Picasso Revisited

January 21, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


Pablo Picasso, as portrayed in a new biography. Paul Solman of WGBH-Boston has that story.

PAUL SOLMAN: It was pretty chaotic the other morning at John Richardson’s place in Manhattan.

JOHN RICHARDSON, Picasso Biographer: It’s a terrible mess at the moment.

PAUL SOLMAN: Not only was his 5,000 square foot apartment in the final throes of renovation, they were also trying to make it presentable enough for a high society party that evening, a sit-down dinner for 80 to celebrate the publication of Richardson’s latest book, volume two of his biography A Life of Picasso. John Richardson met Pablo Picasso in the late 1940’s, when Richardson helped build and run a private museum in the South of France. He then went to a job in New York with auction house Christie’s and obviously picked up a few knickknacks, himself, as we saw in his studio. The new book begins in 1907 with the most famous painter of the 20th century at age 26, about to make an artistic breakthrough. One of the most famous paintings of the 20th century, this picture of prostitutes, known as “The Damsels,” or “Demoiselles D’Avignon.”

PAUL SOLMAN: You begin this second book and actually end the first with the painting the “Demoiselles D’Avignon.” What’s he doing there? What’s the big deal about that painting?

JOHN RICHARDSON: The “Demoiselles” is important because it dealt kind of a death blow to the Western European tradition of figurative art. I mean, it went off on a whole new tack, and anything was permissible. I mean, he wanted to shock people in seeing things anew, and so it’s not just a very shocking subject, the whorehouse, shocking subject; it’s though he’s shockingly painting them. The women are hideous. They’re daunting, frightening, and that’s what he was after in that painting. And that’s what the breakthrough is about.

PAUL SOLMAN: Is it hard for people today to see this “Demoiselles D’Avignon” and get the feeling that Picasso was trying to give at the time? I mean, because for a lot of us it’s a fairly familiar image.

JOHN RICHARDSON: It’s so familiar that we tend to take it for granted, but when it was painted in 1907, none of Picasso’s friends could take it. I mean, they were horrified. Derain said that–so not only his painter friends–said that Picasso would be found hanging behind the painting, that I mean, this was the act of a mad man. And this was generally–Matisse came, roared with laughter at it, and this was the result it had on people. And I think Picasso was so appalled by, I mean, he’d shocked people in a way too much for the painting to be exhibited, to be shown, to be accepted.

PAUL SOLMAN: This is the painting that helped kick off the movement known derisively in the beginning as Cubism, the main artist theme of Richardson’s new book. And to this day people wonder what Cubism is all about.

JOHN RICHARDSON: One of the things Cubism is about is that traditionally distance lent enchantment to the view. I mean, things had to go away from the onlooker. And what the Cubist wanted to do was to bring things within reach of the onlooker. You feel sometimes that the painter is behind the canvas, shoving things out at you to make them more palpable, to make them more real, to give you a greater experience of their realness. And I think that’s what they were trying to do. Also, another thing was that they would show different sides of an object or a person so that you felt that you could see round things. One of the things that Picasso did, and it starts with Cubism, is this double profile. I mean, you can see it there as a–there’s a sort of wide profile with the eye looking, if you blot out that part of it, so already you have two separate images. You have a full face and you have a side–you have a profile view.

PAUL SOLMAN: Actually, two profiles because I guess there’s a black profile too.

JOHN RICHARDSON: There’s a black profile too. It’s incredibly ingenious, but it looks at first sight very, very simple, but it’s enormously ingenious the way these sort of profiles match. They make a full face.

PAUL SOLMAN: And it’s to his friend, John Richardson.

JOHN RICHARDSON: Mon ami, John Richardson, yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: A prized possession, I take it?

JOHN RICHARDSON: It is a very prized possession, yes. I’ve got a whole lot of others. And he was very, very generous with his work, with his drawings. There’s another one.

PAUL SOLMAN: That–Doramar is–

JOHN RICHARDSON: Doramar was his mistress from 1936 to 1944. And here you have very much the same thing. You have, if you blot out this side of it, you see you have, you can see her buttocks, you can see her back with the rib cage and so on. And then you also see the front. So you’ve got the back and the front in which it’s blended into one, and you also have the same thing with her face. I think Picasso had such extraordinary ability, I mean, he could–he could draw the figure completely figuratively and completely accurately, but he could take any liberty he wanted. He also had this extraordinary imagination. And he regarded art as having a magic function and somehow he was a magician.

PAUL SOLMAN: When you say a magic function, what do you mean?

