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March 23 2012

John Richardson: a life in art

'I was able to grow up and be what I wanted to be – a writer about art with a career at the centre of the art world'

"How well do you know Kipling's poetry?" demands John Richardson, almost before the door to his Manhattan apartment has closed behind me. "I'm trying to remember the name of a poem … it's for something I'm writing." Richardson – the first volume of whose Picasso biography won him the Whitbread book of the year award in 1991 – is 88 years old and suffers from macular degeneration, severely hampering his ability to read. But he is still working furiously: writing, now with collaborators, volume four of the Picasso biography, and curating exhibitions. (His Picasso: the Mediterranean Years at the Gagosian Gallery London in 2010 was regarded as a museum-quality exhibition – or indeed, as surpassing museum quality, arising as it did out of an intimate personal knowledge of the artist and his circle.) When I visit, he is drafting an essay on Lucian Freud, whom he had known since he was 18 years old and Freud was 20.

Richardson – who occasionally pauses at length to excavate a name from the deep layers of his memory, but who is otherwise sufficiently youthful to clamber out of a sash window to perch on his tiny terrace at the behest of the photographer – leads me through a startlingly impressive array of rooms, busily decorated with sculptures, deeply upholstered divans, elaborate lamps, antique tables and, above all, pictures. He gestures in the direction of an 18th-century portrait. "That's a Reynolds of Frederick, Prince of Wales. One of Queen Mary's ladies-in-waiting was always trying to get it out of me. They didn't have one at the palace." We whisk past Picassos and Freuds, and I spot what I imagine to be a reproduction of a Braque perched on a side table. It is only later, when I look at the inscription – "Pour Richardson, avec mes amitiés, G Braque" that I realise it's the real thing, a delicate piece in ink and cardboard collage of a bird flying to its nest.

Richardson is one of the last links to a dazzling, lost world: aside from Picasso, Braque and Jean Cocteau, whom he met while living for 12 years with the art collector Douglas Cooper in the south of France after the war, he was on terms with an array of literary and artistic figures – Anthony Blunt, Cyril Connolly, WH Auden, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Francis Bacon, Nancy Mitford, Graham Sutherland, James and John Pope-Hennessy – many of whom are vividly brought to life in his gripping, gossipy, score-settling memoir, The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Above all, the memoir conveys the character of Cooper, one of the most important early collectors of cubist art, who seduced Richardson and then swept him away to France in 1950.

Cooper introduced him to many of the stellar figures who shine out of the memoir's pages, but he was also a domineering, controlling companion. As Richardson puts it: "There was a great deal to Douglas - he was brilliant, he was very funny, there was never a dull moment, but to live under the same roof way off in a rather deserted part of Provence was – well, I sometimes went stir crazy."

He eventually left and settled in New York, writing for the New York Review of Books (among other publications) and organising a successful Picasso exhibition in 1962 that spanned nine galleries. He then set up the New York branch of Christie's with fellow Briton Charlie Allsopp. "We complemented each other. I didn't know much about 17th-century Dutch painting, or Chinese porcelain or silver. He didn't know much about modern painting," he says of Allsopp, the father of TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp. Leaving Cooper, he says, "I was able to grow up and be what I wanted to be – a writer about art with a career at the centre of the art world."

It was going back to France to consult Picasso about the 1962 exhibition that brought forth the idea of the biography. "I'd say: 'Who is it a portrait of?' And he'd say that with works of the late 1930s there were sometimes as many as four people in one portrait – Dora Maar, Nusch Eluard, Inès the maid, Lee Miller, you'll see all of them. So the whole question of identity in these portraits was fascinating. I thought I'd do a big study looking at how one could trace Picasso's style through the portraits of the women who were inspirational to him. Then I realised it was much better to do a large-scale biography."

With its sharp, jargon-free prose, its persuasive art-historical arguments and its pungent insights into its subject's character, the first volume was a revelation. Art historian Richard Wollheim wrote in the London Review of Books: "There is no short way of conveying the wealth, precision and imaginativeness of this book." For critic Waldemar Januszczak, writing in the Guardian, it was "the finest biography of an artist I have read".

John Patrick Richardson was born in London in 1924, the eldest son of the 70-year-old Sir Wodehouse Richardson and his much younger wife, Patty. "My father was totally fascinating and rather impressive," says Richardson. "He was decorated by Queen Victoria and knighted by Edward VII. He was quartermaster general in the South African war, and the first to feed the troops refrigerated beef – he brought in refrigerated railroad cars." After the Boer war he co-founded the Army and Navy Stores, with its HQ in Victoria Street in London and outposts in Calcutta and Bombay. "One day, on a Thursday, which was board meeting day, when he'd always do a tour of inspection of the store, he saw this little woman retouching photos and got interested in her, and he waited outside with a bunch of roses, and one thing led to another." His father died when Richardson, the oldest of three children, was six. "I was enormously proud of my father and to some extent have missed him every day of my life. He was so bright, so funny and warm – heroic in his way."

At 13, Richardson was sent to Stowe, its Capability Brown grounds and elegant 18th-century follies providing the backdrop for some of his earliest sexual experiences. Here, his art teacher introduced him to the work of artists such as Picasso and Schwitters. Richardson shows me a little abstract work that he made at the time, impressively progressive for a 1930s schoolboy. As war broke out he enrolled at the Slade. Later, just as he was called up, he caught rheumatic fever: he was out of the army before he ever put on an Irish Guards uniform.

He lived in wartime London with his mother and siblings, working as an industrial designer by day and doing air-raid warden and firefighter shifts by night. And then there were the parties. "In those days being gay was somewhat dangerous; my best friend was had-up for some non-offence and jailed for a month – you had to be careful. But during the blitz London was kind of amazing. There were these great nightclubs in bombed basements in Soho. And there would be a feeling of tremendous excitement because quite a few of the men would be going off the following day to Egypt. And people were so great with each other during the war. People weren't petty or bitchy, they were out for basically whatever thrills they could get before they were bombed or packed off to the battlefield."

Soon after the war he began to write literary journalism for the New Statesman, mentored by Cuthbert Worsley, the magazine's theatre and deputy literary editor. "Postwar London," says Richardson, "was bohemian fun, but also one felt there was a creative spirit to it, which seems to have ceased." One day in 1949 Worsley took him to a party at the house of John Lehmann – brother of the novelist Rosamond – in honour of Paul Bowles's new novel, The Sheltering Sky. Also at the party was Cooper, who had spent a chunk of his fortune amassing an impressive modern art collection.

"In those days," says Richardson, "booze was always a problem. You had to scrounge around for a bottle of port, then there'd be a bottle of scotch, a couple of bottles of South African red wine, some liqueurs – and so you'd get drunk after three different drinks. I had met Douglas before and I longed to see the collection; it was difficult, impossible, to see great cubist works at the time. So I went up to him and introduced myself. 'I know perfectly well who you are,' said Douglas.

"I said: 'I would like very much to see your collection.' He said: 'There is no time like the present. Let's leave these ghastly people and this ghastly party.' And off we went in a 20-year-old Rolls-Royce, black with yellow wheels, resembling a wasp. We set off at an enormous speed and screeched to a halt two blocks away at Basil Amulree's, with whom Douglas shared a house."

Soon it would be Richardson's home, too: "I slept with Douglas out of curiosity, and also I wanted to get to know him better," he says. Amulree, a physician and a peer "who never did a mean or cruel thing", seemed not to mind. "He lived through Douglas," says Richardson. "In fact, the worse Douglas was, the more satisfaction Basil seemed to get. He wasn't so much masochistic as uptight. Somehow through Douglas he let go. He would hoot with laughter at Douglas's antics; occasionally he would give a slight sigh, but he would often egg him on. Basil was not in the least jealous of Douglas's relationships; Douglas, on the other hand, was extremely derogatory about Basil's occasional relationships."

Cooper took Richardson on something of a grand tour around Europe, which culminated in the discovery of a beautiful, neglected chateau called Castille, where they settled. It was here that they moved into the orbit of the magnetic, contradictory creature that was Pablo Picasso, who lived not far away.

