The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932
By John Richardson
Reviewed by Edward J. Sozanski
After a publishing hiatus of 10 years, John Richardson's projected multi-volume biography of Pablo Picasso appeared to have stalled. Would there ever be a third book, or a fourth? Would Richardson ever be able to finish this titanic labor?
The first book, which tracked the young genius to the dawn of cubism, was published in 1991. Volume 2, covering the cubist years, followed six years later. By that reckoning, the third installment was due three or four years ago.
The heightened anticipation was understandable. The first two books, frequently described by critics as "magisterial," established a new standard for art biography. Richardson was able to pack his narrative with personal details and historical context without becoming pedantic. The books delivered an admirable balance of lively writing and concise aesthetic analysis.
Volume 3 of
A Life of Picasso
maintains that standard. (Knopf has also just released the first two volumes in paperback.) The new installment, subtitled
The Triumphant Years,
begins in 1917, at the tail end of cubism, and recounts Picasso's comings and goings through 1932.
This might be characterized as Picasso's bourgeois period, during which he married, became rich, bought fancy houses and cars, and dressed like a dandy instead of an impoverished bohemian. He hobnobbed with wealthy socialites and even became a father for the first time.
It's hard to imagine an artist as antiestablishment as Picasso settling into conventional married life. According to Richardson, his wife, Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, persisted in her attempt to domesticate him. Picasso was amenable to this initially, the author explains, because his complex personality included a bourgeois streak.
Yet as the 1920s unfolded, he became increasingly restive with connubial probity. Early in 1927 he took up, in secret, with 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter, who over the next decade would inspire some of his most voluptuous and sensual images, both in painting and sculpture.
As Richardson affirms repeatedly, Picasso's personal relationships, particularly with women, form the foundation of his art; this might be the book's principal insight. Particularly enlightening is the comparison between his cool, realist portrayals of Olga at the beginning of their marriage and the contorted, agonized images of her that emerged after Picasso became besotted with Walter. Because their relationship remained clandestine, Walter often appears radically camouflaged in paintings of the late 1920s and early '30s; he even transformed her body into still lifes.
Richardson is dogged in his meticulous reconstruction of Picasso's life, not only year to year but month to month, although sometimes he provides more detail than we care to hear. What one really wants from such an exhaustive researcher and perceptive critic is more discussion about the fundamental shifts in Picasso's art that occurred during these "triumphant years."
As the book opens, Picasso has exhausted the potential of the most revolutionary act of creation in 20th-century art, the invention of cubism. He's off to Rome to create costumes and set designs for Sergei Diaghilev's Russian ballet company. Picasso's engagement with ballet coincided with his pursuit of Olga, and lasted about four years.
During this period his easel art underwent a radical transformation, from the flat, reductive patterns of synthetic cubism to the volumetric monumentality of his neoclassical figures. Richardson doesn't address this seismic shift directly, but does imply that it represented Picasso's desire to remake classicism in a modern vein. This is early evidence of his need to measure himself against the greatest names in European art history.
Picasso executed another quantum leap in the late 1920s, when he began to distort figures biomorphically, to the point where they cease to be recognizable. Again, Richardson doesn't explain this startling change of direction in a way that links it to what has come before. Once again, one wishes he would offer a concise analysis of how Picasso's aesthetic thinking developed.
It's clear by the end of the book, though, that Picasso's creative imagination is extraordinary, that he considered himself to be a shaman capable of the most improbable transformations. He does this repeatedly throughout his career, but with exceptional facility in the 1920s.
Wading into this book after a 10-year interval since the last one is difficult initially because narrative continuity has been disrupted for too long. The first fifth of the book, the ballet years, consequently drags a bit. Eventually, the story picks up momentum, and becomes deliciously animated after 1926.
Having taken Picasso into his midcareer, Richardson, a British art historian who lives in the United States, still has 41 years left to cover (Picasso died in 1973, at age 91). He has been quoted as saying that at his age, 83, it would be "unrealistic" for him to start on a fourth volume unless he collaborated with another writer. There are still a lot of good stories to tell, so we can only hope.