Pepe Karmel teaches in the Department of Art History, New York University. His book Picasso and the Invention of Cubism was published by Yale University Press in 2003. He has curated or cocurated many exhibitions and has contributed to numerous exhibition catalogues, as well as to publications including Art in America and the New York Times.
John Richardson was fourteen years old in the fall of 1937 when Pablo Picasso sent his recently completed Guernica to an exhibition at London’s New Burlington Galleries. Richardson’s art teachers encouraged him to go to London to see the show, organized to raise money for victims of the Spanish Civil War. Years later he would recall, “I was so struck by the power of Guernica that I decided to find out more about this overwhelmingly exciting artist.”
Richardson’s youthful curiosity bore fruit in his multivolume Life of Picasso, the greatest biography of an artist ever written. The Minotaur Years, 1933–1943, published in November, 2021, marks the last installment in this heroic enterprise, which extended over two decades. Richardson published the first volume, covering the years 1881–1906, in 1991. The second volume, The Painter of Modern Life, 1907–1917, appeared in 1996. That year, Richardson turned seventy-two. Perhaps foreseeing that he might not be able to carry the biography to its conclusion, he temporarily set it aside and wrote The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Picasso, Provence and Douglas Cooper, an enthralling memoir of the postwar art world recounting numerous personal conversations with Picasso and his wife Jacqueline. Richardson then returned to work on the biography. The third volume, The Triumphant Years, 1917–1932, appeared in 2007. Like the first two books, it was written in collaboration with the eminent art historian Marilyn McCully. Richardson was hard at work on The Minotaur Years when he died, on March 12, 2019, at the age of ninety-five. Fortunately, Ross Finocchio and Delphine Huisinga, his research assistants for this volume, together with his editor Shelley Wanger, were able to complete the book.
The opening pages of the first volume demonstrated Richardson’s determination to explore Picasso’s life and work in unprecedented depth. While tracing his subject’s growth from talented youth to precocious Symbolist, Richardson drew vivid portraits of the family members, artists, poets, and collectors who fostered his development in Málaga, La Coruña, Barcelona, and Paris. After a prolonged analysis of Picasso’s 1905 masterpiece Les Saltimbanques, Richardson concluded the volume with a review of the 1906 drawings and paintings that would lead, in 1907, to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
The Painter of Modern Life began, accordingly, with a brilliant discussion of the Demoiselles. Confuting his reputation as a single-minded exponent of biographical interpretation, Richardson argued that Picasso intended to accompany the Demoiselles with a second canvas depicting elegant riders in the Bois de Boulogne, inspired by the nineteenth-century illustrator Constantin Guys. Pairing the high life of the aristocracy with the low life of a brothel, the two canvases would have established Picasso as a consummate “painter of modern life,” the title that Charles Baudelaire had bestowed upon Guys. After this dazzling opening, Richardson traced Picasso’s astonishing evolution from narrative figuration to the hermetic quasi-abstraction of Cubism, a new pictorial syntax that revolutionized twentieth-century art. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 and the death of Picasso’s beloved Eva Gouel in 1915 led to an atypical slowdown in his work. Richardson took this as an occasion to devote most of the final chapters of the book to the network of collectors and art dealers who brought Picasso international recognition, along with the friends and women who provided solace amid the dreariness of wartime Paris.
Richardson’s third volume, The Triumphant Years, picked up where the second left off: with Picasso’s participation in the creation of the 1917 ballet Parade. During the rehearsals for the ballet in Rome, he fell in love with the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, whom he married in 1918. Visits to Naples and Pompeii kindled his interest in classical art. The poet Jean Cocteau introduced him to high society. After this opening, Richardson cut back and forth between the married couple’s glamorous life in Paris and on the Riviera and Picasso’s relentless labor in the studio. In the early 1920s, Picasso simultaneously invented a new kind of neoclassicism and a new kind of Cubism, richly colored and monumental. In the second half of the decade, his distorted figures provided an inspiration for Surrealism. Something had gone sour in Picasso’s marriage, however, and in 1927 he launched into a passionate affair with an underage girl, Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom he had met on a Paris boulevard. Richardson’s discussion of their encounter meticulously distinguished fact from fiction. However morally dubious, the ensuing relationship inspired a series of masterworks—both sculptures and paintings—from 1931–32, which Richardson called the “annus mirabilis” of Picasso’s career. The volume concluded with a chapter on the first retrospective of the artist’s work, seen in 1932 in Paris and Zurich.
