The first volume of John Richardson's projected four-volume A Life of Picasso, which promises to become the most enthralling and unwieldy artist's biography ever written, gives us Picasso before Picasso before he became Modern Art Incarnate. Late in his life, the artist, weary of being a spectacle, told French cultural minister and novelist André Malraux how much he missed those Parisian days, ''when young painters from all over the world brought me what they were doing, asked me for advice, when I never had a sou. Then I was famous. I was a painter not a freak.''
By the 1950s, when the middle class had stopped making fun of modern art and started wanting to be ''creative,'' Picasso had become a sort of secular saint, the patron of childlike spontaneity and bohemian sexual freedom. At the festive Picasso exhibits of recent years, the crowds seemed to be lining up to venerate relics rather than look at paintings. That's too bad, not only because all this made it hard to distinguish the great works from the facile ones but because, as Richardson demonstrates by briskly dispersing the incense fumes, Picasso the myth is far less interesting than Picasso the obsessed, paradoxical man.
No, little Pablo didn't begin life drawing like Velázquez. No, he didn't perform miracles at his art school entrance exams. No, he didn't defy all attempts to teach him something. Richardson sensibly sees the signs of emerging genius not in the precocious, workmanlike early sketches and paintings but in the fledgling artist's stunning capacity for concentration and hard work from the beginning, Picasso was possessed.
Richardson's greatest accomplishment in this brilliantly illustrated book is to paint Picasso into a geographical and cultural landscape. His native Andalusia gave him the mirada fuerte, the strong penetrating stare that Andalusian men used to cast a sexual spell. Spanish tradition contributed the somber complexion of much of his art and gave him El Greco, his most important early influence, as well as the devotional intensity that he tried to impart to even his most pagan and blasphemous work (this adamant but superstitious atheist remained, according to his widow, Jacqueline, ''more Catholic than the Pope''). Barcelona contributed the standard fin-de-siecle mix of Nietzsche, Art Nouveau, absinthe, decadence, iconoclasm, and brothels. And Paris gave him his full bohemian credentials: garrets, bedbugs, opium smoking, all-night cafés, and models, mistresses, whores, and teenage waifs to subdue on canvas and in bed. Paris also gave him literary models who were as crucial to him as Goya and Gauguin: the febrile, funny poet, Max Jacob; the protean votary of De Sade and Rimbaud, Guillaume Apollinaire; and most decisive of all for Picasso's developing moral anarchism, the militantly eccentric master of comic delirium, Alfred Jarry.
Richardson's book is refreshingly Freud-free, but he doesn't neglect to sort out the psychological effects of Picasso's strong, warm mother, his elegant but mediocre (as a painter) father, the guilt-inducing death of a younger sister, and the early blurring of sex and art (''The unpalatable truth is that machismo made for some of Picasso's most powerful work''). Whatever Picasso's ultimate place in art history, whether he ends up as a beginning or an end, he emerges in this superb biography as the most engaging artist-rogue since Benvenuto Cellini.