Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World

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About The Book

One of The Christian Science Monitor’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2018

When Picasso became Picasso: the story of how an obscure young painter from Barcelona came to Paris and made himself into the most influential artist of the twentieth century.

In 1900, an eighteen-year-old Spaniard named Pablo Picasso made his first trip to Paris. It was in this glittering capital of the international art world that, after suffering years of poverty and neglect, he emerged as the leader of a bohemian band of painters, sculptors, and poets. Fueled by opium and alcohol, inspired by raucous late-night conversations at the Lapin Agile cabaret, Picasso and his friends resolved to shake up the world.

For most of these years Picasso lived and worked in a squalid tenement known as the Bateau Lavoir, in the heart of picturesque Montmartre. Here he met his first true love, Fernande Olivier, a muse whom he would transform in his art from Symbolist goddess to Cubist monster. These were years of struggle, often of desperation, but Picasso later looked back on them as the happiest of his long life.

Recognition came slowly: first in the avant-garde circles in which he traveled, and later among a small group of daring collectors, including the Americans Leo and Gertrude Stein. In 1906, Picasso began the vast, disturbing masterpiece known as Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Inspired by the groundbreaking painting of Paul Cézanne and the startling inventiveness of African and tribal sculpture, Picasso created a work that captured and defined the disorienting experience of modernity itself. The painting proved so shocking that even his friends assumed he’d gone mad. Only his colleague George Braque understood what Picasso was trying to do. Over the next few years they teamed up to create Cubism, the most revolutionary and influential movement in twentieth-century art.

This is the story of an artistic genius with a singular creative gift. It is filled with heartbreak and triumph, despair and delirium, all of it played out against the backdrop of the world’s most captivating city.

Excerpt

Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World

In Search of Lost Time
We will all return to the Bateau-Lavoir. We were never truly happy except there.

—PICASSO TO ANDRÉ SALMON, 1945

Pablo Picasso stood on the threshold of his apartment bundled against the autumn chill, his hat pulled low about his ears, a brown knit scarf tossed carelessly across his shoulders. A shapeless coat engulfed his stocky frame. Shabbily dressed, not so much anonymous as invisible beneath the layers, he hardly looked the part of the world’s most famous artist.

There was something incongruous in the scene, something about the man and the place that didn’t quite match. If the elegant address—a seventeenth-century apartment building on the rue des Grands-Augustins, in the genteel Left Bank neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés—proclaimed his worldly success, his rumpled outfit suggested an indifference to the trappings that came with it. With his stained pants, worn at the cuff, and felt cap “whose folds had long since given up the struggle for form,” Picasso showed the same disregard for convention he had as a struggling painter living from hand to mouth in a squalid Montmartre tenement. It was a quirk of his personality that his first wife had tried hard to correct. She often complained that no matter how much money he made, he insisted on dressing like a bum. In fact, the wealthier he became, the more determined he was that money would not define him. “One has to be able to afford luxury,” he once explained to the writer Jean Cocteau, “in order to be able to scorn it.”


Picasso in the rue des Grands-Augustins. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.

In any case it was not his wife he was waiting for this Tuesday afternoon in the fall of 1945. Olga had long since fallen by the wayside, a casualty of her unsuccessful battle to groom him for a life in high society. For a time he’d submitted to her strict regime, attending costume balls hosted by the decadent Count Étienne de Beaumont, posing pipe in hand for the photographers, and generally playing the part of a debonair man-about-town. But he eventually tired of the cocktail parties and elegant soirees, reverting to the haphazard ways he’d enjoyed before the smart set claimed him as one of their own. The Hungarian photographer Brassaï, who met Picasso in 1932, was on hand to observe the process: “Those who thought that he had put his youth behind once and for all, forgotten the laughter and the farces of the early years, voluntarily abandoned his liberty and his pleasure in being with his friends, and allowed himself to be ‘duped’ by the pursuit of ‘status,’ found that they were mistaken. La vie de bohème regained the upper hand.” In truth, it had always been an unequal battle: while Olga tried to make him into a gentleman, he took revenge in his art by putting the former ballerina through a set of pictorial transformations, each more grotesque than the last.

