Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters: Beaton, Capote, Dalí, Picasso, Freud, Warhol, and More


Insightful and opinionated, erudite and amusing, this collection by the author of A Life of Picasso is a marvelously eclectic mix of essays on artists and writers, tastemakers and tycoons. These pieces, each illustrated with a photograph or artwork, were selected by the author because they are about people he has known or would like to have known -- or simply because their subjects' genius or quirkiness particularly intrigued him.

Although John Richardson is best known as a ...

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Insightful and opinionated, erudite and amusing, this collection by the author of A Life of Picasso is a marvelously eclectic mix of essays on artists and writers, tastemakers and tycoons. These pieces, each illustrated with a photograph or artwork, were selected by the author because they are about people he has known or would like to have known -- or simply because their subjects' genius or quirkiness particularly intrigued him.

Although John Richardson is best known as a biographer and art historian, he has also written a great many articles for Vanity Fair, The New York Review of Books, House & Garden, and The New Yorker about people whose fame or notoriety was not necessarily acquired exclusively from making art, and it is from these articles -- extensively rewritten and updated -- that this collection has been culled. The "Sacred Monsters" of the title include writers such as Truman Capote and the Sitwells, collectors such as Peggy Guggenheim and Dr. Barnes, rogues such as Armand Hammer and Domenica Walter, decorators such as Sibyl Colefax and Carlos de Beistegui, and ambiguous figures like the celebrated transsexual journalist Jan Morris, Salvador Dali's demonic wife, Gala, and Vita Sackville-West, whose love life played such a juicy role in London's literary sphere.

The "Sacred Masters" include many of the great artists Richardson has known, among them Braque, Freud, Miro, Dali, Warhol, Marden, and, of course, Picasso. He also writes about their sometimes tragic dependents: Kandinsky's widow, who was murdered, Klee's son, who was done out of his inheritance, and Bonnard's wife, who spent much of her life in a bathtub. In every case the reader is treated to close-ups of extraordinary people who either are usually seen only from afar or have been rescued by the author from oblivion.