Picasso was between mistresses, with various candidates swirling around. Richardson took a great shine to one of them: Jacqueline Roque. "She seemed perfect for him. She was the right shape – big pair of breasts and a big pair of buttocks and not much in between, and that's what he liked. I went up to Paris and got a present for her, a sort of bullfighter's cape from Dior, and that cemented our friendship, for Jacqueline soon ended up as the mistress."

Jacqueline was with him to the end, devoted to and exhausted by the artist. "The last eight years of Picasso's life there was no one around but her. She was secretary, housekeeper, she lugged around the canvases. She would have to do all the practical things – go to the bank, buy the stuff for the weekend, have a hassle with the lawyer – and be back at home by the time he rose at 10.30. Then she had to remain by his side without even leaving the room until sometimes two, three, four in the morning. And she started to drink. By the time he died she was in terrible shape."

After a dozen years, the relationship with Cooper ground painfully to a halt. A final episode of the endgame came when Cooper was stabbed by a young man whom he had picked up. Richardson, who had moved away by that point but was back to celebrate Picasso's birthday, rushed to the hospital, sleeping on a deckchair by his bedside. When Cooper eventually spoke, it was to enquire: "Where did you find that assassin?"

After all that, "New York was paradise for me," says Richardson. "I felt like a child let loose in a department store. There were white Russian chess players, interior decorators, old-fashioned English people, left-wing politicians." Friends included Andy Warhol, for whom he took part in a soap opera the artist had devised. ("Maxine de la Falaise played a once-famous actress who had fallen on evil days. And I was her brother from London.")

He says of Warhol: "Since he died I've seen all sorts of depths to Andy I hadn't spotted when he was alive. I'm a Catholic and I have realised the enormous importance of Roman Catholicism to him. He went every single day to mass. I think this explains the repetitions in his work – all the Ave Marias, like the 50 soup cans. To me he was like a character out of Russian fiction, the holy idiot. He could portray horrible and hideous things and be surrounded by horrible and hideous people taking drugs and killing themselves. But somehow he managed to retain his innocence and never get contaminated."

Today, Richardson is exasperated by the politics of the US. "Back in those days, most of my friends were to the left. Now the left doesn't exist any more. A woman – the wife of a well-known zillionaire – recently said to me: 'John, I had no idea you were such a liberal.' And I thought, do you know, this is what friends used to say when I was 18. Except they meant I should become a socialist. It seemed to me that history was repeating itself but upside down. I've stayed more or less where I am, politically. My father was a liberal, and I feel liberalism in my bones."

Volume four of the Picasso biography, with the collaboration of Spanish art historian Gijs van Hensbergen and curator Michael Cary, is near completion. It will cover the years from 1962 to the artist's death in 1973. "Finally one can set the whole Communist record straight," says Richardson. Though Picasso "became Communist because he was passionately pacifist and had very strong views about poverty", according to Richardson, he also did so in a fit of pique after "very temporarily becoming a passionate Gaullist" at the time of the liberation of Paris.

He explains: "The de Gaulle people got hold of this, Dora Maar told me, and they came round to dinner. But afterwards, he simply said 'bande de cons' [bunch of cunts] and joined the Communist party the next day." But, Richardson argues, "in private, he was critical of the Communists and very upset by the brutality of the Soviets, but he was stuck – he couldn't withdraw without looking like a turncoat. So up to the end of his life he realised he had no choice but to stay in the party."

And so work continues on a remarkable project; and this slayer, and celebrator, of sacred monsters, forges on towards his tenth decade. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 24 2012

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December 12 2011

Seeing the light on Caravaggio

Authors have struggled to translate Caravaggio's art into prose. But Andrew Graham-Dixon's biography looks at his subject with the same compelling intensity of the artist

I've waited a long time for a decent book on Caravaggio to come along. For some paradoxical reason, this most compelling artist has inspired a lot of dreary analyses. Unable to translate the shock of his images into prose, authors either sensationalise his life story in ways so crass as to be irrelevant, or retreat into reconstructions of his networks of patronage that are so dull they make you wonder why you ever felt seduced by his art in the first place – until, once again, you see a Caravaggio in a gallery or a church that knocks you sideways and scars your soul.

Recently I wrote about how his Sleeping Cupid had this effect on me at the Pitti Palace in Florence. In his biography Caravaggio, the critic Andrew Graham-Dixon has a very clever explanation for the unique effect of Caravaggio's paintings. The reason they obliterate other paintings in a gallery, even great paintings, is, he argues, to do with Caravaggio's special intensity of looking, which he believes was formed during the artist's youth in the religious visual culture of Counter-Reformation Milan. Under the influence of sensationally realistic popular Catholic art and spiritual advice to hold images of the holy scriptures in your mind, Caravaggio developed his ecstatic painterly stare.

It is a brilliant argument, so deeply thought out and so convincing that it might even strike some readers as unexceptional. But this book is exceptional. I am reading it slightly late, in paperback, but at least the timing is good for me to recommend it as an art read this Christmas. Forget the expensive coffee table books. A true art lover would much rather have this feast of insightful writing as a present.

It is a very unusual book, because it is both truly accessible – the author assumes no prior knowledge of history, although he does assume you are probably interested in Caravaggio – and ruthlessly intellectual. Right from the get-go, Andrew Graham-Dixon offers acute interpretations, in crisp, lucid prose, of such subjects as the nature of the Renaissance, and why Caravaggio is so different from High Renaissance artists (they sought to idealise the world, he refuses to do so in any way). For me, this ability to express a subtle and often profound argument in a disarmingly direct, unpretentious way has always been Graham-Dixon's characteristic skill and it makes him brilliantly suited to television. In this book, it allows him to illuminate his dark narrative with flashes of dazzling perception.

It is an achievement worthy of its subject. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 09 2011

Critical eye: book reviews roundup

Hockney: A Rake's Progress by Christopher Simon Sykes, The Sea Is My Brother by Jack Kerouac and Lives of the Novelists by John Sutherland

"Hockney: A Rake's Progress bounces along as the rebellious, eccentric, funny artist discovers sex, then London, and so on to fame and fortune, via California." Geordie Greig in the Evening Standard pointed out that what's new about Christopher Simon Sykes's biography is the author's "broad access to the letters and diaries of Hockney's friends and family"; the book is also "more warts-and-all than anything before, and certainly the most moving and amusing account of the most popular British artist of the 20th century." For the Spectator's Jane Rye, the book "combines a serious account of Hockney's upbringing and artistic development in a fluent narrative with a light touch and an obvious enjoyment of the many remarkable, exotic and sometimes disreputable characters, both celebrated and obscure, with which the story is richly populated". But Jackie Wullschlager in the Financial Times complained at the absence of discussion of the important paintings: "Sykes is a biographer, not an art historian, but in ducking analysis of such major works in favour of banal narrative he squanders a signal opportunity."

Jack Kerouac's first novel, The Sea Is My Brother, until now unpublished, is "a slight affair … The plot is minimal, and in both style and construction the novel betrays Kerouac's immaturity as a writer." Such was the conclusion of David Barnett in the Independent on Sunday: on the other hand, there are "wonderful bursts of Kerouackian jazz-prose which break through the strictures of the conventional novel, and even then his ear for dialogue was sharp and naturalistic." Olivia Laing in the New Statesman was less charitable, describing it as "didactic and spectacularly tedious", and identifying a "rich and unattractive seam of misogyny". The Spectator's Patrick Skene Catling decided that Kerouac wrote "fast, enthusiastically and sloppily" and "made no apparent attempt to disguise autobiography … the book is worth getting as a literary curio of value for anyone interested in the decline of civilisation."

