A Life of Picasso: The Minotaur Years 1933–1943 by John Richardson - review by Frances Spalding

Frances Spalding

Bull with a Paintbrush

A Life of Picasso: The Minotaur Years 1933–1943


Jonathan Cape 368pp £35

When in 1933 a title was needed for a new Surrealist magazine, André Masson and Georges Bataille suggested ‘Minotaure’. The Minotaur, part bull, part human, invites many associations, among them fear of the unconscious or the unknown. Masson readily agreed to design the magazine’s cover, but, he recalled, ‘Picasso, having got wind of it, seized upon the idea.’ Meanwhile, an argument arose between André Breton, the ‘Pope’ of Surrealism, and Bataille as to who should hold the reins of this new magazine. Picasso again stepped in: he insisted that the main article should focus on his own art and be authored by Breton, who went on to become the official editor. Picasso not only produced an elaborate image for the magazine’s cover but, by now obsessed with the Minotaur, also filled its frontispiece with four etchings based on this theme. In these and other drawings and prints, the Minotaur becomes his alter ego, tender at times, dangerous at others, clumsy yet noble, god and beast. Hence the subtitle of the fourth volume of John Richardson’s biography of Picasso, in which we see Picasso’s art become increasingly occupied with violence and sexuality as the storm clouds of war approach.

We re-enter the story of Picasso’s life in 1933, following his annus mirabilis, a year of exceptional creative fertility, celebrated in 2017–18 in an exhibition, Picasso 1932, shown in Paris and London. The year 1932 also witnessed his first retrospective, in the wake of which Picasso seemed at the height of his career. Instead of workmen’s clothes, which he wore while developing Cubism, he now dresses in suits made in Savile Row. He lives with Olga, his Russian wife and a former dancer with the Ballets Russes, in a grand apartment at 23 rue La Boétie in Paris’s elegant 8th arrondissement. A still more necessary status symbol for a successful artist, Picasso sardonically remarks, is a large car: his is a chauffeur-driven Hispano-Suiza, into the back of which he packs his friends when he wants to show work stored in his château at Boisgeloup. Meanwhile, Albert Skira, the publisher of Minotaure, moves into an office next door to Picasso in rue La Boétie. Also nearby, at No 21, is the dealer Paul Rosenberg, to whom Picasso has given the right of first refusal on all his new work. Rosenberg and his largely silent business associate Georges Wildenstein turn the gallery in rue La Boétie into a focus of the fashionable art world. The trappings of success surround Picasso on all sides.

Yet tensions in his life are steadily rising. His friends observe that his Paris apartment is divided into two halves. In the living quarters, Olga insists on bourgeois neatness and restraint. Meanwhile, every room on the upper floor has been turned by Picasso into a chaotic studio. Yet it is at this address that we find the public Picasso, the husband and father to Olga and their son Paulo, and it is here that the Picassos uphold their position among the moneyed elite. Here Picasso oversees the creation of his catalogue raisonné, the first volume of which appeared in 1932 and which will eventually fill thirty-three volumes. It is also here that he develops a loathing of Olga and her guests. According to Richardson, a ‘heavy Russian cloud of refugee resentment, grief, and nostalgia’ permeated her entourage and her rooms ‘resounded with Russian rather than French chatter’. He also suggests that Picasso would have noticed in 1932 that Spain’s recently elected government had begun a move to make divorce legal. Personal misery sent his thoughts in this direction, and by the end of the book, Picasso has achieved not divorce but a legal separation from Olga.

Meanwhile, psychic stress is alleviated by his alter ego, the Minotaur. Relief is expressed in the poignant drypoint Minotaur Caressing the Hand of the Sleeping Girl with His Face (1933). The sleeping figure is Picasso’s mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, who first became his lover in 1927, when she was seventeen and he was forty-five. She is a significant presence in much of this book but remains hidden from Picasso’s public life, housed down the road in Paris or, when he is in Cannes, kept at some distance in Biarritz. She also spends much time at Boisgeloup, where Picasso joins her and their daughter at weekends. In the etching, she lies on her side, the Minotaur crouching over her, nuzzling the hand resting on her cheek with his clumsy snout. ‘He’s studying her,’ Picasso later admitted to another mistress, Françoise Gilot, ‘trying to decide whether she loves him because he’s a monster. It’s hard to say whether he wants to wake her or kill her.’

This remark harks back to a story about the young Picasso which Richardson revealed in the first volume of his magnum opus. At the end of 1894, not long after the artist had turned thirteen, his beloved younger sister Conchita fell seriously ill with diphtheria. A new anti-diphtheria serum was sent for, and while waiting for its arrival from Paris, the family, not wanting to frighten the child with their anxiety, carried on as usual with the celebration of Epiphany and the exchange of presents. With all the family engaged in prayer, Picasso, in a sudden burst of faith, offered to make the greatest sacrifice he could conceive: he vowed to God that if Conchita’s life were spared he would never again paint or draw. Conchita died before the serum arrived. The ominous implications of this vow – that Picasso’s talent had been preserved through the sacrifice of his sister – cast a shadow over the artist’s life. Picasso called it his ‘dark secret’ and only talked about it with his mistresses. The sacrifice of others to his art was a pattern to be repeated.

If Richardson is right in suggesting that death, thereafter, was linked in Picasso’s mind with creativity, it may explain the savage distortions found in his images of his muse and lover Dora Maar, famous as an artist and photographer as well as for her striking looks. ‘They don’t titillate; they bite,’ Richardson observes of these pictures. Maar recorded with her camera the stages through which Picasso’s Guernica passed in the course of its making. Until 1937, he had refrained from using art as a vehicle for his political beliefs, but the carpet bombing of the small town of Guernica on market day, when women and children had come into town with their produce, stung him into action. This large painting was first shown in Paris at the 1937 World Fair, then journeyed to England and other countries, rapidly becoming an international symbol of protest against oppression and destruction.

John Richardson, who died in 2019, began his career as an art critic and first met Picasso through his partner, Douglas Cooper, an outstanding collector of Cubist works, primarily those of Picasso, Braque and Gris. Cooper and Richardson frequently entertained Picasso in the château they restored in the south of France. Noticing that when Picasso changed his lover, everything else in his life, even his dog, changed, Richardson initially thought of approaching the subject of Picasso by telling the story of his women. But when he finally began to write, he found himself recording the progress of Picasso’s life, loves and art in a single weave. ‘My work is like a diary,’ Picasso once remarked, thereby licensing Richardson’s biographical method, which he uses to fold the artist’s life and work into a richly satisfying whole.

Yet Richardson’s four volumes of biography leave the last thirty years of Picasso’s life largely unchronicled. It is hard to imagine how anyone, however expert in this subject, might step into his shoes. Much that he records here is enhanced by his familiarity with Picasso. There is a vignette of Alice B Toklas, shrunken and ancient, squeaking with alarm as Picasso takes off her large black hat with its long egret feather and using it to tease her dog. There is also an account of Picasso, during the occupation of Paris, playing the simpleton when asked to show two German officers round the bank vaults where he and Matisse have stored a mass of work (which, on this occasion, was left untouched). No previous biographer of Picasso has commanded such detail, range and depth when dealing with this unendingly inventive and ferociously experimental artist. This fourth volume is shorter than the rest and more tautly written, but it nevertheless reflects Richardson’s gift for merging the personal with the professional. The illustrations are well placed and sustain the arguments within this absorbing narrative. The abundant energy displayed by Picasso throughout makes it astonishing to recall that on his arrival in this world he was thought to be stillborn – until his uncle, a doctor, blew cigar smoke in his face.

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