NBCC Awards Finalists in Biography: John Richardson’s “A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917


This is the sixteenth in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

John Richardson, “A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932,” Knopf.

The impossible Spanish genius Pablo Picasso could probably stare down a bull in the fight ring—and his art bent such great beasts to its will with its metaphor-encrusted Minotaur imagery—but going head to brilliant head with John Richardson is another matter. That’s basically what happens—again—in this third, meaty and not final volume of Richardson’s biography of Picasso, in which the author continues to give a full measure of his subject as a man, an artist and an occupant of the busy spaces in between.

That’s not easy, as earlier biographies of Picasso testify, as does biography in general, where prodigious scholarship and research are the strong suit of some, an evocative and tough-minded sense of the life and times at hand more the gift of others. Richardson seamlessly brings together the two approaches.

He had help, and not just from a figure who created some of the course-changing works of modern art. But unlike many, he doesn’t relegate his research assistants, colleagues or earlier scholarship to footnotes: he is generous with the names and contributions of those he depended on. Yet, also in the spirit of his combative subject and the countless feuds, intellectual debates and social tensions surrounding Picasso, he deals quick, decisive and fact-filled blows to scholars, museum professionals and memoirists who have in the past imparted faulty, false or misguided information. His lively tussle with the late William Rubin of the Museum of Modern Art, for instance, over the role of Gerald and Sara Murphy in Picasso’s career, let alone specific paintings, makes mincemeat of Rubin’s arguments and interpretations. The Murphys were also famously hosts to Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald during their shattering idyll in the south of France, and Richardson demonstrates the patience that needs to be lost with the booze-soaked visitors in telling detail. Nor does he skirt the tragedy of Gerald Murphy’s unhappy homosexuality—one of the many dark undercurrents to this book is the stigma and shame imposed until more recently than we care to remember on being gay.

“Triumphant” though the years that unfold in Richardson’s account may be, the more somber, frightening and unappealing aspects of Picasso’s complex progression from early cubism to neoclassical modernism and surrealistic abstractions add to those undercurrents. His marriage to the snobbish, neurasthenic Ballets Russes dancer Olga Khoklova as well as his artistic involvement with Diaghilev & Cie. were among the developments that fueled the tensions in his life and work, Richardson contends, between bohemian and affluent family man, frequently cruel erotic obsessions and obligations to an increasingly established, even popular reputation, and the parts of his existence represented by Olga and those he celebrated in secret with his very young mistress, Marie-Therese Walter. Uncovering their presence in Picasso’s art reveals Richardson at the height of his own powers. 

Richardson not only has the advantage, of course, of prodigious learning but has also known a large number of the cast of historic characters he takes on—and sometimes takes to task—here. For a guilty but understandable pleasure, even the acknowledgments Richardson provides should not be skirted, at least if high society’s boldface names are one’s flute of Champagne.

Frivolous and silly, however, this biography never is, and holds its own in the company of other exemplary works of art history, social chronicle, professional assessment and nonfiction bildungsroman.  Picasso would not be Picasso without it.—Celia McGee

Review in the Los Angeles Times.

Review in New York Times Book Review.

Review in the Christian Science Monitor.

Review on New York Magazine Vulture website.

Review in the Dallas Morning News.

Review in The Oregonian.

Quick talk with Richardson on Time blog.

Michael Lewis on Richardson in Slate.