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A Fan Explains His Hero
on 3 March 2008
Where does genius come from? What are the motives? What are the stars that guide?
Picasso was arguably the most original and influential artist of the 20th century. In volume one of four planned volumes (three of which have been produced to date), John Richardson collaborates with Marilyn McCully to establish the detailed record of how Picasso developed as a man and an artist through the early Rose period. The book is made richer by Richardson's friendship with the artist and his access to Picasso's memories of key events. But he doesn't slavishly accept Picasso's version (except in damning Matisse as inferior to Picasso) but rather checks out the different versions and picks what seems to make the most sense.
Picasso's fanatic desire to succeed was fueled in part by his contempt for his father's failed career as an artist and his father's views that Picasso should follow in his footsteps. Picasso also needed to be treated as special, more than most of us. Groveling before exploitive dealers built a lifelong passion to be in charge. Picasso also knew that Paris was where he had to shine and suffered greatly to make his success there. His struggles will impress you.
Where the book is unequaled in my experience is in tracking down the sources of Picasso's images, gestures, styles, and innovations. The book is filled with black and white images from the works of other artists, Picasso's notebooks, photographs of the scenes and subjects, and related works that Picasso did. From these, you get a better sense of Picasso as a synthesizer of styles and modes.
In closely examining Picasso's work from these years, it's easy to develop superficial impressions of what sort of man did those paintings. For instance, the paintings of women show someone who feels compelled to alternately adore and dominate women . . . especially sexually. Learning later that he locked his mistress into the studio even on the hottest days when he left adds to that impression.
The book provides other powerful insights of this sort by relating the heavy use of opium by Picasso and his circle of artist friends during the Blue period. A lot of the models seem stoned in those paintings. Could it be that they were? Picasso loved to paint the circus performers and one of his first mistresses was one. Could it be that those performers are really emotional self-portraits? The book isn't clear on that point, but the possibility of the interpretation will occur to you.
A few central mysteries are left undeveloped. Why did Picasso stick so long with styles that he later abandoned and which didn't sell well when he was very poor? Picasso admitted to Richardson that the Blue and Rose periods had been mistakes. Why did Picasso slow down his production at times when he had contracts and shows upcoming? How did Picasso incorporate his love for poetry into his paintings?
At times Richardson is over the top in his fawning. Here's an example. Picasso is described as clearly one of the great poets of the 20th century, but Richardson doesn't reveal any evidence . . . nor was Picasso doing any poetry writing at the time of this volume. I suspect that the fawning was the price of admission for his access which rewards us in other ways.
Ultimately, the book's main weakness is that the images are not in color. Fortunately, color is less important to Picasso's work during this period than in later periods. Perhaps there will be another edition at some point that will bring the full dimensions of the work to bear at least for the masterpieces.
Enjoy your immersion in Picasso's chaotic world.