I recently finished reading A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years: 1917-1932, the third volume of John Richardson’s definitive biography, which hits stores this week. This is a massive, intricate project, and to do it justice seemed to call for something longer than a quick on-line review. So I’m going to work my way through it this week in several posts.
The Triumphant Years opens at a crucial moment of transition in Picasso’s life and art. Jean Cocteau, who had ambitions to being recognized as the centerpiece of every avant garde — artistic, musical, literary — has invited Picasso to design sets and costumes for Parade, the one act ballet conceived by Cocteau, with music by Erik Satie and choreography by Leonide Massine, that will be staged in Paris by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
Parade would be a pivotal event for Picasso, but not so much for its importance to his art. The oversize, Cubist-inspired costumes he designed for some of the characters are fascinating — I’ve seen the 1964 recreations — but over the preceding decade he and Braque had already accomplished the great breakthroughs of Cubism. His work on Parade represented no particular advance on those. Some of the costumes were made partly from rigid cardboard — they were like buildings you could wear — so it’s hard to imagine how anyone danced in them. These were the ones Cocteau referred to years later as “carcasses”. Of course with that remark Cocteau, who worshipped Picasso, was probably getting back at him for one or another of Picasso’s sadistic slights. But we’ll get to all that.
No, the real importance of Parade for Picasso is that his involvement with the still ultra-fashionable Ballets Russes brought him into a world of the rich and well connected, a realm he had never moved in before and would never thereafter entirely lose touch with.
The change in Picasso’s social world was accompanied by his marriage to one of Diaghilev’s dancers. Olga Khokhlova was Russian, darkly beautiful and determined to lead nothing less than the life of the haute bourgeois, or as Richardson puts it, to be “a glamorous ballerina married to a charismatic celebrity feted by the beau monde.” Though she stops dancing after her marriage, she otherwise gets her wish. She moves Picasso out of his “dreary suburban villa” at Montrouge and into a large Right Bank apartment, complete wiith servants. She detaches him from his old Bohemian buddies, including even his close friend Max Jacob, the gay poet who would scoff at this whole period of Picasso’s life by calling it l’epoque des duchesses. These are the years of Picasso in tailored suits, waist coats and spats. By 1930 he has a chauffeur driven Hispano-Suiza.
Lastly, this was a moment of transition in Picasso’s art. The first great wave of Cubist explorations were behind him. Cubism was now a language that he could deploy at will, and that he would go on developing. But a crucial visit to Italy would bring him back to the power of classical statuary, especially through his encounters with the Farnese marbles, and set in motion the thinking that would lead to his neo-classical work of the 1920s.
Okay, we’ve set the stage. Next we’ll see what Richardson does with it.