Picasso Speaking

The Paris art critic for The Christian Science Monitor recounts a visit with Pablo Picasso at his home.

CANNES is a pleasant town—particularly, out of season. I think if old Lord Brougham were around today he would be rather happy— not terribly unhappy, anyway—at the evolution of the peaceful little fishing village he started along the primrose path. I arrived a little before two o'clock and I assumed that Picasso would either be eating or working, so I decided to hold off making contact until the next day. But as I began to drive around a bit to get the feel of the Ford Vedette I had rented, I found it was nosing up in the general direction of the Observatory in the hills behind Cannes, so I let it have the lead and just followed along behind. When it came time to call on Picasso, I would at least know the way.

From the archives:

"Picasso: Creator and Destroyer" (June 1988)
Picasso's art enacted the violent passions and twisted energies of the twentieth century. So did his life. By Arianna Huffington

Finally, with a certain amount of backtracking, I found Picasso's street. I followed it slowly uphill and after climbing a couple of hundred meters came, on the right, to a villa half hidden by a high black iron fence with a wide, even higher black iron gate. Both the fence and the gate were reinforced with black metal sheeting that closed off the view. Between the wide double gate and a smaller, similarly barred doorway was a marble plaque with the single word Californie incised in it. This, I knew, was my destination. I drove just beyond the gate, pulled a bit off the road against the wall of the gatekeeper's lodge, and got out of the car. The villa, as nearly as I could tell from outside the iron curtain, was a large, bulky, squarish place with a comfortable 1900 look about it. It was three stories high. The windows on the two upper stories—the only ones I could see—had wrought-iron balconies and were crowned by some rather intricately carved scrollwork.

I was studying the convolutions of this pleasantly rococo touch above the window at the extreme left of the second story when the window was opened and a slender, brown-haired girl wearing a royal-blue dressing gown stepped out onto the balcony. I recognized her, from a photograph I had been shown, as Jacqueline Roque, the young woman who now shares Picasso's life.

speaks picture Picasso has always worked very late nights— often until dawn—when he is engagéà fond as I assumed that he now was. His women have always served as his models, increasingly so in recent years. For example, the appearances made by his previous compagne, Francoise Gilot, in Picasso's work in oils, gouache, water color, drawings in wash, ink, pencil, and colored crayons, sculpture, ceramics, and various forms of engraving and lithography (black-and-white and in color) are, quite literally, incalculable—at least for some years to come, until the historians have had a chance to bring their bookkeeping up to date. I assumed, then, that the previous night's work had been a long one, that Jacqueline had been involved in it and was just now arising. The other possibility that occurred to me was that work was getting under way earlier than usual. In either case, Picasso himself, certainly, would not be available. I walked back to the car and drove over the hills in the direction of Vallauris.

The last time I was in Vallauris, I had driven over from Cannes to see some of the ceramics Picasso was then producing. He had gone to work at one of the kilns there and almost singlehanded had succeeded in reviving the moribund ceramics industry which is the life of the town, so that Vallauris had once again become a thriving little industrial community and a considerable tourist attraction as well. The grateful town fathers gave Picasso the keys to the city and he in turn gave them the bronze statue, L'Homme au Mouton, a seven-and-a-half-foot male figure holding a sheep in his arms, that now stands in the town square. This time I wanted to get another look at the statue —a closer look than I had had on earlier visits.

When I reached the town, I drove slowly up the main street and parked in front of the mairie. I got out and walked across the road to the square, where the Man with the Sheep stood staring sightlessly into a group of rubberneckers climbing back into a big blue bus. He looked smaller to me somehow than he had on my last visit, and for that reason, perhaps, more sympathique. Whether it was the mistral cutting into my marrow that caused me to reach out and draw him into my own chilled orbit, or whether it was the deserted square at the top of the hill that somehow reduced him to more human proportions, I don't know. But whatever it was, I began to feel the warmth and vigor of the creative stir within him. For the first time he seemed to me an authentic, autonomous creation.

THE next day, I returned to Picasso's villa about noon. I left the car under the no-parking sign and was wondering how to get the concierge's attention (having already discovered that the bell-pull was disconnected) when the door beside the main gate was opened and two small boys came out. I looked in, and seeing a woman—their mother, I assumed—standing in front of the loge, I smiled at her. She walked over to me, limping somewhat, and I explained that I had a message for M. Picasso. I gave her a note I had written at the hotel that morning and asked her if she would see that he got it. I told her I would wait for an answer. She pushed the door to and I could hear her moving away, with her uneven gait, in the direction of the villa. The day was clear and warm and I walked out of the shade into the sun and slowly up the hill beyond the villa.

