Richardson describes Rosita as Picasso’s ‘mistress’ but there is no reason to suppose that he kept her, and it is clear that he was in no position to keep anyone (even himself). ‘Mistress’ is a term sometimes used for a more or less permanent unmarried partner, but Richardson supplies no evidence of co-residence. He writes that ‘the conquest of this star equestrienne by a boy just turned 15 says a lot for his personality and sexual magnetism. Nor was this a short-lived adolescent fling; it was a relationship that lasted on and off for a number of years.’ But how do we know that Picasso ‘conquered’ her? She might have liked picking up boys. And if so, the fact that they came back for more hardly seems surprising.

This failure to question the legend of Picasso’s precocious sexual magnetism is less worrying than Richardson’s support, in these same pages, for a new myth about Picasso. This arises out of a discussion of the young painter’s visits to the brothels of Barcelona. ‘Where the boy found the cash for prostitutes is a mystery. His pocket money would not have sufficed. Did other friends like Pallares treat him to the occasional girl, or were his boyish charms such that the motherly whores did not charge him’? This is a reasonable question. ‘Girls’ hints at the younger prostitutes, many no doubt his own age. But Richardson proceeds to assume that it was the motherly ones which were the attraction, or rather the explanation. ‘All these loving older women must have brought back his childhood in Malaga. These early experiences in the brothels of Barcelona seem to have reinforced Picasso’s Andalusian misogyny.’ Brothels may often supply comforts (or excitement) analogous to those of the nursery, but these are more likely to be relevant for unhappy older men than for wild young ones. Here, however, Richardson is not merely concerned to invoke the particular circumstances of Picasso’s childhood but the ‘misogyny’, a component of the ‘machismo’ prevalent in his native Andalusia.

‘Machismo, we would do well to remember, is a concept specifically associated with Andalusia.’ For Richardson this is a key to Picasso’s character. ‘The unpalatable truth is that machismo – a specifically Andalusian term – made for some of Picasso’s most powerful work.’ I don’t question that Picasso shared many of the male attitudes of the society in which he was bred. But machismo as it is described here is not special to Andalusia. Picasso’s suggestion that Françoise Gilot should cover her face so that other men couldn’t ‘have’ her with their eyes is cited by Richardson as quintessentially Andalusian. Yet such an attitude is unremarkable in Latin countries, in both the Mediterranean and South America, and such anxieties have, notoriously, determined the concealment of women throughout the Islamic world.

In this account Picasso’s attitude to women is grotesquely simplified. What is far worse is the way his art is used to support this simplification. Having claimed that Picasso’s precocious exploration of Barcelona’s brothels reinforced his ‘misogyny’, Richardson continues thus: ‘The fact that he would often treat his mistresses as whores tends to bear this out. So does the work, not least Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a group of whores whom he chose to identify as his woman friends. Thirty years later, in image after image, the misogynistic pasha would endlessly reduce his teenage mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter to a thing of flesh and orifices.’ The Demoiselles was painted in 1907, over a decade after the first visits to the brothels in Barcelona of 1896, and in the intervening years whores are a frequent subject of Picasso’s art. Sometimes, especially around 1900, they are given a vampiric glamour but are generally represented as objects of pathos. Misogyny might be the right word for the Demoiselles but if so it is surely the wrong word for the rapturous inflation (not reduction) of Marie-Thérèse – very many years later – by means of a hectic variety of metaphors into a goddess of the animal and vegetable kingdoms. It is surely the case that Picasso’s art reveals numerous contradictory images of women. The crass view of him as a monster, little better than a rapist, in life as in art – made popular by Arianna Stassinopoulos’s vulgar book – here finds support from a writer who is generally more sensitive to the distinction between art and life and far more sensitive to the complexity of both.

The tyranny of this view of Picasso as irremediably ‘macho’ in his attitudes is well demonstrated by a passage much later in the book when Richardson is discussing Picasso’s earliest sculpture, his Seated Woman made in Barcelona in 1902. He notes, astutely, how much it owes to Rodin, not least in the emphasis on the back. He also points out how important backs became at that date in Picasso’s paintings, proposing that some of Gauguin’s work might have encouraged this. Then comes the explanation: ‘The vulnerability of a girl’s back seems to have had an irresistible appeal for him. The passivity with which heads are bowed and napes of necks are proffered implies an invitation, above all to an Andalusian brought up on the principle that man commands and woman submits.’ Leaving aside the problem that Picasso made some powerful paintings of male backs in these years, there can seldom have been any female backs less inviting to leap upon than those Richardson is discussing. They turn from us, and from life. The pose implies mystery, our ignorance of their real nature, often suffering (they are twisted), still more often contraction, a shrinking both physical and mental (the arms, as Richardson notes, tend to ‘melt’ into the torso) and isolation.

