Picasso’s Other Mother
Some time ago, I wrote an article about a Chilean woman of singular originality and discernment called Eugenia Errázuriz. I wrote about her because she had been undeservedly overlooked, eclipsed by her “friend,” the manipulative Polish patroness Misia (Godebska-Natanson-Edwards) Sert (“Princesse Youbeletieff” in Proust)–the subject of a deservedly popular biography by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale. Whereas Misia was known to Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie as “Tante Brutus” for her back-stabbing proclivities, Eugenia was supportive and reticent and endowed with a distinctive eye for modernism. Besides being one of Picasso’s most perceptive patrons–the owner of some of his greatest, late-Cubist paintings–she managed to exert, in her subtle way, a more radically modernizing influence on mid-twentieth-century taste than most of those who were indebted to her realized. One of the few who did realize was the elegant Dutch furniture designer and decorator Jean-Michel Frank (uncle, incidentally, of that iconic Holocaust victim Anne Frank), who singled Eugenia out for her “indispensable influence.” Cecil Beaton made even greater claims for Eugenia: “Her effect on the taste of the last fifty years,” he wrote, “has been so enormous that the whole aesthetic of modern interior decoration, and many of the concepts of simplicity . . . generally acknowledged today, can be laid at her remarkable doorstep.” These opinions do Beaton the more credit, given that Eugenia anathematized the very thing–Edwardian clutter and kitsch–that he elevated into a camp cult and ultimately a career as a set designer.
Years later, while doing research in the Picasso archives, I came upon a cache of unpublished letters from Eugenia. These revealed that she had played an even more central role in Picasso’s life than I had originally realized. Further information materialized in Jean-François Larralde and Jean Casenave’s evocative book, Picasso à Biarritz (1995), which focused on the artist’s honeymoon chez Eugenia at Biarritz in 1918. More recently, a shortish biography by Alejandro Canseco-Jerez appeared, Le Mécénat de Madame Errázuriz (2000), which contains a lot of new information about Eugenia’s family and the sadness of her later years.
Eugenia’s letters to Picasso testify to a very close friendship lasting over thirty years. Eugenia’s only rival for the artist’s affections–in the realm of friendship rather than sex–was Gertrude Stein, whom he liked to call “Pard,” as in a Western, much to her irritation. In 1915, however, Gertrude and her friend Alice Toklas had left Paris to spend the rest of the war driving an ambulance–“Auntie,” it was callled–around France. In their absence, it was Eugenia who took over as Picasso’s consoler and collector and a surrogate for Doña María, the stalwart, nurturing mother back in Barcelona whom he seldom saw. Canseco-Jerez maintains that Stein and Toklas were so jealous of Eugenia that they gave “a reception in honor of Picasso” in order to meet their rival and size her up. However, his account of this event and Gertrude’s “jealousy” is far from convincing. By the time Eugenia entered Picasso’s life, Gertrude had ceased collecting his work, and their paths had temporarily diverged. To the extent that Gertrude had come to see Picasso and herself as twin peaks of genius, Eugenia simply did not impinge.
Who was this paragon? Eugenia Huici was born on September 15, 1860, in Bolivia, where her Chilean father had made a fortune mining silver. Civil war drove him, his Bolivian wife, and his two daughters, Eugenia and Rosa, back to his estates near Valparaíso. Picasso believed that Eugenia had inherited more than a drop of Inca blood; so did another of Eugenia’s protégés, the poet Blaise Cendrars, who used to call her “L’Indienne.” A girl of considerable beauty, Eugenia was brought up in the archaic conventions of Spanish colonialism. English nuns in Valparaíso supervised her education: they dinned into her the tenets of a faith that, like the superstitions of her Indian forebears, she would always cherish. Her schooling left her fluent, if not always comprehensible, in French and English and only a little more so in Castilian. “Une étrange sharabia” (gibberish) is how friends described her way of speaking. At the age of twenty, Eugenia married José Tomás Errázuriz, whose father and grandfather had both been presidents of Chile. Tomás’s aspirations to be an artist horrified his family, so he was packed off to Europe to be a diplomat–a métier that left him free to paint. Relations of one or the other of the Errázurizes were en poste in virtually every capital.
