A Life of Picasso: Volume IV by John Richardson review – stranger things

The final volume of biography by Richardson, who died before finishing it, is a thrilling survey of Picasso’s surrealist era

John Richardson opens the final (fourth) volume of his magisterial biography of Pablo Picasso with the artist in more than usual disarray. The year is 1933 and, while his celebrity and his wealth are unassailable, Picasso’s marriage to the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova has entered its bitter endgame. Meanwhile, his relationship with maîtresse-en-titre Marie-Thérèse Walter, tucked away in the country, is beginning to pall even before it has properly hit its stride. Waiting in the wings is Dora Maar, the surrealist photographer who will dominate Picasso’s life, mostly painfully, for the next eight years.

Richardson shows himself as deft as ever at making connections between Picasso’s tumultuous private life and his art. The increasingly despised Olga appears in a series of nightmare images – as a hideously toothy horse, as a wonky ballerina straining to hold her arms above her head and, worst of all, as a disappointed bride whose veil is slipping off the end of her nose. Earth mother Marie-Thérèse, meanwhile, is transposed into what Richardson describes as “a kinky cluster of boxed vaginas, beehive breasts, and turdlike fingers”. Then there is glamorous Dora, depicted famously in The Weeping Woman with a green face, stringy hair and sausage fingers. As Richardson pithily puts it: “Picasso Picassified people.”

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