Rather than Olga—or the voluptuous Marie-Thérèse Walter or the brooding Dora Maar, former mistresses who were both still part of Picasso’s extended harem—the woman he was expecting this afternoon was his latest conquest, the twenty-four-year-old, auburn-haired Françoise Gilot.

Perhaps conquest is not quite right. For once, it seemed, this relentless seducer had met his match. It’s true that after a strenuous campaign Françoise had agreed to share his bed, but his attempts to possess her body and soul had been frustrated by her infuriating streak of independence. Her ability to parry his advances only increased his determination to have her, but her inscrutable ways drove him to distraction. Brassaï testified to the “raw state of his nerves.” With Françoise, this usually self-confident man (particularly when it came to the war between the sexes) was reduced to a gelatinous state. “When I see Picasso, looking a little upset, shy as a college boy in love for the first time,” Brassaï recalled, “he gestures slightly toward Françoise, and says, ‘Isn’t she pretty. Don’t you think that she is beautiful?’?”


Rue des Grands-Augustins. Courtesy of the author.


Françoise Gilot. © Ministère de la Culture / Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.

There’s no doubt that Françoise Gilot—barely out of college and with little experience of the world in general, even less of men in particular—managed to throw him off balance. After more than a year of on-and-off wooing, Picasso was still unsure where he stood. “I don’t understand you,” he grumbled. “You’re too complicated for me.” In her most recent display of rebellion, Françoise had spent the last few months in the south of France, not exactly ending the relationship but making it clear that she wasn’t ready to commit to him. And when she finally returned, showing up unexpectedly on his doorstep, he couldn’t hide his hurt feelings. “I thought you weren’t coming back,” he sulked, “and that put me in a very black mood.” Though she was here now, Picasso knew she might just as easily slip away.

Since her return to Paris in late November, Picasso had assumed a role that had often worked before on star-struck young women, playing the older master to the eager pupil. Françoise had still not agreed to move in with him, but she visited his apartment almost every day. “Over the weeks that followed,” she recorded, “I began to do just what Pablo advised me to do: to study Cubism more in depth. In the course of my studies and reflections I worked back to its roots and even beyond them to his early days in Paris, between 1904 and 1909.” Being initiated into the mysteries of the twentieth century’s most important movement by its founder was a rare privilege for a budding artist, and Picasso was happy to oblige. These lessons drew them closer, their intimacy heightened by the sense of a shared voyage. At the same time they measured an unbridgeable gap: while she had her future in front of her, he belonged to history.

• • •

An older man—Picasso had turned sixty-four this past October—taking a young woman under his wing can generate a powerful sexual charge, and he was not above exploiting his fame to lure impressionable girls into his bed. But with Françoise it was different; he felt a kinship with her that went beyond mere sexual appetite. Each responded to the loneliness in the other, a sense of isolation that culminated in Picasso’s fantasy that his lover would live in the rafters beneath the rooftop of his studio where, together, they could shut out the world. When Jaime Sabartés—the childhood friend who now served as his personal secretary and gatekeeper at the rue des Grands-Augustins—warned him that the relationship was bound to end badly, Picasso turned on him angrily. “You mind your business, Sabartés,” Picasso shouted. “[W]hat you don’t understand is . . . the fact that I like this girl.” They were kindred spirits, he insisted, tormented souls who could find comfort only in each other’s arms.