The Errázurizes spent their honeymoon in Venice, where their cousin Ramón Subercaseaux–Chilean consul general in Paris and an amateur painter–and his wife had rented a palazzo on the Grand Canal. Among the other guests was a young painter, whom Subercaseaux had been one of the first to discover, John Singer Sargent. When not engaged on a portrait of his hostess, Sargent did oil sketches of Eugenia, for whom he is said to have fallen. Unlikely. Sargent was more interested in his gondolier.
Summer over, the Errázurizes settled in Paris, where they spent the next twenty years. He painted; she raised children (a son, Maximiliano, and two daughters, Carmen and María, known as “Baby”) and repeatedly sat for her portrait–to Boldini, Helleu, Orpen, and many more. Eugenia stood out from the run of le tout Paris by disdaining fin-de-siècle froufrou and adopting a low-key style that set her off from the rest of her friends, not least Misia Sert. Although she would bring a small swatch of antique stuff, dyed the “Inca pink” of her native Andes, to the attention of Schiaparelli, who exploited it as “Shocking Pink,” Eugenia’s most important achievements had nothing to do with fashion; they had to do with avant-garde patronage and a minimalist vision of the decorative arts. By 1910, she already stood out for the unconventional sparseness of her rooms, for her disdain of poufs and potted palms and too much passementerie. No less discriminating was Eugenia’s taste in people, including many of Proust’s favorites (Madrazos, Bibescos, Helleus, Morands), and above all for her support of new developments in art, literature, music, and ballet.
Around 1900, the Errázurizes settled in London, first in Bryanston Square. Later, they moved to Chelsea. Tomás contracted TB and spent more and more time in Switzerland, to the relief of Eugenia, who was beginning to tire of her husband and his tedious landscapes. They would eventually separate. In London, Eugenia saw much of her old friend Sargent, who likewise lived in Chelsea, and through him she absorbed the Whistlerian aestheticism still associated with this Thames-side stretch of London, but without becoming contaminated by it. She also made friends with a new generation of artists: Augustus John, who painted her portrait, and, rather more to her credit, Walter Sickert, whose work she proceeded to collect. In England, Eugenia learned to appreciate things that were very fine and very simple–above all, things made of linen, cotton, deal, or stone, whose quality improved with laundering or fading, scrubbing or polishing. This acute sense of patination and texture allied to color would one day endear her to Braque.
In the absence of her husband, Eugenia took up with her bright young nephew, the diplomat Don Antonio de Gandarillas, who had a house overlooking the Thames on Cheyne Walk. Tony had married Juanita Edwards, the daughter of the Chilean ambassador to the court of Saint James’s, but after discovering that he was homosexual and addicted to opium, she had retired to Chile. Eugenia would take over as his consort. Together they would attend the Ballets Russes and make friends with Diaghilev, who would become very dependent on Eugenia. So would Artur Rubinstein. The great pianist would credit her with all manner of miraculous interventions in his career.
Thanks to his diplomatic immunity and charm and his large round eyes like a lemur’s, Eugenia’s neat little nephew managed to survive brush after brush with scandal. Besides a house in London, Tony had an apartment in Paris. And there on May 29, 1926, he and Eugenia gave a dinner to celebrate the première of Pastorale–one of Diaghilev’s weaker ballets–which was attended by “everyone from Picasso to the Duchess of Alba.” Also present was the brilliant surrealist poet René Crevel, who would soon become one of Tony’s young men. Tony was also involved with the rising young painter Christopher Wood, the only British artist of his generation to be taken seriously in Paris and become a friend of Picasso’s and Braque’s as well as of Cocteau’s. Tony supposedly got Kit (as Wood was familiarly known) hooked on drugs. When Kit threw himself under a train in 1930, Tony was blamed. Five years later, Crevel would also commit suicide. This time, the Surrealists were supposedly the cause.
Excerpted from Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters by John Richardson Copyright © 2001 by John Richardson. Excerpted by permission.
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