A Life of Picasso: The Minotaur Years, 1933-1943
A few observations
Last month I mentioned getting the last volume of John Richardson’s mammoth biography of Picasso, A Life of Picasso: The Minotaur Years, 1933-1943. I finished it today, May 8th (my birthday, coincidentally). Picasso was 52 in 1933 and 62 in 1943. By the time of the beginning of this volume, Picasso is a very wealthy artist with a wife, Olga (from whom he spends pretty much the rest of the book trying to get divorced) and a mistress Marie-Thérèse. During this decade, Picasso falls in with the surrealists; adopts the minotaur as his personal avatar; takes Dora Maar, a surrealist photographer, as his mistress; paints Guernica following the bombing of the Spanish city during the Spanish Civil War; and lives through Nazi-occupied France. We don’t get to see the end of World War II and its effects on Picasso, but it’s hard to say that Richardson missed all that much. The greatest work of Picasso’s life was mostly behind him by 1942.
Richardson was born in 1924, moved to Provence in 1952 where he became a friend of Picasso’s. His biography was intended to be published in one-volume, but the life was too detailed to fit in one volume. This was partly because each volume is lavishly illustrated with paintings, drawings, prints and photos of Picasso and his milieu. and the level of detail is incredible. Richardson was old and infirm as he worked on the last two volumes, and he is said to have had a lot of help writing them. (Richardson died in 2019.) There are ample acknowledgements, but aspects of the book suggest that it is Richardson’s own work, including several autobiographical asides.
This is a book that deserves reviewing, both as a single volume and as a four-volume life’s work. But I’m too lazy. Instead here are a bunch of quotes from the book that I noted as I read it.
During the 1930s, under the influence of the surrealists, Picasso began writing poetry.
[ . . . ] the writing is intensely visual and tactile. It partakes of dark thoughts, fancies, manic fantasies, and fetishes of his everyday life. Picasso wrote poems in French as well as Spanish. He dispensed with the rules of grammar as well as punctuation marks, which he saw as “loincloths concealing the pudenda of literature.”
The Spanish Civil War was always on Picasso’s mind.
By November, with Madrid besieged by Franco’s Moroccan troops, saving the Prado collection became a matter of desperate urgency for Spain as well as the rest of the civilized world. Every night, the Madrileños set up brilliant blue lights to indicate sites of historic importance which should not be bombed. Nevertheless, the Germans dropped nine bombs on the Prado on November 16. Fortunately, the paintings had been stored in the basement: the sculptures had been left in place but protected by sandbags.
The terror bombing of Guernica infuriated and terrified Picasso.
Besides celebrating the Führer’s birthday, the attack on Guernica served as a tactical military and aeronautical experiment to test the Luftwaffe’s ability to annihilate an entire city and crush the morale of its people. The Condor Legion’s chief of staff, Colonel Wolfram von Richtofen, painstakingly devised the operation to maximize human casualties. A brief initial bombing at 4:30 pm drove much of the population into air-raid shelters. When Guernica’s citizens emerged from these shelters to rescue the wounded, a second, longer wave of bombing began, trapping them in the town center, from which there was no escape. Low-flying planes strafed the streets with machine-gun fire. Those who managed to survive were incinerated by the flames or asphyxiated by the lack of oxygen. Three hours of coordinated air strikes leveled the city and killed over fifteen hundred civilians. In his war diary, Richtofen described the operation as “absolutely fabulous . . . a complete technical success.” The Führer was so thrilled that two years later, he ordered Richtofen to employ the same bombing techniques, on an infinitely greater scale, to lay waste to Warsaw, thereby triggering the Second World War.
Dora Maar was Picasso’s “weeping woman.”
After breaking with Picasso, Dora would become a fervent born-again Catholic who rarely spoke about her photographic career or the role she played in the making of Guernica. It was her masochistic nature that Picasso had evoked in the most harrowing studies for Guernica, and above all in the Weeping Woman series begun on May 24, before the great painting was finished.
Picasso was fervently anti-fascist. When he came face to face with Italian Futurist and avowed fascist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti at an annual memorial for poet Apollinaire at Père Lachaise cemetery, he was in no mood to be nice.
