- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2001

"Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters" is the right title for John Richardson's collection of 27 entertaining and sometimes poignant essays written over the past three decades about a wide variety of people, some of whom lived lives admirable in nearly every respect and others who did quite the opposite.
Mr. Richardson's monsters and they are truly monstrous include Salvador Dali's wife Gala, Truman Capote, the irascible art collector Albert Barnes, businessman Armand Hammer (who turns out not to have been nearly as rich as he led everyone to assume) and many others. Among Mr. Richardson's sacred masters are the now mostly forgotten decorator and early Picasso collector Eugenia Errazuriz (the essay on her is one of the best in the book), Georges Braque, and Lucien Freud. A few of his subjects Peggy Guggenheim and Greta Garbo, for example may strike readers as neither fully monstrous nor completely worthy, falling somewhat short of either exalted category.
Mr. Richardson, author of the magnificent "A Life of Picasso," two volumes of which have appeared, is a shrewd judge of character. He's also the master of a pellucid prose that makes his portraits all the more powerful. And he's a great deal of fun. We learn, for example, that dinners at the Venice, Italy, villa of the wealthy Peggy Guggenheim "usually consisted of canned tomato soup followed by an insipid goulash, followed by a dietary chocolate mousse." As for the wine that accompanied the meal, writes Mr. Richardson, who was present at her table on many occasions, it was "so poor that the scarcity did not matter."
Even more eccentric was the opening show at Guggenheim's New York City gallery a place she rather grandly called The Art of This Century. Guggenheim wanted the presentation to be unforgettable, and it was. Canvases were unframed, Mr. Richardson notes, and mounted on baseball bats tilted at various angles. As for lighting, well, the art was "illuminated by spotlights that went on and off every three seconds."
Mr. Richardson can demolish reputations while he entertains. About that pompous, pretentious and endlessly self-promoting trio, Edith, Sacheverell and Osbert Sitwell, he writes acurately: "All that self-adulation did them in," and adds, "delusions of social superiority [such as the Sitwells claimed] condemn a writer's work to that unreachable, topmost bookshelf where oblivion lurks."
Was Dame Edith Sitwell a great poet? No, writes Mr. Richardson, but, "What a good rapper she would have made!" As proof, he quotes from her "Gold Coast Customs": "The Whiteness of the Bread / The Whiteness of the Dead / The Whiteness of the Claw / All this coming to us in flashes / Through the open door."
With someone he likes, however, Mr. Richardson can poke gentle fun, but never ridicule. The great interior decorator, Picasso collector, and fabulously wealthy (during her heyday in the first decades of the 20th century) Eugenia Errazuriz, for instance, was a tertiary Franciscan, a lay member of the religious order who would sometimes wear a "minimal black habit," designed, he can't help adding, "by Chanel."
But Mr. Richardson makes clear why he admires Errazuriz. She "managed to exert, in her subtle way," a radical "modernizing influence on mid-twentieth century taste." The keyword to her approach to decorating was simplicity. "Throw it out" and "elimination means elegance" were her slogans. "By 1910," at a time of lavish decoration, Mr. Richardson notes, "she already stood out for the unconventional sparseness of her rooms, for her disdain of poufs and potted palms."
Indeed, Mr. Richardson often writes better about the men and women he finds worthy of our attention than he does about his monsters, which is unusual because it is famously easier to write about what is bad and make it interesting than it is to make interesting what is good and admirable.
Still, Mr. Richardson does both well and he's rarely better than when writing about an artist he esteems like Georges Braque. "As a young man on my first visit to the artist's studio, I felt I had arrived at the very heart of painting," he writes in "Braque's Late Greatness." Decades later, he is still convinced of Braque's extraordinary qualities: "He knew more about the properties of paint and how to exploit them than any other great artist of the last hundred years," an extraodinary statement from a biographer of Pablo Picasso.
Every great artist should have such an advocate. But woe to those who incur Mr. Richardson's wrath. In "Judy Chicago's Giant Shriek," he takes apart hilariously, relentlessly one of America's most publicized and in-your-face feminist artists, the woman whose most famous (many would say infamous) work, "The Dinner Party," is, in the author's words, "a set of golem ceramic vaginas" representing such feminist icons as Emily Dickinson and Margaret Sanger, designed to reinterpret "The Last Supper" from the point of view of "liberated" women. The artist's work and the serious reception it received in many quarters leads Mr. Richardson to lament that contemporary art has turned into a "rat race" where gimmickry masquerades as originality.
Judy Chicago is clearly one of Mr. Richardson's "sacred monsters." But who are the others and who takes first place in that category? It's difficult to say. Truman Capote is a contender. Mr. Richardson, who knew him personally, calls him "the little starstruck monster." Capote famously liked to compare his own writerly skills and his interest in society with Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" and the French master's intimate knowledge of the French upper class. But Mr. Richardson will have none of it. Far from having Proust's aloofness from the class he wrote about, "Truman allowed himself to be enslaved by Society or rather cafe society, which was closer at hand and easy to crash."
But even the exceptionally monstrous Capote must take backburner in grotesqueness when it comes to two women Mr. Richardson takes up: Dali's wife Gala, and Domenica, the wife of the art dealer Paul Guillaume. Gala, a woman of great greed and prodigious sexual appetite, was taking lovers 50 years her junior well into her 80s. For one of them, Jeff Fenhold, in Mr. Richardson's words, "the loathsome, long-haired protagonist o 'Jesus Christ Superstar,'" she bought a home in Long Island and turned over "tons of cash." Her greed and various cruelties helped make Dali's last years truly horrible.
As for Domenica, her claim to monsterhood, already firm, was nonetheless secured after she tried to have her own adopted son killed to secure her untrammelled access to the family fortune and art collection (16 Cezannes, 23 Renoirs, 12 Picassos, 10 Matisses, 25 Derains, five Modiglianis and two Soutines). But even Domenica had redeeming features, according to Mr. Richardson, one of which was wit. When Andre Malraux offered her the Legion of Honor for selling her collection to France (the sale was done under duress and at a fraction of the value of the paintings), Domenica declined the award, saying, "That bit of red ribbon can do as much to ruin a woman's getup as the wrong hat."
One of the funniest stories Mr. Richardson tells involves the interior decorator ("the English country house look") Sibyl Colefax. The woman was an unabashed, fiercely competitive social climber with ambitions she never bothered to disguise. In 1940, shortly after Winston Churchill became prime minister, Sibyl received an elegant invitation to an intimate dinner. The invitation was the brainstorm of Lord Berners, a notorious practical jokester, who wrote on the note, "I wonder if by any chance you are free tomorrow night?" and proceeded to ask her to dine the next evening with Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Arturo Toscanini and "myself." At the bottom of the invitation, Berners had scribbled a totally illegible name (Sibyl's own handwriting was famously bad) and address along with a legible postscript, "Eight o'clock here and of course any old clothes."
Some things in Mr. Richardson's book come with a jolt: Cecil Beaton's particularly crude and vicious anti-Semitism, for example. Other revelations are genuinely odd, such as the firm belief many had who knew him that Mario Praz, the author of "The Romantic Agony" and a very, very erudite man had once caused a large Empire vase to expode by giving it a disparaging look, and on another occasion brought a chandelier cascading to the floor just by entering a room.
A reviewer could go on and on. This book is filled with gems. It's also wise and erudite, and a splendid read.

Stephen Goode is senior writer for Insight.


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