‘Picasso Picassofied People’ in Guernica

Peter Conrad at The Guardian: This ingenious final volume of an epic biography illuminates the imagery in the artist’s work during Europe’s war years and his complicated love life.

John Richardson’s serial biography of Picasso stalled when Richardson died three years ago at the age of 95. After this hiatus it now resumes, but in a different mood. The first three volumes were triumphalist, emphasizing Picasso’s victorious advance from Barcelona to Paris and the X-ray vision that enabled him to fracture reality and modernize the visual world. In the fourth volume, with Europe caving in to fascism and Spain convulsed by civil war, the surrealist Michel Leiris sets the agenda with a baleful warning. “Picasso,” Leiris announced in 1937, “sends us our letter of doom.”

‘Picasso sends us our letter of doom’: Guernica (1937). Photograph: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid/© 2021 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

That declaration refers to Guernica, Picasso’s panorama of the bombed Basque town, where distraught civilians and gutted animals writhe under a radioactive monochrome sun while in the corner a villager’s emergency trip to empty her bowels in an outhouse exposes what Picasso called “the most primitive effect of fear”. The painting, Leiris added, predicts that “all that we love is going to die” and he recommended an affectionate farewell to the cultural beauty that was everywhere imperiled. Picasso, however, had more personal concerns: Richardson’s narrative emphasizes physical beauty ravaged and love defamed or defiled, as the artist works his way through a series of women who are transfixed by his gaze, cruelly anatomized, then discarded once their metamorphic potential has been exhausted.

“Picasso Picassofied people,” as Richardson says, and the Picassofying involved a kind of vivisection. The new volume begins with his assault on his jangled, cranky Russian wife, Olga, in portraits that Richardson calls “masterpieces of marital hatred”. Next comes Dora Maar, an obligingly masochistic candidate for visual abuse. In an act of priapic worship, Dora photographed Picasso on the beach in a pair of what would now be called budgie smugglers; repaying the compliment, he represented her “licking testicular scoops of ice cream with a pointed blue tongue”, like a serpent skilled at fellatio. Later, she became the abject, clingy subject of Picasso’s Weeping Woman, after which he shunted her ahead into premature decay by portraying her as a wrinkled hag. Cast off, she lapsed into neurotic despair, then finally sought consolation in Catholic mysticism. “After Picasso,” she said, “there is only God.” More here.

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