The Minotaur Years, the long-awaited fourth volume, covers a more difficult decade of Picasso’s life and career. He initiated divorce proceedings from Khokhlova, triggering an uncharacteristic creative block. Public life brought no respite from his private misery: the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 was followed by the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and then of France in 1940. In 1943, when this volume concludes, Picasso is living in occupied Paris, unable to publicly exhibit his work.
Nonetheless, the decade 1933–43 includes some of his most important achievements. His drawings and prints on the theme of the Minotaur, the man-bull of Greek legend, bring a new profundity to his neoclassical style of the 1920s. Guernica, his mural-scale canvas of 1937, painted in response to the brutal bombing of a Basque town, is the greatest political painting of the twentieth century—perhaps the greatest painting of the twentieth century, tout court.
Richardson explores a kaleidoscopic variety of themes: the emotional fallout from Picasso’s divorce, his ongoing relationship with Walter, his volatile new romance with the artist Dora Maar, his sustaining friendships with the poet Paul Éluard and other members of the Surrealist group, his deepening political engagement—and of course his art, and his new expressive medium, poetry. As in previous volumes, the narrative weaves together a stunning array of sources, from recondite academic tomes to memoirs packed with juicy gossip.
What most clearly distinguishes The Minotaur Years from the earlier volumes of the biography is Richardson’s attention to public events. Picasso’s engagement with politics is usually dated to the spring of 1937, when the bombing of the town of Guernica provoked his historic canvas. Richardson demonstrates that it began several years earlier. Picasso’s drawing The Death of Marat, made on July 7, 1934, is usually interpreted as a dramatization of the conflict between his wife Olga and his mistress Marie-Thérèse; Richardson suggests that it may also have been provoked by the Night of the Long Knives, June 30, 1934, when Hitler ordered the assassination of dozens of his opponents. Tracing the prehistory of Guernica, Richardson notes that the conflict of the Spanish Civil War was anticipated by the right wing’s success in the Spanish elections of 1933, and that the future dictator General Francisco Franco led the bloody suppression of a miner’s strike in October 1934.
In the first months of 1936, left-wing popular fronts won elections in both Spain and France. The new French government commissioned Picasso to design a stage curtain for a production of Le quatorze juillet, a play by Romain Rolland celebrating the French Revolution of 1789. But these liberal triumphs were rapidly followed by right-wing reaction. In July 1936, Franco launched his rebellion against the new Republican government. Richardson impartially notes that war crimes and acts of cultural vandalism were committed by both sides: anarchists attacked churches and monasteries while Franco’s forces attacked libraries and museums. The destruction of Guernica in April 1937 was prefigured by the aerial bombing of Madrid in November 1936. It was followed in turn by the March 1938 bombing of Barcelona. Fearing for his family there, Picasso gave “immense sums” to Spanish relief agencies and personally supported Spanish refugees in France. Barcelona surrendered in January 1939. Half a million Catalan and Spanish refugees crossed the border into France, where they were interned in camps, like Syrian refugees in Greece today. In November 1939, when New York’s Museum of Modern Art opened its first Picasso retrospective, the artist was indifferent to its success. His friend and dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler found him “bitter and sarcastic,” preoccupied by the political situation in Spain and by his own fear of being expelled by the French government.
