John Richardson was the partner of Picasso collector Douglas Cooper and knew Picasso well. He is therefore well qualified to be Picasso’s biographer and has written 3 detailed volumes of his life. I recently read the first. I have to admit immediately that I am not a great reader of biography. Most biographies are immensely detailed with a week by week account of a person’ s life which I find difficult to absorb. I was drawn to this as I thought it might more have impressions of the greatest painter of the twentieth century. To some extent it does but it’s more an account of where Picasso was more than who he was. Picasso was born in Malaga in 1881 and was something of a prodigy. His father was a dilettante art teacher and there was some money in the family with a rich uncle. The family moved north and Picasso studied in the art schools of Barcelona and then Madrid. He liked Barcelona best and was a habitue of an artist’s cafe called the Four Cats. He then moved to Paris where he lived in extreme poverty and was discovered by dealers Berthe Weill and Amboise Voillard who gave him his first exhibition.
As a very young man he was an outstanding portraitist and his brilliant study of his aunt painted when he was 15 hangs in the Picasso museum in Barcelona. He moved onto the more melancholic blue period. Richardson describes well his abject poverty and its possible that the blue period had a more financial motivation namely he could not afford a whole range of paints. Similarly much is made of his admiration of Masters Goya and El Greco but he was drawn to copying these artists in a museum as this was warmer place to be than his Paris studio.
From an early age Picasso had a voracious sexual appetite and was a serial user of brothels. We are fortunate that he was not struck down by some killer sexual disease. Some of the depictions of his friends with prostitutes borders on the pornographic. Such was the genius of the man that he was never going to be contained by one style and from an early age went from the blue to the pink to cubism and became a superb ceramicist too. You can also detect in these early years a contempt for both dealers and women. Someone observed that of the hundreds of his depictions of women there is not one smiling.
Richardson has his dislikes, one of whom was Picasso’s secretary Sabartes. He quite regularly offers his own opinion as inviolable fact but he has a fluent and elegant writing style and is a sophisticated art critic. I read the book on my Kindle which suffers from tiny representations of the paintings. In time I will read volumes 2 and 3 in book form and one hopes that Richardson now aged 90 and living in New York writes a fourth volume. This stops at Mesdamemoiselles d’Avignon generally regarded as one of Picasso’s landmark pictures.