The Minotaur years, 1933-1943
Written by John Richardson with Ross Finocchio and Delphine Huisinga
Picasso’s name has come to mean “greatness”. Only “Einstein” rivals it as an acronym for “genius”. John Richardson’s previous three volumes of Picasso’s Life, published between 1991 and 2007 and now followed by Part IV, are based on the unquestioned assumption that Picasso represented the pinnacle of artistic achievement. Richardson, who had not trained as an art historian, was a friend of Picasso, a free-lance writer with a talent for narrative and a sensitive ability to read the artist’s works in connection with his life. The Minotaur Years end before World War II ends. Picasso lived three more decades, but this is the ultimate volume. John Richardson passed away at the age of 95 in 2019.
There is growing evidence in cognitive science that expectations, and prior, context-dependent beliefs, are essential for cognition. We are all biased by our past experiences, which shape what we see and how we evaluate it. The “Great Artist” is formed by a complex consensus created over time among experts, institutions, media and the public against a larger background of cultural values and hierarchy.
Debates about the possibility of separating artists’ lives from their art have taken on new urgency in a changing political climate. Picasso called his work “Diaries”. In the preface to the first volume, Richardson writes, “It must have been painful, Picasso would say with greater pride than guilt, to watch the same woman transform into a monster, or fade from his work, while a new favorite embodied in all her glory.” Women, whom Picasso described as either “gods” or “doormats,” became key to interpreting both his life and his work.
Throughout the biography, Richardson always refers to women by their first names and men by their last names, although the undeniably masculine Gertrude Stein is sometimes given the dignity of her surname. Once out of the shorts, he became Pablo Picasso. The childhood gesture towards the female characters, undoubtedly unconscious, is revealing. Although Richardson is outspoken about Picasso’s misogyny, his tone is very soft. In the third volume, the reader is alerted to the gruesome images of the artist’s wife, Olga Khokhlova, in contrast to the beautiful images of his young mistress, Marie-Therese Walter, which Picasso literally took from the street when she was seventeen years old. He started in the mysteries of sadomasochistic sex games. “The anger in these images suggests that Picasso suffered from the misogyny … which supposedly lurks in the psyche of every full-blooded Andalusian male.” Relying on the work of anthropologist David Gilmore, who researched misogyny in Picasso’s hometown, Richardson failed to acknowledge Gilmore’s thesis. In his book Misogyny: The Male Disease, he argues that this hatred crosses cultures and rises from a strong need and fear of a mother.
The decade covered in this volume, which conveys Picasso’s identification with the mythical half-beast, part-human Minotaur, is a tumultuous decade, in both public and private life. Picasso’s relations with the surrealists; his anti-fascist policies and art in response to the war in Spain, and later to the Nazi occupation; His relationship with photographer, painter, and thinker Dora Maar, who collaborated with him on photo engravings, documented the making of “Guernica” (named after the Spanish city bombed by fascists to ruins in 1937) and his wife being replaced by a commoner, while Walter remained in hiding and gave birth to their child, Maya, It is brilliantly rendered as Richardson moves from man to his circle to his art to larger historical events.
The book, however, is compromised by a timid glorification of the artist’s work and complicity with his behavior. Did the biographer, Gertrude Stein, realize that “Picasso’s way of words was more modern than her style? The writings of the Spaniard had more in common with the Irishman James Joyce.” There is no evidence for this surprising opinion. “As the war went on, the images of the cycle became more melancholy than ever. Picasso used her tears to represent the tears of humanity.” Picasso’s treatment of Marr is also more sadistic than ever. Richardson reports on Lucian Freud’s visit to Picasso in the early 1950s with his wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood. Picasso insisted that Blackwood accompany him up a narrow staircase to see Paris from the rooftop: “This break took longer than it should have. Freud was not pleased.” But Blackwood herself told this story. The 72-year-old artist attacked her: “Picasso was as old as the age of the hills, a genius, a genius or not.”
Moral purity should not be a requirement for making art. If that were the case, most artists of all races would have to walk off the stage immediately. However, Picasso’s malignant narcissism is in his art and an important component of his fame. Although he was extraordinarily creative in style and captured the work of other artists, as well as myths, symbols, and myths to transform them brilliantly, the emotional repertoire of the work, especially as he grew older, is much narrower than is often seen. Picasso’s female images from this period, idealistic and cruel, are constantly stereotyped.
In a catalog article for the exhibition “Women: Picasso, Beckmann, de Kooning” at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich (2012), I argued that Picasso’s “Woman Crying” (1937) by Dora Maar, allegedly evoking the atrocities of war, transforms grief into a ridiculous alien . After seeing Picasso’s work in 1932, Carl Jung wrote an essay in which he distinguished between neurotic and schizophrenic images: “The picture leaves one cold, or disturbed by the contradictory and unimpressive indifference of the beholder. This is the group to which Picasso belongs.” Richardson addresses Young in the third volume, but not this insight. In Life with Picasso, Françoise Gilot, who followed Mar as a lover and muse, quotes the artist: “No one has any real importance to me. As far as I’m concerned, other people are like those little grains of dust floating in the sunlight.” All it takes is pushing the broom and they’re out.”
Meaning is created between the viewer and the artwork. These meanings are variable and depend on who is making the look and the expectations brought into the canvas, which include the cultural statement of genius. Despite the gentle tone of Richardson’s novel and his careful avoidance of the pathology of his subject, the man who emerges from these pages is so dependent on and afraid of women, he is unable to establish a mutualistic relationship. He is also a wealthy man, whose sadistic impulses are fueled and celebrated by fake friends and the adoring public. Picasso’s misogyny is not only an unfortunate fact of his life, but is central to his work and to his continued charisma as a transcendent deity. A 2011 exhibition in San Francisco at the Musée de Young declared itself: “Discover the women, the passion and heartbreak behind Pablo Picasso’s work presented in ‘Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée Nationale Picasso, Paris’.”
There are vivid wonders and capricious miscarriages to be found in Picasso’s work, but the little Spaniard with a big chest and slender legs became much more than his work. It is a sign of the male genius that deals with the collective disease that exposes the defamation of women and the punishment of its perpetrators. This broader cultural myth, founded on prior beliefs dependent on context, requires interrogation, not through censorship, but by discussion, a discussion absent from Richardson’s biography.