Listening to John Richardson reminisce about Pablo Picasso, the subject of his epic biographical project, on a Seattle Arts & Lectures bill last night, I could not help think of another artistic titan, Michelangelo Buonarroti, about whom I wrote a briefer book a few years ago. The trigger was one of many priceless anecdotes and asides that Richardson—Picasso’s friend and neighbor and a formidable art critic—shared. “I don’t really like bronze,” Picasso told him. “It’s too rich-looking.” Michelangelo also loathed bronze—for different reasons, though he also shunned luxurious surfaces. Yet both were pushed into using it—Michelangelo by his tyrannical patron, Pope Giulio II, who demanded a heroic statue, Picasso by his dealers, who got a good price for bronzes. Michelangelo executed just that one, which Giulio’s enemies promptly melted down for cannonballs. Picasso did many; they now grace museums, including the Seattle Art Museum, now showing a magnificent seven-decade selection from the Picasso Museum in Paris. But then, he did a lot of everything.
Bronzephobia is far from the only interesting point of commonality and contrast between Michelangelo and Picasso. Both were classicists who harked back to ancient Greece and revolutionaries who transformed perception and upended the artistic orders of their days. Both were superstars, unquestionably the most important and influential artists of their respective centuries, but were spurred by fierce rivalries; Picasso felt much more warmly toward Matisse than Michelangelo did toward Leonardo and Raffaello. Each was acutely aware of their place in posterity; this however led Michelangelo to burn nearly all his drawings, to hide his traces, while Picasso kept everything—one reason Richardson believes the 271 works an electrician claims Picasso gave him were actually stolen.
Both were capable of lurid excess, but both made what would be lurid excess in any other hands sublime. They plumbed heretofore unrealized formal and expressive possibilities in their life’s subject, the human body—male in Michelangelo’s case (he was homosexual but possibly celibate), female in Picasso’s. (He was emphatically neither—as Richardson noted last night, “When the women changed, everything changed” in Picasso’s life—new house, friends, food, artistic style.. Both were supreme long-distance prodigies, working furiously up to their very late deaths; Michelangelo was just shy of 89, Picasso 91.
That made me think of Richardson’s own life project. He’s 84 and has finished three volumes of the planned four-volume biography. For the fourth he has a collaborator—art historian Gijs van Hensbergen, author of a terrific biography of Gaudí and Richardson’s interlocutor in last night’s colloquy. But the first three volumes only cover the years through 1932. How will Richardson and Hensbergen ever squeeze Picasso’s last four decades—Guernica, the German occupation, communism, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, Jacqueline Roque, a dizzying range of new styles and media—into one?