Surviving Picasso

Courtesy of John Richardson

Three volumes into his opus on the modern art colossus, John Richardson reflects on the work, the women, and his relationship with the mercurial master.

Clutching a cup of morning coffee, writer and art world raconteur John Richardson is padding around his 5,000-square-foot loft on lower Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, an enfilade of high-ceilinged, classically proportioned rooms redolent of haute bohemia. It’s the day after the launch party for A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917–1932, the third volume of his epic biography of the artist, which New York Times book critic Michiko Kaku­tani praised, with rare enthusiasm, as "magisterial and definitive."

Befitting the 83-year-old Richardson’s style and stature, the reception was held at the city’s greatest shrine to Picasso, the Museum of Modern Art, with a Spanish theme for the Málaga-born artist— waiters offered sangria and demitasses of gazpacho while potted orange trees stood sentinel. The party was given by Mercedes Bass, the stylish wife of Texas billionaire Sid Bass and a close friend of Richardson’s since the late seventies. The guests came from the upper echelons of New York’s cultural and social life. "It was an astonishing cross- section," Richardson notes gleefully, "from the Shabanou to Tom Stoppard."

Walking around his apartment, Richardson points out mementos of his friendship with the 20th century’s most famous artist. He met Picasso in 1949 through his lover Douglas Cooper, a wealthy expatriate En­glishman who owned the finest collection of Cubist works in private hands. Even after Cooper fell out with Picasso, Rich­ardson remained friends with the artist until his death, in 1973. "Picasso gave me this ink-wash drawing for Christmas," he says of an expressively contorted portrait of the artist’s second wife, Jacqueline. "And here we all are at a bullfight," he says, pointing to a fifties photo of himself, young and strikingly handsome, seated with Cooper, Picasso, and Jean Cocteau in the Arles arena.

A nearby wall is devoted to Picasso lith­­o­­graphs and drawings of bullfighting scenes, among them a tiny one the artist drew in colored inks on the back of a fake that Richardson had sent him in the fifties. The apartment also abounds with tokens of Richardson’s longtime friendship with Andy Warhol, including the only copy of the Pop artist’s graduation photograph, in its original frame, and a snapshot of an awestruck Warhol with Pope John Paul II.

Warhol’s portrait of Richardson from the hedonistic heyday of Studio 54 dominates the bedroom, showing the author wearing a studded leather cap and jacket and a savage grin, an evocation of his interest in S&M culture. "Did you see my whale’s penis?" Richardson asks, pointing to a five-foot-long object that resembles an elongated eggplant propped up in one corner. "It was deaccessioned from a whaling museum," he adds. "Andy called it ’very Brancusi.’ "

Known for his mischievous wit, intellect, and prodigious charm, Richardson has a gift for mixing high and low culture, erudition and gossip, gentility and raunchiness. It’s what makes him both a delectable companion and a consummate biographer. In volume three, his descriptions of Picasso’s designs for the Ballets Russes are laced with tales of the artist’s romps in Paris brothels with the star dancer Léonide Massine. Richardson also decodes the tortured portraits that reflect Picasso’s marriage to the prim, conventional Olga Khokhlova and the explosive eroticism of works that hint at his rapturous affair with the teenage Marie-Thérèse Walter. The author guides us through what he calls Picasso’s "eternal quest for gigantism," reflected in the Napoléon-size artist’s reinterpretations of the works of masters such as Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Ingres.

Richardson’s own friendship with Picasso blossomed in the mid-fifties, when he and Cooper took up residence at the Château de Castille in Provence, near the artist’s stu­dio in Vallauris. "Because we had two bull­fighting centers nearby, he came to the house frequently," Richardson says, "and we would go regularly to see him in Cannes."

Picasso had split from Françoise Gilot, who left him in 1953, weary of his manip­ulations. She was replaced by Jacqueline Roque, and Richardson and Cooper be­­­­­came part of their circle. Richardson recounts how Picasso’s former lover Dora Maar once told him, "When the woman in his life changed, everything changed—the dog changed, the house changed, the way of life changed, and the friends changed."

Richardson’s relationship with Picasso was crystallized through an act of kindness. "After Françoise Gilot left, it was like the Judgment of Paris," he recalls. "There were three women who wanted to take her place. I loved Jacqueline and thought she was obviously the one. All the others in Picasso’s circle didn’t think she was up to it and were quite dismissive of her. I went to Paris and got her a bullfighter’s cape from Dior. It was the first time anyone had given her anything. Soon afterward she moved in with Picasso."

Proximity to the mercurial master could be thrilling but harrowing. "Picasso was a kind of vampire who extracted all your energy," Richardson says. "At the end of a day with him just doing pleasurable things—going to the beach, driving to St.-Tropez for lunch—you were in a state of nervous exhaustion. Even in his late eighties he would go to the studio and work all night off other people’s energy."

Still, Richardson calls Picasso the soul of generosity, noting how he gave him numerous drawings. "He was totally unpretentious and very funny," he says. For the women in his life, things were more complex. "To be one of his wives or mistresses would have been very exciting," Richardson says, "but also a rough ride."

When Richardson left Cooper, his easy access to Picasso dwindled. (Cooper would later draw the artist’s ire by showing up at his studio and offering unwanted advice regarding family matters. In a rage, Picasso threw the collector out and never spoke to him again.) But Richardson continued his relationship with the artist after moving to New York, where he ran Christie’s U.S. operations. With Picasso’s bless­ing, he began writing a book about his portraits. "The minute I started digging, it became so deep and complex and absolutely fascinating to me," Richardson says.

After Picasso’s death he expanded his focus. "I thought I should write a proper biography," Richardson explains. "I went to stay with Jacqueline and she offered enormous encouragement. She promised to give me all the help necessary, which she did before she killed herself."

Richardson expects to be criticized for failing to espouse the popular view that Picasso hated women. "All I can say is that Jacqueline and Marie-Thérèse both committed suicide because they couldn’t face life without him," he says. "For someone born into the most misogynist society in Europe, Picasso was remarkably unmisogynist. He adored women. In his still lifes, the guitars hanging from the wall are references to women. When touched the guitar makes music, as a woman does."

The long gestation of Richardson’s third volume—it took eight years to complete—was slowed in part by financial need. At the instigation of art dealer and collector Eugene Thaw, Mercedes Bass raised money to help Richardson finish the project, which is still unfinished. (Volume four, if it is ever written, will deal with the last 40 years of Picasso’s life.) The list of donors to the John Richardson Fund for Picasso Research includes a roster of boldfaced names such as Brooke Astor and Bill Blass, Nancy and Henry Kissinger, Evelyn and Leonard Lauder, David Rockefeller, Lily Safra, and Annette de la Renta.

"Mrs. Bass’s fund-raising did rather well, but the money went toward expenses," Richardson explains, referring in part to fees for assistants and his collaborator on the first three volumes, Marilyn McCully, with whom he has since parted ways. "I wasn’t allowed to touch the money. So I had to do extra book projects and a lot of journalistic work," he says. "I also had to sell most of the draw­ings that Picasso gave me."

Asked about the challenge of completing his opus, Richardson explains that he’s had discussions with potential collaborators. "I’m turning eighty-four in February and I don’t feel I have the requisite time, physical strength, or memory to do it on my own," he says.

And how does he imagine Picasso, his great subject, regarded him? "I think as some­body whose passion for his work and love for him as a person could always be counted on for understanding and support," Richardson says. "As I hope I’ve shown in the biography, I developed a deep understanding of his art and the workings of his imagination. Though I’m not sure Picasso would have been entirely comfortable with that."