Picasso Speaking

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

I TOLD him I had read he was doing something for the new UNESCO building in Paris. Was anything under way?

"Oh, I have lots of ideas—they come and they go—but I haven't settled on anything yet. I suppose I could do a mural of the Crusaders marching on Constantinople or one showing the august body itself reuniting in plenary session, but what interest would that have for anybody? It would have none for me, I'm sure. Oh, well, I'll hit on something. Subjects are a bore, anyway. I've always said there are no subjects any more."

I brought up the question of his monumental painting Guernica, in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and suggested to him that perhaps one of the reasons it had been such a success was that it was a great subject; that he felt so keenly about Franco's bombing of Guernica, and about the whole situation in Spain at the time, that the subject helped make the picture.

He shrugged. "You may be right," he said. "Half right, anyway. Right to the extent that the events of the Spanish War had made it a picture worth painting, but I don't think it necessarily great because of whatever fire and passion you assume I put into it. There isn't always a correlation between what one feels and what comes out. Another thing—and this has always struck me as a little curious— I worked on that painting in my Paris atelier, and every chance I got to take a break, I would go out into the country for a breather. But I would begin to draw and paint from the moment I got there. And what did I paint, coming fresh from the work on Guernica? Flowers and fruit -- never anything else."

That brought to mind Proust's idea that the great artists produce only one work throughout their lifetime; or, at least, express one idea or one theme through a variety of forms—the concept of a constant, evolving unity. Picasso's work, of course, is as diversified as any in the history of art. And yet I had noticed, in viewing Clouzot's film Le Mystère Picasso, in which Picasso works at a great number of drawings and paintings under the camera's eye, that however radical the metamorphoses may appear in certain passages where the camera records his progress on a canvas periodically instead of following, as it does in other parts of the film, each movement of his hand, the unity of the work in progress is sustained throughout. Clouzot's method makes those metamorphoses appear to be instantaneous, but that is only an illusion resulting from a technique enforced by his time limits. Actually, of course, they evolve slowly from one moment—or hour—to the next. Why, then, I asked Picasso, if a major work evolves in that manner, does not the artist's work as a whole similarly evolve?

"But it does," he said.

I told him that a pronouncement he had apparently made on the subject some years ago, and which had since then been given the widest possible circulation in American modern-art circles, indicated that he thought otherwise—about his own work, at least.

He jumped up. "That's the trouble with those things," he said. " You say something one day with reference to a particular situation. People generalize from it. It gets cast in type and the next thing you know, it's a permanent and universal declaration!"

Suddenly he shook his head. "My God!" he said. "I'm going on like a philosopher today. I don't know what's got into me. I never talked like this to anyone in my life before."

Jacqueline sat up excitedly on the edge of the overstuffed club chair she didn't come close to filling. "I never heard you talk like this—I know that. I've been sitting here, all ears, just wondering how long this would go on." She looked over at me. "You're the lucky one," she said.

I agreed, but told them I felt a little unlucky, too. I said that if I'd known things were going to go off like this, I'd have brought a tape recorder along. I had thought of it but was afraid that if I showed up with one I'd scare Picasso into saying nothing.

Picasso laughed. "You did the right thing. Well, perhaps you've got a good memory. We'll see. Come on in here," he said, pointing to the salon. "I'll show you some things I've been working on recently."

WE WALKED out into the large cluttered salon and on into the room beyond it. Canvases were stacked against all the walls and most of the furniture. On the mantelpiece was a large study of two female nudes painted in warm earth tones. "That's my Salon de Mai painting," Picasso said. The facial structure of one of the women had the same type of antinaturalistic schematization as the two right-hand figures in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the picture Picasso painted in 1906-07, now in the New York Museum of Modern Art—the painting that did more than any other to bring about what one unhappy French critic has called "the destruction of a world." Near it, on top of a packing case, stood another large canvas—taller but not so wide— of two nude women, more brutal in its "formation" than the other and painted in tones of gray against a background of ocher and earth color.

We walked over to the mantel. There were a number of ceramic tiles, about nine inches by six, that Picasso had decorated and baked only the week before: fauns, satyrs, young men, and girls. One, a head of Jacqueline, was cracked across the middle. "They cracked this taking it out of the oven," he said. "I'll fix it, though." He went over to a stack of canvases facing against the east wall. He pulled out one about three feet by four. "Here's a recent one," he said. It showed a portion of the room we were standing in, with a view out over the garden. It was a tightly packed, luxuriant composition in which elements of still life and landscape predominated, with a good deal of black heightened by strong areas of viridian and crimson. The brush strokes were laid oil in vigorous swirls. Picasso reached for another canvas behind it. It was another view of the same room looking out into the central salon. It was sparsely painted, mostly in black with a few touches of umber representing small pieces of furniture which he pointed out to me around the room. It had a sketchy appearance; there was a good deal of uncovered white space and the brush strokes were thin and hasty. Picasso moved from one stack of canvases to another, pulling out a picture, setting it up for my inspection, replacing it, pulling out another.

