Uncovering Picasso’s Secrets

As he prepares his fourth and final volume of his Picasso biography, John Richardson is still making discoveries about the artist

Richardson (right) with Douglas Cooper and Picasso in Vauvenargues, France, 1959.


John Richardson, who has written hundreds of thousands of words about the life and art of Pablo Picasso in the last 50 years, is still making discoveries about the artist.

“As I get older and older, I get more and more astonished the deeper I get into his work,” Richardson told me recently. He is completing the fourth and final volume of his highly acclaimed biography, A Life of Picasso, which is scheduled to be published by Knopf in 2014. It will cover the years from 1933 until Picasso’s death in 1973.

The first volume, The Prodigy, 1881– 1906, was published in 1991. It was followed by The Cubist Rebel, 1907– 1916 in 1996 and The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 in 2007.

Last spring, Richardson cocurated a Picasso show at the Gagosian Gallery in New York with Françoise Gilot, Picasso’s mistress and the mother of their children, Claude Picasso and Paloma Picasso. Richardson is an international adviser to the gallery and has organized three other Picasso shows for Gagosian.

“I learned an enormous amount from Françoise,” Richardson said in an interview in his Fifth Avenue apartment. On an antique table nearby was a small portrait of him by Lucian Freud. Elsewhere were beautiful lamps, divans, and works by Picasso, Braque, Warhol (a portrait of Richardson), and Joshua Reynolds (a portrait of Frederick, Prince of Wales), among others.

“Besides getting to know her paintings, I gained enormous knowledge of the crucial period in Vallauris, France, in which Picasso transformed the craft of ceramics and the medium of lithography and developed a new approach to sculpture. The sculpture involved the bits of rubbish that he found in the Vallauris dumps and were metamorphosed from trash into art. This was all taking place from 1946 to 1953.”

Richardson first met Picasso in 1948, when he and the late Douglas Cooper shared a chateau in Provence, not far from Vallauris. With Cooper’s connections, he met many of the prominent literary and artistic figures of the time: W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Francis Bacon, Jean Cocteau, Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, Anthony Blunt, and John Pope-Hennessy.

“I knew Picasso very well from 1951 to 1962 and saw him regularly,” Richardson said. “I last saw him in 1962 and told him I was going to do a book on his portraits, above all the women in his life. He was very cooperative and gave me a mass of information.”

The new book will be coauthored with Michael Cary, a writer on the Gagosian staff, with the assistance of Gijs van Hensbergen.

“I write everything,” Richardson said. “They help me in the research and structure and do most of the preparatory work. I can no longer do all that at the age of 88.

“With the help of Gijs, who has done books on Gaudí and Guernica, we have found important new material in the archives of the Spanish Foreign Ministry. Picasso didn’t go back to Spain after 1934, and his dream was to have a retrospective in Spain. In 1956, while he was perceived as the icon of anti-Fascism, he was considering an offer from Franco’s representative of a retrospective in Madrid.

“It was absolutely astonishing. Picasso had agreed to do so, provided the project was kept secret. His friends were all Communist party members. Someone spilled the beans, and the project was abandoned. Everyone denied any involvement. So his dream of having a retrospective in Madrid never came to pass.”

Richardson was born in London, the son of Sir Wodehouse Richardson, one of the founders of the British Army and Navy Stores, who was decorated by Queen Victoria and knighted by Edward VII.

He wanted to become an artist and attended the Slade School of Fine Art, then worked as an industrial designer and wrote for the New Statesman. In 1964, he opened the Christie’s New York office. Later he was vice president in charge of 19th- and 20th-century art at Knoedler & Company in New York. For many years he has been writing for a number of magazines, including The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair.

Richardson said, “Picasso was so thrilled by General Charles de Gaulle, whom he saw as the liberator of Paris in 1944, that he briefly became a Gaullist. Dora Maar, Picasso’s mistress at the time, told me that after dining with a group of Gaullists, he changed his mind and joined the Communist party a couple of days later.”

If Picasso were alive today, what would Richardson like to ask him?

“I suppose one of the things I would ask is, given the fact that the Communist party had failed him when the Soviets crushed the Hungarian revolution in 1956, why did he continue being a party member till the end of his life?”

He added: “I’m still amazed that any human being can have so many characteristics that are the opposite of each other. The diversity: extreme loyalty, extreme disloyalty; extreme kindness, extreme cruelty; extreme generosity, extreme stinginess, but only when his family was concerned. He used money to control those closest to him. Many people who have such diversity of characteristics wind up in a loony bin. Picasso ended up a genius.”

Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews.

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