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A Life of Picasso Volume IV by John Richardson review – demon or deity? | Biography books

John Richardson’s serial biography of Picasso stalled when Richardson died three years ago at the age of 95. After this hiatus it now resumes, but in a different mood. The first three volumes were triumphalist, emphasising Picasso’s victorious advance from Barcelona to Paris and the X-ray vision that enabled him to fracture reality and modernise the visual world. In the fourth volume, with Europe caving in to fascism and Spain convulsed by civil war, the surrealist Michel Leiris sets the agenda with a baleful warning. “Picasso,” Leiris announced in 1937, “sends us our letter of doom.”

That declaration refers to Guernica, Picasso’s panorama of the bombed Basque town, where distraught civilians and gutted animals writhe under a radioactive monochrome sun while in the corner a villager’s emergency trip to empty her bowels in an outhouse exposes what Picasso called “the most primitive effect of fear”. The painting, Leiris added, predicts that “all that we love is going to die” and he recommended an affectionate farewell to the cultural beauty that was everywhere imperilled. Picasso, however, had more personal concerns: Richardson’s narrative emphasises physical beauty ravaged and love defamed or defiled, as the artist works his way through a series of women who are transfixed by his gaze, cruelly anatomised, then discarded once their metamorphic potential has been exhausted.

“Picasso Picassofied people,” as Richardson says, and the Picassofying involved a kind of vivisection. The new volume begins with his assault on his jangled, cranky Russian wife, Olga, in portraits that Richardson calls “masterpieces of marital hatred”. Next comes Dora Maar, an obligingly masochistic candidate for visual abuse. In an act of priapic worship, Dora photographed Picasso on the beach in a pair of what would now be called budgie smugglers; repaying the compliment, he represented her “licking testicular scoops of ice cream with a pointed blue tongue”, like a serpent skilled at fellatio. Later, she became the abject, clingy subject of Picasso’s Weeping Woman, after which he shunted her ahead into premature decay by portraying her as a wrinkled hag. Cast off, she lapsed into neurotic despair, then finally sought consolation in Catholic mysticism. “After Picasso,” she said, “there is only God.”

Richardson is inclined to agree with Dora, since Picasso’s compulsive, ruthless creativity was that of a deity or perhaps a demon. In earlier volumes, Richardson emphasised the black magic in his art; here, his “immense, albeit flawed power” is incarnated in the beefy body and spiked horns of the minotaur, the half-human, half-bull from Greek myth whose bellowing in an underground labyrinth was blamed for earthquakes. The minotaur demanded human sacrifices, but the taurine Picasso made do with a parade of self-sacrificing women and, as Richardson tracks his polyamorous frolics, the torments he visited on Olga and Dora give way to bedroom farce. In the course of one year-long retreat from Paris, he juggled six muses and mistresses, whom he distributed in separate menages around the same country town.

Richardson’s third volume concluded that Picasso was “apolitical”: at best, he could be called a monarchist, if only because he awarded himself kingly prerogatives. Events after 1933 tested this ideological disengagement without ever destroying it. Dalí, a delirious fascist, thought that Picasso trained an “imaginative machine gun” on Franco, but can a brush qualify as a weapon? Despite reiterated appeals to join the fray in Spain, Picasso did not return; he applied for French citizenship to avoid extradition and even served in absentia as director of the Prado, from which all the paintings had in any case been removed. During the German occupation of Paris, he accepted the hospitality of quislings such as an Argentine diplomat who “embodied everything that he loathed” but kept him in cigarettes and lavishly lunched him on black-market delicacies served by liveried waiters. Having stowed his own canvases in a bank vault, Picasso flummoxed the soldiers who inspected the hoard by playing a financially clueless simpleton. His dealer, meanwhile, rejoiced in the scarcity of saleable new work, which kept prices high throughout the war.

Picasso in his Paris studio
Picasso in his Paris studio. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

As Picasso nonchalantly confessed, his behaviour was not heroic: he stayed put in Paris out of mere inertia. More than that, he thought of self-preservation as his sacred duty. Despite his raffish bohemianism, he owned a sleek Hispano-Suiza limousine whose interior decor featured flower arrangements in crystal vases; a white-gloved chauffeur ferried him about, because he refused to take the wheel himself. “An artist,” he explained, “should never put his hands at risk.” Richardson challenged this embargo by pointing out to Picasso that he surely risked his hands when sculpting iron. Picasso scoffed at the notion: a welder took care of such manual chores for him.

Anecdotes like this derive from the time Richardson spent as a member of Picasso’s matey entourage during the 1950s. He was then living in a French chateau with the moneyed connoisseur Douglas Cooper, who, as Richardson puts it with coy mock-modesty, collected “cubist works of art and good-looking young men”. Cooper and Richardson cooked for Picasso and his followers as they travelled home from the bullfights in Arles and he repaid this hospitality with gifts of drawings. Later, realising what his casual scribbles were worth, he gave them caviar instead, which he said was cheaper.

The biography is enlivened by this anecdotal intimacy, though when I met Richardson in New York in 2008, he said: “I’m sure Picasso would have hated my books.” The infatuations Richardson documents were the sources for Picasso’s imagery and he wanted to keep that psychic reservoir secret. Richardson, however, has ingeniously deciphered the art without demystifying the artist.

This posthumous volume is briefer than its predecessors and was evidently produced with difficulty: Richardson suffered from macular degeneration, which allowed him to see paintings but caused him trouble with print, and he needed help from collaborators whose actual contribution to the book is unclear. All the same, it’s sad that there won’t be a fifth instalment, or a sixth, to follow the subject into his fecund, defiant old age. After Picasso, Dora Maar at least had God; Richardson’s Picasso won’t be so easy to replace.

A Life of Picasso Volume IV: The Minotaur Years 1933-43 is published by Vintage (£35). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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