More Talk: With John Richardson

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Let’s finish that conversation with Picasso biographer John Richardson.

LACAYO: You make it plain in your book that you don’t agree with people who believe that Picasso had an affair with the wealthy American expatriate Sara Murphy. But for several years Picasso was infatuated in some way with Murphy and her husband Gerald, who were at the center of a social circle in the south of France that included F. Scott Fitzgerald. What was the attraction for him?

RICHARDSON: Compared to all the other people who were giving big parties and heading the social life in Paris, the Murphys had this wonderful American openess and frankness and lack of formality. That’s what attracted him. When you think of what the Etienne de Beaumont balls were like, terribly pompous and formal and very louche, with shrieks coming from the changing rooms as they all dressed up as Louis XIV or whatever. The Murphys, down to earth Americans, were a godsend after these rather grotesquely decadent people.

LACAYO. What was the most difficult part about producing Volume III? You’ve been thinking about Picasso’s art for more than fifty years but as a biographer you have to go in search of letters and papers and surviving acquaintances.

RICHARDSON: The first thing, which I’ve said more than once, is that whatever you say of Picasso, most of the time the reverse is also true, and you have to allow for that. I didn’t want to limit myself to one interpretation of him or his work. Picasso liked it when people came up with some absolutely lunatic idea [about his work] and he hated it when professor x or y came up with an idea that they insisted was the one true interpretation.

As a practical matter one of the problems was that I couldn’t get access to any of the correspondence with his mother and father. All of that is blocked.

LACAYO: You describe Picasso several times as sadistic. You mention that he liked his women to read de Sade and that part of the appeal for him of his young mistress Marie-Therese Walter was that, as you write, “she was very submissive and that, far from questioning her lover’s sadistic demands, she did her best to comply with them.” Do you mean to say that he was sadistic in his sexual practices?

RICHARDSON: We don’t know exactly what they did in bed. I think the sadism was a matter of control rather physical beating up or whips.

LACAYO: Even if he wasn’t literally sadistic, Picasso could be very hard on the women in his life.

RICHARDSON: Remember that Picasso is someone who was brought up in what was then the most misoygynist area of Western Europe. He was remarkably unmisogynistic compared to other people from the same background. But it’s true that he demanded so much of women and that they sacrificed themselves on the altar of his art. After he died his wife committed suicide. Marie-Therese commited suicide. Dora Maar went slightly mad. Many of the women in his life were completely in love with Picasso until their dying day.