“I am still obsessed by Picasso.”
The wind is blowing on a very cold New York winter day when I arrive in the downtown 5th Avenue building where I am expected. I have come to interview the art historian Sir John Richardson, who has just turned 92 years old. The lift takes me up to his apartment and we enter into one salon, and then there is another one and another one; with English furniture, modern paintings, Old Masters, drawings, photographs, objets.
There is a strange cardboard colourful puppet representing Donald Trump, given to him by Annette de la Renta for his birthday; a photograph with President Clinton; and art books and art magazines everywhere. There is a book on Guernica, and a portrait of Richardson by Lucian Freud, and one by Andy Warhol, and plenty of other drawings. The English furniture is from the 19th and 18th century, and there are wonderful curtains and bookshelves. The floors are wood parquet with carpets and a lot of light comes in through the windows.
His bedroom is very similar to all the salons, and John Richardson, who has just had his coffee and is dressed in an Austrian type of jacket, a plaid flannel shirt and wearing red suede loafers says, “I would prefer to go into my study.” He takes me to another large salon-like room, not very different from the others, where one of his assistants is typing on the computer. He was able to buy this very large apartment many, many years ago, when New York was a much cheaper place to live. We sit on the couch and start the interview.
John, you have spent your entire life in the world of art?
Yes, I went to the Slade School of Fine Art, but during the war the school moved to Oxford. Being in Oxford killed two birds with one stone, as I happened to get this strange rheumatic fever and, thank God, I did not go to the army. Back in London, to make money I helped do the windows of Harrods, and once I fell asleep in one of those windows. I also designed textiles to keep me going – this was during the Blitz. When I realised I could not be as good an artist as I wished, that I could not be a Picasso, I wrote a lot for The New Statesman, which was a left wing and intellectual newspaper at the time.
What did you write?
I wrote art criticism, and I did reviews on the ballet and opera. I was launched on a sort of journalistic life, but one day I went to a party and met Douglas Cooper. He was one of the main people tracking art stolen by the Germans. He could speak German in Berlin slang or Austrian German or any other way; he was great at languages. He was a key interrogator of Germans during the war. Douglas was a very aggressive person.
Did he start his art collection when you met him?
He started in 1932. He was well off, because his grandfather made a fortune in Australia. He wanted to make the best possible collection of Picasso, Léger, Juan Gris and Braque. After the First War the great art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s stock had been confiscated by the government in France, and divided into four lots that were auctioned around 1921. But all Kahnweiler’s stock was not entirely sold, and a lot was still on the market. At that time Douglas became friends of all these artists, sadly Juan Gris died in 1927.
Did you meet all these artists too?
With Douglas we went to Provence in the South of France and saw some extraordinary columns around sort of a ruined neglected château. We investigated and found out that it was for sale. I said to him, “Give me that château for Christmas.” Of course, he bought it for himself. Picasso was a friend of Douglas’, and he came to see us. The château was half way between Nîmes and Arles. Often we had lunch with Picasso and then went to the bullfight, and then we came back to the Château; Jean Cocteau was with us. We had dinner in the garden and got gypsies from the Camargue to dance. This was in the Fifties. We were regularly going to see Picasso, and I had the idea that I wanted to write about him. He was very generous to me. He sensed somehow that I was going to write about him. He had a very strange understanding of his work. When I decided to write about him, originally it was going to be about a specific part of his life, his portraiture, about the people he met, going back to the early years.
Were you less interested in his late work?
I was fascinated by his latest work. I remember that before Christmas he said to Douglas, “I want to show you some drawings I did yesterday of Jacqueline.” This was 1955 or ‘56. He asked us, “Which do you like best?” I personally chose the strongest simple one, Douglas chose the most elaborate and apparently glamourous, that he thought was the most expensive. Picasso said, “OK, these are your Christmas presents.” Then he said, “I don’t think Douglas’ is ornate enough,” and he painted more and more on the painting until he ruined it.
When did you start writing about him?
I wrote a book on his watercolours for Holbein-Verlag, the Swiss publisher, in 1956. Picasso liked that. Later on he wanted to buy Douglas’ château in exchange for a lot of paintings, and Douglas said no. But I had discovered that the Château de Vauvenargues, near to Aix-en-Provence, was for sale, and I suggested to Picasso, who had come to see a bullfight, that he stop to see it after. And he did, and he bought the château.
Why did you stop living in France?
At that time I got bored of being with Douglas in the French countryside. It was like living with Gargantua. I came to America and knew all the dealers and museum directors in New York because they had come to Douglas’ in the South of France. Nine dealers who got on with each other asked me to curate a show in nine different galleries, covering Picasso’s work: drawings, cubist and different phases of his life. And that took place in the Summer. In those days people could wander from a gallery to another after having dinner. It was an enjoyable way to pass one’s evening and get to know Picasso.
Did you fall in love with New York?
Yes, and decided to live here. There were not many opportunities in London. All the action was in New York. The energy was so marvellous at that time. Douglas tried to blackmail me, he got to the authorities when I came back and I was stopped, not allowed into the country. Douglas denounced me as being homosexual, which was forbidden at the time. I denied this and a lawyer got me out of it.
You started Christie’s in the United States, in New York?
Yes, I did. I had never worked in an auction house but I got the job by unwittingly outing one of Christies’ directors. The recent revolution in Cuba had provided the communist regime with a mass of looted works of art. In the greatest secrecy, Christie’s had sent a director to spy out the land. One of my closest friends, a foreign correspondent, told me he had spotted Christies’ man emerging from a Cuban warehouse. “What on earth were you doing in Havana,” I asked the director after his return. He was amazed that I was so well informed. Christie’s offered me the job of representing the firm in America. It was enormous fun setting up the first great auction house in New York.