Opinions differed wildly on John Sutherland's Lives of the Novelists. For Michael Prodger in the Evening Standard, a "heavy book offering 294 biographical essays on the lives of assorted novelists from John Bunyan to Ian McEwan does not sound too promising. This is, though, the funniest book I've read all year. From the first entry on John Bunyan … to pretty much the last, on Patricia Cornwell – who, on being diagnosed as bipolar, 'at first thought it was a reference to her sexuality' – it is a riot." But Stuart Kelly in the Scotsman was perplexed: "The omissions are so glaring – and in some cases, omitted in favour of such dreadful writers – that a defence of personal whim seems inadequate … Sutherland has a penchant for bloke-ish fictions of the gumshoe and bang-bang persuasion, and when he writes about his enthusiasms, he is charming. But please, someone, give him an advance of sufficient size that he can write something deep and significant again." Jonathan Bate in the Daily Telegraph broadly agreed that the book is "heavy on biographical anecdote … but distinctly light on literary analysis". © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 27 2011

Christmas gifts 2011: which books will be under your tree?

Our critics choose the books they intend to give this Christmas, and the ones they hope to receive

What do you think are the best books of 2011? Take part in our open thread discussion here

Diana Athill
Editor and writer

I am crazy about Craig Taylor's Londoners (Granta £25), a brilliant collection of "voices" in the manner of Studs Terkel. It's quite long, but I wanted it to go on and on, and I can't imagine any lucky recipient not enjoying it. One I'm sure I'll enjoy myself when I get my hands on it is Claire Tomalin's biography of the most glorious of all Londoners, Charles Dickens: A Life (Viking £30).

Richard Eyre
Theatre director

I'd give Christopher Hitchens's collected essays, Arguably (Atlantic £30), in the hope that in return I'd be given John Updike's collected essays, Higher Gossip (Knopf £25). Hitchens is said to be the best British essayist since Orwell; anyone who doubts this, considering him a mere provocateur, will be convinced by this collection. Updike was the best novelist of his generation and also a prolific critic and essayist. His posthumous book is a distillation of his non-fiction writing over nearly six decades.

Russell T Davies
TV dramatist

It's too late to make a Christmas present out of How to Be a Woman (Ebury Press £11.99) by Caitlin Moran, because as soon as I'd finished it, I bought five more copies. One each for my two sisters and three nieces. I think this is the most important book they might read in their lives. Underneath beautiful, aching and hilarious memories of family life, it's a true polemic, arguing that women still eat, shave and dress entirely for the benefit of men. As for me, I'll have A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In (Bloomsbury £12.99) by Magnus Mills. For the title alone!

Tim Adams
Observer writer

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow (Allen Lane £25) – a terrific unpicking of human rationality and irrationality – could hardly have been published at a better moment. Kahnemann is the godfather of behavioural economics, and this distillation of a lifetime's thinking about why we make bad decisions – about everything from money to love – is full of brilliant anecdote and wisdom. It is Kahnemann's belief that anyone who thinks they know exactly what is going on hasn't understood the question; as such it's the perfect gift for opinionated family members everywhere.

It would be interesting to know what Christopher Hitchens would make of Kahneman's faith in doubt; one of the many pleasures of reading our greatest contrarian over the years has been his ability to give the impression that he knows exactly what he thinks about almost every subject under the sun. Hitchens's collected essays, Arguably, is the book I'd most like to receive, for its bravura certainties, in spite of everything.

Joe Dunthorne

A recent issue of McSweeney's magazine included a severed head (opening that morning's post was like the final scene in the film Se7en), but the current edition, the 38th, focuses on what the magazine does best: great stories, both fiction and non-fiction. I would give it to anyone with a short, persistent commute.

For myself, I'd like House of Holes (Simon & Schuster £14.99) by Nicholson Baker. Although reviewers have been bewildered, I'm intrigued by Baker's transition from writing a (brilliant) low-key novel about a struggling poet to this one, which is, by all accounts, a cheerful porno odyssey. Not the sort of book to be seen buying for oneself, mind you.

Rachel Johnson
Editor and author

Whoever says women aren't funny should be tied to chairs and force-read Bossypants (Little Brown £16.99) by Tina Fey, a darkly hysterical monologue-memoir by the writer/actor about growing up with dark shin fur in the land where yellow hair is king, writing skits for Saturday Night Live, her aborted honeymoon cruise (the ship caught fire) and Kotex panty-pads.

Johnson's Life of London (Harper Collins £20), by Boris Johnson, is not only the book I want to receive, it's the only book I can guarantee I will be given, as the author gives only two things to his family as presents: condiments he's made himself and books he's written. I am looking forward to both as I have been assured by my brother that his book on London is every bit as good as his apple chutney.

Philip Hensher

I'm giving everyone Robert Harris's The Fear Index (Hutchinson £18.99) for Christmas, because everyone's already read Alan Hollinghurst's superb The Stranger's Child, and The Fear Index is a total ripsnorting Demon Seed-type romp through the bowels of high finance and whirring computer-cogs. In the usual way of things, people kept sending me copies of things such as Samuel Beckett's wildly boring letters (Volume 2) when what I really wanted was Tessa Hadley's excellent The London Train (Jonathan Cape £12.99).

Joan Bakewell
Journalist and broadcaster

The past shapes our lives today, and both of my choices throw light on our own times. Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side (Faber £16.99) – the book I'll be giving – takes up the story of the Dunne family, which he has told in several previous novels. Together, these works cover the time of Ireland's troubles, from within the Unionist protestant community. The gorgeous prose adds to the pleasure.

I would like to receive Amanda Foreman's epic A World on Fire (Penguin £12.99), which deals with the British/American relationship throughout the American civil war. Growing up near Lancashire, I have always known that American exports of raw cotton fed the cotton mills of Britain. But I have never understood what happened when the civil war broke out. This lavishly praised book will explain this and many other things. And at 1,000 pages, it will last the year!

Michael Palin
Actor and broadcaster

Colin Thubron's To a Mountain in Tibet (Chatto & Windus £16.99) is an absolutely terrific book. Thubron has perfect pitch. He uses the minimum of words for the maximum effect. His descriptions are fresh and acute and he can convey atmosphere and emotion on the head of a pin. The journey to Mount Kailash is enthralling and he keeps the reader right beside him every inch of the way.

The book I'd like in my stocking is Adam Macqueen's Private Eye: The First 50 Years (Private Eye Productions £25). The Eye has given me more consistent pleasure, pain and provocation than any other publication in my lifetime.

Rachel Cooke
Observer writer

What you need at Christmas is a novel that thoroughly muffles the sound of tired and overemotional relatives. So, I will be giving all of my girlfriends State of Wonder (Bloomsbury £12.99) by Ann Patchett, a sort of feminist Heart of Darkness. It has the barmiest plot ever – plucky scientist enters Brazilian jungle in search of her lost colleague and the secret of everlasting female fertility – but, honestly, it grips like a vice.

The book I would most like to receive is William Nicholson: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings (Yale £95) by Patricia Reed, Wendy Baron and Merlin James. I can stare at a single Nicholson painting for long minutes at a time. He is just the best.

Fergus Henderson

Life is peculiar at the moment, but nothing could be as bad as Bernie Gunther's lot: prison camp to prison camp, interrogation after interrogation… Philip Kerr's battered hero in Field Gray: A Bernie Gunther Mystery (Quercus £17.99) is an ex-Berlin policeman who gets knocked around from Cuba to postwar Europe. When he finally gets his glass of German brandy I sighed a sigh of relief for the poor chap.

A very different kettle of fish – not much mention of the Gulag – is Sarah Winman's When God Was a Rabbit (Headline Review £12.99). I feel that at this point in life I'm ready to tackle a book about love, and Sarah Winman's charm will make her the perfect guide.

Chris Patten
Chairman of the BBC Trust

The most enjoyable new novel I have read this year is Snowdrops (Altantic £7.99) by AD Miller. It's a very well written page-turner that confirmed all my prejudices about Putin's Russia. I came to it after reading Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, my number one discovery of the year, which to be fair to Mr Putin, does at least show how much worse things were under Stalin.

I have asked for David Gilmour's The Pursuit of Italy (Allen Lane £25) for Christmas. It may help me to understand rather better this heavenly country, which has given the world great buildings, cities, music and food, as well as Mr Berlusconi.

