Picasso the complex

John Richardson's third volume on the life of Picasso suggests the artist's exhaustive depictions of evil were an attempt to rid himself of its power.

Near the end of the latest (third) section of John Richardson's massively detailed biography of Picasso – A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years 1917–1932 – the author quotes the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung. Jung wrote a lengthy critique of Picasso published a day after a vastly successful 1932 retrospective of his work ended in Zurich. Jung's "summary diagnosis" of Picasso included the notion that the famed artist was "a schizophrenic." "Seventy-five years later," Richardson comments, "this diagnosis does not seem all that wide of the mark."

Picasso was a man, Richardson reminds readers, whose "superstitious nature and fear of the power of evil should never be underestimated." And yet, he rejects Jung's indictment that Picasso was "demoniacally attracted to ugliness and evil." The artist's fear of evil may have included an element of fascination. But Richardson sees a different kind of conflict shaping the strange, tortuous roots of Picasso's art – and helping to explain why a man so perversely contradictory, sexually obsessive, and often deliberately cruel (his treatment of fellow artist Juan Gris was at least disgraceful), could also be such a toweringly original, inexhaustible artist.

"Jung of all people," Richardson writes, "should have sensed the exorcistic nature of Picasso's work; that, far from delighting in the 'demoniacal,' Picasso felt it was his shamanistic duty to exorcise evil by fighting it with evil."

Richardson has already exhaustively chronicled Picasso in the first two volumes ("A Life of Picasso: The Prodigy, 1881-1906" and "A Life of Picasso: The Cubist Rebel, 1907-1916") of this work. (A fourth and final volume is projected as well.) The convincing portrait of Picasso that emerges slowly from the pages of this third installment reemphasizes the peculiar fact that the artist most determined to be modern, and with whom "modern art" is most popularly identified, not only had the instincts of a primitive savage, but produced extraordinary art stemming with startling directness from those instincts. Throughout the years covered by this volume, Picasso pursues these instincts with persistent force while at the same time, when he chooses, acting out a sort of charade. He became, in effect, a "celeb," and he played that part in suits and hats – and even sometimes spats! – so effectively that many of his erstwhile friends believed he'd sold out and become a rich bourgeois. (He was certainly rich; the recession never touched him).

Two factors brought this about. One was his association with Russian arts patron Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, and there is plenty of detail about that. The other factor was Olga Khokhlova, one of Diaghilev's dancers. She did her utmost to civilize and gentrify Picasso and, on the surface, succeeded. Diaghilev treated Picasso as part of his entourage and expected proper behavior in exchange. Olga wanted to be Picasso's wife. When that finally happened, she played the fashionable hostess and enjoyed running a household with servants, nannies, and chauffeurs. She also managed to get Picasso to alienate many of his friends. Even his art, sometimes Ingresque, sometimes classical (though often with an ironic twist), now became surprisingly unrevolutionary compared with his prewar Cubist explorations. Had he sold out?

Well – no. During this time Picasso in fact produced some of his most disturbing art as well as his most conventional. He appears to have half wanted the bourgeois trappings and home and family (Olga gave him a son), but he did not stop frequenting and being fascinated by brothels, and then he fell for a young girl called Marie-Therese Walter who could hardly have been less like his wife. Out of the complex contrast between his wife and his mistress came some of the most anguished and also celebratory art of the 20th century.

At one point, Richardson states as a matter of fact that, from this time forward, Picasso's art was exclusively concerned with sex. Even a painting of a house he lived in is (not entirely unconvincingly) characterized as sexual.

Richardson is often impressive in his ability to decode paintings that he believes others have misinterpreted, even as he admits that interpretation can never be entirely certain since Picasso did his best to puzzle, baffle, and mystify. Yet sometimes Richardson's explanations verge on an almost clinical analysis that arguably dulls the energetic (or frenetic) charge of the image he is scrutinizing. On the other hand, he does not balk at the endless play of metamorphoses and double (often erotic) meanings inherent in Picasso's work. And he never forgets that Picasso had a black humor and wit that continually undermines a too-solemn assessment of his art.

One of Richardson's strengths, very evident in this third installment of his masterly Picasso opus, is his ability to place the artist and his genius in the context of his time. The societal high jinks of the 20s into which Picasso was drawn with a mix of enthusiasm and reluctance, are fascinatingly described. And above all the author's insight into the art itself is frequently illuminating.

Christopher Andreae writes on arts for the Monitor.

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