John Richardson, the brilliant biographer of Picasso, resembles (by his own account) those charming and attractive young men of limited means and boundless ambition—right out of the novels of Stendhal and Balzac—who use any means to make their way in the world. The son of an English soldier, educated at Stowe school and the Slade School of Art, Richardson was invalided out of the army in World War II. After failing as a painter, and with a trust fund of only $500 a year, he toiled away for a time as an industrial designer and journalist.

In 1949, when he was 25 years old, Richardson met Douglas Cooper, “a stout pink man in a loud checked suit.” Cooper (1911-84), the homosexual son of an Australian tycoon who had made his fortune in gold and real estate, was obsessed with Picasso, Braque, Leger, and Gris, and had the finest collection of modern art in England. (It would now be worth about half a billion dollars.) A repulsive rotten pear of a man who looked for all the world like Henry Kissinger, Cooper was consumed with self-hatred and seemed to identify with the screeches, self-display, and wanton havoc of the peacocks that decorated the gardens of his lavish French chateau. A witty and clever connoisseur of art and artists, Cooper—who had hoped to see more amputees in postwar Germany—was a nasty piece of work. Both arrogant and sycophantic, he was also petty, malicious, spiteful, overbearing, greedy, and dishonest.

When someone displeased him, he would ring him up and shriek: “You filthy little sh–!” Ironically enough, this old scourge of the art world had, before Richardson revived him, been virtually forgotten. In a crucial passage, Richardson writes that, when they first returned to Cooper’s house in a wasp-colored Rolls Royce and Cooper made the inevitable pass:

Out of courtesy and curiosity, I lurched upstairs after him. . . . Alcohol overcame my initial revulsion. A kiss from me, I fantasized, would transform this toad into a prince. . . . However, Douglas turned out to be as rubbery as a Dali biomorph. No wonder he was mad at the world. This realization triggered a rush of compassion, which enabled me to acquit myself on this ominous night. .. . For the next twelve years Douglas would play on my compassion, alternating cajolery with brute force, psychic cunning with infantile bellowing. The tension was often excruciating, but the .. . bond forged out of a passionately shared experience of works of art made it all worthwhile.

Richardson seems to have been driven less by compassion than by his desire for a hedonistic existence (back in London, after a luxurious trip to Holland, his “hitherto humdrum life became a round of pleasure”) and, as the novelist Angus Wilson noted, by a “fixation on worldly success.” To achieve these goals, Richardson forfeited his personal freedom and frequently suffered public humiliation. When he offered his own opinions on art. Cooper would scream: “How dare you pontificate to me about Leger!” and, as if he were a houseboy, order him to get their guests a drink.

The toad never turned into a prince, and Richardson certainly earned his keep. The biggest payoff was friendship with Cooper’s friend Pablo Picasso. “For me this would be the greatest possible privilege,” Richardson states, “and it would enable me, decades later, to embark on my biography of the artist with more insight and sympathy than would otherwise have been possible.” Indeed, when he was working on a study of Picasso’s portraits and going through hundreds of photographs with him, the artist “pointed out the iconographical complexities involved [and revealed] how certain images represented not only Dora Maar but also her predecessor, Marie Therese, as well as Lee Miller and Inez, the maid.”

The Picasso that emerges from this book (foreshadowing the later volumes of Richardson’s biography) is small and delicate, with unassuming courtesy and a radiant smile. He had to be surrounded by an entourage who believed in him and his work. He received or refused visitors, playing them off against each other in kingly fashion. When eating fried octopus, he would wipe his oily fingers on his bald pate to make his hair grow. He loved to get unusual gifts and generously gave away his own drawings. (Cooper kept all those given to both himself and Richardson.) Like a magician, Picasso could transform old rubbish into sculpture. His astonishing personal magnetism lasted right into his 90’s, and he would feed on the energy of his followers and use it to fuel a night’s work in his studio. Superstitious about the merest mention of death, he always remained an exile from Spain. Richardson describes him in the frontier town of Port Bou, “glowering at his beloved country, a few hundred yards away, which he had been unable to visit for almost twenty years and would never visit again.”