Mary Warnock

The book I'm going to give, specifically to people nostalgic for their childhood in the late 1960s and 70s (of whom I know many), is Nelson (Blank Slate £18.99), edited by Rob Davis and Woodrow Phoenix. I am fascinated by the comic strip format (like the excellent comic book versions of Shakespeare), by the different styles of each participating artist in this collaboration between 54 British comic artists, and by the way the central character develops under one's eyes as each year in her life unfolds. It is perfect for anyone without a great deal of reading time at Christmas.

The book I'd most like to get is one that I have already reluctantly given away, Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin. I'm not a Dickens fan, but Tomalin is the best biographer there is.

Julie Myerson

By far the most impressive novel I read this year was Jacqueline Yallop's Obedience (Atlantic £12.99). The prose is as intense, opaque yet elastic as its morally complex themes: guilt, sexuality and secrecy in a convent in wartime France. I'd give it to anyone who wants, as I do, to have their head and heart churned up by what they read.

The book I'd most like to be given is anything bought at one of the two independent bookshops in Southwold, Suffolk. Except both have now closed down. Which makes membership of Southwold Library – now ludicrously also under threat – the best free gift you could give anyone there this Christmas.

Philip French
Observer film critic

A worthy Booker laureate of this or any other year, our most versatile novelist Julian Barnes paid tribute in his acceptance speech to Suzanne Dean, cover designer of The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape £12.99). This makes it a perfect present in these last days of the book as singular object. The one I hope someone will send me is Brian Kellow's Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking $27.95). I read her for more than 30 years and wrote an introduction to her final collection.

Daljit Nagra

Tahmima Anam's The Good Muslim (Canongate £16.99) is a perfect page-turner for the festive period. It is a powerfully gripping story about the birth of Bangladesh. Subtle plotting and vivid dramatisation of characters allow Anam to explore the formation of national identity. CB Editions is an exciting new poetry press which has published JO Morgan's second collection, Long Cuts (£7.99), this year. For me, this would be an ideal gift as I loved his first collection, Natural Mechanical, and reviews suggest this one is even better.

Tristram Hunt
Historian and Labour MP

Maya Jasanoff's Liberty's Exiles (HarperPress £30) is going to be in the Christmas stocking for a number of nearest and dearest. Jasanoff is an exceptional scholar of British history in all its global dimensions, and her evocative chronicle of the loyalist diaspora from the American war of independence allows us to rethink the cultural legacy of the Thirteen Colonies' rebellion. And, in turn, I would like an equally big book on US history by another transatlantic female historian – Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire. British involvement in the American civil war is still under-appreciated, and Foreman's work, on the 150th anniversary, looks like a useful corrective.

Wendy Cope

I always enjoy Caitlin Moran's columns, so I read her How to Be a Woman as soon as it came out. Although I didn't agree with every word, it is spot on about most things, and very entertaining. If I hadn't already given my copy to my partner's daughter, I would buy it for her. Another 2011 favourite is Edgelands (Jonathan Cape £12.99) by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, which I will be giving as a Christmas present. My Christmas wish-list includes Death Comes to Pemberley (Faber £18.99) by PD James and Blue Monday (Michael Joseph £12.99) by Nicci French.

Curtis Sittenfeld

I thoroughly enjoyed The Oregon Experiment (Knopf $26.95) by Keith Scribner. Set in a college town in America's Pacific Northwest, it's a novel about – among other things – anarchists, adultery, new babies, hippies, and a woman with such a powerful sense of smell that it lets her discover secrets about other people. The book is just really smart and juicy. A novel I haven't yet read but have heard is wonderful is Love and Shame and Love (Little Brown $24.99) by Peter Orner. It's about a Chicagoan named Alexander Popper and his messy family – and I do always like family messiness!

Geoff Dyer
Novelist and essayist

The book I'd most like to receive this Christmas is Magnum Contact Sheets (Thames and Hudson £95), edited by Kristen Lubben: a collection of the pictures that were made either side of some of the famous images from the photojournalists' archive. The book is an exemplary bit of publishing in that it is stunningly beautiful – and huge, and expensive – but is full of the kind of material that might be considered the preserve of scholars or researchers. I'll be giving copies of Terry Castle's screamingly funny – and lethally sharp – collection of autobiographical essays, The Professor (Atlantic £20).

Marina Warner
Writer and academic

So much of what I read is in translation – from Alice Oswald's new reworking of the Iliad, Memorial, to Richard Hamilton's compendium of Marrakech stories, The Last Storytellers. Matthew Reynolds, in The Poetry of Translation: From Chaucer & Petrarch to Homer & Logue (Oxford £50), shows us what is at stake in these border crossings. Close looking is close reading's counterpart, and Deanna Petherbridge is one of its most impassioned advocates. If I don't find The Primacy of Drawing: Histories and Theories of Practice (Yale £55) under the tree, I'll buy it, gladly.

William Dalrymple
Historian and travel writer

I greatly enjoyed Sherard Cowper-Coles's brilliant account of how and why we are losing Britain's fourth war in Afghanistan. Cables from Kabul (HarperPress £25) is the most insightful record yet published of the diplomatic wrangling that has accompanied the slow military encirclement of western forces in the country. It is also the best account I have read of how post-colonial colonialism actually works.

A book I would love to be given is the fabulously illustrated catalogue accompanying the Masters of Indian Painting show at the Rietberg in Zurich this summer – unquestionably the most remarkable and ambitious exhibition of the Indian miniature tradition ever mounted. Masters of Indian Painting, 1100-1900 (Museum Rietberg £120) is a huge, two-volume affair, with essays by the three great historians of Indian art: BN Goswamy, Eberhard Fischer and Milo Cleveland Beach.

Mariella Frostrup
Observer writer and TV presenter

Robert Harris's fine new thriller, The Fear Index, is a must-have in every Christmas stocking. It's highly "readable" – the buzz word in literary circles this year – but more importantly, it manages to explain what a hedge fund actually is, using the example of lacy black lingerie. With our lives currently in turmoil thanks to the machinations of the financial markets, understanding how they work should be a priority, and Harris manages to combine such instruction with a fast-paced thriller.

I'd love to receive Marina Warner's epic study of the Arabian Nights, Stranger Magic (Chatto & Windus £28), a dissection of the myths in these enduring classics that promises to throw light on the countries from which the stories spring and the lives of women in them.

Hari Kunzru

To London friends I'll be giving festive copies of Laura Oldfield Ford's Savage Messiah (Verso £19.99), the seminal fanzine (now released in book form), which reveals, in photos, text and beautiful drawings, the abject underside of the regenerated city. The book I'm hoping to find under the tree is Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee's Poor Economics (Perseus £17.99), which apparently overturns many received ideas about what it's like to be very poor.

Shami Chakrabarti
Director of Liberty

Sometimes the most serious messages are best expressed with humour, and this Christmas should be a time to try to smile. The book I'd love to receive is Private Eye: The First 50 Years by Adam Macqueen. But because I would love the next 50 years to be better for women, I would most like to give Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman. I've already bought a spare copy for a female friend. I will give it in celebration of Moran's wit and wisdom and in loving memory of my mother – an unsung feminist.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

No better history books were published this year than David Gilmour's wonderful The Pursuit of Italy and The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (Allen Lane £30) by David Abulafia. Both tell riveting but melancholy stories. Gilmour shows that the "unification" of Italy 150 years ago has been a profound failure, while in the course of Abulafia's account his great sea ceases to be the centre of civilisation.

Bright Particular Stars (Atlantic £25) is the latest of David McKie's sesquipedal peregrinations. This "Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics", some of whom are a good deal more eccentric than glorious, is unfailingly droll and will make a perfect stocking-filler.

Nicholas Hytner
Artistic director of the National Theatre

Anthea Bell's new translation of Stefan Zweig's Beware of Pity, published this year by Pushkin Press (£8.99), is the latest in a brilliant series of Zweig translations. A psychological thriller with an emotionally dense unreliable narrator, and a terrifyingly needy heroine, it is compulsively readable.

I hope I'm given Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life. Her biography of Dickens's mistress, Nelly Ternan, is a phenomenal feat of literary reclamation, but I fear that her new book will do nothing to refute my long-held belief that the novels ascribed to Dickens could not possibly have been written by the son of a naval pay-office clerk who left school at the age of 12, and are plainly the work of the Duke of Wellington.