Françoise was drawn to Picasso against her better judgment. Along with his famous charm, which he could turn on and off like a switch, he was bathed in the dazzling aura that surrounds all famous men. But there was more to his magnetism than this. Françoise was moved by Picasso’s vulnerability, a vulnerability that showed through the hard shell of mistrust that served to shut out a world that had wounded him. He could be arrogant, insufferable, too certain of his genius, and merciless to anyone he thought was preventing him from realizing his destiny. There was also a desperate neediness, a sadness that played on her maternal instincts, instilling an almost irresistible urge to fix what was wrong, to make whole what had been broken.

Still she held back, understanding instinctively that a relationship built around his all-consuming need was bound to be destructive. “I could admire him tremendously as an artist,” she remarked, “but I did not want to become his victim or martyr.”

• • •

Despite her youth, Gilot was no ingenue to satisfy the lust and prop up the vanity of an aging satyr (though as always in Picasso’s case those two most compelling of human motives were never completely absent). Indeed, when he’d spotted her two years earlier across the darkened room of his favorite restaurant, sitting with her childhood friend Geneviève, she’d been introduced to him as “the intelligent one” to distinguish her from her “beautiful” companion.

Of course, that was part of the problem. Françoise had a mind and a life of her own before she met Picasso. In May 1943 she had just made her professional debut with a show of paintings at the fashionable Madeleine Decré gallery (in sharp contrast to Picasso himself, who had been labeled “degenerate” by the Nazi occupiers and whose work was banned from public exhibition). Noticing the two attractive women in the company of an actor he knew, Picasso sauntered over to their table bearing a bowl of ripe cherries, a luxury in wartime Paris that carried more than a faint erotic whiff. When Geneviève told him that she and her friend were painters, he burst out laughing. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard all day,” he snorted. “Girls who look like that can’t be painters.”

Still, he’d been sufficiently intrigued to pay an incognito visit to the gallery, and the following week, when Françoise took him up on his invitation to visit him in his studio, he remarked, “You’re very gifted for drawing. . . . I think you should keep on working—hard—every day.”

Françoise was flattered by the great man’s attention, but she had few illusions as to the nature of his interest. At first Picasso opted for the direct approach. On one occasion he pulled her roughly to him and planted a kiss on her lips; on another, he casually cupped her breasts like “two peaches whose form and color had attracted him.” Assuming he was merely trying to provoke her, Françoise determined that the best way to knock him off his game was by failing to play the role of the outraged virtue he expected. “You do everything you can to make things difficult for me,” he complained, dropping his hands. “Couldn’t you at least pretend to be taken in, the way women usually do? If you don’t fall in with my subterfuges, how are we ever going to get together?”

When Françoise finally relented, then, it was with eyes open, and even after they became lovers she was careful to retain room for maneuver, rebuffing his increasingly urgent pleas that she move in and tormenting him with what he described as her “English reserve.”

Withholding a part of herself was an act of self-preservation. Françoise knew it was almost impossible to be intimate with Picasso without losing oneself entirely. Stronger women than she had been consumed in the furnace of his passion, an obsession whose intensity inevitably turned to disillusionment. “For me,” he told her, “there are only two kinds of women—goddesses and doormats.” The idol inevitably fell, the object of worship becoming the focus of rage when she failed to vanquish the demons that haunted him. After the end of the wartime occupation he became increasingly unpredictable, lashing out angrily or wallowing in self-pity as his growing celebrity increased his sense of isolation. “[H]e was very moody,” Françoise recalled, “one day brilliant sunshine, the next day thunder and lightning.”

For an older man, a consuming passion for an attractive woman young enough to be his granddaughter inevitably stirred up morbid thoughts of lost time, of the yawning chasm between his own vanished past, the inadequate present, and the uncertain future. As Picasso aged, the women he chose tended to get younger. His success in that arena reassured him that he retained the vital spirit that made him a force of nature, and any stumble conjured up the specter of his own mortality. In love, as in art, there were many pretenders to the throne, and if so far he had managed to stay on top, it remained a constant war against not only a host of rivals but also a more remorseless foe.