Picasso loaded his paintings with cryptic allusions, references to lovers, portraits of friends. Richardson shows himself more adept than any previous commentator in discerning these. Picasso’s art was bound to be influenced by the ideas of the poets and writers who attached themselves to him. Nevertheless, the nature of that influence is not always obvious and the biographer is always liable to exaggerate it.

Max Jacob, Apollinaire, the Steins – such figures live in this biography not only as very strange, strong personalities but by virtue of their beliefs and talents which Richardson vividly summarises. Jacob was Picasso’s first laureate.

These two short men with big heads – hence their penchant for top hats, which made up for lack of height – were like two sides of the same coin. Painting turned out to be Jacob’s violon d’Ingres ... and poetry Picasso’s. Both owned to having a black streak; both believed implicitly in the magic function of art. But Jacob was more of a giver – Pygmalion to a series of male Galateas – and Picasso more of a taker. And Jacob was always ready to share the treasures of his well-stocked mind, his poetic imagination, his mystical obsessions and his high camp sense of fun with anyone who was worthy, as well as with quite a few ... who were not.

It was Jacob more than anyone else who taught Picasso to speak a French which was ‘idiomatic and witty, and on occasion eloquent (despite a heavy Spanish accent)’. And it was Jacob who introduced Picasso to French poetry. Surely some of Jacob’s fascination with astrology and chiromancy rubbed off on Picasso as well and found its way into his art?

Perhaps this provides the key to La Vie, Picasso’s apparently allegorical painting. Richardson observes that in one preparatory drawing for this, the nude man points up with one-hand and down with the other. ‘Anyone familiar with occult iconography will recognise the upward and downward gesture.’ It bears more resemblance to the explicit rhetorical gestures of Poussin (whose works, as Richardson himself points out, Picasso had studied) than it does to any of the tarot cards that Richardson illustrates. It looks more like an attempt to communicate a dilemma or a consequence than an attempt to embody the mystery ‘whatever is below is above.’ In any case, in the painting itself the man doesn’t point up, he only points down. The upraised hand, Richardson lamely explains, ‘no longer fitted into the composition’. Had it been so important the composition would have been adapted to accommodate it; and it is naive to invoke the composition in this way as something separate from the meaning. The tarot pack turns out to be no more useful as a key than Andalusian machismo.

Picasso could not have explained the significance of the relationship, the exact nature of the thoughts and feelings, represented in his greatest images: the harlequin stating at the nude girl engrossed in her reflection; the strong man seated, glumly pensive while the slight adolescent girl balances on a ball; the minotaur marvelling at the sleeping girl; the aged child with the circus equestrienne. With La Vie, as with some other equally ambitious later paintings, on the other hand, he may well have begun with an idea, but as the painting developed it became instead merely confusingly meaningful. Finally, however, what makes the painting so disagreeable is not its muddled intellectual programme but the mawkish sentiment.

Richardson’s attempt at exegesis with the tarot pack occupies a single short chapter devoted to La Vie. Its failure is insignificant beside the author’s success in assessing the influence which other artists and art, ancient and modern, exerted on Picasso. There has never been a more subtle understanding of the painter’s dialogue with EI Greco, for example, or of his relationship with Gauguin. Moreover, he does not pretend that all of Picasso’s work was good. Some was trite, and some done fast for money. For the first time in this book we are able to understand the market for which Picasso worked and the pressures, far less direct pressures than was usually the case, which dealers and collectors exerted on him.

Richardson, like almost everyone who writes about the painting of this period, believes in ‘Modern Art’ as a series of daring experiments of a ‘progressive’ kind. Impressionism gives way to Post-Impressionism which gives way to Cubism – solemnly regarded as the greatest revolution in the history of Western art since the Renaissance. I find this very quaint. But it has one enormous advantage if you are writing about Picasso, because he clearly believed in something very similar, as did his dealers and collectors. Thus when Richardson writes of Matisse’s Bonheur de Vivre as ‘much more advanced – not least in its revolutionary interaction of colour, form and line – than his conventionally depicted saltimbanques’, he describes the way in which Picasso saw his rival – and was encouraged to see him. The problem is that the course which Picasso took is given a sort of inevitability and his perception of the ‘progressive’ is sometimes adjusted to accord with the orthodoxies which have been promoted by museums of modern art.