Kirsty Wark

If you want to make someone happy, lying on the sofa in front of the fire on Boxing Day, then you must give them Robert Harris's new thriller, The Fear Index. You might think you've had enough of the economic crisis – but this is the hugely entertaining version. Thinking of that same sofa, I'd like to receive Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child (Picador £20), which somehow eluded me this year. As an added extra, please may I have Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Veg Everyday! (Bloomsbury £25), which I know is a very good thing for us all. Go on Santa.

Andrew Rawnsley
Observer political editor

For anyone you know who likes to be provoked to both laughter and thought, I can't think of a better stocking filler than Craig Brown's One On One (Fourth Estate £16.99), 101 ingeniously linked encounters between the famous and the infamous. As a great admirer of Max Hastings's military histories, I would be pleased to unwrap All Hell Let Loose (HarperCollins £30), his latest, much-praised volume on the second world war, focusing on the experiences of those at the sharp end of the conflict.

Kate Kellaway
Observer writer

There is one book that has bowled me over – on a subject close to my heart. The Story of Swimming (Dewi Lewis £25), by Susie Parr, not only looks ravishing (filled with unusual mermaids, avid modern swimmers and stunning photographs by the author's husband, Martin Parr) but is also a fascinating, idiosyncratic, beautifully written history. Readers will want to do far more than dip in – I intend to give it to all my amphibious friends. Meanwhile, the book I can't wait to read is Matthew Hollis's said-to-be-outstanding Now All Roads Lead to France (Faber £20), about the last years of Edward Thomas.

Peter Carey

I have twice given away David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House £21.99), and Christmas will not change my habits. The book is more readable and entertaining than I can indicate in 100 words. It is a meditation on debt, tribute, gifts, religion and the false history of money. Graeber is a scholarly researcher, an activist and a public intellectual. His field is the whole history of social and economic transactions. He has been an important figure at Zuccotti Park and Occupy Wall Street. Here, he uses his own klieg lights to illuminate the pea and thimble mechanisms that have delivered the current debt crisis. Would someone, please, give me a copy this Christmas. I promise to keep it for myself.

Elizabeth Day
Observer writer

One of the most thought-provoking novels I read this year was Amy Waldman's The Submission (William Heinemann £12.99), an elegantly plotted debut that charts the fallout after a New York jury chooses a Muslim architect to design a memorial to 9/11. Waldman uses this central focal point to unravel the tensions and contradictions at work in modern America.

The book I'd most like to unwrap underneath the Christmas tree (hint, hint) is Claire Tomalin's new biography, Charles Dickens: A Life. I've read every biography Tomalin has produced and am in awe not only of her impeccable research but also of her real feeling for her subjects and her exquisite writing.

AN Wilson
Writer and columnist

The book that I am hoping to find in my Christmas stocking is Fiona MacCarthy's The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination (Faber £25). I have enjoyed all Fiona MacCarthy's biographies (Eric Gill, William Morris, Byron...) and I cannot believe that this will disappoint.

The book I shall be giving is Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's compelling critical biography, Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist (Harvard £20). If you only read one book on Dickens during the bicentenary year of 2012, it should be this. Every page illuminates the books and the genius who produced them.

Writer and cultural commentator

So many contenders, but I would share the incredible creative power and intense imagination of Alice Hoffman, whose novel The Dovekeepers (Simon & Schuster £16.99) shows just how far and deep historical fiction can go. I would love to receive Sarah Hall's short story collection, The Beautiful Indifference (Faber £12.99), which I expect to be as gripping and cerebral as a previous novel of hers – one of my favourites – The Carhullan Army.

Salley Vickers

The book I shall be giving for Christmas is Ronald Blythe's At the Yeoman's House (Enitharmon Press £15). The "house" is the mysteriously named "Bottengoms", once home of farmers and shepherds and rescued and restored by John Nash, for whom the author worked as a young man. The book is a quiet meditation on the nourishment to be found in the past. The book I most want to be given is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I'm a speedy thinker myself, so am hoping to be endorsed in that practice.

Robert McCrum
Associate editor of the Observer

Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire, an epic history of two nations divided by conflict, is an enthralling portrait of Britain and the US during the American civil war. It's a book that ought to be a natural Christmas present. Unfortunately, at 1,000 pages, the publishers have made it almost unreadable (ie impossible to hold in bed). This is a shame. To turn a brilliant narrative history into an infuriating doorstop is an insult to Foreman's work. Perhaps, for the gift market, Penguin should consider a two-volume paperback edition.

I've followed Christopher Reid's poetry for years, and was delighted when he won the Costa prize with A Scattering. Now Faber has issued his Selected Poems (£14.99). This is high on my list of books to read at Christmas.

Fintan O'Toole
Journalist and author

The book I'll be giving is Tim Robinson's Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom (Penguin £20). In an age of sundered specialisms, Robinson – mathematician, map-maker, naturalist, folklorist – is a marvel. This last volume of his wonderful trilogy on Connemara ranges through political history, music and topography, marking him as the supreme practitioner of geo-graphy, the writing of places. I'd like to receive Derek Mahon's New Collected Poems (Gallery £17.95). Mahon's combinations of savage indignation and ludic delight, of high formality and apparent ease, repay endless revisiting.

What do you think are the best books of 2011? Take part in our open thread discussion here © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 01 2011


April 19 2011

U B U W E B - Film & Video: Alvar Aalto - Technology and Nature (1996)

"The Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898–1976) is one of the great figures of modern architecture, ranked alongside Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. This film analyses Aalto’s uniquely successful resolution of the demands and possibilities created by new technology and construction materials with the need to make his buildings sympathetic both to their users and to their natural surroundings. His inventive use of timber in particular represents both a reference to the forest landscape of Finland and a building material that is ‘warm’ and extremely adaptable. Filmed in Finland, Italy, Germany and the USA, this documentary shows how the Finnish natural environment and art traditions were essential elements in Aalto’s pioneering harmonization of technology and nature."
Reposted fromrobertogreco robertogreco

November 21 2010

The Andy Warhol Diaries edited by Pat Hackett — review

Two decades after his death, Andy Warhol's acerbic, self-absorbed diaries make today's celebrity Twitter offerings look lame indeed

The 90s bestseller that no one admitted having read, Andy Warhol's diaries have long been the definition of a guilty pleasure, famed for their celebrity anecdotes, their triviality, their lack of engagement with world events. From 1976 to 1987, Andy tells us of parties attended, champagne drunk, cabs taken – and dollars spent. He hangs out with "everybody": Bianca Jagger ("God, she's dumb"), Jackie O ("thinks she's so grand she doesn't even owe it to the public to have another great marriage to somebody big"), Yoko ("We dialed F-U-C-K-Y-O-U and L-O-V-E-Y-O-U to see what happened, we had so much fun") and "Princess Marina of I guess Greece".

True, there are times when Andy stays home – to dye his eyebrows, hang out with his two pugs, Archie and Amos, envy Lou Reed his fabulous life filled with every conceivable electronic gadget, watch bad TV and see his own truisms subverted: "Watched 20/20 and it was so funny to hear Hugh Downs say, 'As Andy Warhol once said, in 15 minutes everybody will be famous.'" But for the most part, Andy goes out – and then worries about the effect on his creativity: "I'm going to start going to strange movies again. I'm missing so much going to parties."

He talks rarely about art, and when he does it's mainly the commercial side ("I really only have two collectors. Saatchi and Newhouse. I guess I'm just not… a good painter"). He seldom mentions artistic ambition, though is desperate to paint an Oreo cookie: "When the cameras were on I ate the cookies and said, 'Miss Oreo needs her portrait done.' So I hope the bigwigs get the hint. Oh, it would be so good to do."

Has the passing of two decades lent the diaries era-defining cultural gravitas? Well, maybe. As they move from the 70s to the 80s, the shift in mood is obvious, with advertising, drug addiction and Aids asserting their grip.

