I think the most honest-to-the-book, straightforward review of the third volume of John Richardson’s Picasso biography has come from Robert Pincus in the San Diego Union-Tribune. While everyone else was gushing over Richardson, Pincus was nearly alone among reviewers in mentioning one of the biography’s problems: “[Olga] Khokhlova never really acquires flesh and blood in these pages, and neither does [Marie-Therese] Walter,” Pincus wrote. “This is the book’s one notable weakness. Richardson is much better at looking at how Picasso’s art echoed his life with the women.”
Most other reviewers simply gushed. “Richardson leads us through the grand story with energy, wit and authority,” Time’s Richard Lacayo wrote. He later added: “Richardson is constantly illuminating on the sources of Picasso’s art.” The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda is fascinated by the sex and gossip in the book: “Compared to the learned historicism of an E.H. Gombrich or the urbane connoisseurship of a Kenneth Clark, Richardson’s tell-all biography reads something like a high-brow gossip column. The book is wickedly, sinfully entertaining.” In the NYT Book Review, Jed Perl calls Richardson’s book a “powerhouse.”
Yes, Vol. III is entertaining. Richardson is fascinating and thorough on key questions that scholars have bandied back-and-forth for decades: How old was Marie-Therese Walter when Picasso picked her up? Did Picasso bed Sara Murphy? What were the specific sources of Picasso’s neo-classicism? In fact Richardson is so thorough on these (and other) points that I can’t understand how he could be so disinterested in and occasionally dismissive of much recent scholarship on Picasso’s art and the artists who influenced it, most notably Matisse. Andrew Butterfield, writing in the New York Review of Books, never utters Matisse’s name. In the NYTBR, Perl addressed Richardson’s lone-artist theory — and quickly explained it away:
“Richardson’s Picasso is a colossus, a heroic figure whose achievements are so out of the ordinary that they quite literally defy explanation. This is a rather old-fashioned idea. It is also an idea with an enduring value. There is something reassuring about a biographer who is untouched by the modern inclination to contextualize everything, to regard every move a man makes as somehow conditioned or shaped by his environment”
Perl is half-right: Richardson certainly leaves a reader believing that Picasso was a solitary figure engaged almost entirely in dialogues with great art of the Italian or French (Ingres) past, totally disconnected from and nearly wholly unconcerned with the times and the artists around him.
Of course, Picasso wasn’t. Given how prominent and thorough recent scholarship has been in examining the relationship between Picasso’s work and the work of his contemporaries, I don’t know why so many reviewers gave Richardson a pass on his exclusion of and disinterest in that work. (It’s not new either — Richardson’s near-hostility toward Matisse is a constant throughout all three volumes of his biography.) Richardson’s Picasso-on-a-pedestal take deserves a little more examination than it’s received.
Over the weekend I re-read Yve-Alain Bois’ magnificent Matisse and Picasso, the catalogue that accompanied Bois’ show at the Kimbell in 1999. Over the next few days I’ll share some of the recent scholarship on the dialogue that Picasso carried on with other artists — and I’ll point out how Richardson dismisses it or shrugs at it.