From Cubism to Classicism

By Meyers, Jeffrey | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

From Cubism to Classicism


Meyers, Jeffrey, The Virginia Quarterly Review


A Life of Picasso. Volume II: 1907-1917. By John Richardson. Random House. $55.00.

This handsomely designed and bountifully illustrated volume opens when Picasso is 26 and devotes 500 pages to ten years-only one-ninth of his long life. But during this crucial decade he "made his first and probably greatest breakthrough, fell in love for the first time, and made his mark as the rebel leader of modern art." John Richardson combines exhaustive research with a healthy scepticism about unreliable and often self-serving memoirs. His ear picks up sexual, especially homosexual, scandal ("the young men came to frolic in the infamous sauna") while his nose sniffs out the radical flaws in those two talented frauds: Jean Cocteau, selfingratiating and always on the make, and Gertrude Stein, who "would behave as if ownership of Picasso's key works entitled her to act as the high priestess of cubism."

Always aware of the social and political context (revolution in Spain, riots in Germany, war in France), Richardson is perceptive about Picasso's backbiting camaraderie with a wide circle-or rather, cube-of painters (especially Matisse, Braque, and Derain), poets (notably Apollinaire, Andre Salmon, and Max Jacob), patrons, dealers and double-dealers, models and mistresses (most of his women had this dual function), and Bohemian hangers-on. Picasso and Matisse, their friendship fueled by mutual suspicion and esteem, met at the Steins', visited each other's studio, and exchanged paintings. Matisse cut to the core when he said that his rival "is capricious and unpredictable. But he understands things." Picasso considered Braque his closest friend; and during their tortuous progress through the maze of cubism-each surging ahead, then falling behind the other-their paintings were sometimes indistinguishable. Derain, the most knowledgable and intellectual member of the group, had "a mind Apollinairean in scope, painterly in sensibility," which the more visceral Picasso, who rarely read a book, could gorge on.

Richardson gives a lively account of Picasso's habits and tastes, wide-ranging interests and witty talk, compulsions and rituals, superstitions and fears-especially of illness and death. "Young, olive, with bright, frank eyes, each with a devil in it, straight black hair" (as an American woman described him in 1908), he worked in the shocking squalor of the Bateau Lavoir, which had "no gas or electricity and only one tap and one primitive toilet for the entire building." Though he lived in France and wrote to his compatriot Juan Gris in French, he spoke with a strong accent and always felt the atavistic tug of Spain. He spent many summers in Catalonia, visiting his parents in Barcelona, despite their disapproval of his mistresses and art. He loved strong Andalusian dishes, the spectacle of the bullfight, and the elongated mystics of El Greco. "Sombre, excessif, revolutionnaire," Picasso saw himself "as an artist of messianic power, an artist whose only obligation was and always would be to his work. This was sacrosanct, hence also his well-being. Too bad if friends and family had sometimes to be sacrificed . . . he did not relish the guilt that these sacrifices entailed."

In true Bohemian fashion, a series of women-Fernande Olivier, Eva Gouel, Gaby Depeyre, Irene Lagut, with Olga Khokhlova of the Ballets Russes waiting in the wings-appeared in and suddenly vanished from his life and work as the good bourgeois searched for a satisfying (that is, self-effacing and sacrificial) wife. (Though Richardson doesn't make this connection, Apollinaire played a similar role, with Picasso, in the abduction of Iberian statues from the Louvre to Picasso's studio and the abduction of Irene Lagut from her Russian lover to Picasso's romantic prison in Montrouge.) Whenever a new woman came into his life-noted Dora Maar, a later apparition-everything changed. …

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