The Life of Picasso: The Minotaur Years 1933-1943
Written by John Richardson
Knopf. 320 pages $40
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John Richardson, who died in 2019, set the standard for the biographies of contemporary artists (and we live in a golden age of this kind) with the first three volumes of his autobiography by Pablo Picasso. The first volume was published in 1991.
The fourth and final volume, covering the ten years after Adolf Hitler came to power and halted, unfortunately, three whole decades before Picasso’s death in 1973, is a worthy follow-up to his predecessors. Finished in tough conditions—Richardson was in his 90s and blinded—it’s only half his height. But it is rich and amazing.
The volume, titled The Years of the Minotaur, unfolds against the backdrop of the rise of fascism, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II. It covers Picasso’s complex relations with the surrealists; his involvement with the irrational side of Greek mythology; his fraught relationship with his native Spain; A period when he decided to stop drawing and focus on writing poetry. create his masterpiece “Guernica”; and his experiences during the Nazi occupation of Paris.
Picasso was deeply involved in shaping the myth that surrounds him, which is a problem for would-be biographers. The myth was about unbridled invention, and creative fertility almost as an end in itself. And it was a successful self-marketing: the name “Picasso” became synonymous with bold invention.
Of course, if you’ve seen a lot of Picassos, you know that not everything he made was of great importance. However, those who seek to dismiss the prolific Spaniard as a sort of unstoppable streamer or helpless scholar respond to caricatures. Picasso presented many masterpieces. He was not only absurdly talented; He was terribly smart.
And he was also, of course, very manipulative. Despite his charm and the long line of intelligent and wonderful women who fell in love with him, he was also – as Richardson explains – a passionate monster, whose desire for humiliation was constantly manifested in his art.
What biographer would consider taking on such a complex subject? You will need to be the perfect person for the job – to have the right mix of masochism, perseverance, disinterest, and courage.
Richardson I was The Perfect Person – A brilliant, no-nonsense prose designer with a gift for bold character graphics, a keen devotion to concrete facts, a deep curiosity about images and a command of sarcasm. The most entertaining and communicative of men, Richardson became friends with Picasso in the 1950s. At the time, Richardson was in a relationship with collector and art historian Douglas Cooper (described in Richardson’s brilliant memoir, “The Magician’s Apprentice”). After his separation from Cooper, he maintained good relations not only with Picasso but also with his heirs and former lover.
The first three volumes, published over increasingly long periods, were written with collaborator Marilyn McCauley. This fourth volume was made possible by Delphine Huisinga and Ross Finocchio, who conducted much of the research, allowing Richardson to focus on writing.
In 1933, when the book began, Picasso’s private life was engulfed in a melodrama of his own making. At the same time, different factions of the Surrealists were fighting over him in ways that reflected his love life. Saying it sounds like pop psychology, but on some level, it seemed like it needed to disagree. Clearly, part of it welcomed the chaos.
Richardson has consistently emphasized Picasso’s relationships with women as key to understanding his art. Therefore, we learn here about the bitter and prolonged end of his marriage to the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, his relationship with the photographer and painter Dora Maar, his continuing relationship with model Marie-Thérèse Walter and his first meeting with the painter Françoise Gilot.
Given the psychosexual complexity he developed, it is no surprise that Picasso became acquainted with the Minotaur – part bull, part man – who in Greek mythology fought with Theseus in the labyrinth of the Cretan King Minos. Some of his greatest works from this decade—from “Blind Minotaur Guided by a Young Girl at Night,” the most famous Vollard Suite print, to “Guernica”—paint on the Minotaur, or on bulls and bullfights, always with some degree of identification.
Cubism, devised by Picasso with Georges Braque, was a source of concealment and mystery, powerfully resulting in an idea that, for better or worse, prevailed over the rest of Picasso’s career: that his paintings are there to be “dissolved”.
When it was convenient for him, Picasso freely offered interpretive “keys” to his work. He once turned to Richardson, as the two of them sat in the crowd at a bullfight in Nîmes, southern France, and said, “Those horses”—he meant the horses that the tormented bulls were trying to disembowel—“are the women in my life.”
Edgar Degas, Picasso’s artist, said, “One has to commit a painting in the same way one commits a crime.” It therefore seems fitting that Richardson approached Picasso’s work in the spirit of an investigator. Life in a sense a crime scene. His predictions can be exciting. There are many Eureka moments, often relating to the continuing significance of the death of Picasso’s sister Conchita. But he has never claimed that his explanations are definitive.
Richardson’s big thesis is that Picasso saw art from the perspective of magic, especially exorcism and sacrifice. I think he’s basically right. What’s hard to swallow is Richardson’s reiteration of Picasso’s brand of “magic,” which often sprang from his feelings for the women in his life.
Maybe it’s not Richardson’s fault. You would expect the resume writer to emphasize resume readings. But it is a warning that we may apply in general. What we know about the artist’s life should not be enlisted to insure us against the wild and unknown in his art. Art – and modern art in particular – can be perplexing, but that doesn’t mean we have to solve it. The desire to “solve” or even “understand” art is not the only – and not the best – form of attention we can give it.