We were looking at a bullfight scene with much black and alizarin crimson relieved by thick yellow dots on the capes and a brilliant aquamarine sky, when a nephew of Picasso's—a small, dark man in his thirties—and his wife came in. We all chatted together for a while, and then Jacqueline and the nephew and his wife drifted over into the dining room. Picasso and I walked out through the huge glass double doors at the back of the salon onto the terrace. A large garden stretched away on two levels beginning at the foot of the steps below us. To our left I noticed an irregularly rectangular piece of mosaic work about three feet long and ten inches or so high leaning against the wall. I walked over to it and bent down to examine the figures that had been set into it. There was a fish on the left-hand side, in the center a diagonal-shaped face, and at the right a round orange object that looked a good deal like a Halloween pumpkin. Picasso came over to me.

"What do you think of that for my UNESCO wall?" he asked. "I've been fooling around with the idea of doing something like that. I've never done much of anything in mosaic before, but I'd like to try."

I told him I liked the idea fine. Better than fresco, I thought.

"I think so, too," he said. "It'll last forever— well, long enough, anyway."

I asked him when they wanted it.

"I have an idea they'd like it right away," he said. "The building is all up. Almost, at any rate. When you get back to Paris, go take a look at it. It's over by the Invalides, or the Champ de Mars. Somewhere around there."

We walked down into the garden. On the right were three old friends—in bronze—that I remembered from the exhibition of drawings and sculptures held at the Maison de la Pensée Francaise in 1950: a goat, the head of a woman, and -- most interesting of all—a life-size figure of a woman that I had christened Arabella when I first saw it because it reminded me of a dressmaker's form my grandmother had that she used to call by that name. Officially the piece is known only as Bronze.

To the left of us were three ceramic statues: two large standing Pan figures painted, here and there, in black and glazed, and a seated nude, incised, without any painting beneath the glaze. To their left was a bronze relief I had seen in the show with the other bronzes. Picasso pointed to the big ceramic figures.

"I did those for a ceramics exhibition in Vallauris last summer," he said. On the level below us, to the right, was a fountain with its water bubbling up over another bronze head from the 1950 exhibition. Over on the left I could see the twin brother of L'Homme au Mouton. I told Picasso that I had just been looking at its twin, in Vallauris, a few days before.

"Yes, we cast three of those, in fact," he said. "This one, the one in Vallauris, and a third one, in America somewhere."

We started back toward the house. Picasso's eyes lighted up. "You know," he said, "last winter we had an enormous amount of snow for this part of the country. You should have seen those statues draped in snow." He pointed over to Arabella. "Oh, she was marvelous." We walked up onto the terrace. He held his hand at a height of about a foot and a half from the floor. "It banked this high right outside the doors here. But the heat works fine and we were comfortable. This is an ugly old house but it's solid. I suppose I could have bought a modern one. But they're ugly, too—and not solid." On our left now, in the corner of the terrace, I noted a cage with two white pigeons— peace doves, I imagine— in it. We walked into the salon. Picasso pointed up over our heads. "Just look at these ceilings! And these windows! What light! What a wonderful place to work! And so much room!" He reached over to one of the radiators. "Justement," he said. "I must tell them to put the heat on. How do they expect me to work in the cold?" He went into the dining room to speak to Jacqueline.

Over in a corner near the doors to the terrace, behind a sofa taken up by a huge blood-red Spanish kite, I noticed a sculpture, half standing, half leaning, of a life-size human figure. It was not one I had seen before. I went over to it. Picasso joined me. "That's one I've been tinkering with for several years. I started it in Vallauris." I could see that he had welded pipes of one kind or another into it. He pointed out a piece of a pottery oven that had found its way into the frame. From a table beside it he picked up a key attached to another metal object. "I must get this thing in there," he said, then tossed it onto the table.

We walked across the salon, skirting a half-dozen baskets of flowers sent by friends for his birthday. Behind the flowers was a long bench covered with piles of plates. "Tests I've been making over at the kiln," Picasso said. He picked up the topmost plate from the end pile. It was a bullfight scene decorated in a kind of copper-luster finish. "I tried to get the flavor of the old Hispano-Moresque ceramics into this," he said.

I walked into the next room again to study more closely the wooden maquette of a tall, bony male figure Picasso was carving out as part of a monumental group sculpture, then made one more quick survey of the premises—the heaps and piles and stacks of work en chantier. If I didn't leave now, I'd never make the break, I felt. It would have been easier—and more gratifying—not to, but Picasso, I well knew, had work to do. I suddenly realized that I did, too. I paid my respects to the nephew and his wife. Jacqueline and Picasso threaded their way with me through the maze, and we walked slowly back across the salon and the two central halls, stopping every few feet to talk about Paul Éluard and Scott Fitzgerald and mutual friends, dead and alive.

By the time we reached the front terrace, we were making plans for a bang-up American dinner featuring—Picasso's choice—roast turkey with chestnut dressing and cranberry sauce. We shook hands. I walked down off the terrace and got into the car. "Au revoir," Picasso called out, with two full, round Spanish r's. "Bye-bye," said Jacqueline. The concierge came out of her loge and opened the massive iron curtain for me. I swung the car around and drove out through the gate. As I made the turn into the road, I caught a glimpse of them on the terrace, arm in arm, still waving.

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