Picasso: No. 1 With a Palette

By the mid-1920s, PabloPicasso was one of the most celebrated men in Paris, and he liked people to know it. He rode around town in a chauffeur-driven Panhard. He relished greeting important visitors while wearing white silk pajamas, accompanied by a big Pyrenean sheepdog. He loved to throw dinner parties after an opening night at the opera. His wife, the former ballerina Olga Khokhlova, did the cooking, but the meals were served by a butler in white gloves. When an art collector named Christian Zervos visited him one day in his Paris studio, Picasso asked if he'd like to see another couple of rooms. To Zervos's surprise, the rooms contained not art but a Scrooge-McDuck-like pile of large-denomination French bank notes bundled in newspaper. "Everything Picasso did," writes John Richardson in "A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917–1932," the new, penultimate volume of his four-part biography, "would be news."

Picasso stayed news for the rest of the 20th century and into this one. Which prompts the question: Why? Why has Picasso—with his endless variations on disjointed and unpretty cubism—become the quintessential modern artist? Why isn't it Henri Matisse, whose brightly colored fauvist pictures shocked viewers years before cubism came along, and who was still producing remarkable work on his deathbed in 1954? Why not Marcel Duchamp, the chess champ who cut right to the end-game of modern art with his "readymade" bottle rack way back in 1914 and set the standard in modern-art ballsiness by submitting a urinal to an important sculpture exhibition three years later? Or why not Salvador Dal?, with his astonishingly real-looking, groovily weird surrealist paintings, and a talent for publicity that makes Paris Hilton seem like a hermit? Picasso's pre-eminence is the result of a lot of things, including paying some dues, being in the right place at the right time, making avant-garde art sexy, finessing politics—and, of course, being a genius.

Not that he started out that way. In 1900, at age 19, Picasso did what revolutionary artists were supposed to do for career openers: he went to Paris and almost starved. It took him seven years before he'd painted "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," the world's most influential painting, and (along with his buddy Georges Braque) invented cubism, the style that turned art upside down. Being a Spaniard in Paris—an outsider—helped Picasso immensely. He was able to see through surface appearances in a way the natives could not. As his patron, Gertrude Stein, put it, in France "the houses move with the landscape, with the river, here they all agree together, it is not at all Spanish … Spaniards know there is no agreement, neither the landscape with the houses, neither the round with the cube … It was natural that a Spaniard should express this in the painting of the 20th century, the century where nothing is in agreement." Like no other artist, Picasso captured the twin impetuses of modern times—fracture and invention. Everything in "Painter and Model" (1928), for example, has been broken up and reassembled in a witty visual rebus. The face of the model sports a vertical row of three eyes—or two eyes and a mouth, depending. The artist, on the right, is a busy stick figure with one hilariously long arm holding his brush and a shorter arm—sticking out suggestively just below belt level—holding a genital-shaped palette. Sex sells, and it didn't hurt Picasso's career any, either.

He certainly had plenty of—shall we say material—to draw on. When we join Picasso at the beginning of Richardson's third volume, that artist is designing sets and costumes for Sergei Diaghilev's modern-dance extravaganza "Parade," and resisting pressure from his overbearing mother, Do?a Mar?a, to marry. He tries mightily to land Olga, but she won't sleep with him until he marries her, so Picasso goes off to brothels. Olga finally gets her man—on her terms—in 1917, but it isn't long before Picasso chafes at much of the respectability Olga courted. In 1923, he sells "Demoiselles" to pay for a hideaway studio floor in the building where he and Olga live. In 1927, the 45-year-old, still-married artist spots 17-year-old Marie-Th?r?se Walter outside a Paris department store. She is, Richardson says, "the femme-enfant of his dreams: an adolescent blonde with piercing, cobalt blue eyes and a precociously voluptuous body—big breasts, sturdy thighs, well-cushioned knees, and buttocks like the Callipygian Venus." Picasso tells her, "You have an interesting face. I would like to do a portrait of you. I feel we are going to do great things together." Less than a week later, they're doing that you-know thing together. Picasso required Walter—as he did all his lovers—to read the Marquis de Sade. She also dutifully trailed behind Picasso, just out of Olga's sight, for nine years and bore him a daughter. Picasso didn't flaunt his copious couplings to the paparazzi of the day; in fact, he stayed home from the opening of his first museum retrospective, lest Olga see so many paintings of Maria-Th?r?se and cause a scene. But he still seemed like a real stud, which, not surprisingly, made him much more of an influence on younger artists than his competitors.

No less tricky than juggling women, Picasso also managed to negotiate the politics of Europe during a century featuring two charnel-house world wars and a cold war fraught with the threat of nuclear annihilation. The huge monochrome "Guernica" (1937) is an antifascist masterpiece, turning the horror of a bombing raid on a civilian town into a brutally beautiful fugue of cubist forms, and semiabstracting a disemboweled horse into an unforgettable icon of suffering and injustice. In spite of the picture, Picasso managed to get himself treated with kid gloves by the Nazis in occupied Paris during World War II. (Richardson won't weigh in on the details of that gambit until volume four.) After the war, Picasso showily declared himself a communist—to which Dal? supposedly quipped, "Picasso is a communist; neither am I." From the mid-1950s on, Picasso stuck apolitically to the studio and to sunbathing.

However interesting his biography, Picasso's pre-eminence still derives mostly from his work. The man created fine art's equivalent of rock and roll and then put in seven decades producing some of modernism's greatest hits. It's as if Chuck Berry and Elvis were one person who made it to age 91. For doubters who think Picasso couldn't "really" draw, there are his early rose and blue periods, the neoclassical paintings of the 1920s and '30s, and tons of exquisitely drawn etchings and lithographs. Richardson even credits Picasso with originating the whole mode of welded sculpture (culminating with works such as the 1967 giant "baboon" public sculpture in Chicago). Compared to Picasso's output, Dal?'s "hand-painted dream photographs" are Freudian indulgences, Duchamp's dada objects are sophomore frolics and Matisse's painting—which Matisse himself said he wanted to be "an armchair for the weary businessman"—is, well, an armchair. Picasso wasn't shy about touting his accomplishments, either. Quotation dictionaries are filled with his aphorisms ("Good artists copy, great artists steal," "Art is a lie that reveals the truth," etc.). Richardson quotes this bragging—but accurate—self-summation: "To put eyes between the legs, or sex organs on the face," said Picasso about the tricks of his trade. "To contradict. To show one eye full face and one in profile. Nature does many things the way I do, but she hides them." By the time we leave Picasso at the end of "The Triumphant Years," he's been creating one "monumental" painting every single day for six weeks. And he's still got 40 years to go. If that isn't No. 1 with a bullet, we don't know what is.

Join the Discussion