• • •

When Françoise arrived at the rue des Grands-Augustins that Tuesday afternoon, she was surprised to find Picasso already waiting on the front steps. Usually he kept an eye out for her seated at the second-floor window, one of his pet pigeons perched familiarly on his shoulder.

“I’m going to take you to see the Bateau Lavoir,” he announced, summoning like a talisman the name of the ramshackle tenement where he had spent his early years in Paris and where he had transformed himself from a young unknown to the acknowledged leader of the modern movement. “I have to go see an old friend from those days who lives near there.”

Before long, a car squeezed through the wrought-iron gate and inched into the courtyard, a jet black monstrosity—half hearse, half royal chariot—driven by a chauffer in white gloves and livery. This was Marcel at the wheel of Picasso’s famous Hispano Suiza Coupe de Ville. The car was a relic from the days before the war, one of the few reminders Picasso allowed himself of his life with Olga: a souvenir of Parisian seasons filled with society balls and summers on the Riviera with Ernest Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds. Among the anachronistic touches were multiple interior mirrors for making the final adjustments to one’s evening wear and crystal vases filled with cut flowers.

It was a strange possession for someone who called himself a Communist, as odd as the grand and gloomy apartment that recalled a vanished aristocracy of minuets and powdered wigs. Since his headline-making announcement the year before that he was joining the “People’s Party,” the chauffeured limousine had become something of an embarrassment, a visible symbol of hypocrisy. But for Picasso (who never learned to drive) the car was more than a luxury. It was a means of escape when the routines and the people associated with a particular place grew too burdensome. During the war years, with gasoline rationed and movement restricted by the Germans, he’d been forced to abandon his peripatetic ways. Now, after years of claustrophobia and paranoia, he could once again travel at will, a necessary balm for his restless soul.

The restlessness had always been there, but his kinetic energy used to take a different form. As a young man he had prowled Paris on foot, feeding his inspiration by feeding off the excitement of the vibrant city, wearing holes in shoes he couldn’t afford to mend. It was not simply the last resort of a poor man; walking was a form of epistemology, a way of knowing. It provided the essential textures and materials of his art. The woman who lived with Picasso during his years of poverty remarked, “[I]t is good to walk when you are young and carry hope in your heart.” In meandering journeys through the neighborhoods of his adopted city he had time to think, to tease out the tangled skeins of his vision and explore new vistas and uncharted alleyways of the mind. And while he wandered, he absorbed the sights and smells of the great capital, its hectic rhythms so different from those of his native Spain, its jarring dislocations and cacophony finding their way in the fractured surfaces of his canvases. Now his face was plastered on magazine covers on every corner newsstand, and as the world crowded in, he withdrew, increasingly alienated, unmoored.

With Marcel at the wheel, Picasso and Françoise watched the city unspool in silence, the noise and dust shut out by glass and chrome. They rolled across the Pont Neuf and over the Île de la Cité. They watched the twin towers of Notre Dame looming dark against the clear blue sky, skirting the eastern edge of the Louvre, where as a young man he had spent hours warding off the winter cold and grappling with the masters of the past. In that great labyrinth he had tested his youthful ambition against millennia of human achievement, seeking to possess the secrets of the ages so that he might storm the battlements armed with the weapons of the enemy.

They navigated the Marais, its streets haunted by the missing Jews who had fled or been rounded up and sent to the east, buildings scarred by bullet holes made when Parisians finally rose up against their jailers. Picasso had almost been one of the casualties when a stray projectile whizzed past his head and lodged in the windowsill as he peered out to see what was happening.

At the base of Montmartre they crossed the boulevard de Clichy with its bars and seedy nightclubs, including the tawdry, tacky Moulin Rouge, made famous by Toulouse-Lautrec. It was in these low-end dives that the teenage Picasso and his Catalan friends had received their first education in the liberated sexual mores of the French capital and the mysteries of the liberated French woman.

