Picasso's conscience

December 13, 1996

Picasso's biographer and friend John Richardson tells Kam Patel how the artist struggled to cope with being so far ahead of his peers and why his misogyny should be seen incontext.

When the young John Richardson walked into a Paris studio in 1949 to meet Pablo Picasso for the first time, he felt he had entered the anteroom of some 18th-century monarch: people jostled for power; acolytes grew impatient with the long wait for an audience with the artist.

Picasso eventually emerged. He was, as the 25-year-old Richardson had imagined, charismatic and polite. And soon after that brief meeting, Richardson moved to the South of France, paving the way for a close friendship which lasted until Picasso's death in 1973.

That friendship resulted in A Life of Picasso, a kaleidoscopic, insider's account of the life and work of the artist widely regarded as the 20th century's greatest painter. Two volumes of the biography have already been published - mostly to wide acclaim. But, on the day we meet, a critical review by Paul Johnson in the Sunday Telegraph has infuriated Richardson, who held, until recently, the Slade professorship of art at Oxford University. He launches into a tirade, rounding off with: "Thank God for a bad review from Paul Johnson because a good one from that man would have been extremely difficult to live down!" Richardson, who studied art at the Slade School in London, regards the biography as a labour of love. It was undertaken with the support and encouragement of Picasso and his second wife Jacqueline. And in New York, where he now lives, he is working on the last two volumes, the third due out sometime in 1999 and the last in 2002.

It was around 1952 that Richardson became firmly established within Picasso's innermost circle of friends. Francoise Gilot, Picasso's mistress, was about to leave him and Jacqueline Roque, who would later marry him, had arrived on the scene. Dora Maar, an earlier mistress, told Richardson: "Every time the woman changed, everything else changed - the style changed, the house changed, the poet changed, the dog changed, the circle of friends changed." Now Richardson was part of the new dispensation, the new crowd.

In assisting his friend with his biographical project, Picasso hoped it might provide him with insights into his own creative process - something he found fascinating but mysterious. Richardson often observed how "extraordinarily detached" Picasso was from his works, almost to the point of regarding them as though they were by another hand. The artist numbered and dated everything so that he could chart his progress. And when he had completed a series of drawings he would plant them in a row to try to see their development and how the conclusion had been reached. Richardson once asked which ones he preferred in any series, was there a pattern? Picasso replied: "Almost always I am most interested in the first one, the first idea, however sketchy it is, however incomplete, however unresolved. Then I nearly always like the one before the last because I don't like it when everything is resolved." The last in the series may have been the most polished, but for Picasso the desperation of the penultimate one, the attempt to resolve something, even if unsuccessful, was telling: "It's something he found very moving in Cezanne, the fact that Cezanne was never completely able to finish something, that there was always this desperation. And he wanted to catch that anxiety," says Richardson. Picasso told Richardson that he hated facility, that he had polished up his technique to such a point, that facility had become the enemy. "He was always trying to tie one hand behind his back, as it were, to make things more difficult."

For Picasso, one of the most difficult periods in terms of his work was that leading up to the creation of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the cataclysmic brothel composition of 1907, now hailed as the painting that ushered in modernism. The work condemned the 25-year-old Picasso to seclusion. Richardson writes: "Although friends sympathised with his aspirations, none was capable of understanding the pictorial form that these aspirations took."

When Picasso allowed his closest friends, the writer Andre Salmon and the poets Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob to see the painting, "they were baffled and took refuge in embarrassed silence, or the faintest of praise," writes Richardson. Picasso, for whom the support and understanding of friends was always vital, must have been devastated. Richardson says: "What he felt above all was loneliness. He was so far ahead of everybody that there was nobody who understood. OK a few months later Georges Braque realised the importance of the painting, but he too suffered terribly from being too far ahead."

How Demoiselles achieved its elevated status is "a bit of a mystery" says Richardson, since it was not put on show until 1916. It was soon taken up by the Dadaists and later, in the early 1920s, by the Surrealists. But up until 1916 it was a legend to all except those who visited Picasso's studio, although, as Richardson points out, by 1909-10 people knew what Picasso was about. He had set out to develop cubism with Braque, who offered a counterpoint to Picasso's more manifesto-oriented approach to a project which irrevocably shattered western notions of space and beauty.

