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Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters: Beaton, Capote, Dali, Picasso, Freud, Warhol, and More
John Richardson
London: Jonathan Cape, 2001.
£20.00, 374 pages, ISBN 0-224-06255-7.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

Of the twenty-eight essays that compose Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters, six were previously published in House & Garden, twelve in Vanity Fair, one in The New Yorker, one in an art gallery catalogue, and the rest appeared in The New York Review of Books. I was familiar with some of the latter, but rereading John Richardson is no unpleasant task, as his prose is elegant, crisp, wry, often very funny indeed. Richardson is British; I gather he moved to America to launch Christie’s in the New World, and decided to settle in New York (the blurb tells us he also has a house in Connecticut). He has worked at a variety of art-related jobs, has been elected to the British Academy and was Slade Professor of Art at Oxford; but he is mostly known for his contributions to The New York Review of Books and Vanity Fair, as well as for his monumental two-volume A Life of Picasso, which won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 1991. He has also published several books on painters such as Georges Braque.

Besides the subjects featured in the subtitle, Cecil Beaton, Truman Capote, Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Lucian Freud, and Andy Warhol, Richardson offers often definitive pieces (however short they might be) on Peggy Guggenheim, Brice Marden, Miro, or the mysterious and shady Armand Hammer, whom he calls a “veteran con man” and for whom he actually worked, going as far as to accompany him on a trip to the USSR. Splendid anecdote: Armand Hammer pretended that he was named after the romantic character of Dumas’s La Dame aux camellias, but his father was a Socialist and came up with a brilliant idea: arm-and-hammer, the emblem of the Socialist party. Hammer presented himself as a patron of the arts and connoisseur collector, but, writes Richardson, “the only thing [he] valued in a work of art was its potential for barter, money laundering, tax deductions, or personal publicity” [275]. Most of the pieces portray dead people—which must have made the publication of the present collection comfortable.

My favorite portrait is that of the Sitwells. Some would not hesitate to call it venomous, but none of the sharp criticisms is gratuitous. It is preceded by a terribly camp photograph of the three Sitwells, Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell, by Cecil Beaton, their “self-appointed image maker”, one that highlights Edith’s extraordinary nose, turning an unprepossessing beak into a work of art (the whole book, incidentally, is pleasantly illustrated). The portrait of the siblings begins with Richardson’s admission that at the age of fifteen he had developed a crush on them, and you expect, knowing him, that the following lines will let you know why he soon grew out of it.

This flamboyant triumvirate had managed to persuade themselves and the more impressionable members of the literary establishment that, besides being ineffably aristocratic, they were the latter-day equivalents of Chateaubriand (Osbert), Pope (Edith), and Shelley (Sacheverell). […] It took three of four years to recover from Sitwellitis. All of a sudden the scales fell from my eyes and the trio, not to mention their work, struck me as meretricious and, in Osbert’s case, pompous and mean-spirited—a perception that a meeting with him did nothing to allay. How dare these impostors claim to personify modernism? [83-84]

Richardson then implacably describes the Sitwells’ obsession with posterity, their rewritten ancestry, their folie des grandeurs, their genius for self-promotion, their stupendous mendacity (“mendacity became a Sitwellian way of life” [87]), etc. There is a splendid parenthesis about Sacheverell in particular which constitutes a veritable coup de grâce: “I once ghosted an article for him and was surprised at how easy it was to mimic his style, even more surprised that Sacheverell made no changes in the text.” [87] The Sitwells, of course, found their way in several novels, notably by Wyndham Lewis and Aldous Huxley (though perhaps not all actual romans à clef, as Richardson seems to imply). Osbert was most likely the model for D. H. Lawrence’s Sir Clifford Chatterley. Their feuds with literary figures such as Noël Coward make delightful reading; the formidable F. R. Leavis once wrote that the Sitwells (or the Sitwell circus, as Richardson puts it) belonged “to the history of publicity rather than poetry”. Richardson’s humorous treatment of his subjects is a far cry from the praise that was often lavished upon them in their lifetime, notably by the British press, and by American writers such as Carson McCullers.

