The long-awaited third volume of John Richardson’s definitive biography of Pablo Picasso combines the critical astuteness, exhaustive research, and stunning narrative that made the first two volumes an art-historical breakthrough as well as a pleasure to read.
The Triumphant Years takes up the artist’s life in 1917, when Picasso and Cocteau left wartime Paris for Rome to work with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on their revolutionary production of Parade. Visits to Naples, above all to the Farnese marbles in the Museo Nazionale, would leave Picasso with a lifelong obsession with classical sculpture as well as the self-referential commedia dell’arte. After returning to Paris and marrying one of Diaghilev’s ballerinas, Olga Khokhlova, he abandoned bohemia for the drawing rooms of Paris. Hence, his so-called Duchess period, which coincided with his switch to neoclassicism, and would ultimately be absorbed into a metamorphic form of cubism.
In the summer of 1923, Picasso and his American friends Gerald and Sara Murphy transformed the French Riviera from a winter into a summer resort, when they persuaded the proprietor of the Hôtel du Cap at Antibes to keep the place open for the summer. In doing so, they made the Riviera Europe’s major playground. Mediterraneanism was in Picasso’s bones. Born in Málaga, he would always identify with this inland sea.
In 1927 the artist’s life underwent a major change; he abandoned society for a life out of the spotlight with a beautiful seventeen-year-old girl, Marie-Thérèse Walter. His erotic obsession with Marie-Thérèse would result in an ever-growing antipathy for his neurasthenic, understandably jealous wife. Balletic clues have enabled Richardson to identify a number of baffling figure-paintings as portrayals of Olga and reinterpret the work of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Picasso’s passionate love for his mistress and his passionate hatred for his wife can be fully understood only in light of each other.
The last three chapters constitute an annus mirabilis—spring 1931 to spring 1932—during which the artist celebrated his fiftieth birthday. Challenged to scale new heights by the passage of time, Picasso lived up to his shamanic belief that painting should have a magic function. In the course of this year, he reinvented sculpture and to a great extent his own imagery in a bid to Picassify the classical tradition. The resultant retrospective in Paris and Zurich in the summer of 1932 confirmed Picasso as the leader of the modern movement.
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John Richardson is the author of a memoir, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; an essay collection, Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters; and books on Manet and Braque. He has written for The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. He was instrumental in setting up Christie’s in the United States. In 1993 he was made a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. In 1995–96 he served as the Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University. He divides his time between Connecticut and New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter 1: Rome and the Ballets Russes (1917)
Picasso's visit to Rome in February 1917 had originally been conceived as a wedding trip, but at the last moment his on-again off-again mistress, Irène Lagut, who had promised to marry him, changed her mind, as her predecessor, Gaby Lespinasse, had done the year before. Instead of Irène, Jean Cocteau accompanied him. In a vain attempt to set himself at the head of the avant-garde, this ambitious young poet had inveigled Picasso into collaborating with him on Parade: a gimmicky, quasi-modernist ballet about the efforts of a couple of shills to lure the public into their vaudeville theater by tantalizing them with samples of their acts. Cocteau had desperately wanted Diaghilev to stage this ballet in Paris. The meddlesome Polish hostess Misia Sert had tried to scupper the project. However, Picasso's Chilean protector and patron, Eugenia Errázuriz, had persuaded Diaghilev to agree, provided Picasso did the décor, Erik Satie the score, and Léonide Massine the choreography. Sets, costumes, and rehearsals were to be done in Rome, where Diaghilev had his wartime headquarters. Picasso's cubist followers were horrified that their avant-garde hero should desert them for anything as frivolous and modish as the Ballets Russes, but he ignored their complaints. After two and a half years of war, with its appalling death toll, its hardships and shortages, and above all the absence of his closest friends—particularly Braque and Apollinaire at the front—Picasso was elated at the prospect of leaving the bombardments and blackouts behind to spend a couple of months in the relative peace of Rome, which he had always wanted to visit. Besides working on Parade, he was determined to get married.
Picasso and Cocteau arrived in Rome on February 19, 1917, a day later than they had intended. Cocteau, who had forgotten to get a visa from the Italian embassy, had lied when telling him that no reservations were available. Diaghilev had booked them into the Grand Hotel de Russie on the corner of the Via del Babuino and the Piazza del Popolo. So that Picasso could work in peace on the costumes and sets for Parade, he had also arranged for him to have one of the coveted Patrizi studios, tucked away in a sprawling, unkempt garden off the Via Margutta. Although most of the artists are now gone, the Patrizi studios are still as idyllic as they were in 1917.
"I cannot forget Picasso's studio in Rome," Cocteau later wrote. "A small chest contained the maquette for Parade, with its houses, trees and shack. It was there that Picasso did his designs for the Chinese Conjurer, the Managers, the American Girl, the Horse, which Anna de Noailles would compare to a laughing tree, and the Acrobats in blue tights, which would remind Marcel Proust of The Dioscuri." From his window Picasso had a magnificent view of the sixteenth-century Villa Medici, seat of the French Academy, towering above the studio garden. As he well knew, the Academy had associations with some of his favorite artists. Velázquez had painted the garden; Ingres had spent four years there as a fellow at the outset of his career and, later, six years as director; Corot had also worked there and caught the golden light of Rome and the campagna, as no other painter had done.
