April 08, 1991 12:00 PM

by John Richardson

Pablo Ruiz Picasso’s life is probably the most dissected in the history of art. Mistresses, critics, followers, dealers—all have weighed in.

Now art historian Richardson has written the first of a planned four-volume biography. And a strong beginning it is, meticulously tracing Picasso’s first 25 years—1881-1906, just before he began the revolutionary Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Richardson, writing with style and energy, demystifies many Picasso legends. Contrary to previous accounts, for instance, Richardson’s analysis of Picasso’s early work shows he was not a child genius. Another tale spun by Picasso is that Don José, his artist father, handed over his brushes to his son—never to paint again—as his eyesight began to fail. It’s a marvelously symbolic story that did not happen. Richardson suggests the tale is most revealing for what it tells about the son: “Pablo’s love for his father evidently had a patricidal tinge to it.”

Richardson skillfully reconstructs the artist’s early life in Spain, though inevitably the narrative picks up in 1904, when Picasso leaves Spain to settle in France. Richardson’s description of the poverty that shadowed the early years in Paris is harrowing.

He vividly brings to life avant-garde Paris, drawing telling portraits of such people as Gertrude Stein and Matisse. Equally absorbing is Picasso’s triumphant 1906 return to Spain, with perfume-drenched mistress Fernande Olivier on his arm.

In the competitive arena of Picasso scholarship, Richardson has unique credentials. During the 1950s, while living in the south of France, he took notes on his frequent visits with Picasso. He was also present with Picasso, who supplied a running commentary, when the vast contents of the artist’s Paris studio were shipped to Cannes. France. After Picasso’s death, Richardson was the first biographer allowed access to the archives at the Picasso Museum in Paris.

The wily Picasso used to tell his biographers, “My work is like a diary.” But it was hardly an open one, consisting of codes and hidden messages. In this book, containing some 900 illustrations and documented by 1,069 footnotes, a master at dissimulation meets his match as Richardson examines the artist’s extraordinary life and vast oeuvre with the eye of a Sherlock Holmes. If this brilliant start is any indication, lovers of modern art and lovers of just plain fascinating character studies are in for a very enlightening, exciting, four-volume trip. (Random House, $39.95)

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