In the past year, an enthusiast has set up a Twitter feed of Warhol's diaries; reduced to 140 characters, the chirp of gossip is addictive, and makes the fawning feeds of Ashton, Britney, Lily seem cringingly lame. Andy's inability to present himself in a media-friendly light, not hiding his self-absorption, hypochondria, vulnerability or rudeness, shocks because of how rare it is to us now. Just maybe, in his diaries as in much else, Warhol was way ahead of the game. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 27 2010

Response: Though I didn't have his diaries, my biography of Nikolaus Pevsner is still reliable

My sources are legitimate. I've interviewed those who knew him and accessed his archive

Rosemary Hill must have good judgment as a historian: she has won a prize for her book on Stonehenge and enjoyed praise for her study of Augustus Pugin. But she doesn't give that impression in her review of my new book Pevsner – The Early Life: Germany and Art (The adopted Englishman, Review, 10 July).

She is aware, for example, that in writing this first volume of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner's first-ever biography, I haven't had access to his diaries. She therefore says, vaguely but insidiously, that I "make grave insinuations knowing that much of the evidence is missing". In doing so she makes three "grave insinuations" of her own: that what I've written is suspect; that without the diaries I've been handicapped; and that my knowledge of that handicap should have held me back.

Of course I'd love to have had the diaries, but it's wrong that nothing else matters or that, in Hill's words, only "in the diaries [Pevsner] kept at the time" is there "the evidence that would confirm or refute" conclusions sourced from elsewhere.

It's entirely possible to know about Pevsner from other sources. Mine include the 70 shelf-feet of papers in the Pevsner archive in Los Angeles, the archives of the many bodies he was associated with, a mass of official documents, his own privately circulated family history, and the memories of the people I've talked to who knew him in Germany, including his wife's sister, two first cousins, surviving former students in Göttingen, and contemporaries from his schooldays in Leipzig.

These sources aren't illegitimate or inadequate, as Hill implies. In fact, they often provide an independent means of testing what Pevsner said about himself. If Hill has a basis for discounting them, I'd be the first to make appropriate corrections, but she shouldn't sound alarm bells just because she doesn't like what the best available evidence currently shows.

Equally, it's essential not to borrow what Pevsner did later to explain what he did earlier and in different circumstances. Hill challenges evidence of Pevsner's political attitudes by offering readers a simplistic (and inaccurate) story, often trotted out, about how his behaviour in 1939 (six years after my book closes) proves that he was "simply naive about Nazism" in the early 1930s, adding tritely, "what other explanation is there?" Well, several.

She also makes her unfounded doubt about Pevsner's uncomfortable relations with his father into a giant doubt about the whole project, and minimises, in one grudging sentence, my achievement in "establishing the academic and intellectual context in which, in his twenties, Pevsner's career blossomed", when in fact this is the core of the book.

Hill has fallen back lazily on the very canards my research has challenged, and on the "imminent" appearance of another biography, based on the diaries, in which she has more trust. But that book hasn't appeared yet, and until it does its use as a yardstick for measuring an actual work is speculative and improper. Hill should know better. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 17 2010

Edinburgh book and film festivals to join forces

Architect Norman Foster and author Margaret Atwood to spearhead partial tie-up between festivals

Norman Foster and Margaret Atwood are to star in a collaboration between two of Edinburgh's largest festivals as part of a new initiative to expand the reach and audience of the city's international book festival.

In a joint project with the Edinburgh film festival this August – the first on this scale attempted by two of the city's 12 annual festivals – Foster and Atwood will be amongst a number of prominent guests exploring the different techniques film-makers and writers use for biographies.

The events will be staged at the Filmhouse cinema complex, where this year's film festival is now taking place, as part of plans by the new director of the city's international book festival, Nick Barley, to develop an event based for nearly 30 years in a "tented city" in the gardens of Charlotte Square in the city's Georgian New Town.

Barley unveiled his first programme today, which features 750 authors. It includes a rare public appearance by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau in conversation with Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell, three Nobel prize winners, including Joseph Stiglitz, the poet Seamus Heaney, the hairdresser Vidal Sassoon and an opening debate on Jesus between the atheist author Philip Pullman and former bishop of Oxford Richard Harries.

The former chancellor Alistair Darling is to give his first speech on politics and the economy since Labour lost the general election, while seven leading South African poets and writers prevented from attending this year's London book fair by the Icelandic ash cloud will fly in for a series of events.

The Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas, author of a controversial novel on race and class, The Slap, and the first Edinburgh Unesco City of Literature writer in residence, will be speak on the opening day. The festival closes with a discussion on "the new world order" and geo-politics – a theme of this year's festival – with the Portuguese Nobel laureate José Saramago.

Foster, one of Britain's most famous architects and designer of Wembley stadium, the Reichstag, the British Museum's "great court" and one of the towers at "ground zero" in New York, is appearing at the UK launch of his biography How much does your building weigh Mr Foster? It has been made into a feature-length film by the Art Commissioners consultancy.

Atwood will appear at the joint book and film festival event by satellite link from Canada, to talk about her recent novel The Year of the Flood. Other major names for this mini-festival are to be announced next month.

There had been speculation that Barley would move events outside Charlotte Square, or even relocate it entirely. In an interview with the Guardian, Barley said he was committed to remaining there. "It provides an oasis of calm in the chaos and bustle and joy of the rest of the festivals, and I'm not interested in changing that," he said. "Having said that, I'm perfectly happy doing things elsewhere and collaborating with other festivals."

He suggested the festival could even eventually colonise surrounding roads on Charlotte Square with marquees, closing two sides to traffic, if the city council agreed.

Barley said his revamped programme featured five "innovations", among them the idea of inviting four guest "selectors", including Bell, Ruth Padel, great-great granddaughter of Charles Darwin, and Don Paterson, the poet, to invite writers and cartoonists to take part in different strands of the festival.

The four worked on the themes of poetry, political satire and cartoonists, the future of fiction, and the relations between parents and their children. The latter theme, co-curated by Padel, will culminate in a debate between Fay Weldon and Fatima Bhutto, niece of the assassinated Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto and daughter of Murtaza Bhutto, who was shot dead by police, about the tragic and violent loss of a parent.

Barley said this model would be followed at future festivals. A novice at directing festivals and given only seven months since his appointment last October to build this year's programme, Barley denied the guest curators were there to help lighten his workload. His predecessor, Catherine Lockerbie, credited with building Edinburgh's reputation as the world's largest book festival, stepped down last year after being seriously ill with stress and exhaustion.

"Far from being a lightening of the load, it has been an increasing of the workload but a joyful one," he said. "The key to it has not so much been a lightening of the load but about acknowledging that choosing 750 events from one person's head is a particular thing, and I'm interested in a variety of perspectives on the world."

Other strands include week-long themes such as the US's role in the world. This strand will feature 45 American authors such as Trudeau, Lionel Shriver, Joyce Carol Oates and David Vann, chaired by the BBC journalist Allan Little. There will also be a focus on first books by new writers, a "first book award" chosen by the festival audience, and a series of free evening events hosted by as yet undisclosed writers, musicians and cartoonists.

Barley said he had no plans for an overnight revolution in the way the festival was staged. But he said there was a pressing need to innovate, partly to see off competition from other events. In 1983, there were only four literature festivals in the UK. There are now nearly 400. "I do envisage many, many new innovations," he said. "We're very friendly with all the other festivals in the UK and abroad, but we're very aware we have to keep innovating to stay ahead." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 13 2010

Just Kids by Patti Smith | Book review

Edmund White on a memoir that captures all the elements that made New York in the 1970s so exciting

Patti Smith has a mythic imagination. As a young, desperately poor poet from southern New Jersey, she headed to New York to seek her fortune, nothing in her purse. Her mother had assumed she would follow her into waitressing. But Patti, though practical and a survivor, had her sights set not on slinging hash but on searching for immortality and beauty and magic. She already recognised a divine succession of poets – Blake, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Genet and the Beats – and she wanted to join them. She was creative and liked to write, read and draw. Eventually, she became the renaissance woman of the punks, a great rock singer and composer – but before that she had to fashion her look, her personality and her verse.