Just as Fitzgerald observed that Hemingway “needs a new woman for each big book,” so Dora Maar, one of Picasso’s many mistresses, said that when the woman in his life changed, “virtually even, thing else changed; the style that epitomized the new companion, the house or apartment they shared, the poet who served as a supplementary muse, the tertulia (group of friends) that provided the understanding and support he craved, and the dog that rarely left his side.” But Picasso devoured women like a minotaur. He reduced Dora to tears, long after he’d left her, by compelling her to show Richardson an old sketchbook that portrayed her sexual organs, reasserting his rights over her and turning her back into a tearful victim. After he’d left Françoise Gilot, he severely tested the limits of her successor’s devotion. No matter how callously he treated Jacqueline Roque, “she referred to him as her God, spoke to him in the third person and frequently kissed his hands.” After his death, she shot herself.

Richardson’s fascinating, stylish, and perceptive portraits are etched with acid. Writer Bruce Chatwin wore “a supercilious smirk on his pretty face.” Sir John Rothenstein, director of the Tate Gallery, was a toady and a smug chauvinist. Angus Wilson moved from writing catty short stories to turning out turgid romans à thèse. Henry Moore’s assistants would blow up his “maquettes into something airport-sized, or shrink them into saleable Kleinkunst, or slice them, eye-catchingly, in half” The pain and degradation of Francis Bacon’s imagery was based on “the violence that he challenged his lovers to inflict on his infinitely receptive body.” Richardson, unable to resist even pulling down his idol, quotes Braque’s clever but meaningless mot: “Picasso used to be a great painter. Now he is merely a genius.”

No one has ever been subjected to more mythologizing and denigration than Hemingway. Richardson, professionally dedicated to establishing the truth, offers an eyewitness account of an event that supposedly took place during a corrida at Nîmes in the summer of 1959:

As the band struck up the Marseillaise, we all stood. Suddenly Picasso laughed and pointed down at Hemingway. The author of Death in the Afternoon was standing rigidly to attention, his right hand up to his peaked cap in a military salute. When Hemingway looked around and saw that nobody else was saluting . . . he withdrew his hand and ever so slowly repositioned it in his pocket.

Richardson, having concluded from this incident that Hemingway’s stories were spurious, proceeds to call the boring and pretentious Michel Leiris “a great writer.”

The point of the anecdote is to show Richardson’s intimacy with Picasso and the artist’s superiority to the naively absurd Hemingway (an old and greatly respected friend of Picasso). The incident, however, seems out of character. Hemingway, having attended thousands of bullfights in France and Spain under the gaze of many eyes scrutinizing his behavior, would surely have known how to act when the national anthem was played. In fact, he was not even present at the corrida to which Richardson refers. In The Dangerous Summer, Hemingway’s account of the bullfights of 1959, he wrote: “I love Nîmes but did not feel like leaving Madrid, where we had just arrived, to make such a long trip to see bulls with altered horns fought, so decided to stay in Madrid.” And, since Richardson is such a smarty-pants, it’s worth pointing out some other notable errors: Helena Rubinstein’s first husband was Edward (not Horace) Titus; Connie Mellon was the ex-wife of a trustee (not the director) of the National Gallery’ in Washington; Brian Urquhart was Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs (not Secretary-General) of the United Nations; the Schatzalp (not the Waldhaus) Hotel in Davos inspired the sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain; Captain Cook was killed and eaten in Hawaii (not Tonga); and Ferragosto is not Italy’s Fourth of July—the latter is a patriotic holiday, the former (the Feast of the Assumption on August 15), a religious one.

Richardson’s 12-year connection with Cooper ended badly. When he decided to leave, having learned all he could from his mentor, he tried to recover his possessions before moving to New York. Cooper spitefully burned all of Richardson’s clothes and papers, and refused to return the precious gifts he’d received from Picasso, Braque, and several other artists. There being no locks or burglar alarms at the chateau, Richardson raided the place, filled a car with his valuables, and drove off.

At one point in the book, Richardson compares Cooper to the English critic Cyril Connolly: “Whereas Douglas used his wit to wound, Cyril used his to seduce. Otherwise they were too alike—too bullied and bullying, bossy and babyish, vain and self-hating and fat—to stand each other for long.” Reviewing Connolly’s novel The Rock Pool (1936), about English expatriates in France, George Orwell defined the moral chasm between his own values and the hedonistic and decadent life that Connolly—like Cooper and Richardson—chose to lead: “even to want to write about so-called artists who spend on sodomy what they have gained by sponging betrays a kind of spiritual inadequacy.”


[The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: Picasso, Provence, and Douglas Cooper, by John Richardson (New York: Random House) 318 pp., $26.95]