The Barcelona avant-garde of 1899 for whom Picasso was a juvenile hero is put down by Richardson thus: ‘Catalan primitives and Romanesque architecture were all very fine, but Rusiñol and his friends were sufficiently progressive to realise the need for French modernity as an antidote to Spanish retraso. Unfortunately they did not understand what modern French art was about. They reacted to Impressionism with wonder, to most of Post-Impressionism with alarm and played for safety by opting for the timid Classicism of Puvis de Chavannes and the drab realism of Raffaëlli.’ If we look carefully at the evidence, however, we find that when Picasso went to Pans his own interest in Raffaëlli did not diminish and his interest in Puvis greatly increased. Indeed, Puvis, with an admixture of Gauguin and an essentially Spanish primitivism, made possible the greatest paintings (such as the Young Acrobat on a Ball of 1905) that Picasso created in the period covered by this book. It was certainly one of Picasso’s strengths that he was not much interested in either Impressionism or many aspects of Post-Impressionism.

Richardson’s treatment of Moulin de la Galette of 1900, ‘the earliest and most important of Picasso’s Paris paintings’, is particularly significant. The biographer, turning over neglected evidence, reproduces a fascinating painting of the same place by the senior artist of Barcelona, Casas, made a decade earlier. It shows that the subject was not at all new. It also suggests how sophisticated some other Spanish artists were, for it reveals a very intelligent study of Degas. There is a disorientating viewpoint, a complex space, a precise observation of daylight reflected on glass, on a ceiling and a floor – the sort of things Picasso was never interested in. The comparison is very valuable even if it was not one which Picasso intended us to make. But Richardson is also an exponent of the ‘modern tradition’. In this capacity he comes up with something far more familiar: Renoir’s Ball at the Moulin de la Galette of 1876 and Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge of 1890. There aren’t many points of similarity with either, yet Picasso’s competitive relationship with them both is taken as crucial. ‘That someone so near to French art should have pitted himself against these masters at the top of their form is a measure of Picasso’s confidence and daring ... within weeks of arriving in Paris the 19-year-old Spaniard had established his right to a place in the modern French tradition.’

It seems likely that Picasso had very different artists in mind: Beardsley, above all the Beardsley of the nocturnes, and Bottini, now largely forgotten but at the time celebrated as the ‘Montmartre Goya’. Some pages later, Richardson concedes that Bottini ‘left a shadow’ on Picasso’s art and illustrates a painting which shows that it was not a small shadow, but he is kept marginal, as is Beardsley. We are to think of Picasso in the mainstream with Renoir behind him and Matisse in front.

If we had to identify the most powerful influence on Picasso’s work in Barcelona before 1900 it would certainly be the woodcuts by the ‘Beggarstaff Brothers’, James Pryde and William Nicholson, with their drastic simplifications and combinations of form, their thick flowing outlines, their half-lyrical, half-grotesque urban types, their incisive characterisation. Richardson concedes that Picasso’s self-portrait in pen and watercolour of 1899 is inspired by the Beggarstaff Brothers but not that it is their influence which makes his spectacular series of portraits in charcoal and pastel of that year so much bolder and more memorable than those by Casas with which they were intended to contrast. On the other occasion when the Beggarstaff Brothers are mentioned they are linked with Kate Green-away, as if to diminish their significance and force. No example of their work is illustrated.

When he came to London in 1950 Picasso claimed that he had planned to do so in 1900 but stopped in Paris on the way. This does not suit Richardson’s view of him as someone who was destined for a ‘place in the modern French tradition’, so he asserts baldly that ‘Paris was always Picasso’s one and only destination.’ And yet, if we are allowed to measure more precisely the influence of English art on Picasso, we can see how it may well have been the ease that he had it half in mind to visit London in 1900. It would not surprise me if some evidence to support this were lurking among the archival material to which Richardson has not had access. If so, it might show that Picasso did sometimes tell the truth – although only when he was unlikely to be believed.