A flawed master

<strong>A Life of Picasso: Volume III - the Triumphant Years (1917-1932)

</strong>John Richardson

So here it is. Eleven years after the second book in John Richardson's planned four-volume A Life of Picasso, the third instalment has arrived. Six hundred pages long, The Triumphant Years covers just 16 years of Picasso's life and work.

We kick off in Rome in February 1917, where Serge Diaghilev and Erik Satie have asked Picas so to design the set and costumes of their ballet Parade. Soon Picasso has designs on one of Dia ghilev's principal dancers, though Olga Khokh lova resists him. Adamant, says Richardson, that her virginity was her biggest asset, Olga hung on to it until long after Picasso proposed to her. But though Olga would bear Picasso the son - Paulo - he so wanted, the marriage was a disaster.

Hence the violence of so much of the work Richardson analyses. Though we left cubism behind in volume two, the wrenchings and extrudings Picasso put human bodies through in the 1920s are far more disturbing. Olga was overjoyed, Richardson tells us, when she finally persuaded Picasso to sell Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), that masterpiece of crumple and fracture. She might not have been so happy if she had known what pictures her husband was about to paint - pictures in which she would so often be the subject.

Large Nude in a Red Armchair (1929), for instance, in which Olga's dancer's body is turned into an octopus, flailing and flaccid save for stiletto-blade genitalia and a vagina dentata-like visage. It is customary to compare the painting with Matisse's Odalisque With a Tambourine (1925-26), but Richardson, in a characteristically brilliant aside, draws parallels with Goya's Time (1808-12) - that putrescent study of two gaunt old trolls at their mirror. (Olga, it should be pointed out, was 37 at the time.) Such pictures, Richardson argues, suggest that "Picasso suffered from the atavistic misogyny toward women that supposedly lurks in the psyche of every full-blooded Andalusian male". Possibly, but the real suffering was done by Olga et al.

The Life of Picasso is too tonally variegated to be hagiography but, for a contemporary biographer, Richardson is extraordinarily uninterested in feet of clay. If he never quite argues that his man could do no wrong, he is forever implying that the people around him could do little else. At one point he says "by sticking her tongue out at him, cursing him in Russian, and telling him that he was not Paulo's father . . . Olga generated the rage, misogyny and guilt that fuelled his shamanic powers". Maybe she did - but mightn't those curses have been fuelled by that rage?

As with the life, so with the art. There is something desperate about the way Richardson underrates George Braque's post-cubist achievements - the better to emphasise those of his own man. Ditto his seeming to think that, by calling Matisse's Moroccan paintings of the 1910s "less modern" than Picasso's contemporaneous work, he has seen them off. As Richardson says elsewhere, Picasso had nothing but respect for modernism's greatest colourist.

Where the two men did differ was on politics. Picasso took issue with Matisse's famous wish that his art might serve as "a good armchair . . . for every . . . businessman or writer". Oughtn't he, Picasso demanded, want his art to "appeal to a simple workman who is certainly more in need of a good armchair at the end of the day than his boss?" Fair enough, though Picasso didn't raise this question until he joined the Communist Party in 1944 - almost 40 years after Matisse's comment and more than a decade after the present volume draws to a close.

Indeed, during the 16 years here covered, Picas so is extravagantly unintrigued by what is happening in the world. As the book opens, the Great War is still raging, the Russian Revolution is soon to begin and Picasso's adopted country of France is on the verge of financial meltdown. Nothing of this chaos finds its way into his art. Picasso was, said his dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, "the most apolitical man I have ever met", and not until 1937 and Guernica would he make an avowedly political statement in paint. Alas - for Richardson's doubtless eye-opening take on that picture, we shall have to wait for volume four.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future