JOHN RICHARDSON: He regarded himself as something of a prophet. He could foresee things in his work. He could use his work to influence events. He could–he could put a curse on people through is work, he felt. I mean, for instance, his first wife, Olga, when she–he wanted to leave her and she wouldn’t–she wanted a separation, she wanted half his worldly goods, he started painting her in the most terrifying way, in the most reproachful images, I mean, as if to put a hex on her.

PAUL SOLMAN: Did it work?


PAUL SOLMAN: So she didn’t get half the estate?

JOHN RICHARDSON: She didn’t get half the estate, and she became extremely happy, poor wretch, and she–but she went on loving him until she died. It’s untrue to say that–people like to think of Picasso as going from one woman to the other and being rather unkind to women, being misogynistic towards women, but, in fact, the women adored him, I mean, even when they were left, with the exception of Francoise Gilo, they remained in love with him until their dying day.

PAUL SOLMAN: The current myth of Picasso is very much along these lines–woman hater, bad guy, I mean, general no-goodnik.

JOHN RICHARDSON: That’s a lot of nonsense. Whatever you say about him–you say he’s a mean bastard–he was also an angelic, compassionate, tender, sweet man. The reverse is always true. You say that he was stingy. He was also incredibly generous. You say that he was very bohemian, but also he had a sort of up-tight, bourgeois side. I mean, he was a mass of antitheses. And that is one of the sort of amazing things about him, that he was able to contain these totally different qualities, defects, what have you.

PAUL SOLMAN: Did he do things that you, yourself, disapproved of?

JOHN RICHARDSON: The only thing which I find reprehensible is I was very close to Jacqueline, his second wife, and Jacqueline was ill when they–well, soon after they met, Jacqueline fell ill, and she should have had an operation. And–

PAUL SOLMAN: What was wrong with her?

JOHN RICHARDSON: It was some kind of female problem. I think she should have had a hysterectomy. And Picasso wouldn’t let her have a hysterectomy. And I’d say, you must have it for God sake, and I remember once she came to dinner and she fainted, and I took her up and put her on my bed and said, listen, have this, have the operation. “No, no, no, Pablo wouldn’t like it. Pablo doesn’t want me to have it.” And then finally one day she collapsed completely, had to be taken off to the hospital, and she had the operation.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now this is a portrait of Jacqueline, right?

JOHN RICHARDSON: That’s a portrait of Jacqueline, and it’s a portrait that–it’s a big ink wash drawing that Picasso gave me, and as you can see, she’s very–she looks rather dramatic, rather sad, rather sick, which, indeed, she was a few days after this was done.

PAUL SOLMAN: Did you ever tell him that Jacqueline needed an operation? Did you ever confront him?

JOHN RICHARDSON: No. Nobody dared confront him. If you ever confronted Picasso over anything like that, over any personal matters, if you were critical of him, you were out.

PAUL SOLMAN: Do you have other friends you have a relationship like that with?

JOHN RICHARDSON: Certainly not, but I mean I have no other friends with whom I had a relationship as with Picasso.

PAUL SOLMAN: Because he’s a genius, and you don’t want to offend him.

JOHN RICHARDSON: Yeah, well, also, I mean, I liked the man, and I wanted access to him. And I wasn’t going to, you know, say something dumbly critical and have the door barred in my face in the future. I mean, I used to spend a lot of time with Picasso in the 50’s and early 60’s, and he was a marvelous, funny, nice guy to be around, but you’d find by the end of the day, even if you’d just had lunch with him and gone to the beach with him, had dinner with him, somehow by the end of the day that you had–were totally nervously exhausted; that everybody around him had suffered from nervous exhaustion; and he, at the age of eighty or eighty-five, would go off into his studio, strutting off into his studio, and would work all night on your energy.

PAUL SOLMAN: Do you ever think he became too quick and easy, too facile?

JOHN RICHARDSON: Picasso said facility was the enemy and that he always had to struggle against, and he said, “Sometimes I feel as I’d like to tie one arm behind my back to make things more difficult for myself.” And he always–that’s why in the end there is nothing facile about his work. I used to sit and watch him sign editions of lithographs and prints. You know, there would be say 50 in an edition. He’d sometimes do four, five, six editions.

And each time he signed his name, he held his pencil in a very ugly, clumsy way, he signed it as if he’d never signed it before. He didn’t do like you and I probably do, dash off a signature. It was done very, very intently and as if you’d think he’s burning his name into the paper.

And I think that is part of his mastery. I mean, it was this complete concentration. He was focused on what he was doing, whether it was the smallest inscription in a book or a silly little drawing, it’s always done with an enormous amount of concentration. And that I think is probably what genius is all about.