Robert Hughes has described Richardson's A Life of Picasso as "a masterpiece in the making." As readers await his third volume, they will be diverted by this witty, wonderfully intelligent collection of twenty-eight essays, in which Richardson demonstrates the same dazzling narrative style that has earned him his reputation as one of our foremost biographers.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Art writer Richardson (A Life of Picasso: Volumes I and II) scored a success with a recent memoir, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, an account of his life shared with the (arguably) bitchiest art critic of the modern era, Douglas Cooper. He follows up that gossipy opus with more dirt 28 articles culled and updated, according to Richardson, from decades of journalism in such slicks as Vanity Fair and House and Garden about the famous and infamous, mostly the latter. He trashes a wide variety of notables, from Salvador Dal! to his former employer Armand Hammer, termed "a veteran con man." There are a few admiring essays, such as "Braque's Late Greatness," but only a very few. Mostly it is unrelieved bad-mouthing of the likes of "that simpering ninny Ana?s Nin... whose narcissistic attitudinizing has addled many an adolescent mind." While some of the subjects seem to deserve this and worse, like the "ratlike ruthlessness" of art swindler Domenica Guillaume, others might merit a little more consideration, like Peggy Guggenheim, who is termed "a clown: an endearingly sad one of the 'He Who Gets Slapped' variety," or the transsexual travel writer Jan Morris, whose sex-change operation Richardson violently disapproves of. With a talent for clearly describing intricate art scandals, such as the problems with painter Pierre Bonnard's legacy, Richardson also has an ear for plausible aphorisms, like "Pampered lunatics often reach a great age." Still, the near-continuous tone of grating disdain, which can entertain in a glossy mag article, palls over an entire book. (Nov.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This behind-the-scenes view of life in the art world and high society in the 20th century both captivates and shocks, offering fascinating gems and tidbits on every page. For this tell-all, Richardson (Life of Picasso) collects and updates articles and commentaries previously published in magazines such as Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. He makes a case that the Sitwells were self-deluded geniuses and details Vita Sackville-West's infidelities, Peggy Guggenheim's conquests, Albert Barnes's acts of spite, and Andy Warhol's pack-rat mentality. In virtually every essay, someone takes a drubbing, from Pierre Bonnard's mad wife, Marthe, to Cecil Beaton, whose heart throbbed for Garbo. As the mystique is peeled away, Richardson exposes a gallery of human frailties worthy of contemplation. In the end, however, art is still sacred to Richardson, and a little gossip serves as comic relief for what would otherwise be tragedy beyond bearing. Other poignant memoirs of this type include Rosamond Bernier's Matisse, Picasso, Miro: As I Knew Them (o.p.) and Richardson's recent memoir, The Sorcerer's Apprentice (LJ 12/99). A highly entertaining book that belongs in all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/01.] Ellen Bates, New York Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Engaging essays about an odd mix of artists, writers, tycoons, trendsetters, and con guys from the worlds of literature and art. Richardson, noted author of the ongoing three-volume Picasso life (A Life of Picasso, Vol. II: 1907-1917, 1996, etc.), has taken time off from that work to bring us some lighter but equally mesmerizing mini-biographies. His 28 delightfully gossipy essays are also extremely insightful, taking us behind the scenes in the lives of the famous, if not always the rich and famous. These are articles about people the author has known, or would like to have known, intrigued by their genius or quirkiness. And readers will be, too. Richardson's flawless style, incisive wit, and extensive knowledge make the volume a pleasure. Openings are colorful: "Most people who had dealings with Salvador Dali's Russian wife, Gala, would agree that to know her was to loathe her." "Those cultivated American playboys of the 1920s who drew upon sizable trust funds to support their forays into the avant-garde and lavish bohemian lifestyle tended to end sadly or badly." Although it helps if you're already familiar with the cast of characters-like Dr. Albert Barnes of the Barnes Museum in Merion, Pennsylvania, whom Richardson says had an "acute case of paranoia"; Lucian Freud, the youngest of Sigmund's three sons, who set his art school on fire by smoking at night; or Pablito Picasso, the grandson of Pablo who committed suicide by swallowing a bottle of bleach-the author provides just enough history and background to fill in readers who may be newcomers. Ten pages or so on average, these crisply written pieces focus on the compelling idiosyncrasies of each subject, whetting theappetite and impelling readers to move on to full-length biographies. Richardson (The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a memoir, 1999), once head of Christie's US operations and now a contributor to Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, etc., proves again that he's one of our foremost biographers. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679424901
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/6/2001
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.86 (w) x 9.53 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

John Richardson headed Christie's U.S. operation and acted as vice president of the Knoedler Gallery before devoting himself full-time to writing. He is the author of A Life of Picasso, Volumes I and II, and of The Sorcerer's Apprentice, a memoir. He lives in Connecticut and New York.
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Read an Excerpt

Picasso’s Other Mother

Some time ago, I wrote an article about a Chilean woman of singular originality and discernment called Eugenia Errázuriz. I wrote about her because she had been undeservedly overlooked, eclipsed by her “friend,” the manipulative Polish patroness Misia (Godebska-Natanson-Edwards) Sert (“Princesse Youbeletieff” in Proust)–the subject of a deservedly popular biography by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale. Whereas Misia was known to Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie as “Tante Brutus” for her back-stabbing proclivities, Eugenia was supportive and reticent and endowed with a distinctive eye for modernism. Besides being one of Picasso’s most perceptive patrons–the owner of some of his greatest, late-Cubist paintings–she managed to exert, in her subtle way, a more radically modernizing influence on mid-twentieth-century taste than most of those who were indebted to her realized. One of the few who did realize was the elegant Dutch furniture designer and decorator Jean-Michel Frank (uncle, incidentally, of that iconic Holocaust victim Anne Frank), who singled Eugenia out for her “indispensable influence.” Cecil Beaton made even greater claims for Eugenia: “Her effect on the taste of the last fifty years,” he wrote, “has been so enormous that the whole aesthetic of modern interior decoration, and many of the concepts of simplicity . . . generally acknowledged today, can be laid at her remarkable doorstep.” These opinions do Beaton the more credit, given that Eugenia anathematized the very thing–Edwardian clutter and kitsch–that he elevated into a camp cult and ultimately a career as a set designer.
Years later, while doing research in the Picasso archives, I came upon a cache of unpublished letters from Eugenia. These revealed that she had played an even more central role in Picasso’s life than I had originally realized. Further information materialized in Jean-François Larralde and Jean Casenave’s evocative book, Picasso à Biarritz (1995), which focused on the artist’s honeymoon chez Eugenia at Biarritz in 1918. More recently, a shortish biography by Alejandro Canseco-Jerez appeared, Le Mécénat de Madame Errázuriz (2000), which contains a lot of new information about Eugenia’s family and the sadness of her later years.

