Observer Review: Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters By John Richardson Essay, Research Paper
Privates on paradeSacred Monsters, Sacred MastersJohn RichardsonCape ?20, pp378It was Jean Cocteau who first defined celebrities as sacred monsters. Despite its irony, the phrase was reverential: the playboys, harlots, tycoons, dope fiends and slumming artists whose misbehaviour Cocteau chronicled were, in his view, our contemporary version of the Olympian deities – not better than the rest of us (as the Christian God and his immediate family claim to be) but merely richer, more concupiscent, more self-indulgent; creatures for whom wealth, glamour and jet-propelled mobility were the next best thing to the immortality enjoyed by their classical prototypes.John Richardson has adopted Cocteau’s catchphrase for this gathering of recycled book reviews and maliciously chatty memoirs, but he deploys it with a difference. His characters – philistine collectors who commandeer art as a means of securing social promotion and extorting sexual favours, vampirish muses who attach themselves to artists in order to pick their pockets – are certainly monstrous. But whatever happened to the sanctity Cocteau admired?Despite the facile alliteration of his title, Richardson no longer regards the modernists whose private lives he blabs about as ’sacred masters’. He takes a sadistic pleasure in robbing them of any pretension to divinity: an essay about the Sitwells begins by admitting his adolescent crush on them but concludes with his decision to ‘boot them out of my pantheon’.Many of these pieces read like accounts of love affairs that turned sour and vindictive. Sacredness barely gets a look-in, except in Richardson’s claim that Warhol’s celebrity portraits reinvented the baroque altarpiece, allowing the haloed heads of Liz Taylor or Jackie O to float in a gilded, expensive heaven, or in his tart comment on Judy Chicago’s cheerfully sacrilegious choice of a nom de plume brandishing the coveted initials J.C.Richardson’s own beliefs, as his excellent, still incomplete biography of Picasso makes clear, owe more to sorcery than to the mythic charades Cocteau invoked when he described Biarritz or St Tropez, the playgrounds of his sacred monsters, as latterday versions of Cythera.Picasso, for Richardson, was a black magician whose eye had the power to cast spells, and that sense of supernatural malevolence recurs often in these essays. The witchy Eugenia Errazuriz, Picasso’s patron, lights votive candles at the wrong end and puts a hex on cars; the squinting, club-footed critic Mario Praz, reputed to possess the evil eye, causes an Empire vase to erupt by merely glancing at it and subliminally impels a chandelier to crash to the floor of a Roman drawing-room.Gossip, as practised by Richardson, mimics such occult interventions. He was once richly retained by the oil magnate and piratical conman Armand Hammer, paid to advise about art acquisitions; now he writes an exposé of his former employer’s crookedness, entitling the piece ‘Hammer Nailed’ as if he were driving a posthumous spike through the heart of a dormant vampire.He is equally lethal about Douglas Cooper, a former lover who housed him in Provence and introduced him to Picasso. The highest compliment he can pay is to call Cooper the ‘equal in fiendishness’ of ‘the beastly Dr Barnes’, a Philadelphia collector who took a vicious delight in keeping people out of his personal museum. Evil excites Richardson and he confides that Cecil Beaton’s unpublishable caricatures of crones such as Lord Snowdon’s mother ‘are of a fiendishness beyond praise’.His attraction to the moral monstrosity of his characters and his enjoyment of their twisted humour can become quite unsettling. Barnes, he reveals, had an ‘eerie interest in abnormal psychology’, and ‘must have been almost as fearsome as Dr Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter’; the anthropophagous doctor crops up again in Richardson’s review of the Merchant Ivory biopic Surviving Picasso, where he complains that ‘casting Anthony Hopkins, who played Lecter, as Picasso demonises the artist’. But doesn’t Richardson regard Picasso as a demon? And isn’t he too somewhat devilish, elated by his capacity to profane the sacred monsters he writes about?Though he scoffs that ‘achievements do not interest Merchant and Ivory as much as sexual relationships’, the same is true, on this showing, of Richardson himself, as he lays out his juicy titbits for our delectation. Vita Sackville-West, we learn, seduced a bridesmaid at her own wedding.Federico García Lorca discloses that Salvador Dali could only manage an erection if an encouraging digit was inserted in his rectum. Dali’s mercenary muse, Gala, possessing ‘the libido of an electric eel’, prefers two men at once and laments that an anatomical quirk ‘ruled out simultaneous fore and aft penetration’.Truman Capote obliged society hostesses to entertain his ‘humble love object’, a former prison guard and refrigerator repair man called, rather too blatantly, Randy. One essay is illustrated with an obscure Picasso which depicts the artist receiving a blow-job – even though Richardson comments that the picture has been ‘clumsily repainted’ and is ‘uniquely uninspired’, which sounds like the combination of prurience and censoriousness he derides in Merchant and Ivory.Beneath all the satire there is a possibly tragic realisation: the awareness that the beauty of an artist’s work can coexist with an ugly life, since greatness and goodness are seldom allied. But beneath this disillusionment there is another perception: creativity and sexuality are necessarily muddled, because art is another mode of reproduction. Hence Richardson’s reveries about the organs of regeneration. Peggy Guggenheim unscrews a detachable bronze phallus from one of her statues and secretes it upstairs, while Joan Miró in one of his portraits garnishes a feathered hat with a ‘beribboned erection’.Richardson squeamishly speculates about the intimate excavations James Morris underwent in that Casablanca clinic, and when writing about Judy Chicago’s ceramic vaginas he recalls Kingsley Amis’s remark that the vulva resembles ‘the inside of a giraffe’s ear or a tropical fruit not much prized even by the locals’.He calls Capote ‘a court dwarf-jester’ to New York café society. Richardson himself sleekly moves in the same circles and performs a related function: he scourges and flagellates his moneyed victims, assuring them that the pain he causes will do them good. At the bonfire of vanities, he’s the one holding the pen that looks like a pitchfork.