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The man who knew—and understood—Picasso

The artist's friend and biographer John Richardson curated the exhibition “Picasso: the Mediterranean Years, 1945-62” at Gagosian

Picasso's friend and biographer John Richardson speaks about the artist's experiences in the Mediterranean

John Richardson knew Pablo Picasso very well, which makes what he has to say about the artist more worthwhile and more interesting than most art-historical ruminations. Now 85, the artist’s friend and biographer has curated the exhibition “Picasso: the Mediterranean Years, 1945-62” in Gagosian’s Britannia Street space in London until 28 August.

Richardson has curated for Gagosian before. In New York last year the focus was on the artist’s late paintings. “I’m freelance, as it were,” says Richardson of the arrangement. “It just came about in some mysterious way, and it works unbelievably well because Larry Gagosian is such a perfectionist when it comes to exhibitions. He doesn’t want any museum shit: he doesn’t want wall texts; he doesn’t want labels; people don’t have to get confused by a whole lot of shops and books. Larry wants to serve it up as simply as possible.”

Richardson says he stays out of the financial arrangements, but Gagosian confirmed that a small number of the works lent to the show from Picasso family members are for sale.

“The Mediterranean Years” looks at an active period in Picasso’s life and art. He began to live on the Côte d’Azur and embarked on a relationship with Françoise Gilot, with whom he had two children, Paloma and Claude, who became the subject of playful and affectionate portraits, and whose toys were mingled with studio detritus in extraordinary sculptures. Picasso also discovered ceramics, ingeniously revolutionising the medium. Finally, after an acrimonious break-up with Gilot, he met and eventually married Jacqueline Roque, his last great muse.

It was in this period that Richardson first met the artist, initially in Paris in the 1940s, but more frequently in Provence from the early 1950s onwards, when Richardson moved to the Château de Castille with his then partner, the cubism scholar and collector, Douglas Cooper. “Picasso would come over to us every time there was a bullfight, and we’d go over once a month or so to him,” Richardson recalls. “He asked us to lunch and always wanted to show you some new work, because he desperately needed support: he wanted reactions from people. He’d ask, ‘Lequel est le plus fort?’—it was not the one that was the most beautiful he asked for, but the strongest.”

This was shortly after Picasso’s relationship with Gilot had ended. Her arrival had prompted a period of classical imagery in the Spaniard’s works. “Françoise was this tall femme fleur, slender and blonde, a sort of neo-classical figure in that respect,” says Richardson. Picasso portrays Gilot as a kind of fertility goddess, most famously when set amid dancing fauns and satyrs in the group of works made in 1946 that form the collection of the Picasso museum in Antibes.

While the artist’s earlier reinvention of classicism was inspired by visits to the Italian Mediterranean—particularly Naples, Richardson says—this new fascination was prompted by the ancient associations of the French Riviera. Picasso loved Antibes and its name in ancient Greek, Antipolis, and was also stirred by the Roman arenas at Nîmes, Arles and Fréjus, the theatres for his beloved bullfights. But he also revived a much earlier interest in the subject, from his time as a young artist in Barcelona.

“There was a big classical movement in Spain in 1900,” Richardson explains. “One of his friends at Els Quatre Gats [Barcelona café and meeting point for Picasso’s Catalonian milieu], Ramon Reventós, wrote these stories, which Picasso illustrated 40 years later, all about the Mediterranean in Phoenician times.”

Much of the classical imagery disappears from the work once Gilot departs and Roque’s strong profile emerges. “You feel he is groping his way towards a definitive image of her. Gertrude Stein said famously about the portrait of her that it looked nothing like her and that she grew into it, and you can see this with the Jacqueline portraits. He establishes an image of her and she grows into it. When I first knew her, 18 months before she went to live with Picasso, she was very pretty, but she didn’t have this great striking head that she has in the works.”

Many of Roque’s portraits are fuelled by a re-engagement with Spanish portraiture, and Picasso’s relationship with the homeland from which he was exiled is explored in Richardson’s scholarly essay in the exhibition catalogue. Most striking is the revelation that Picasso began negotiations with friends and associates of General Franco for a retrospective in Madrid which, had it come to pass, would have “totally compromised” Picasso’s heroic status in the eyes of the leftist avant garde, he says.

In the light of this discovery, Richardson has looked again at Picasso’s reworkings of Velázquez’s Las Meninas (around 1656), which are shown among his deconstructions of other old masters in the Tate Liverpool exhibition (until 30 August), which explores Picasso’s politics, and particularly his communism. “The Velázquez variations are in a very different spirit to some of the others, in that this is the greatest Spaniard of the 20th century, mocking, teasing and goosing the greatest painter of the 17th century,” Richardson says. “I realised that he’s painted Velázquez like Dalí—only one Spaniard could do this to another. But also, when he’s doing it, it’s when he is negotiating secretly business with yjr Francoists to have a retrospective, so those paintings were done very much for Spain.”

Richardson questions many of the conclusions of Tate Liverpool’s show. “His communism was very porous. What people forget is that everything is a grey area; his communism was an extremely grey area. He was thinking of becoming a Gaullist, because he was so impressed by De Gaulle’s liberation of Paris.” Gijs van Hensbergen, a Spanish scholar and the author of a recent book on Picasso’s Guernica, 1937, will collaborate with Richardson on the next biographical volume. Richardson suggests that Spanish sources will play a crucial role: “I long to get more into it because there is so much stuff there, and nobody has picked up the pebbles and seen what’s underneath.”

With Guernica, Dora Maar, war and Picasso’s communism at its heart, Volume IV of A Life of Picasso promises to be as ­compelling as its predecessors. One can only hope that Richardson, like Picasso, is able to maintain his great energy to propel him into his nineties, and to complete the task.

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