Biography becomes life’s work for friend of Picasso

Pierre Le Guennec reacts before the opening of a trial at the courthouse in Grasse, southeastern France, February 10, 2015.

As their authors try to encompass complex and important lives, biographies have a tendency to grow voluminous. John Richardson's "A Life of Picasso" is a case in point.

Richardson's biography of the acclaimed Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was meant to be completed in four volumes. The first, titled "The Prodigy, 1881-1906," has been translated into Japanese and was recently published by Hakusuisha Inc. Including notes by the author, the volume weighs in at a hefty 800 pages.

Richardson, an art historian originally from London, was closely acquainted with Picasso. The author is a prominent art world figure in his own right who helped British auction house Christie's branch out to New York, where he is now based.

In a telephone interview, the author, 91, spoke casually about his memories of Picasso with a lively voice. His encounter with Picasso came in the early 1950s, when Richardson visited the artist with a friend, Douglas Cooper, who was also an art historian and art collector. This was the start of Richardson's close relationship with Picasso.

"The more or better you got to know Picasso, the more you realised the depth, the complexity, the fascination of his character. There were always new surprises," he said. "Picasso was such an amazing [person], had a many-sided character."

He began to see Picasso on a regular basis as they both lived in southern France. He went to see bullfights in Arles and Nimes with Picasso, his girlfriend, some of his family and Jean Cocteau, and would have dinner with the group, Richardson said.

But Picasso was always testing people who approached him.

"I think Picasso was always testing people, I mean people who interested him," he said. Picasso did this to Richardson and Cooper.

"Douglas Cooper and I would come and he would show us six or eight drawings that he had recently done, a series. And he would say, 'Which do you think is the most beautiful?' or 'the strongest?' ... And I had been asked this [quite a lot] so I would always say, 'This is the strongest.' Douglas Cooper would always pick the most expensive-looking ones, ones which a dealer would [offer] his money for. And Picasso registered those things," Richardson said. "So I think he spotted the fact that I had a good eye. And in all kinds of other occasions, when he really got interested in people, he would test them," he said.

Richardson said he initially intended to write a study of Picasso's portraits as he was greatly trusted by Picasso and his wife Jacqueline. But he later realised what he really wanted to was to write a biography.

He started writing Picasso's biography after completing his work for Christie's and others. The first volume, which traces Picasso's childhood to the period before his production of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (The Young Ladies of Avignon), known as an innovative masterpiece, came out in 1991.

So far, three volumes have been published, and Richardson is now writing the fourth volume, which is expected to be published at the end of next year.

"Volume 4 is going well. What slows me down is that I keep on finding new material, and very fascinating material," he said.

One of his new discoveries is an episode regarding the death of Picasso's sister Conchita when he was 14.

"Conchita got very ill. Picasso was raised in a very religious family, and he went to a priest and he made a vow to the priest that if Conchita's life was spared, he would never ever paint again," Richardson said. "But he did paint again, and she died. So this broken vow came to haunt him ... This broken vow became enormously important in his work and for the understanding of his work."

In this way, Richardson appears to reconsider the motif of a girl that continued appearing in Picasso's works from the viewpoint that the painter was under a kind of spell.

As a result, Volume 4 is expected to end with Picasso joining the Communist Party at the end of World War II.

The genius artist's life would still continue for about 30 years after that.

Asked whether he has a plan to write a fifth volume, he said: "Listen, I am 91, I don't think I have time for that."