And survive. She had no real friends when she arrived in New York, just a few names, and no job prospects. But it was July 1967, she was not yet 21, and other drifters and hippies helped her find food and shelter. Eventually, she got a job working in a bookshop, she met Robert Mapplethorpe, who was the same age and just as poor, and they took a Brooklyn apartment together. They each collected little ­talismanic objects and set great store by the way they dressed; both had an ­innate and highly original sense of ­personal style. And he was fiercely ­ambitious and coveted artistic success.

In her careful, sometimes painful self-sculpting, Smith had found an inspired and equally determined collaborator in Mapplethorpe. As she says in this memoir, which is so full of memorable sentences: "We were both praying for Robert's soul, he to sell it and I to save it." (Robert's theme song was the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil".)

Patti and Robert were both born in 1946 and both were raised by poor parents, she in Germantown, Pennsylvania and then New Jersey, he by a Catholic family on Long Island. Like all ­lovers, they told endless ­stories to each other about their childhoods: "We used to laugh at our small selves, saying that I was a bad girl ­trying to be good and that he was a good boy trying to be bad." They both succeeded. As a child he'd been a ­mama's boy and had made necklaces for his mother, but later, as an adult, he identified himself in the public mind through his photographs with pain and blood and exotic sexual ­practices, and even with something as seemingly transgressive (but actually innocent) as pictures of child ­nudity. She had held factory jobs in New Jersey, where the other workers accused her of being a communist ­because she was reading a bilingual edition of Rimbaud's Illuminations. She'd given birth out of wedlock, as we used to say, to a child she'd had to put up for adoption. Later, when she lived with Mapplethorpe in Brooklyn, she turned herself into a ­disciplined poet and breadwinner. For a long spell she supported the skinny, charismatic Mapplethorpe, who at the time was making "altars" of found objects somewhat in the manner of the American surrealist Joseph Cornell. He discovered photography only later, but once he settled on it as a career he was tenacious and highly tactical in plotting his rise in the world.

She obviously has a great gift for ­appreciation, though in her case that should not imply a lack of discrimination. It seems that from the very beginning she was alert to influences that would help her to explore and to firm up her peculiar sensibility, which was at once edgy and lyrical, both demotic and hieratic. She was more relaxed about their ability to survive; Robert was much more ­anxious about money. She was primarily interested in sniffing out people with talent, not as a careerist but ­always out of respect for their artistry. Mapplethorpe had his eye on the main chance.

In those days, before the internet and Google, it was difficult for ­working people to put their hands on books and information. All these years later, Smith still remembers the few art books she possessed and that she would consult again and again, just as she remembers their few records and books of verse. And she recalls in vivid detail her first encounters with William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, saints in her pantheon of great artists. For her, many sites in New York were ­sacred: "It was exciting just to stand in front of the hallowed ground of Birdland that had been blessed by John Coltrane, or the Five Spot on St Mark's Place where Billie Holiday used to sing, where Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman opened the field of jazz like human can openers." Robert's idols were visual artists, though very cerebral ones – ­Duchamp and Warhol. Patti indulged in long introspective bouts, but she learned from Robert just to get on with it and forge ahead in her work – a trajectory that for her was always God-centred, doing drawings "that magnified His motion".

While I was working on my biography of Jean Genet in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Paris, I would receive phone calls from Patti in Detroit. I'd never met her and was introduced to her only many years later in front of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but she was calling me to encourage me to persevere and to finish this ­onerous seven-year task. She knew how ­devoted I had been to Mapplethorpe, with whom I'd collaborated on journalistic stories about Truman Capote and William Burroughs (I also wrote an ­essay for one of his first ­gallery shows, in Amsterdam). She told me that she and Robert (who had recently died of Aids) used to read Genet out loud to each other when they lived together. When my bio­graphy finally came out, Patti was staging her big comeback with a free concert in New York's Central Park; she told her audience that they must all go out to buy my Genet book.

This genuine devotion to her private artistic saints and to her old friends characterises the entire book. It is her own Lives of the Saints, and it is thoroughly imbued with faith in her own artistic mission.

Her love affair with Mapplethorpe, to be sure, had its painful moments, ­especially as they were both discovering that he was gay. Although they had been sexually intimate for several years, he began to pick up extra money as a rent boy. Jim Carroll, a friend who went on to be a punk musician and the author of the autobiographical The Basketball Diaries, was also hustling, in his case to support his heroin habit. When Mapplethorpe asked him how he could be certain he wasn't gay, ­Carroll said he'd never done it without being paid – which was not the case with Mapplethorpe. Before long, Robert had a handsome young lover and eventually a much older and even more handsome lover, Sam Wagstaff, a rich art collector who launched his career.

What Patti found even more difficult to accept than Robert's homosexuality was his social ascent. She could understand his love for men, but in order for her to spend time with his new, rich friends she would have had to change her ways.

Just Kids should interest any reader who wants to know how an artistic ­career can be launched. Smith gave a carefully staged and prepared poetry reading at St Mark's in New York that won her lots of attention and publication – and even the offer of a record contract. She began to work as a music journalist for Crawdaddy! and Rolling Stone. She begged the editor of Rolling Stone to let her write a piece on Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill's wife, muse and ­favourite singer; when Patti handed in her article, the editor said "that although I talked like a truck driver, I had written an elegant piece". She had an affair with Carroll and with Sam Shepard, with whom she wrote a play.

Her transition to musician seems, in this account, to have been disconcertingly easy. She bought a guitar and soon knew how to play it. She turned some of her poems into songs. She put together a band – and before long she was a megastar touring the world. Mapplethorpe produced a portrait of her that undoubtedly helped to ­cement her image; with her gift for phrase-making, Patti writes: "Robert was ­concerned with how to make the ­photograph, and I with how to be the photograph." Suddenly, Robert was showing photos in galleries attended by "a ­perfect New York City mix of leather boys, drag queens, socialites, rock and roll kids and art collectors".

Like that art opening, this book brings together all the elements that made New York so exciting in the 1970s – the danger and poverty, the artistic seriousness and optimism, the sense that one was still connected to a whole history of great artists in the past. This was a small community that was carefully observed by the media; it also flourished at the moment when New York was becoming the cultural capital of the western world.

Edmund White's latest book is City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and '70s. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 19 2009

The man who would be Raphael

Andrew Motion on a painter obsessed with the bigger picture

Benjamin Robert Haydon dreamed of becoming the British Raphael and has ended up a footnote. He crossed paths and swords with Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt, and a host of early 19th-century painters and politicians. He was a friend of Wordsworth, and painted him, in what has become one of the classic images of the poet. He knew Keats, too, and left some vivid glimpses of him in his enormous journal. But his main ambition – to establish a pre-eminent school of British historical painting, and to be its chief exponent and ornament – came to nothing. By the time Haydon killed himself in 1846 he had been in prison four times for debt, was out of favour with commercial marketeers and public commissioners, and had almost none of his works on show in galleries.

Paul O'Keeffe's achievement in tracking this descent into the abyss is considerable. The book has all the thoroughness of his previous lives of Wyndham Lewis and Gaudier-Brzeska, and all their willingness to unpick knots of difficulty. It is calm, capacious and very sympathetic to its subject. The problem with the book is a part of these strengths. Encouraged by the richness of the journal, O'Keeffe takes us into virtually every nook and cranny of Haydon's life. The result is simply a much longer investigation than we are persuaded the subject deserves.

Yet at the same time some parts of the book need bolstering – especially those that might help us understand why Haydon espoused this particular tradition of painting. What was the national or his own psychological need? The questions become all the more urgent when we look at the kind of talents Haydon had at his disposal. Although some of his contemporaries took him at his own estimation (he believed that at least three of his canvases showed "indisputable evidences of Genius"), the reality was that his sense of structure was faulty, his figure-painting stiff, his ideas about grouping clotted, his emotional range constricted and his colouring unremarkable. His career was an accident waiting to happen.

