John Richardson    

  Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters
Certainly it strains the imagination, especially the modest imagination of our age, but it serves as a satisfactory beginning: imagine an epic of the twentieth century art world, fixed stylistically somewhere between the roaring seas of the Aeneid and the still but stagnant tidal pools of the Dunciad, populated with figures no less tragic than farcical, upon whose minds both Athena's brightness and a lambent dullness alight; a landscape filled with Machiavellian art dealers, gallingly unperceptive collectors, pampered artists, uncompromising designers, prissy authors, obdurate intellectuals and oversexed dilettantes, heroes and playboys, tycoons and hangers on. In the tradition of Richard Feigen's Tales from the Art Crypt, John Richardson, author of the valuable A Life of Picasso and former head of Christie's US operations, has written a fascinating book in equal parts memoir and history, criticism and polemic, titled Sacred Monsters. Its gestures are epic, and, as with all things epic, it is immense in reach but by no means exhaustive in detail; it is grand but not encyclopedic; it is a book of fantastic figures penned by a man of imposing opinions. As a tastemaker and collector himself, Richardson is well placed to write on his eloquent menagerie of creatures, which include, among many others, Truman Capote, Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Lucien Freud, Joan Miró, the Sitwells (Osbert, Edith, and Sacheverell appearing as Chateaubriand, Pope, and Shelley respectively to his young mind), and the ever maligned Peggy Guggenheim.

Richardson is fascinated by the jolts and misgivings heaped upon artist and author by the triple Fates of celebrity, adoration, and wealth. In nearly all cases, an artist is wrenched overnight from his solitary garret to gondolas and gala openings. The usual result is an eclipse of the artist's former poise and powers of expression. While such tales are suitably thrilling, Richardson is also captivated by those who shrug off these diversions and maintain what most like comfortably to think of as "integrity". Some are overwhelmed and allow their art, be it the written word or painted figure, to become diluted under the acid bath of public attention, such as Truman Capote and Salvador Dalí, eroding their own position in société by drawing too heavily upon it. Others dabble in the playboy's or playgirl's realm, yield to lost weekends that threaten to become lost years, only to extricate themselves and return to their former lives, such as Brice Marden. Others, like Andy Warhol hide in plain sight (Capote described Warhol as a sphinx without a riddle); and yet others finally marry the opposing worlds and become icons of an era, such as Pablo Picasso. The calmer, though no less flamboyant, lives of interior designers and decorators also unfold in Richardson's pages, including Mario Praz and Maecenas Carlos de Beistegui, providing a quiet balance to the ragings and ravings of the artistes.

Rare, mythical intersections occur in these pages. Much as one enjoys envisioning a young Richard Wagner visiting a scruffy Ludwig von Beethoven in a cluttered candlelit room to discuss the limitations of vocal music, Richardson sketches Picasso enviously grumbling over a later Georges Braque painting (Atelier VIII) in the latter's studio and draws the sad picture of a drug-muddled Capote wandering through Studio 54 looking for Andy Warhol (Capote had taken to a cocktail of amphetamines, Demerol, cocaine, and a lavender pill called Lotusate, a combination that slurred his speech and blanched his features). As a god striding across the epic fields of Sacred Monsters, Richardson assumes carte blanche to cuff some of his cast about their ears, sanctify others, and utterly destroy those for whom he nurtures a distinctive antipathy. Take this torrential assault on Capote.

The little starstruck monster from Alabama was not going to forgive the beautiful people for being so beautiful, so remorselessly low-key with their mink-lined raincoats and their choice little dinners of tiny lamb chops an unborn vegetables followed by wild strawberries in a bath of blood-orange juice. Nor was he going to forgive himself for selling out to them. This became all too clear when Truman asked us whether we wanted to hear the 'true story' of Claire Luce, or Mrs. Gilbert Miller, or whoever else was the plat du jour. Let's face it, we did. There would be a mean edge to the whiny voice, as he served up ever more brimstone and ever less treacle. Answered Prayers was evidently about people getting their comeuppance. Ironically, the book resulted in Truman getting his.

This is light treatment when set aside that reserved for such genuine monsters as Armand Hammer. One imagines Capote must have delivered some small (perhaps greater) slight to Richardson during one of their meetings, though Richardson makes no mention of such. It is clear from his use of Capote's Christian name—and his openly brutal portrayal of him as a bitchy queen who preferred gossiping in Venetian drawing rooms to writing novels—that Richardson's arrows are not sent from afar but are those of an intimate. Upon closer inspection, his arrows come to resemble closely aimed daggers.

