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From Cubism to Classicism

ISSUE:  Summer 1997
A Life of Picasso. Volume II: 1907—1917. By John Richardson. Random House. page=$5500

This handsomely designed and bountifully illustrated volume opens when Picasso is 26 and devotes 500 pages to ten years—only one-ninth of his long life. But during this crucial decade he “made his first and probably greatest breakthrough, fell in love for the first time, and made his mark as the rebel leader of modern art.” John Richardson combines exhaustive research with a healthy scepticism about unreliable and often self-serving memoirs. His ear picks up sexual, especially homosexual, scandal (“the young men came to frolic in the infamous sauna”) while his nose sniffs out the radical flaws in those two talented frauds: Jean Cocteau, selfingratiating and always on the make, and Gertrude Stein, who “would behave as if ownership of Picasso’s key works entitled her to act as the high priestess of cubism.”

Always aware of the social and political context (revolution in Spain, riots in Germany, war in France), Richardson is perceptive about Picasso’s backbiting camaraderie with a wide circle—or rather, cube—of painters (especially Matisse, Braque, and Derain), poets (notably Apollinaire, André Salmon, and Max Jacob), patrons, dealers and double-dealers, models and mistresses (most of his women had this dual function), and Bohemian hangers-on. Picasso and Matisse, their friendship fueled by mutual suspicion and esteem, met at the Steins’, visited each other’s studio, and exchanged paintings. Matisse cut to the core when he said that his rival “is capricious and unpredictable. But he understands things.” Picasso considered Braque his closest friend; and during their tortuous progress through the maze of cubism—each surging ahead, then falling behind the other—their paintings were sometimes indistinguishable. Derain, the most knowledgable and intellectual member of the group, had “a mind Apollinairean in scope, painterly in sensibility,” which the more visceral Picasso, who rarely read a book, could gorge on.

Richardson gives a lively account of Picasso’s habits and tastes, wide-ranging interests and witty talk, compulsions and rituals, superstitions and fears—especially of illness and death.”Young, olive, with bright, frank eyes, each with a devil in it, straight black hair” (as an American woman described him in 1908), he worked in the shocking squalor of the Bateau Lavoir, which had “no gas or electricity and only one tap and one primitive toilet for the entire building.” Though he lived in France and wrote to his compatriot Juan Gris in French, he spoke with a strong accent and always felt the atavistic tug of Spain. He spent many summers in Catalonia, visiting his parents in Barcelona, despite their disapproval of his mistresses and art. He loved strong Andalusian dishes, the spectacle of the bullfight, and the elongated mystics of El Greco. “Sombre, excessif, revolutionnaire,”Picasso saw himself “as an artist of messianic power, an artist whose only obligation was and always would be to his work. This was sacrosanct, hence also his well-being. Too bad if friends and family had sometimes to be sacrificed. . . he did not relish the guilt that these sacrifices entailed.”

In true Bohemian fashion, a series of women—Fernande Olivier, Eva Gouel, Gaby Depeyre, Irene Lagut, with Olga Khokhlova of the Ballets Russes waiting in the wings—appeared in and suddenly vanished from his life and work as the good bourgeois searched for a satisfying (that is, self-effacing and sacrificial) wife.(Though Richardson doesn’t make this connection, Apollinaire played a similar role, with Picasso, in the abduction of Iberian statues from the Louvre to Picasso’s studio and the abduction of Irene Lagut from her Russian lover to Picasso’s romantic prison in Montrouge.) Whenever a new woman came into his life—noted Dora Maar, a later apparition— everything changed. The fatal illness of his mistress Eva and his dog Frika at the time of his father’s death led to a diminution of his high-spirited ingenuity and increase in the blackness of his imagery.”Unless he had emotional as well as physical possession of a woman,” Richardson observes, in a valuable synthesis, “Picasso could not internalize her image; and embark on the physiognomical analysis, pictorial lovemaking, let alone the fiendish manipulation. . . which endow the portraits of his “women”. . . with such wrenching intensity.”

Richardson’s combination of penetrating intelligence and energetic prose style enables him to describe difficult paintings and, with the help of preliminary sketches, explain what they mean. Sometimes, however, the sexual significance is in the eye of the beholder. When discussing Man at a Bar (1914), for example, he speaks of “scrotumlike eyes and a penis-shaped nose,” though the “penis” is unnaturally rectangular and squared-off and the “scrotum” comes straight from the Ivorian Grebo mask (reproduced on page 244) in Picasso’s own collection. Richardson is more perceptive when analyzing the representational part of the 1910 cubist portrait of a collector-critic: “There is a mean edge to Picasso’s portrayal of “Wilhelm” Uhde—to the Prussian prissiness embodied in the tiny desiccated cupid’s bow of a mouth; the starched points of the winged collar that rhyme with the two triangles of his lofty forehead; and not least its brittle, rectilinear structure of what looks like jagged shards of smoky glass.”

Because of its historical importance as “the greatest icon of the modern movement,” Richardson assumes rather than demonstrates the artistic greatness of the five mask-faced figures in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a deliberately ugly “exorcism of traditional concepts of ‘ideal beauty, ‘” which has nothing at all to do with Avignon and no clear visual connection to prostitutes. Picasso, like Pound, was determined to “Make It New,” to oppose the rules of perspective that had dominated art for four centuries, to challenge the traditional ideas of form and space, and to create, as John Golding wrote, “the most complete and radical artistic revolution since the Renaissance.” This volume describes how Picasso—by dazzling linear dexterity and a profusion of protean inventiveness—managed to impose his artistic vision on the world. In doing so, he “engendered every major modernist movement.” But he also suffered, again like Pound, the “unbelievable solitude” of the innovative creator. The Dadaists called his cubist works “Cathedrals made of shit.”

The tactile and palpable cubism, as a French critic pointed out as early as 1912, was a new means of registering “mass, volume and weight.” Picasso once explained how he envisaged his difficult technique. You teach people something new, he said, “by mixing what they know with what they don’t know. Then. . . they think, ‘Ah, I know that.’ And then it’s just one more step to ‘Ah, I know the whole thing.’” Yet once you have cracked the cubist code and understood the paintings, representational figures—like Picasso’s great portrait of Max Jacob (1917)—seem much more humane and interesting. For all his astonishing subversive genius, Picasso worked within the tradition of his great masters: El Greco, Ingres, Cezanne. By 1917 he was ready to escape from the dead end of cubist abstraction—with its tedious stencils, papier collé and cafe bric-abrac: pipes, tobacco, guitars and old newspapers—which gave more intellectual than aesthetic pleasure. It’s a great relief when, traveling to Rome at the end of this volume, he emerges from the hermetic tunnel of cubism and into the light of Mediterranean classicism.


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