Haydon's misplaced ambitions were settled at an early age. The son of a Plymouth bookseller and historian, he showed some aptitude for drawing as a child, was resisted by his parents (who anticipated a life of struggle), overcame their objections, and moved to London, where he knocked on the doors of the great and good and laid siege to the Royal Academy. As he immersed himself in anatomical drawing, he also sought to establish himself as the champion of the historical school.

In both respects, he showed phenomenal energy and concentration. He spurned the chance to make money by painting portraits. He hurled himself into the creation of large canvases which told historical and biblical narratives. He argued bravely about the merits of the recently arrived Elgin Marbles, urging the government to buy them. He berated academicians about the way his works were hung.

One of the best things Haydon ever painted was a small portrait of Keats among the crowd of Christ's Entry into Jerusalem, which was completed in the early 1820s. In profile, mouth open and showing its over-bite, looking passionately heated, intense and defiant, this is the real Keats – a far cry from later Victorian images of the sickly invalid. But Haydon wasn't much interested in things on this scale. Size mattered to him almost as much as content, and this led to problems on every front. With a wife and rapidly growing family to support, he had committed himself to a way of working which meant long periods with no income, then anxious show-times when he hoped to gather fees from the crowds he expected to flock to see his work, as well as money from the sale of the picture itself.

Things almost never worked out as he expected. He was first arrested for debt in 1821, and for the remaining 25 years of his life lived close to bankruptcy. Astonishingly – one might say foolishly – he kept his momentum, slowly churning out vast, dull pictures and lobbying senior politicians (including several prime ministers). His religious faith was evidently a help to him (he was in the habit of praying in front of his canvases before beginning work), but in most respects his self-belief seems increasingly manic. Hazlitt put the matter with an unusual politeness: "Mr Haydon has strength: we would wish him to add to it refinement."

In the last phase of his career Haydon regained some momentum by agreeing to paint two colossal public works – The Reform Banquet, which shows people who had worked to extend the franchise, and The Anti-Slavery Society Convention. Each of these pictures includes more than 100 portraits: an impressive achievement in its way, but one so overshadowed by structural tedium (tiers of pink faces receding into the distance) as to seem almost pointless in art. Most contemporary reviewers thought so, too. Even more crushing were Haydon's failures to win the opportunity to build the memorial to Nelson in Trafalgar Square or to work on the new parliament building when it was rebuilt after the devastating fire of 1834. The rejections were not surprising. The inscription he suggested for his Nelson temple read: "A Little Body with a Mighty Heart".

The last few years of Haydon's life make for unhappy reading, but O'Keeffe deals with them well by combining sympathy with clear judgment. Several of his children died. Debt collectors kept up a more or less constant barrage. Every new friend he gained (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for instance) was outnumbered by a host of detractors. Eventually the weight of disappointments became too much and he committed suicide. But even this he bungled, failing to kill himself with a pistol shot to the head, and only succeeding in cutting his throat at the second attempt.

Misapplied energy, lack of self-knowledge and vaingloriousness had first sapped then corrupted the near- heroic energy and devotion to high ideals that he had shown in his early days. They also distracted attention from the things he really did do well, even if he didn't value them much: writing a great journal, painting a few good portraits, and giving, as he said (in an epitaph he wrote for himself 20 years before he died), "indisputable evidence . . . that no affliction is considered an adequate punishment for having told Truth to Power".

Andrew Motion's The Cinder Path is published by Faber. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 22 2009

Bacon's legacy revisited

Art historian John Richardson's revelations on the troubled artist he knew as a young man

Francis Bacon's was a life lived to extravagant extremes. His drunken excesses in the Colony Room Club in Soho; his carnivalesque, ruinous generosity; the formative occasion on which, as a teenager, his father found him wearing his mother's underwear and beat the living daylights out of him – all this is almost as celebrated as his riotously tortured paintings.

But now the art historian John Richardson, whose multi-volume life of Picasso has been called the best artist's biography ever written, and who knew Bacon from the 1940s, has argued that the best of Bacon's art stemmed precisely from his sadomasochistic sexual relationships at their most intense, which also led directly to the death of at least one of his lovers.

It was that early beating by his father to which Bacon attributed his taste for masochism – desires that were played out in adulthood with his lover Peter Lacy.

Richardson describes Lacy's "most heinous assault": "In a state of alcoholic dementia, he hurled Bacon through a plate glass window. His face was so damaged that his right eye had to be sewn back into place. Bacon loved Lacy even more. For weeks he would not forgive Lucian Freud for remonstrating with his torturer. Mercifully, Lacy moved to Tangier."

Writing in the forthcoming issue of the New York Review of Books, Richardson calls Lacy "a dashing 30-year-old … He owned an infamous cottage in the Thames valley, where Francis would spend much of his time – often, according to him, in bondage".

Richardson adds: "Unfortunately, drink released a fiendish, sadistic streak in Lacy that bordered on the psychopathic. Besides taking his rage out on Bacon, he took it out on his canvases. To his credit, however, he inspired some of his lover's most memorable works, among them, the Man in Blue paintings: a menacing, dark-suited Lacy set off against vertical draperies."

The best-known of Bacon's lovers is George Dyer – partly because Bacon immortalised in paintings Dyer's 1971 suicide in a hotel bedroom lavatory, on the eve of the artist's retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris.

Richardson describes the directness of the relationship between Bacon's desires and his artistic output. "Bacon would goad George into a state of psychic meltdown and then, in the early hours of the morning – his favourite time to work – he would exorcise his guilt and rage and remorse in images of Dyer aimed, as he said, at the nervous system." Richardson argues that these are among his best works.

Richardson describes the evening he spent in New York with the pair in 1968. After a lunch during which Bacon called Jackson Pollock an "old lace-maker" they went out drinking. Dyer left, after an argument, and in the early hours Richardson received a call from Bacon who had found his lover passed out on the floor of their room in the Algonquin hotel, "unconscious from having washed down a handful of his sleeping pills with a bottle of scotch".

According to Richardson: "The goading worsened, the imagery intensified," and finally, after another unsuccessful suicide attempt in Greece, Dyer killed himself in Paris.

Richardson argues that Bacon's art went rapidly downhill when, after Dyer's death, he entered a relationship with John Edwards, which was "seemingly free of sadomasochistic overtones. This may explain why Bacon's work lost its sting and failed to thrill. Paintings inspired by Edwards, as well as a Formula 1 driver and a famous cricketer the artist fancied (fetishism survives in the batting pads), reveal that in old age Bacon managed to banish his demons and move on to beefcake. His headless hunks of erectile tissue buffed to perfection have an angst-free, soft-porn glow".

Richardson is an unusually stern critic of Bacon – who was the subject of a Tate retrospective last year and is revered by such artists as Damien Hirst. The problem, argues Richardson, is that Bacon simply could not draw. "Painting after painting would be marred by his inability to articulate a figure or its space." The critic David Sylvester – who helped cement Bacon's reputation – let him off too lightly for this "fatal flaw", he argues. "His celebrated variants on Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X are either magnificent flukes or near-total disasters. In the earliest of this 10-year series, Bacon famously portrays the pope screaming. He's good at screams but hopeless at hands, so he amputates, conceals, or otherwise fudges them."

Richardson describes his first visit to Bacon's studio in the late 1940s. "Bacon struck me as being exhilaratingly funny … Everything about his vast, vaulted studio was over the top: martinis served in huge Waterford tumblers; a paint-stained garter belt kicked under a sofa … The ramshackle theatricality that permeated the studio also permeated the three iconic mastershockers – scrotum-bellied humanoids screaming out at us from the base of a crucifixion – that were about to make the artist famous."

The sight of Bacon's blind old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, knitting in a corner "came as a surprise". She slept on the kitchen table, and "provided cover for Francis's shoplifting sprees (groceries, cosmetics, and Kiwi shoe polish for his hair)". She also helped provide an unusual source of income for Bacon: when the artist held illicit roulette parties, she would extort huge tips from visitors desperate to go to the loo. According to Richardson: "I remember Francis echoing his nanny: 'They should bring back hanging for buggery.' He was certainly not the only gay Englishman for whom guilt was intrinsic to sex." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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