Demoiselles was bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1939. For Richardson the acquisition was a turning point. The museum's Alfred Barr, an expert on Picasso "imposed it on the world as the only begetter of modernism and the museum is still hammering this home", says Richardson, laughing. "And I think they are probably right. But I don't think it would have had quite the authority, be quite as iconic as it is, if it hadn't been for Alfred and his successors at the museum I the way they just keep it hanging there, as if to say: 'This is the Demoiselles! We owe everything to this!'"

The most important new contribution by Richardson to the debate over Les Demoiselles is the identification of the 19th-century French poet and critic Charles Baudelaire as the probable inspiration for the work. In 1863 Baudelaire proposed two quintessentially "modern" subjects for an artist to address: the brothel and the procession of carriage folk in Paris's Bois de Boulogne. Picasso was always evasive about Baudelaire. "The more crucial the source, the more determined he was to divert attention from it," writes Richardson, who believes the Baudelaire link will change perceptions of the painting: "Picasso saw it as a vehicle by which he would become Baudelaire's 'painter of modern life', the modernist. He just shoved himself into the role. How nobody spotted the link with Baudelaire is astonishing," he says.

In recent years there has been considerable controversy over Picasso's misogyny, which has threatened to dislodge him from his pedestal among the greats of 20th century art. He has been accused of "cutting up" and "slicing" women in his fragmented paintings. His personal life, which included many affairs and relationships with women, many of whom were not well treated, has been dredged up to support such claims. Richardson, however, says the attack on the standing of Picasso's work is "a load of bull****".

"Picasso was born in Andalusia in 1881 and that meant he was a misogynist - every other man born into Andalusian society of that period was a misogynist. I always think it's amazing that Picasso, who was in many ways gentle, compassionate and tender - much more so than a lot of other Andalusian men - should be demonised like this. I think it grotesque to judge anybody of another era, another culture by today's cant. It seems absurd. Rembrandt was a terrible misogynist, so was Cezanne. Matisse was a much worse misogynist than Picasso. Why land Picasso with this label? OK he was a misogynist. But he was also very compassionate, tender and affectionate and adored women. He was the sum of antitheses in both his life and work, and it is a big mistake not to see him as such."

He admits feminist art historians and critics do have a valid argument but says that the artist's misogyny was not an issue until Arianna Stassinopolous Huffington wrote a "shabby, hostile," book that demonised Picasso: "This is a posthumous thing brought up by a woman who isn't, as far as I know, even a feminist."

He slams the Merchant Ivory film, Surviving Picasso, as another "sensationalist gimmick". He finds the recently released film, "incredibly dull and poorly directed". Claude Picasso, his second son, tried to stop the film being made and refused the film-makers permission to use any original works by his father, forcing them to run up what Richardson calls "shlock pictures". Richardson is furious that this is not admitted until the end of the film, in the credits. He grimaces and says: "They are the worst pieces of rubbish you have ever seen. People who don't know better will assume these are Picassos."

Picasso died in 1973 aged 91. In the late 1950s and during the 1960s he had watched, with enormous resentment, the rise of the rival art gods, Jackson Pollock and Marcel Duchamp among them. Picasso was very conscious that the young artists who had once looked up to him began looking to these other gods - a desertion he was never reconciled to. Richardson says: "In a way if it had been Matisse, who was always a rival, it wouldn't have mattered. But who were they looking up to on the other side of the Atlantic but Marcel Duchamp of all people! Picasso despised him."

With age taking its toll, Picasso needed more than just the support and understanding of his friends. His vampire-like thirst for the buzz of those around him intensified. "If you spent a day with him, you would see him get everybody's essence in some way so that, at the age of 85, he would strut off into the studio on everybody else's energy," says Richardson.

The artist hated the idea that he could not go on painting forever. "Spaniards have such a complicated relationship with death, it is with them the entire time," says Richardson. "Picasso was scared of death, and yet it was so much a part of his life. The last self-portrait is so moving. It is an image of enormous courage because here he is, confronting death in the mirror. Death is there and he sees himself as a skull. To me it confirms that, while not accepting death, he had come to terms with it."

Despite the loss of Picasso, Richardson feels very close to the artist: "I am with him every day. But I hope my closeness does not affect my detachment because I have tried to see Picasso as he was. And, although I loved him, I think I do see him as he was, warts and all, particularly in his relationships with women."

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