Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

John Richardson : A Life of Picasso Vol. 1

After flirting with classicism, he had finally seen how primitivism—Gauguin’s synthetic brand as well as the real thing—could enable him to fuse the conflicts inherent in his style and vision. He could now face up to the magnitude of the struggle that lay ahead. After the triumphant synthesis of the Stein portrait, the Two Nudes and the Self-Portrait with a Palette. Picasso realized that he had the confidence, imagination and power to execute a masterpiece that would “free art from its shackles” and “extend its frontiers” (Apollinaire); a painting that would provide artists of the new century with a license to take every conceivable liberty, break every conceivable rule and “demolish even the ruins” (Jarry).

The above comes from the last page of this first volume of biography, and the wonderful thing about Richardson's account is how well the reader has been prepared for it -- with examples as well as comparative interpretations as well as background material about characters like Stein, Apollinaire, and Jarry, as well as Picasso, his women and his family.

BTW , Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) was an utterly self-destructive, nihilistic fellow who didn't make it to the age of 35 and seems to exemplify the extremes of the Bohemian world in which Picasso rose to stardom.

Unlike many of these denizens, including the women he fucked, Picasso appears to have come from a very nourishing home where he was groomed to be an artist by protective mother, contibuting uncles, and his art teacher father from a very early age.

It is at this point, the beginning of 1907, that I propose to bring this first volume to an end. The twenty-five-year-old Picasso is about to conjure up a quintet of Dionysiac Demoiselles on his huge new canvas. The execution of this painting would make a dramatic climax to these pages. However, it would imply that Picasso’s great revolutionary work constitutes a conclusion to all that has gone before. It does not. For all that the Demoiselles is deeply rooted in Picasso’s past, not to speak of such precursors as the Iron Age Iberians, El Greco, Gauguin and Cezanne, it is essentially a beginning: the most innovative painting since Giotto. As we will see in the next volume, it established a new pictorial syntax; it enabled people to perceive things with new eyes, new minds, new awareness. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is the first unequivocally twentieth century masterpiece, a principal detonator of the modern movement, the cornerstone of twentieth-century art.

But underlying Richardson's narrative is a Modernist ideology as expressed above.

Andred Derain, 'Black Binge', 1943

Derain was an imposing man, not just in height—he towered over Picasso—but in geniality and charm, force of intellect and character. Clive Bell—who venerated him, as all too evidently did his wife, Vanessa, and the other Bloomsbury painters—compared him with Dr. Johnson, “a dictator at once humorous and tragic but, unlike him, infinitely subtle.”45 Dictator or not, Derain was tormented by doubt—”Doubt is everywhere and in everything,” he wrote Vlaminck46—doubly tormented in that, unlike Cezanne, who turned his doubts to triumphant advantage, Derain was ultimately the victim of them. Doubt doomed him to drink; doubt doomed him to squander his prodigious gifts in a futile effort to gentrify the modern movement by reconciling it with hallowed tradition and primitivism bordering on quaintness. Derain’s fate was to be born a petit bourgeois and develop into a grand bourgeois. People who talked about Picasso and Matisse tout court were apt to refer to Monsieur Derain. For all his youthful bohemianism and rebelliousness, Derain would never entirely escape being the son of a prosperous pastrycook who catered to a prosperous suburban clientele. There was an element of cuisine to his work. The father’s métier might account for the son’s tendency in later years to garnish his work with titillating highlights—frosting.

And Richardson has a tendency to arrive at characterizations that may sacrifice insight for the snarky cleverness of insider gossip. Not surprisingly, Derain and Picasso broke off contact after a few years. (the above is taken from the early pages of Vol. 2)