Eugenia’s letters to Picasso testify to a very close friendship lasting over thirty years. Eugenia’s only rival for the artist’s affections–in the realm of friendship rather than sex–was Gertrude Stein, whom he liked to call “Pard,” as in a Western, much to her irritation. In 1915, however, Gertrude and her friend Alice Toklas had left Paris to spend the rest of the war driving an ambulance–“Auntie,” it was callled–around France. In their absence, it was Eugenia who took over as Picasso’s consoler and collector and a surrogate for Doña María, the stalwart, nurturing mother back in Barcelona whom he seldom saw. Canseco-Jerez maintains that Stein and Toklas were so jealous of Eugenia that they gave “a reception in honor of Picasso” in order to meet their rival and size her up. However, his account of this event and Gertrude’s “jealousy” is far from convincing. By the time Eugenia entered Picasso’s life, Gertrude had ceased collecting his work, and their paths had temporarily diverged. To the extent that Gertrude had come to see Picasso and herself as twin peaks of genius, Eugenia simply did not impinge.

Who was this paragon? Eugenia Huici was born on September 15, 1860, in Bolivia, where her Chilean father had made a fortune mining silver. Civil war drove him, his Bolivian wife, and his two daughters, Eugenia and Rosa, back to his estates near Valparaíso. Picasso believed that Eugenia had inherited more than a drop of Inca blood; so did another of Eugenia’s protégés, the poet Blaise Cendrars, who used to call her “L’Indienne.” A girl of considerable beauty, Eugenia was brought up in the archaic conventions of Spanish colonialism. English nuns in Valparaíso supervised her education: they dinned into her the tenets of a faith that, like the superstitions of her Indian forebears, she would always cherish. Her schooling left her fluent, if not always comprehensible, in French and English and only a little more so in Castilian. “Une étrange sharabia” (gibberish) is how friends described her way of speaking. At the age of twenty, Eugenia married José Tomás Errázuriz, whose father and grandfather had both been presidents of Chile. Tomás’s aspirations to be an artist horrified his family, so he was packed off to Europe to be a diplomat–a métier that left him free to paint. Relations of one or the other of the Errázurizes were en poste in virtually every capital.

The Errázurizes spent their honeymoon in Venice, where their cousin Ramón Subercaseaux–Chilean consul general in Paris and an amateur painter–and his wife had rented a palazzo on the Grand Canal. Among the other guests was a young painter, whom Subercaseaux had been one of the first to discover, John Singer Sargent. When not engaged on a portrait of his hostess, Sargent did oil sketches of Eugenia, for whom he is said to have fallen. Unlikely. Sargent was more interested in his gondolier.