This portrait does not entirely dismiss their literary output, and establishes nuances among them; but it is more concerned with the antics of the siblings, anyway, including their sex life (or lack thereof), their love affairs, etc. (“[Osbert’s] cautious, crablike emergence from the closet” [94]) The evocations of their rivalries with other literary coteries contain gems such as: “compared with to the high-diving Dadaists and Surrealists, the Sitwells were splashing around in the shallow end of a very small pool” [92]; or “camp followers [pun no doubt intended] like Harold Acton, Cecil Beaton, Tom Driberg, and Brian Howard constituted a Sitwellian fan club, certainly not a modern movement” [92]. Sometimes, though, Richardson cannot help indicating some measure of what I believe was actual wit on their part: “When asked by the doyen of Peking’s Imperial College of Eunuchs whether an equivalent institution existed in England, Osbert had replied, ‘yes… we call it Bloomsbury’.” [92] Richardson makes some cautious use of John Pearson’s famous biography of the Sitwells, Façades (1978), but certainly does not share most of Pearson’s views. I for one remain charmed by some of Edith’s poetry (I fondly remember a text she wrote for Benjamin Britten, that was sung of course by his lover Peter Pears, though its title eludes me), and some of Osbert’s; and some of Sacheverell’s art / travel prose are camp / kitsch classics.

I also particularly enjoyed “À côté Capote”. Unfortunately, it deals with the Capote of the end, so the only “earnest” mention of his early achievements is dropped in passing. Answered Prayers and Music for Chameleons lack the relative originality and indisputable stamina of Other Voices, Other Rooms or In Cold Blood, but they are quite readable. From the point of view of anecdote, this portrait is funny and scathing, highlighting the unpleasant aspects of Capote’s personality. Of course, those have been abundantly documented elsewhere, notably in Gerald Clarke’s Capote: A Biography (1988), but Richardson adds a few interesting personal touches, drawn from first-hand experience, notably about Capote’s entertaining conversation. I must confess I am puzzled by the following statement: “No question about it, Capote was in the great tradition of homosexual raconteurs.” This precedes mentions of Wilde and Cocteau. Naturally, it is easy to form a quick picture of what he has in mind, but I wonder what specific phenomenon is alluded to at this point. Is there some kind of mysterious genetic link between homosexuality and oral narratives? Or is wifelessness somehow propitious? Unless we are faced with some compensation process? Freudian sublimation? The origin of Camp? Of course, this belongs in some other book…

The Warhol piece is illustrated by a photograph that dates back to 1945, in fact Andy Warhol’s high school graduation picture, complete with myopic eyes, tacky tie and silly forced smile. Stumbling upon a pre-wig Warhol shot is always a strange experience. This is Andrew Warhola, the boring person, and not Andy Warhol, the fascinating persona. Indeed, though he does not phrase it exactly like this, Richardson’s angle here is that Warhola hid behind Warhol, “in full view of everybody” [247]. He goes on to evoke Warhol’s mother and church attendance, and to describe Warhol’s house and art and junk collections. The essay is, after all, called “Warhol at Home”. Richardson writes: “Actually, the word collector doesn’t begin to describe Andy’s obsessive—what Freud called anal—hoarding.” [251] It is interesting to read about all those objects, from the cheapest to the most horribly expensive, taking in kitsch and stuff your grandmother collects, but I was slightly disappointed not to learn anything really new, having read countless Warhol biographies (some of which reviewed in Cercles). The essay becomes a bit more analytical at the end, but on the somewhat facile side. What is more, I strongly disagree with statements of this sort: “But then, as Andy said—tongue in cheek again—‘my films are better talked about than seen.’ Not the least of his powers was to con people into accepting the boring, the trivial, and the inane as art.” [256] Richardson and I probably define “tongue in cheek”, con”, “boring”, “trivial” and “inane” differently, and I suspect my definitions are closer Warhol’s postmodern universe than Richardson’s.

That said, every other portrait in the book does add something new and interesting, no matter how much of a gallery enthusiast, museum fanatic and biography buff you might be. Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters makes for a pleasant and informative read.

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