However, after a few years I came to loathe the business of art and reverted to my first love, writing—above all about Picasso who had become a close friend when I lived in the south of France.
At the same time you were a friend of Andy Warhol, and you even became an actor in one of his movies?
Yes. In those days Andy was amazing. None of us could imagine that his paintings would be worth millions and millions and millions, like Picasso.
Were you impressed by him?
Andy for me was like a character in a Russian novel. The boy in the village who has some sacred quality. He never gets hurt. They walk through any kind of trouble without being touched. I realised that Andy went to Mass every single day of his life. I realised his catholicism. He had this quality of being utterly innocent in the middle of the worst perversion, but he was untouched by it. He walked through life and made a huge amount of work. He had his partner, Fred Hughes, who made the connections and the sales, and he could not have had anybody better.
What about your obsession with Picasso?
I flew to be with him on his 80th birthday. I was staying at a friend’s in Cap Ferrat when someone told me that Douglas had been stabbed near Nîmes, so I went to look after him. I nursed him in hospital for a week. Picasso came over a bit later.
Did Picasso speak French with you?
Yes, he didn’t speak English. He spoke French with a Spanish accent.
Are you now writing the fourth volume of his biography?
Yes, I am up to 1939 and I want to go through the war. Nobody knows all the details.
What happened during the war?
Max Jacob was taken to the concentration camps. He was able to send messages to Cocteau who did all he could, but failed. Cocteau during the war was helpful, but he was a collaborator. Picasso was passionately anti-war and anti-German. He was so vulnerable since 1937. He was in trouble because of Guernica, but the Germans treated him decently because Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, was an admirer of Picasso. But I am just about to start the war and I am not yet fluent with it. One of the points with which I have a problem is why did he paint three very large portraits of the Corsican black market art dealer Fabiani. I am surprised to see that, because Fabiani was selling stolen Jewish paintings and doing all sorts of terrible things. But Fabiani was doing this doing this because he was providing money to support a Resistance newspaper. At the end of the war he was arrested, but because of the paper they saved him. Most of the war Picasso spent in Paris in his house on rue des Grands-Augustins with Dora Maar, and also with his Spanish secretary Jaime Sabartés, who deeply disliked Dora Maar.
When are you going to finish the next book?
I have two choices. Do I finish it in 1940, or do I take it over the war years – and then I can take it up to 1944.
And what happened after 1944?
Picasso became passionately in love for de Gaulle, and some Gaullists asked him to dinner. He went to the dinner and when he came back Dora Maar told me that he said, “C’est une bande de con.” And then, the following day, he signed with the Communist Party.
You have had a sort of double life, yours and Picasso’s.
I like him and I am still obsessed by him.
Is it true that he was monster?
He was so kind. He was not a monster. The difficulty with Picasso is that there were two extremes. He could be extremely cruel to women, and complicated. At the same time he could be the kindest, most generous, God-fearing man. He was not at all ungenerous. He was immensely intelligent.
Did he realise who he was?
Yes, he did. The more I dig I find another aspect of him.
As an artist?
Yes, and also as a human being. You never know which way he is going to jump. He had this extraordinary nature. He came from a family that, going back in the generations, had many priests, and also a hermit. Picasso is quite capable of saying terrible things about the Catholic Church, but his Catholicism was a secret that he never divulged. Jacqueline once said to me, “ll est plus catholique que le pape.”
Who were his masters?
Spanish painters: Velazquez and Goya. And also Cézanne.
And after all these years, what do you feel?
The more I find, the more I dig, the greater he becomes. As does the depth of my feelings and understanding. Of course Picasso had weaknesses like anybody else, but I should say more faults than weaknesses and it is very difficult to separate his life from his work. What is difficult is that whatever you say, the opposite is equally true.
Are there any Picasso’s around nowadays?
There are no Miro’s or Léger’s around. Very thin pickings. I don’t think there are great artists today, but I have very little knowledge of what happens in Asia or in Africa, and I am too concentrated on Picasso.
Did you have other friends among great artists, like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud?
Yes, I remember that Francis was broke and lived with his blind nanny. He suggested that he put an ad in the Times to say that he was looking for a protector, and the blind nanny found a certain gentleman. But then Francis stole some money and he was fired. The gentleman was a remote cousin of Douglas, but as Douglas couldn’t care much about relatives and he liked trouble he became a sort of protector of Francis. I was a friend of his, and a passionate admirer. I certainly think he is a great artist, as much as Lucian Freud, who is totally different. I admire them equally.
Did you know Bacon very well?
Yes, and I was behind the scenes. He drank too much at the end of his life and he went to pieces. He was fun. He was naughty. But I think that his late pictures are of no interest. Lucian on the contrary never dips, and I think somehow that it was much more gratifying to spend time with Lucian. I must say that I knew Lucian well. We had known each other since our teens and I must say that I am enormously fond of Lucian. Lucian was a great admirer of Picasso, more than Francis.
Now you are 92, how do you feel?
I still feel the same. My mind is still very straight. I am alone, but I have the most wonderful three people working with me, writing with me, doing an enormous amount of research. I must say that I still work every day, even weekends.
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11th February, 2016
Portrait of John Richardson by his assistant Ross Finocchio.