Nonetheless, Richardson reports, in the spring of 1940, after Germany invaded France, Picasso spurned invitations to emigrate to the United States or to Mexico. Having moved to the seaside town of Royan in anticipation of the German invasion, he decided in August 1940 to return to Paris, abandoning his elegant apartment on the rue la Boétie and instead holing up in his vast, dusty studio on the rue des Grands-Augustins. When the Germans insisted on examining the bank vaults where he and Henri Matisse had stored their work, Picasso convinced the inspectors that there was nothing valuable there. As the leading exponent of the “degenerate” art condemned by the Nazis, he was in constant danger of arrest. Fortunately, he was protected by a high-ranking French police official, André-Louis Dubois, who visited his studio daily. Despite Picasso’s continued friendship with collaborators such as Jean Cocteau, Richardson leaves the reader in no doubt of the heroism of his behavior.
As in earlier volumes, Richardson pays close attention to Picasso’s paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints, deftly summarizing previous scholarship and suggesting speculative new interpretations that compel the reader to see the work with a fresh eye.
This political drama is just one of the narrative threads running through The Minotaur Years. Richardson also explores the painful drama of Picasso’s collapsing marriage and his long-drawn-out divorce. The book’s photographs of Picasso and Olga with their son, Paulo, on vacations in 1933 and 1934 seem to show a happy bourgeois family, but Olga was apparently prone to rages and irrational behavior; she liked high society while Picasso had lost his taste for it. By the fall of 1933, he told Kahnweiler that he wished he could “be poor again with no more chauffeur or English nannies.” Depressed, he did little painting. Finally, in 1935, he filed for divorce, apparently without realizing that under French law, this would require a complete inventory of the couple’s possessions, including his art, which was put under court seal. Traumatized, he began writing poetry instead of making visual art. Olga moved out of their apartment in the summer of 1935, and Picasso eventually settled for legal separation rather than a divorce.
For Richardson, the “principal victim” of the divorce proceedings was Paulo, the couple’s fourteen-year-old son, who began a slide into drugs and petty crime. Olga sent Picasso a stream of “heartrending” letters begging him to help Paulo, but it was not until November 1937 that father and son climbed aboard a train for Switzerland, where Paulo entered a clinic for treatment. In May 1939, as the world collapsed around them, Picasso paid for Paulo to move to the “posh Swiss sanitarium” where Zelda Fitzgerald had received treatment at the beginning of the decade. Emerging in 1943, Paulo continued to get into trouble. Richardson notes in his epilogue that he eventually developed into “a loyal and lovable man who would serve his father as chauffeur and confidant over twenty years.”
In early 1935, Picasso’s young mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter became pregnant. This may have played some role in his decision to initiate divorce proceedings. In October, Walter gave birth to a daughter, named María de la Concepcíon after Picasso’s beloved sister Conchita, who had died, tragically young, when he was fourteen. Richardson sees the idealized image of Conchita as a concealed presence in much of Picasso’s work. The infant María eventually came to be called Maya.
The following spring, Picasso rented a villa in Juan-les-Pins, on the Riviera, planning for his mistress and daughter to join him. Awaiting their arrival, he wrote to Walter, “This 23rd day of May 1936, I love you still more than yesterday and less than tomorrow. I will always love you as they say, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you.” They remained hidden away in the South for six weeks before returning to Paris. Richardson argues that Picasso’s amour fou for Walter evaporated after this experiment in domesticity, but his narrative suggests otherwise. At the end of 1936, Walter and her daughter moved to a villa in Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, an hour outside Paris. For the next three years, Picasso came to see them almost every weekend. Even in May–June 1937, as he was rushing to complete the giant canvas of Guernica, he knocked off work on Friday afternoons and spent the weekends in Le Tremblay. In 1939, he moved his unofficial family to a villa in the seaside resort of Royan. Physically separated from Walter, Picasso began a new series of love letters. Richardson quotes one reading “My love, I love you more every day. You mean everything to me . . . if I am sad, it is because I cannot be with you.”
