A Life of Picasso, Volume IV: The Minotaur Years, 1933-1943 by John Richardson
Jonathan Cape, £35, 368 pages
John Richardson died in 2019 with his monumental biography of Picasso half-finished, leaving its subject with 30 years of life still to come. This uncompleted project will surely be the Ozymandias of all biographies, since Richardson’s talents were uniquely matched to his protean subject. In his youth, he lived for 10 years in Provence with the rebarbative Douglas Cooper, the great collector of Cubism; Picasso was a neighbour and frequent visitor.
When Richardson succeeded in emancipating himself from Cooper, he moved to New York, where he developed a deep practical knowledge of the art world and the beau monde while working for Christie’s, Knoedler and Artemis Fine Art. In the 1980s he embarked on his tremendous project equipped with great advantages: familiarity with the context; an appetite for tremendously detailed research; the discrimination of a true connoisseur; curiosity about the origins and making of great works of art; a detached and worldly interest in the foibles of human character; empathy combined with independence and judgement.
Originally Richardson had thought of writing about Picasso’s portraits, but he soon decided that Picasso’s life could best be interpreted through the way his work fed off, consumed, wrecked and spat out successive lovers. Volume IV extends from Picasso’s brutal dismissal of Olga – he wandered about singing fortissimo from Pagliacci while the divorce papers were delivered following a visit to the opera and night of tender lovemaking – to his final break with the neurasthenic and intelligent but hugely masochistic Dora Maar, whom he immortalised as the Weeping Woman.
In parallel, Picasso conducted a more secret affair with the placid and sensual 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter, who inspired some of his happiest nudes and bore him a daughter. Inevitably, the Minotaur Years are much concerned with the politics of the low, dishonest, decade. The Spanish Civil War outraged him and Guernica brought him global fame as a champion of the left, yet he refused to be lured back to Spain and spent the war unmolested in occupied Paris, teasing the ignorant Nazi soldiers who inspected his treasure-trove of masterpieces and left empty-handed.
There is ample material in Richardson’s cornucopia of information about Picasso for another, more traditionally Andalusian, reading of his relationship with women as sacred icons of the family. Not merely pagan goddesses of pleasure and sacrifice, but also the protective mothers and sisters of Catholic culture. Picasso came from “a line of priests and hermits”, and his first large painting was First Communion (1896). Long after he professed atheism, his art continued to be imbued with Christian motifs.
The Crucifixion appears throughout his work, as in the series of drawings made in the autumn of 1932, often associated in his mind with the corrida. In 1930 he had painted Crucifixion on a small piece of plywood. It is an astonishing feat of vibrantly coloured modernism that compresses and intensifies the traditional iconography of that great event. He kept it all his life “like a tool of domestic piety”. He was intensely conscious of his great forebears El Greco, Zurbaran and Goya, and these themes have been sensitively explored in The Religious Art of Pablo Picasso by Jane Daggett Dillenberger and John Handley (2014).
Richardson emphasises a more ambivalent side to Picasso’s spiritual beliefs. Having felt inspired by progressive Catholic attitudes towards social justice and the poor in his earlier work, he felt alienated by the rigidly conservative Spanish Church that supported Falangism and Franco. What remained was superstition and an interest in the peripheries of Christianity. At key moments of personal difficulty, he made works of art like votive offerings; he kept a “Mithraic sunburst ringed with spiky rays” on his studio wall. Richardson notes its presence at the top right of his great engraving Minotauromachie (1935) as though contesting the power of the twisted Christ-like form on the left, who also resembles Don José, the artist’s father: “Was he out to exorcise the piety of his ancestors? Might the Christ-like figure threatened by Mithra’s rays be a mocking allusion to the deity he had been brought up to revere and never entirely renounced?”
Above all Picasso’s belief in his Andalusian mirada fuerte, the dominating and creative power of his inventive eye, came to be his source of spiritual sustenance. Richardson says, with untypical understatement, that Pic-asso’s art “tended to thrive on the dark side”, instancing Dora Maar whom Picasso had destroyed, beaten to bits and cut up in paint. After successive nervous breakdowns treated by Dr Lacan, the muse of the Rive Gauche ended her days as “a passionate Catholic conservative.” Richardson gives her the last word: “After Picasso there is only God.”
Fram Dinshaw is an Emeritus Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford
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