The British art historian John Richardson, who died in New York on March 12th at the age of 95 years old, was a representative of the best Anglo-Saxon tradition of the genre of biography. It’s a way of doing things that, without giving up on facts and figures and the abundant documentation that a biography requires, provides a literary style, a narrative structure and a skillful way of interweaving the life and work of the character being written about, and in which academic rigor and dissemination go hand in hand.
John Richardson admiring one of the works of the exhibition Picasso looks at Degas in the Picasso Museum
In this way Richardson would write, almost like a novel, a monumental biography about Picasso, who he had been obsessed about, he himself confessed, from 1980 and until the last days of his fruitful life. “The more I delved into Picasso, the bigger he became”, he had once said. Richardson was deeply fond of the painter and he had always highlighted all his immense talent and virtues but also his contradictions.
The three volumes that have so far been published of the biography of Picasso by Richardson fill around 1,500 pages, profusely illustrated. The first volume of Picasso. A biography describes the period from the birth of the painter in 1881 until 1906, and it is therefore a book of reference about the Barcelona years of the artist, in which Marilyn McCully also took part in the research. The second volume covers the period 1907-1917 and the third is dedicated to the years between 1917 and 1932. The first two volumes were only published in Spanish, by the publisher Alianza Editorial. With regard to the fourth and definitive volume, it seems that Richardson only had time to reach the beginning of the nineteen forties, according to North American media, and may be published posthumously at the end of the year in the United States.
The first and second volume of Picasso. A biography
Richardson’s detailed knowledge of Picasso not only came from the books and documentation that the writer had consulted but from his personal friendship with the painter. It all began in 1952 when Richardson and his partner, the art historian and collector Douglas Cooper, moved to Provence. In a luxury mansion, the couple set up a kind of private Cubist painting museum. They visited and were visited by artists such as Fernand Léger and Nicolas de Staël, and, of course, Picasso. The painter and Richardson connected immediately: “We regularly went to see Picasso and I began to think that I would like to write about him. He was very generous with me and he also felt in some way that I would end up doing so”. And did he just! And not only that. His skills as a disseminator and communicator also highlighted this in 2001 in the documentary series Channel 4, Picasso: Magic, Sex and Death.
Documentary of Channel 4, Picasso: Magic, Sex and Death
After splitting up from Douglas Cooper, Richardson moved to New York in 1960, where he worked as an adviser for the MOMA, the auction house Christie’s, writing for magazines such Vanity Fair and as a curator of exhibitions. Everyone who knew him emphasized his learning, sympathy, sense of humor and pleasure for explaining juicy anecdotes about the great characters he had known. Apart from Picasso, he was also a friend of artists such as Georges Braque, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Jean Cocteau and Andy Warhol (with whom he even participated as an actor in some of his films) but also of writers such as W.H. Auden and Tennessee Williams. Not without reason, the magazine W defined him once as “the man that all New Yorkers wanted to sit next to at dinner”.
John Richardson came to visit us in the Museu Picasso on more than one occasion, the last time when he was able to admire the exhibition Picasso looks at Degas, in 2010.
John Richardson and Elizabeth Cowling in the Picasso Museum, 2010
Written by the museum
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