Friday, December 21, 2007

"Not in New York!"

At the LRB, Julian Bell considers the latest installment of John Richardson's Picasso biography:
[T]o Richardson’s regret, the Parade project binds Picasso to Cocteau, a person for whom the biographer possesses a principled disdain. Taking pot shots at this clever, silly literary poseur becomes one of his favourite pastimes – an amusement evidently shared by all who came across him, Picasso included. Cocteau is a man who’s almost too scared to climb the gangplank onto a party boat, yet as soon as he’s aboard he’s running round yelping, for the sheer hell of it, ‘We’re sinking!’ – he really does cut a figure of Withnail-like poltroonery. Though, as with Withnail, his daft flamboyance proves irresistible and Richardson ends up chasing his story wherever it may head (through Catholicism and into opium addiction), handing him the mike for by far the liveliest account here of Picasso at work.

This preposterous flibbertigibbet may be the wrong kind of friend for his Modernist hero to hang out with, but at least he’s not a previous occupant of the writer’s own barstool. Time I declared an interest. The butt of Richardson’s most loaded derision throughout this volume is an English critic who paid court to Picasso some thirty years before Richardson and his onetime boyfriend Douglas Cooper moved in on the great man: namely, my grandfather Clive Bell. As a matter of fact, I don’t find it impossible to reconcile the snobbish and aesthetically obtuse ‘toady’ that Richardson delineates with the sagacious, genial old gent of my own rather dim childhood memories. Richardson never disguises the fact that he writes with a certain generational partiality and a distinct personal animus; each to his own. Slashing typecastings are integral to his style: ‘the loathsome Wildenstein’; the ‘notorious battle-axe – said by Cooper to have run a brothel’; ‘the creepy, unctuous seminarian Maurice Sachs’, who is one of the ‘fawning homosexuals’ in the fan club of that ‘rich, spoiled, homosexual narcissist’ Jean Cocteau. Tricky character, Richardson – at once out and a bit of a gay-baiter. Still, one hardly wishes him to be other than he is, and he so relishes having the last word. On Germain Bazin, a critic who became ‘one of the Louvre’s least distinguished directors’ after writing that Picasso’s ‘downfall is one of the most upsetting problems of our era’, he remarks: ‘Much the same could be said of Bazin’s rise to the top.’ Defensible statements, all of these, I dare say: still, it’s a little strange to hear Richardson berating Clive Bell for ‘cattiness’.

Faces, traits; this man’s indiscretions, that woman’s backstory: this is how Richardson’s world is structured, and what he makes it his business to know. And if he trusts to his own rapport with his hero, that is because he sees Picasso as very like him in these matters. When Richardson first set to work, nearly fifty years ago, he thought of ‘charting’ Picasso’s ‘development through his portraits. Since the successive images Picasso devised for his women always permeated his style, I proposed to concentrate on portraits of wives and mistresses. The artist approved of this approach.’ That explanation appeared in the introduction to his first volume, published in 1991, 18 years after Picasso’s death. And while the scope of the project vastly expanded during that interval, its procedures remain fundamentally unchanged 16 years further on. Richardson habitually unravels the artist’s purposes in terms of personas recollected in his imagination. For instance, the 1921 Three Musicians constitutes a rueful apology to the poet Max Jacob, an old bohemian friend banished by his prim new wife; the 1925 Woman with a Tambourine (Odalisque) is ‘a message to Matisse . . . a rebuke and tease’; while Mercure, the most radical of the ballet projects, is a riposte to both Cocteau and the Surrealists. But over and above such nods and winks to fellow cultural operators, any discussion of the work must, for Richardson, return to the question of women.

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