In the fall of 2018, art historian John Richardson fell seriously ill and died the following March at the age of 95. He left behind a distinguished track record as a critic, curator and biographer and questions about the fate of one of the art world’s most anticipated volumes. , his fourth and last book on Pablo Picasso.
Shelley Wanger, her editor at Alfred A. Knopf, explained in a recent interview that she and Richardson had worked “on a typed manuscript” that they would review together when she came to see it every week. By the time he was hospitalized, they had what she calls “essentially a completed manuscript” except for the endnotes, illustrations, and some additional research.
Richardson A life of Picasso: the Minotaur years, which releases on November 16, is completing a project he started over 30 years ago with “The Prodigy” and continued with “The Cubist Rebel” and “The Triumphant Years”.
Like Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson series, Richardson’s books have been a story of testing and rewarding the patience of readers and critics. Each volume took years to complete – “The Triumphant Years” came out in 2007. Each has been praised in every way a biographer could ask for – for his prose and for his knowledge, for his singular appreciation of Picasso’s accomplishments and, despite a personal friendship with Picasso and members of his family, for his willingness to document the artist’s most disturbing flaws.
“I think these are the most important biographies of Picasso,” says Picasso’s grandson Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, co-chair of the FABA art foundation, which includes some of his grandfather’s works. He noted that Richardson benefited from knowing not only the artist, but Jean Cocteau and other friends and peers.
“He had a much larger and more expansive picture (than other biographers) of what everyone else was doing. It wasn’t all facts, because facts can be a bit boring. What you have is precision and insight.
“The Minotaur Years” covers 1933-43, when the Spanish artist was in his fifties and confronted with the spread of fascism and Nazi Germany in Europe. He was always impatient and in transition, exploring new styles and art forms, whether it was surrealist poetry, the mythological drawings that give the book its title, or the epic anti-war painting “Guernica”, its famous response to Italian and German bombings of 1937. of the Basque city during the Spanish Civil War.
Picasso was also, as always, in transition in his private life. He was estranged from his wife, Russian dancer Olga Khokhlova, and spent much of his time with other women, most notably poet-photographer Dora Maar, who met the artist in 1935 and became his lover and inspiration for many paintings.
Wanger says the book will be “the most comprehensive treatment of Picasso’s life and work in the 1930s and early 1940s.” It will include an unpublished correspondence with, among others, his wife and with the poet (and lover of Picasso) Alice Rahon. Richardson was also inspired by his conversations with Maar and with Pablo and Olga Picasso’s son, Paolo Picasso.
The account will reflect an “insider perspective” that “very few or no other writers on Picasso had,” according to Wanger.
One of the researchers for “The Minotaur Years”, Ross Finocchio, said Richardson was “happy with the end of the book.” But it reflects the decline of Richardson’s physical powers. The fourth volume is around 300 pages long, by far the shortest of his Picasso biographies, and his failing eyesight made the process of writing and reviewing documents slower and slower.
The delays in “The Years of the Minotaur” were also caused by Richardson’s otherwise ageless energy. Beginning in 2008, as a consultant to the Gagosian Gallery, he helped present six Picasso exhibitions hailed by Roberta Smith of the New York Times as among the best art exhibitions of the 21st century. Richardson was able not only to showcase rarely seen works by Picasso, but also to bring together works of art from museums and private collectors around the world.
“John was so much fun,” says Gagosian curator Michael Cary, who worked with Richardson on Picasso’s exhibitions. “And while he took everything he did very seriously, he was funny and playful and a storyteller. Everything had a story. He could look at one of Picasso’s works and he could tell and tell and relate.
For those who assisted him with his book, the work was an event in itself. Researchers Finocchio and Delphine Huisinga speak with new amazement about her 5,400 square foot Manhattan loft filled with art by Picasso, Warhol and Lucien Freud among others. Huisinga remembers the nonagenarian author who practically ran to them in anticipation of what they learned from their latest research.
“He would ask me, ‘What gifts do you have for me today?’ “, she says.
Richardson drew on materials from Paris, Barcelona, London, New York and elsewhere, but his wit was his greatest resource: he seemed to have followed Picasso’s life more closely than even the artist could have. to do. Huisinga remembers debating the origins of a circus painting that Picasso completed in February 1933. Richardson speculated that Picasso attended the circus to help celebrate Paolo’s 12th birthday, which Richardson remembered as having attended the circus. was born on February 4.
“It seemed like a great idea, but I had nothing factual to rely on,” Huisinga says. “But a few weeks later, I went to the Picasso Museum (in Paris) and found a piece of circus with this exact date. He had a hunch, and it came true. He had that date in mind. Who else but John Richardson would have something like this in mind?
Richardson apparently intended to end his work in 1943, 30 years before Picasso’s death and before he befriended the artist in the 1950s, when both were living in France. But Finocchio and Huisinga remember occasional conversations about a fifth book. Sometimes he spoke wistfully, as if he was aware that he would never live to finish it. Other times he seemed more excited.
“I think we thought as long as he was working he would stay alive, that that was such a strong motivation to keep going,” Huisinga said, adding that she was worried about “postpartum depression” once the fourth. the book was done.
“I was almost encouraging her to think about volume five,” she said. “I don’t think he expected to write another book, but he joked every now and then that he made a pact with the devil that he wouldn’t die until he was 100 years old.”