Not far, in another group of more modest appearance, stood Picasso whose place was precisely to be there at that moment. All of a sudden, full of himself and arrogant, the bearer of Fascist infamy approached the Spanish painter, his hands outstretched and saying for everyone to hear: “I assume that in front of Apollinaire’s tomb you won’t see any inconvenience in shaking my hand.” To which Picasso replied, “You seem to forget that we are at war.”
Richardson is careful not to make this a biography of himself, but he does mention a few times when he came in contact with Picasso’s world.
At heart, Picasso preferred Gertrude [Stein]’s long-suffering girlfriend, Alice B. Toklas. She was much nicer, quieter, and wiser. Besides having a wry sense of humor, she was a famously good cook. Some years after Gertrude’s death, Picasso had Alice down for lunch at his villa in Cannes. I happened to be around when the tiny old lady appeared, her face hidden under a huge black mushroom of a hat with a black ostrich feather attached to it. She had shrunk but so had he.
In 1937, Guernica was exhibited in London.
I was fourteen at the time but lucky in that Stowe School, where I was a student, had employed two modernist art teachers, Robin and Dodie West. They encouraged us to go to London and see the Picasso show. Although no more than a teenager, I was so struck by the power of Guernica that I decided to find out more about this overwhelmingly exciting artist.
The end of the Spanish Civil War was quite brutal.
On February 27, France and Great Britain shamefully recognized Franco’s government. Half a million Catalan and Spanish refugees crossed the border into filthy French concentration camps in what became known as La Retirada, one of the worst mass exoduses in modern history. Among them were Picasso’s nephews J. Fin, twenty-two, and Javier, seventeen, his sister Lola’s sons, who had been part of the Republican militia in Barcelona.
I transcribed an interview with MAD Magazine cartoonist Sergio Aragones back in the late 80s. He had been born in 1937 in Spain, during the civil war, and spent his first few years in one of those French concentration camps before emigrating to Mexico at the age of six.
Sometimes I am impressed by Richardson’s vocabulary.
On December 28-29, Picasso drew three bullfight scenes. No way these corridas could have taken place in wintery Royan, except in his imagination. An attack of tauromachic nostalgia had apparently struck him more than a month earlier . . .
So “tauromachic”? It means “of or relating to bullfighting,” and it is a concise term that one can only use in very specific situations.
After the Germans occupied northern France in 1940, it provided a place of luxury for those Germans lucky enough to be posted there.
Jean Cocteau’s biographer Claude Arnaud notes that for German Francophiles, “there was good wine and good food, and plenty of perfume, cognac, and ladies’ underthings . . . For the more sophisticated palettes, there was jazz galore, Cubism in the galleries, Satie and soon Messiaen in the concert halls, to say nothing of the many other art forms forbidden in Germany.”
Richardson is quoting from Jean Cocteau: A Life here. Life in occupied France wasn’t hell for everyone. Indeed, some profited from it.
In June 1943, the value of the deutsche mark rose almost 70 percent against the French franc, prompting Parisians to sell their collections. The celebrated auction house Hôtel Drouot had its most profitable year in 1941. Ironically, some of the most sought-after works at auction were by those artists deemed degenerate by the Nazi authorities.
During the occupation, Picasso wrote a play called Le Désir attrapé por la queue. “Big Foot” and “Tart” are characters.
Big Foot and Tart fall to the floor in a passionate embrace, after which, the stage directions say, “she squats in front of the prompter’s box and, with her face to the audience, pisses and syphilises [sic] for a good ten minutes . . . she farts, refarts, tidies up her hair, sits down on the floor and starts skillfully demolishing her toes.”
I would love to see that play! While Picasso was not in the resistance, he was involved in activities that would surely have been disapproved of had the Nazi’s been paying close attention.
In April, Picasso allowed the surrealist collective La Main à Plume—whose activities he helped to finance—to reproduce the sculpture on the cover of their journal, Le Conquête du Monde par l’Image . By changing the format, publication schedule, and title each issue, the collective manged to get past the German censors.
In our current environment of ever increasing censorship and nascent neofascism, we need to relearn the hard lessons of the French Resistance, as well as the publishers of samizdat in the Soviet Union and others who have through time worked to preserve culture from the iron boots of fascists.
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