Summer over, the Errázurizes settled in Paris, where they spent the next twenty years. He painted; she raised children (a son, Maximiliano, and two daughters, Carmen and María, known as “Baby”) and repeatedly sat for her portrait–to Boldini, Helleu, Orpen, and many more. Eugenia stood out from the run of le tout Paris by disdaining fin-de-siècle froufrou and adopting a low-key style that set her off from the rest of her friends, not least Misia Sert. Although she would bring a small swatch of antique stuff, dyed the “Inca pink” of her native Andes, to the attention of Schiaparelli, who exploited it as “Shocking Pink,” Eugenia’s most important achievements had nothing to do with fashion; they had to do with avant-garde patronage and a minimalist vision of the decorative arts. By 1910, she already stood out for the unconventional sparseness of her rooms, for her disdain of poufs and potted palms and too much passementerie. No less discriminating was Eugenia’s taste in people, including many of Proust’s favorites (Madrazos, Bibescos, Helleus, Morands), and above all for her support of new developments in art, literature, music, and ballet.

Around 1900, the Errázurizes settled in London, first in Bryanston Square. Later, they moved to Chelsea. Tomás contracted TB and spent more and more time in Switzerland, to the relief of Eugenia, who was beginning to tire of her husband and his tedious landscapes. They would eventually separate. In London, Eugenia saw much of her old friend Sargent, who likewise lived in Chelsea, and through him she absorbed the Whistlerian aestheticism still associated with this Thames-side stretch of London, but without becoming contaminated by it. She also made friends with a new generation of artists: Augustus John, who painted her portrait, and, rather more to her credit, Walter Sickert, whose work she proceeded to collect. In England, Eugenia learned to appreciate things that were very fine and very simple–above all, things made of linen, cotton, deal, or stone, whose quality improved with laundering or fading, scrubbing or polishing. This acute sense of patination and texture allied to color would one day endear her to Braque.

In the absence of her husband, Eugenia took up with her bright young nephew, the diplomat Don Antonio de Gandarillas, who had a house overlooking the Thames on Cheyne Walk. Tony had married Juanita Edwards, the daughter of the Chilean ambassador to the court of Saint James’s, but after discovering that he was homosexual and addicted to opium, she had retired to Chile. Eugenia would take over as his consort. Together they would attend the Ballets Russes and make friends with Diaghilev, who would become very dependent on Eugenia. So would Artur Rubinstein. The great pianist would credit her with all manner of miraculous interventions in his career.

Thanks to his diplomatic immunity and charm and his large round eyes like a lemur’s, Eugenia’s neat little nephew managed to survive brush after brush with scandal. Besides a house in London, Tony had an apartment in Paris. And there on May 29, 1926, he and Eugenia gave a dinner to celebrate the première of Pastorale–one of Diaghilev’s weaker ballets–which was attended by “everyone from Picasso to the Duchess of Alba.” Also present was the brilliant surrealist poet René Crevel, who would soon become one of Tony’s young men. Tony was also involved with the rising young painter Christopher Wood, the only British artist of his generation to be taken seriously in Paris and become a friend of Picasso’s and Braque’s as well as of Cocteau’s. Tony supposedly got Kit (as Wood was familiarly known) hooked on drugs. When Kit threw himself under a train in 1930, Tony was blamed. Five years later, Crevel would also commit suicide. This time, the Surrealists were supposedly the cause.

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Table of Contents

Between the Wars
Picasso's Other Mother 3
The Madness of Scofield Thayer 19
Beastly Dr. Barnes 29
Sibyl Colefax, Lion Hunter 43
Bonnard's Amphibious Wife 53
The Sad Case of Mr. Taste 65
The Stettheimer Dollhouse 73
The Sitwells 83
Mario Praz's Kindly Eye 105
Vita's Muddles 113
Killer Collector 125
Klee's Inheritance 145
Peggy Guggenheim's Bed 157
Beaton and Garbo 169
Miro, the Reluctant Surrealist 181
From James to Jan 191
Carlos de Beistegui, the Miserly Magnifico 203
Judy Chicago's Giant Shriek 213
A Cote Capote 225
Braque's Late Greatness 237
Fin De Siecle
Warhol at Home 247
Anthony Hopkins's Stab at Picasso 261
Hammer Nailed 269
Dali's Gala 291
Brice Marden's Hidden Assets 303
Nina Kandinsky's Deadly Diamonds 315
Lucian Freud and His Models 323
In Memory of Pablito Picasso 343
Index 349
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