Picasso once met Ernest Hemingway during a bullfight. It’s a tough encounter to beat for its tally of cultural institutions with more than a whiff of on-the-fly machismo about them. At the bullring in southern France, the group sang “La Marseillaise” and Picasso and a companion watched in amazement as a visibly moved Hemingway stood to attention and saluted.
“Picasso burst out laughing – he couldn’t stand people playing aficionado – and I couldn’t read a word from Hemingway after that,” Picasso’s friend said. His name was John Richardson and he told me this story at an exhibition of works by Picasso inspired by bulls and bullfights, which he organized in London in 2017.
Handsome and courteous, Richardson was the quintessential insider of the art world. As a young man, he met Picasso through his partner at the time, the art dealer Douglas Cooper. He then became the seigneurial head of Christie’s in New York. He was a friend of Francis Bacon and he posed for Lucian Freud.
But Richardson was no dilettante. He embarked on a biography of Picasso which has been described as the best ever written about an artist. The first volume appeared in 1991, when Richardson was in his 60s. It culminated in an art history cliffhanger. Despite the early successes of Picasso’s famous blue and rose periods, the artist looked at the works of Henri Matisse and despaired, or at least concluded that he had been vastly surpassed by his friend and rival.
The painting that really damaged Picasso’s ego is Matisse’s “Le Bonheur de Vivre” (1905-06). “This composition of masterful figures posed an even greater challenge,” writes Richardson, “and sent Picasso away, once and for all, to do better.” Picasso responded with his revolutionary painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907), and invented cubism with Georges Braque.
This story, from Picasso redux, is the subject of Richardson’s second volume. The third included the artist’s collaboration with Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his company the Ballets Russes. Picasso married one of the ballerinas, Olga Khokhlova, and began an affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter which raised the sexual temperature of his work.
Richardson’s three books chronicled Picasso’s life up to 1932. But the artist lived another 40 productive and eventful years. At this exhibition in London, Richardson, who was then 93, told me that each freshly discovered cache of letters referred him to his manuscript. Besides writing his fourth book on the painter, painting the Forth Bridge would be child’s play.
Richardson invites comparison with Robert Caro, author of a long biography of Lyndon Johnson (first volume published in 1982; volume five still awaited), with the caveat that, of the two, only Richardson posed for Andy Warhol in leather of biker. and matching cap. There is a romance about the loneliness of the lifelong biographer; although away from his office, Richardson was in high demand.
Reports of his art-filled Manhattan loft have become discouraging. His eyesight was failing. Then in 2019, he passed away. Will his last volume appear one day? Does it really matter if it didn’t? After all, there are already an abundance of books about the great modern art mage and plenty of Picassos online. Turns out it’s important. Social media’s summary judgments make the slow-maturing verdict all the more desirable.
There’s a gamy and taurine flavor to Richardson’s Volume IV, which is captioned The Minotaur years. Picasso contributed to a magazine called Minotaure, which was published in Paris between 1933 and 1939 by surrealists including André Breton. A friend who saw Picasso in his studio surrounded by pests thought he was like “a great matador with his court of admirers all around him while he shaves”. More than that, the motif of the minotaur, the half-man, half-bull of mythology — manly, enraged, smitten — is a proxy for the artist himself in his paintings and prints, Richardson explains, along with his various lovers appearing as foils to the beast.
The publication of this book renewed the debate on the way Picasso and his biographer treated women in the life of the artist. It begins amidst the broken crockery of Picasso’s first marriage, with Richardson calling the artist’s first wife, Khokhlova, a “termagant”, or a woman of a tough temper. But the same chapter concludes with an inventory of the suffering inflicted on Picasso’s wives, many of whom Richardson knew personally, all the more damning for his rocky reading of the indictment. Khokhlova “spent the last 30 years of her life in self-destructive devotion”; his mistress, Walter, committed suicide; his successor, Dora Maar, suffered from depression; and Picasso’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque, committed suicide 13 years after his death.
For better or for worse, Picasso’s muses were his inspiration, and thanks to them, it was a rare day that he didn’t make art. His job was his diary, he says. Richardson examines it line by line, moving from canvas to life and back again, drawing on his own experience of Picasso and a long immersion in his work. We follow Picasso’s hot and cold affairs, his protean experiments, the intrusion of world events into his field of vision. In a compelling rendition of the masterpiece ‘Guernica’, Richardson describes not only Picasso’s rage and grief at the civil war in his native Spain, but the never-forgotten loss of his sister Conchita, who died as a child. .
Picasso was contrary, often cruel and indifferent to his family, including his young son Paulo. But he showed courage during the war, remaining in Nazi-occupied Paris despite fears that Spanish dictator Franco might extradite the artist who had ridiculed him in famous prints. At times, Richardson’s narrative reads like a thriller. The Nazis wanted to confiscate Picasso’s “degenerate art,” as they called it, and escorted him to a dungeon where he had stashed pictures of himself and his friend Matisse. But he used all his formidable charm and cunning to spin the rings around the bewildered soldiers, who left almost empty-handed.
To defray the cost of reproducing Picasso’s works in his books, Richardson once provided wasp profiles of art-world figures to Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. He does not spare his former bullfighting companion and his lifelong study. Many of Picasso’s more blustering remarks are met with “absurdity” or “it wasn’t true” from his biographer. In more ways than one, Richardson was Picasso’s critical friend. He took everything he observed alongside the artist, what he heard directly from Maar and Roque and another of Picasso’s partners, Françoise Gilot, and his own diligent research, and distilled all in compelling, deceptively simple prose.
With this captivating, highly readable and carefully illustrated volume, Richardson finally took leave of the artist in 1943. The last three decades of Picasso’s life proved to be beyond him. An editor’s note records the work of making this volume at publication, crediting Ross Finocchio and Delphine Huisinga as Richardson’s collaborators, but offers no clue as to his eventual successor. It’s hard to imagine he could be any better than our guide in the Minotaur’s Labyrinth.
A Life of Picasso Volume IV: The Minotaur years 1933-43 by John Richardson, Cape Jonathan £35, 368 pages
Stephen Smith is the BBC’s ‘Newsnight’ culture correspondent
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