"Rome seems made by [Corot]," Cocteau reported to his mother. "Picasso talks of nothing else but this master, who touches us much more than Italians hell bent on the grandiose!" That Picasso infinitely preferred the informality of Corot's radiant views to the pomp and ceremony and baroque theatricality of so much Roman painting is confirmed by his sun-filled pointillistic watercolors of the Villa Medici's ochre façade—as original as anything he did in Rome.
Diaghilev insisted that Picasso and Cocteau share his passion for the city. Sightseeing was compulsory that very first evening. Since there was no blackout as there was in Paris, they were able to see the Colosseum all lit up—"that enormous reservoir of the centuries," Cocteau said, "which one would like to see come alive, crowded with people and wild beasts and peanut vendors." The following morning, Diaghilev picked them up in his car for another grand tour. In the evening he took them to the circus. "Sad but beautiful arena," Cocteau wrote his mother. "Misia Sert (or rather her double) performed on the tight rope. Diaghilev slept until woken with a start by an elephant putting its feet on his knees."
When he arrived in Rome, Picasso was still suffering from chagrin d'amour. Eager to find a replacement for Irène Lagut, he had promptly fallen in love with one of Diaghilev's Russian dancers, the twenty-five-year-old Olga Khokhlova. Although he courted her assiduously and did a drawing of her, which he signed with his name in Cyrillic, Olga proved adamantly chaste. Chastity was a challenge that Picasso had seldom had to face. Both Diaghilev and Bakst warned him that a respectable Russian woman would not sacrifice her virginity unless assured of marriage. "Une russe on l'épouse," Diaghilev said. Olga personified this view. She was indeed respectable: the daughter of Stepan Vasilievich Khokhlov, who was not a general, as she claimed, but a colonel in the Corps of Engineers in charge of the railway system. Olga had three brothers and a younger sister. They lived in St. Petersburg in a state-owned apartment on the Moika Canal. Around 1910, the colonel had been sent to the Kars region to oversee railroad construction, and the family had followed him there. Olga stayed behind. Egged on by a school friend's sister, Mathilda Konetskaya, who had joined the Diaghilev ballet after graduating from the Imperial Ballet School, she decided to become a dancer.
Olga had considerable talent. Despite starting late and studying briefly at a St. Petersburg ballet school, she managed to get auditioned by Diaghilev. The Ballets Russes was having difficulty prying dancers loose from the state-run theaters and was desperate for recruits. A committee consisting of Nijinsky and the greatest of classical ballet masters, Enrico Cecchetti, as well as Diaghilev—a trio described by another dancer as more terrifying than any first- night audience—put Olga through her paces and accepted her. Intelligence and diligence compensated for lack of experience. Nijinsky was sufficiently impressed to pick her out of the corps de ballet.
Léonide Massine, who had taken Nijinsky's place in Diaghilev's company as well as in his heart, had chosen Olga to play the role of Dorotea in Les Femmes de bonne humeur, an adaptation of a comedy by the eighteenth-century playwright Goldoni, with sets by Léon Bakst and a heavily arranged score after Scarlatti. It was at a rehearsal for this ballet, which would have its premiere in Rome the following month, that Picasso spotted Olga and immediately set about courting her. To familiarize himself with the techniques of theatrical décor as well as watch his new love at work, he helped Carlo Socrate (the scene painter who would work on Parade) execute Bakst's scenery. So that he could join Olga backstage, Picasso even helped the stagehands at the ballet's premiere. Eighteen months later he would marry her.
Compared to her predecessors—Bohemian models Picasso had lived with in Montmartre or Montparnasse—Olga was very much a lady, not, however, the noblewoman biographers have assumed her to be. She came from much the same professional class as Picasso's family. Don José, Picasso's father, may have been a very unsuccessful painter, but his brothers included a diplomat, a revered prelate, and a successful doctor, who had married the daughter of a Malagueño marquis. One of Picasso's mother's first cousins was a general—more celebrated than Olga's parent, also the real thing. Indeed, it may have been Olga's lack of blue blood that made her so anxious to become a grande dame and bring up her son like a little prince. Arthur Rubinstein, the pianist, who had met Olga in 1916 when the ballet visited San Sebastián, remembered her as "a stupid Russian who liked to brag about her father, who she pretended was a colonel in the Tsar's own regiment. The other dancers assured me that he was only a sergeant." This was an exaggeration, but Olga's pretensions were resented by other members of the company.
Ten years younger than Picasso, Olga had fine regular features, dark reddish hair, green eyes, a small, lithe, dancer's body, and a look of wistful, Slavic melancholy that accorded with the romanticism of classic Russian ballet. Formal photographs reveal Olga to have been a beauty—usually an unsmiling one—although in early snapshots of her with Picasso and Cocteau in Rome, she is actually grinning. Later, she plays up to him, dances for him, takes on different personalities, which might explain the widely varying reactions to her. The celebrated ballerina Alexandra Danilova declared that Olga "was nothing—nice but nothing. We couldn't discover what Picasso saw in her." A Soviet ballet historian, the late Genya Smakov, found references to her in an unpublished memoir by someone working for Diaghilev, where she is said to have been "neurotic." On the other hand, Lydia Lopokova—the most intelligent of Diaghilev's ballerinas—was Olga's best friend in the company.
Picasso fell for Olga's vulnerability. He sensed the victim within. She would have appealed to his possessiveness and protectiveness especially when the Russian Revolution cut her off from her family. Her vulnerability would likewise have appealed to Picasso's sadistic side. (The women in his life were expected to read the Marquis de Sade.) In the past year rejection by the two women he had hoped to marry had left him exceedingly vulnerable. Pica...
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