With the same vigor and color, Richardson elevates less assuming artists to pontifical heights, as in his description of Braque, a saint cloistered before his own works:

He liked his studios to face south instead of north and his skylights to be veiled with thinnish, whitish material, which filtered the light and gave it a deliquescent look. In this penumbra the artist would sit as if suspended, as hieratical [sic] as Christ Pantocrator in a Byzantine mosaic, his Ancient Mariner's eyes fixed on his work. The monastic hush would be broken only when he got up to make a slight adjustment to this or that canvas. As a young man on my first visit to the artist's studio, I felt I had arrived at the very heart of painting.

Raphael could not have produced a more gratifying or cradling light. When he chooses, Richardson is willing to rally the entire pantheon in one's favor (as above, recounting Braques as an Eastern Orthodox icon and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Ancient Mariner in a single phrase). He is very good at this kind of sifting, elbowing goats to one side, caressing lambs while also eyeing their throats. The case of Dalí provides him with a splendid opportunity to wreck and beatify simultaneously. While slashing at Dalí the egotistic, uninspired hack ("The Wizard of Was"), he is careful to remind of Dalí's early verve and resultant masterpieces; yet even before a breath can be drawn in relief he has begun slashing with his free hand at Dalí's wife Gala, a woman he would have us believe as the vain, sluttish harpy her enemies knew (by all accounts, and despite her famed former beauty, she ripened into quite an embarrassing terror). This raises another topic: the wives and girlfriends of artists. The great majority of those discussed centrally in Sacred Monsters are men. As with Feigen's Tales from the Art Crypt, those women who do appear tend to be lovers, mistresses, wives, ex-wives, and girlfriends, what Feigen understood as "vestals", tending the flames of their men's art. While this appears dangerously retrograde, it is also mounted very firmly upon actual history. These vestals are the ones who are left to pay the bills and collect monies, and this casts them in a dim light from the perspective of dealers such as Feigen or Richardson. This is less sexism than circumstance. Witness the poisoned quills that dart from Richardson's pen at the very thought of Gala:

Gala's business methods were very Russian: she did not haggle, she bullied. In a jet black wig held in place by a Minnie Mouse bow, this ancient harridan would drive home her wheedling demands for money with jabs of ancient elbows and blows of mottled knuckles. After one gruesome dinner at Maxim's, which left me black and blue, I refused to deal with her ever again.

'Dalí need more money'—Jab!
'Then Dalí had better start painting again.'
'Dalí paint every day. You give more money, he make more paintings.'
'All our money got us last year were bits of paper covered with ink from an incontinent octopus. Ouch! Gala. That was my kidney.'

To put one of Dalí's contractual shows together, I would be obliged to beg, borrow, and improvise: cover naked girls in paint and roll them on large sheets of paper; or add Dalíneian trademarks—a swarm of ants or a soft watch—to bits of kitschy marble busts, thereby transforming them into artifacts that were no less dud but much more valuable. Amazingly, the stuff sold. Red dots on picture frames induced the same voracious rapture in Gala that drops of blood supposedly induce in vampires. More Money, you see, meant more sex.

Ouch, indeed. While one is compelled to admit the genuine humor to be derived from such barbs as these, they also seem a bit unfair and jadedly unkind. Nor does he limit such parody to the Dalís (his thoughts on Peggy Guggenheim can be easily approximated from the chapter title "Peggy Guggenheim's Bed").

One begins to suspect that Richardson has fallen prey to one of the same temptations that lured his subjects to their rocks, a propensity to gossip, and gossip largely. He is saved, however, by the same graces that shore his cast of creatures: his talents. He is a very agreeable writer, with terrible cleverness, and his knowledge of twentieth century art and design would seem nearly incredible were it not for his imposing dossier. Anthropologists like Robin Dunbar insist that gossip, far from being the vice scorned by Benjamin Franklin, is useful as a social epoxy and a replacement for the "grooming" that links small, lower primate communities. As with many things in the era of mass media, however, what would be a slim volume of local effrontery circulated in Vergil's Rome or Alexander Pope's London has become a spectacle of vulgarity on television screen and pages of Hollywood memoirs. Richardson's inclination to scandal, in its fervor, may skirt those same rocks as a Capote, but as the very timber of his vessel is scandal and gossip, one feels that he is free to direct it wherever he pleases. No one will open these covers expecting to find an impartial collection of essays. These are stories, and as such they enamor us.

Two other facts rush in to rescue Richardson. First, the larger share of his subjects have crossed the bar, and no insult, however sharp, may (so far as this critic is aware) pierce the grave. Second, Richardson is a fine writer with a fine ear and refined feel for both history and his present audience. As a result, Sacred Monsters should be received as one of a tiny handful of books published each year that are very, very difficult to put down, even as one suppresses the urge to avert his gaze from the bright light within, much of it cast into dusty corners perhaps better left darkened.

--Ernest Hilbert

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