At five-yard intervals along the front of Picasso's property, the iron fence is buttressed by heavy cement columns. As I walked along, I could see that a poster had recently been torn off the face of each of them. Just enough of the lettering remained to let me know, after I had passed three or four of them, that the posters related to Picasso. I walked back and forth several times and finally, after waiting at the gate for a minute or two without hearing any sign of activity on the inside, I went back down the hill, this time well beyond the limit of Picasso's place. The road began to slope away to the left, and on a particularly well-exposed strip of cement fence, I saw an unmutilated copy of the poster. It was headed:

LETTRE OUVERTE À PABLO PICASSO


I am sickened [it read] by the spectacle of your obstinately closed door. It indicates that a new aristocracy has been created, transcending classes—one that finds ordinary people not worthy of notice. What do you care that I am starving as a poet? But you are wrong, because no matter how great a creative genius you may be, you cannot prevent posterity from classifying you as the symbol of an age in which man has revealed himself incapable of making judgments on a moral basis. (A generation has the artists it deserves.) Ours is the age of the hyena and the jackal.... Monsieur Picasso, you are walled off within your citadel.... Outside is the street and the street is tomorrow.... I find you enormously gifted, but what a mess you leave for those who follow!

I was meditating on the fine romantic paradox of this rebuffed starving poet, who could yet afford to pay a printer, at today's rates, to run off an armload of giant-size posters with which to vent his spleen, when, at the top of the hill and the edge of my horizon, I saw Picasso's concierge. She seemed to be waving to me. I left the poet and returned to her.

"Monsieur s'excuse beaucoup," she began, still a bit out of breath, "mais il est tellement pris. He cannot possibly see you today. But he would like to have you call him." She gave me the telephone number and I returned to Cannes.

The next day, a Sunday, I rang up the villa and talked with Jacqueline. I arranged to call after lunch on the following day. Monday afternoon, I reached the villa five minutes before the appointed hour. I pulled up at the gate, got out of the car, and tried the bell again. It was still disconnected. Looking through the mail slot in the door, I caught sight of the concierge standing just inside her loge. I called to her and told her I had an appointment with M. Picasso at that hour. The great gates ground slowly inward. I drove in, around the cour d'honneur, and parked at the front steps, facing one of Picasso's most hallucinatory sculptures, a six foot statue, which dates from 1943, of a woman (from another planet, certainly) who holds in her left hand an apple, in her right a kind of bronze warming pan. Like other of his sculptures, it appears to include in its composition a number of objets trouvés -- odds and ends that came to hand as the work got under way (or perhaps even inspired it). His pre-World War I papier collé drawings often reflected the same imaginative treatment of unlikely materials.

Jacqueline, in a yellow pull-over and scarlet toreador pants, was waiting for me on the steps. "Welcome," she said. "I'm Jacqueline Roque." We talked for a moment. Her English was excellent. She pushed open the massive front door -- heavy plate glass behind a decorative wrought-iron screen—and we walked through an entranceway into the central hall, weaving our way through great masses of crates, sculptures, stacks of canvases, and piles of ceramics.

"This looks like a Musée Picasso," I said.

"This is the Musée Picasso," she replied.

We passed into a large salon. The ceiling was well over fifteen feet high. Facing me, on the other side of the room, were floor-to-ceiling glass doors overlooking a terrace and gardens. The room itself and another, somewhat smaller, to my left, were filled with the same kind of overflowing accumulation of Picasso's work that I had encountered as soon as I crossed the threshold into the hall. It seemed a little bit like playing Ali Baba in modern dress. My eyes were racing from one corner to another trying to take it all in at once. Then I heard Jacqueline say, "Et voici Picasso." I turned and, across a distance of perhaps two feet, found myself looking down into Picasso's eyes -- as bright and penetrating as ever. He looked vigorous yet relaxed, and a long way from seventy-five. He was wearing saffron-colored duck slacks and a burgundy woolen shirt with a dark-brown sleeveless sweater over it; on his feet, a pair of canvas espadrilles. He led me into the dining room to our right, pulled up a chair for me near the head of the table, then settled his wiry, rugged little frame into a wicker seat beside me. Jacqueline sat down on the other side of him, facing me and completing a kind of semicircle. Picasso lighted a cigarette and looked over at me.

"Well," he said with a grin, "you've got me. Now what are you going to do with me?"

I TOLD him I'd been giving a good deal of thought to his work lately and in looking over what various other people had written about him I had run into a number of points that I had found confusing or that had seemed contradictory. I said that there were aspects of his recent activity, too, that puzzled me somewhat. And since I was planning to write something about him, I thought that if we talked some of those things over first, I'd be less likely to wind up writing a lot of bêtises.

Picasso laughed. "Oh, well," he said, "what people write about me is generally full of bêtises anyway. A few more or less can't do much to change things, I guess. One doesn't know just what to say, so one says something. It may be a little bête to begin with, but even if it isn't, it generally winds up sounding that way in print." His voice was low-pitched and full. He spoke rapidly, and although his Spanish accent was everywhere noticeable, his French was fluent and exact.

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