Picasso’s passion for Walter did not inhibit him from falling in love with the Surrealist photographer Dora Maar, whom he met at the beginning of 1936. According to the canonical version of their encounter, Maar strategically positioned herself at a table at Les Deux Magots, the famous café frequented by Picasso, and began playing with a knife, stabbing the tabletop between her fingers, which she occasionally nicked, staining her gloves with blood. More prosaically, Richardson reports that the two were introduced at a film opening on January 7. Perhaps, as he implies, the two artists were drawn together by a shared interest in Surrealist S&M, but as he also suggests, at first their link was “primarily photographic.” Maar took several remarkable portraits of Picasso, and Richardson prints a striking photograph of Maar that appears to have been taken by Picasso. Maar participated in the left-wing activities of the Surrealists and seems to have fostered Picasso’s increasing engagement with politics. In the spring of 1937, she assisted in the painting of Guernica and photographed the successive states of its changing composition.
Richardson’s detailed account of this relationship suggests that what most attracted Picasso was Maar’s emotional volatility. After a weekend in the country in April 1937, she wrote to Picasso apologizing for “those scenes, do not take them seriously . . . I will try to correct myself . . . I will not cry, I will not scream, that is over now.” Later that year, after a vacation with friends in the South of France, she again wrote, “My fits of jealousy drive me crazy and stupid with pain. . . . I’m so afraid of losing you that I can’t hold back from making those awful scenes.” In sum, Maar seems to have behaved much like Olga. Apparently, the agitated behavior that drove Picasso away also attracted him. Their relationship lasted for almost a decade and yielded countless paintings and prints, including the famous series of “Weeping Women.”
Richardson breaks new ground in emphasizing the importance of Picasso’s relationships with writers such as Michel Leiris, Jaime Sabartés, Roland Penrose (an earlier biographer), and the poet Éluard, who became Picasso’s closest friend among the Surrealists; as Richardson notes, he “was rather more congenial than the arrogantly dogmatic [André] Breton.” From 1936 through 1938, Picasso and Maar vacationed in the South of France with Éluard and his wife, Nusch, accompanied by friends including Penrose, Man Ray, and their various romantic partners, including the gifted photographer Lee Miller. Photographs by Man Ray, Miller, and Maar give a vivid sense of the artists and writers enjoying a few last carefree days amid the darkening political situation. During World War II, Éluard joined the Resistance and transformed an ode to his wife into a stirring celebration of “Freedom.”
As in earlier volumes, Richardson pays close attention to Picasso’s paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints, deftly summarizing previous scholarship and suggesting speculative new interpretations that compel the reader to see the work with a fresh eye. In keeping with the book’s title, the theme of the Minotaur takes center stage. Richardson explains how, after the bankruptcy of earlier Surrealist journals edited by Breton and Georges Bataille, the publisher Albert Skira launched a new journal called Minotaure, which transplanted Surrealism into the world of fashion and the high-end art market. The first issue, published on June 1, 1933, had a cover specially designed by Picasso and contained multiple features on his work. Picasso returned to this theme in 1935, creating two of his greatest etchings, Blind Minotaur Guided by a Young Girl at Night and Minotauromachie. Here he rewrote Greek mythology, transforming the Minotaur from a brutish freak into a tragic embodiment of desire and aggression wracked by guilt. In both prints, the humbled monster is led by an innocent girl, whom Richardson interprets as an avatar of Picasso’s lost sister Conchita.
The creative block induced by the divorce suit of 1935 dissolved by the spring of 1936, but Picasso continued writing poetry throughout the rest of the decade and even, with diminishing frequency, into the 1940s and ’50s. The Paris literary world greeted Picasso’s writing with enthusiasm. Richardson quotes numerous excerpts, such as this text from 1941: “Drop of water hanging on the rampart of flames of the bunch of flowers waving around at the fingertips of the burning lips of the sound of the reeds scratch the night the cries the curses and the bursts of laughter the ribbons of mixed colors exalting the stench of the crabs rotting on the beach of the wing rising from the body abandoned to the will of the waves.” As Richardson notes, Picasso’s writing has “a pictorial vividness that few surrealist poets could equal.” The unedited flow of his words contrasts starkly with the complex structures of his pictures, as if poetry offered him a vacation from the steely discipline of painting.
