28 April 2008

A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932

I picked up the third volume in the multi-part series of Picasso biographies by John Richardson with much excitement. It is very heavy and very expensive, not usually qualities that I look for in a biography but the first two were landmarks that I often turn to.

Unfortunately, the series is starting to get a little cranky and opinionated and Richardson’s interpretations of the works themselves a bit redundant, his grasp of the theory obscure. He uncritically accepts, for example, the greatness of the relatively short-lived ‘neo-classical’ period, when I believe Picasso himself quickly came to regard them as a dead-end. Whenever I’ve come across them in travelling shows, they have always looked overblown and empty compared with what came before. They look like battery-recharging exercises to me. Richardson intimates that they might have been done to impress his new conservative and socially ambitious wife, which chimes with Picasso’s ingratiating behaviour at the time.

There are several annoyances. Jean Cocteau was a constant figure in Picasso’s circle, often to his irritation, especially during the 1920s and the long association with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Yet Richardson never lets a mention of Cocteau’s name go by with attaching a derogatory adjective to it. Now, it is incontestable that Cocteau could be an annoying, craven, social climbing little greaser, who was constantly trying to ingratiate himself with any passing member of society with a healthy bank balance, a bit of talent or a good arse. But let’s not forget people, that we are also talking about the author of La Belle et la Bette and Blood of a Poet. I, the reader, am quite capable of coming to my own conclusions about Cocteau’s behaviour without the author’s constant editorialising.

And why the squeamishness when it comes to Olga’s illness? This is not an unimportant detail. Picasso’s apparent horror at her symptoms was exploited in the vast canon of works dealing explicitly with Olga throughout the 1920s and 30s, so I would say the question is a critical one. Several times, Richardson insinuates that it was a gynaecological condition that remained uncured or inaccurately diagnosed following Paulo’s birth. He suggests it was something (he won’t say what) that resulted in haemorrhages, hence the frequent depiction of Olga in the later works as a screaming harpy clothed in various permutations of blood red. Is it a fault of research? Or does it reflect Richardson’s own prejudices? The reluctance to ‘go there’ seems disappointingly sexist, if that’s what it is. By all accounts Olga was a difficult customer and probably a nightmare to be married to, whether one happened to be a self-obsessed macho like Picasso or not. She certainly seems to have been mentally fragile, but Richardson’s persistent habit of connecting this to her ‘woman’s problems’ seems to reveal an odd Victorian-era connection between the uterus and ‘hysteria’. Whatever, it is not good enough.

Still, Picasso is vividly present on the page. This volume covers his famous ‘sell-out’ period when he shunned his grubby bohemian friends and took up fine clothes, socialising on a big scale, grand villas both in the country and the city and a very big car for the sake of Olga and her social pretensions. Probably his social pretensions as well, as this wasn’t a brief moment in Picasso’s life, but a fertile couple of decades.

Olga Khoklova the former ballerina is the big hole in this volume. Her personality remains remote. We get very little sense of this strange woman’s qualities, the qualities that a man as complex as Picasso found so captivating. Richardson just seems to note Picasso’s friends’ dismissal of her as a blank without trying too hard to dispel the impression, which was surely wrong.

Picasso was a complete shit to the women in his life, but then that is hardly news. He did, however, have a few saving personal graces. I particularly liked Picasso’s habit of getting about in his enormous town car with its Erich Von Stroheim look-alike chauffeur while dressed in paint-spattered work clothes. As far as I can tell from the picture, we’re talking about exactly the kind of car Norma Desmond got around in in ‘Sunset Boulevard’. That’s class you can’t fake.

It’s interesting that we are talking about Picasso now at all. Certainly his life, his art and his career are absolutely at odds with our era’s preoccupation with the political consequences of identity. Interesting because one can’t separate Picasso’s identity from the art for long. To even begin discussing Picasso’s constantly anthropomorphic work of the late 1920s and early 30s is impossible without unpacking his idea of sex, which is deeply antifeminist. Reading the book, I kept imagining myself standing in front of a class of eighteen year-old shrinking violets saying things like “Notice the internal rhyme between the female figure’s mouth and her vagina”, and “See how the sleeping Marie-Therese’s profile becomes the artist’s penis”. I shudder to think of it.

Is it definitive? Certainly not. There is much to be thankful for, but still questions that remain unanswered.

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