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.

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