Reliving Picasso with Sir John Richardson

Installation view at Gagosian Gallery

There are few artists who rival the mythic place Pablo Picasso holds in history. His life was defined by a fervent work ethic and unflinching ambition. For most of us, historic figures like Picasso are destined to forever live in that mythic realm, and there are only a handful of people still alive who knew those figures so intimately. One such person is Sir John Richardson, an eminent art historian who came to know not only Picasso, but Francis Bacon, Fernand Léger, and Lucian Freud over the course of his career. It is through people like John Richardson that we may glimpse into the person behind the myth. Richardson was recently honored at the 20th Annual Take Home a Nude event, along with the acclaimed British painter Jenny Saville. He recently curated “Picasso and Francoise Gilot: Paris–Vallauris 1943–1953” at Gagosian Gallery in New York and invited a few of the Academy patrons along for a special tour of the show.

Following coffee and introductions, we were lead into one of Gagosian’s main galleries as Richardson launched into a discussion about a few of the works. Paintings lined the walls of the large room, many portraits of Gilot. She was an accomplished artist of her own right, as well as Picasso’s lover and muse from 1943-1953. The two floor exhibition is different from previous Picasso retrospectives in that it is an intimate conversation between Picasso and Gilot that we witness through paintings, drawings, sculptures, ceramic works and prints created by both artists.

Their relationship blossomed in difficult times – Europe was in the throes of the Second World War and yet during this time Picasso experimented heavily with new mediums, notably ceramics, sculpture and lithography. Richardson told the group that his curatorial concern was with how Picasso transformed those methods, showing how his creative vigor and playfulness was re-channeled by these new mediums. Pointing to a sculpture of a bull’s head (
Goat Skull and Bottle), Richardson commented that this embodied the “terrible angst of the war.” In front of a painting titled Winter Landscape, 1950, our host revealed that it was a depiction of Matisse’s house and recounted a disagreement between Matisse and Picasso about trading paintings. When Matisse offered one of his in exchange for Winter Landscape, Picasso quipped “I don’t want one of yours.”

As we continued the tour we became privilege to more personal history between Picasso and Gilot. Richardson noted that Picasso was trying many new things in an attempt to bridge their gap in age and find common ground. And it is through this earnestness that we see Picasso’s quirky love for Gilot emerge. While looking at a series of 30 lithographs Picasso created while at the Mourlot Atelier, Richardson told us that he depicted Gilot wearing a smelly fur coat that Picasso brought back from a Communist rally in Poland.  He said the “Goat Coat”, as Francoise called it, exuded a fouler odor when wet. This anecdote was one among many that had us laughing as we imagined the back and forth between the couple.

After viewing several more lithographs and we came upon a selection of Picasso’s exquisite ceramic pieces created at Madoura Pottery while in Vallauris. As with his new sculptural work, Picasso’s style suffuses the pieces. Richardson shared with us that many of the ceramic works created by Picasso at Madoura were bought up very inexpensively after its close.

The tour concluded with the final gallery where Picasso and Gilot were shown together. Gilot’s work is undeniably strong and unique when seen with Picasso’s, and despite their relationship her work is very independent from his. With a laugh Richardson remarked that Françoise preferred Braque to Picasso anyway. After a flurry of last minute questions everyone departed and I realized how fortunate we all were to take part in that tour. To feel connected to art history so directly was an incredibly rare experience, one that I will think upon in days to come. 

Jonathan Beer is a New York-based artist and writer. He began to write critically in 2010 while attending the New York Academy of Art for his MFA in Painting. His paintings have been exhibited at Flowers Gallery, Boltax Gallery and Sotheby’s in New York. Jon is also a contributing writer for The Brooklyn Rail and for Art Observed.  To hear more about what Jonathan Beer has to say, visit Art-Rated the blog he co-writes with Lily Koto Olive (MFA 2013).

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