The Minotaur Years reaches a climax with the painting of Guernica in May–June 1937. Richardson sets the stage several chapters earlier by quoting French journalist Louis Delaprée’s description of the aerial bombing of Madrid in November 1936: “The darkness shrouding Madrid is so thick that you could cut it with a knife. . . . Defenseless, we hear above our heads the deep musical vibration that is the herald of Death.” Encountering a young woman dying in the street, Delaprée notes, “The beam from an electric flashlight illuminates the corpse.” An ambulance driver picks up the corpse of an infant and places it atop the dead woman’s breast. “They’ll pick her up tomorrow,” he says, and drives off. The narrative of Guernica seems to unfold in Delaprée’s account, written six months before Picasso began work on the painting.
Shifting the scene to Paris, Richardson describes the history of the cavernous space at 7 rue des Grands-Augustins that Picasso rented so that he could work on the huge canvas. As previous scholars have discussed, he was attracted to the address in part because it had served as the setting for Honoré de Balzac’s story “Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu,” about a seventeenth-century painter who descends into madness and abstraction. Richardson reveals that it had also served as a rehearsal space for a left-wing theater troupe led by the brilliant actor Jean-Louis Barrault. He recounts the machinations of representatives of the Spanish Republic, desperate to persuade Picasso to paint a mural for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 World’s Fair. He aptly summarizes the vast scholarship on the painting and adds his own interpretation, involving Picasso’s dead sister Conchita and his fascination with the Roman cult of Mithraism.
Drawing on Miriam Basilio’s groundbreaking research, Richardson reconstructs the astonishing indifference, even antagonism, that greeted Guernica when it was first exhibited. The French press—including the Communist paper L’Humanité—ignored it. The Spanish officials in charge of the pavilion considered removing it and replacing it with a more conventional painting, Horacio Ferrer’s Madrid 1937 (Black Aeroplanes), showing terrified mothers embracing their children and shaking a fist at the planes that have reduced their city to rubble. (Ferrer’s painting now hangs in the Reina Sofía museum in Madrid along with Guernica.) Picasso offered his painting to the Basque state, but it turned him down. The British art historian Anthony Blunt published a review titled “Picasso Unfrocked,” denouncing Guernica as “not an act of public mourning but the expression of a private brainstorm.” Herbert Read, the leading British proponent of modernism, replied with a letter praising it as “the modern Calvary.”
Looking afresh at Guernica in light of Richardson’s detailed narrative of the years 1933–36, it seems clear that Blunt was not completely mistaken. Guernica is, as Read insisted, a modern Calvary, but it is also an expression of Picasso’s private season in hell: the misery of his marriage, the grief of his wife and son, and the guilt that stopped him in his tracks as an artist. Somehow he transmuted these private sufferings into an indelible act of public mourning.
Carrying his narrative beyond Guernica into the years 1938–43, Richardson tells the story of a second season in hell, this time caused by public events. Picasso’s art of these years becomes the barometer of a pervasive climate of despair. The last few pages of The Minotaur Years record Picasso’s encounter with Françoise Gilot, the brilliant young artist who would become his muse and partner in the postwar years. His 1946 portrait of her as a femme-fleur became a symbol of the spiritual rebirth of Europe after the war.
Gilot herself told the story of these years in her extraordinary memoir Life with Picasso (cowritten with Carlton Lake and published in 1964). Reading this book in tandem with Richardson’s own memoir, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, gives a vivid sense of the next chapter of Picasso’s career. No doubt volume 5 of Richardson’s Life of Picasso would have been even richer, packed—like this volume—with improbable characters, astonishing revelations, and striking insights. It was not to be. As it is, The Minotaur Years represents the triumphant conclusion of a great biographer’s career.
John Richardson, with the collaboration of Ross Finocchio and Delphine Huisinga, A Life of Picasso: The Minotaur Years, 1933–1943 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021)