Then the climb up the southern face of Montmartre, the engine of the Hispano Suiza grumbling with the effort to negotiate the steep slopes. As they rose through Montmartre’s clotted byways, Marcel carefully maneuvering the oversized car through the narrow passages, the years seemed to slip away. “I would have thought we had made a long journey through time and space to reach this faded corner of the past,” Françoise wrote. As the weight of the present lifted, Picasso grew visibly more relaxed, his eyes gleaming hopefully as he surveyed the scene of his youthful triumph.


Montmartre, c. 1900. Adoc-photos / Art Resource, NY.

Stepping out of the car at the summit of the hill, they found themselves in another world, a neighborhood of rustic houses and overgrown gardens that still carried the memory of the village it had once been. When Picasso had first arrived, at the beginning of the century, Montmartre was already joined to Paris as its Eighteenth Arrondissement, but the Butte, as locals called it, continued to defeat the best efforts of urban planners who hoped to transform a medieval metropolis into the City of Light, a beacon of modern rationality. Mystery clung to the neighborhood’s rubble-strewn slopes, forgotten pockets of an earlier time, dark corners of the human psyche that reproached the image Parisians had of themselves as a people in the vanguard of civilization. Here were relics of a past that had vanished elsewhere: windmills, quarries, and vineyards,I tumble-down lean-tos—home to impoverished workers displaced by Baron Haussmann’s ruthless demolitions—and high stone walls behind which virginal sisters lived in cloistered isolation.

Montmartre was the “Hill of Martyrs,” the place where Saint Denis, the eighth-century miracle worker, proclaimed his faith and lost his head. But even as it clung to its medieval spirituality, the Butte was also a site of unbridled libido: of taverns and opium dens, cabarets, dance halls, and bordellos, far enough from the city center to escape the strict attention of the authorities but close enough to lure seekers of illicit pleasures.

It was contested territory, between country and city, between the world of the spirit and the world of the flesh, pitting radical atheists against black-robed priests. Here the Commune of 1870—the world’s first socialist government—made its bloody stand against the forces of reaction, and here, too, in an attempt to expiate the sins of godless communism, Catholic reactionaries raised the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur in virginal white travertine as a monument to their ancient faith.

Like all sites of ambivalent authority, Montmartre had always attracted more than its share of the discontented and dispossessed. Even before the turn of the century, it served as a haven for artists as well as anarchists—which often amounted to the same thing, as each group asserted as its ultimate goal the freedom to live without rules. Renoir had taken up residence on the rue Cortot before he became rich and complacent, as had, briefly, Cézanne and van Gogh, sharing the neighborhood with the radical L’Anarchie and Le Libertaire, published out of cramped offices in the rue d’Orsel. Picasso himself had heard tales of the neighborhood’s fevered nightlife and colorful characters while still a regular at Els 4 Gats, the Barcelona tavern that was itself modeled on a Montmartre original, so that lurid dreams of bohemian Paris fueled in his imagination long before he ever set foot in its crooked streets. Ultimately, Picasso would do more than anyone to promote the romantic legend of Montmartre, but when he first made the journey he was treading a well-worn path, following in the footsteps of compatriots who had already set up an unofficial Catalan artist colony in the Eighteenth Arrondissement.

• • •

In the fall of 1945, the journey proved more difficult. Navigating time is necessarily more fraught than navigating space, since the dimension defined by the elastic stuff of memory is inherently treacherous. As they walked arm in arm, Picasso conjured up a world that had disappeared decades before Gilot was born, a world of ghosts who had passed into legend and grizzled survivors who had managed to salvage something from the wreckage of the past. “There’s where Modigliani lived,” said Picasso, pointing to a dilapidated shed barely visible on a slight rise behind the street. Modigliani’s was a classic Montmartre tale. Handsome, talented, and doomed, he had arrived in Paris in 1906 seeking to tap into the vital energy of the avant-garde. Drawn like a moth to the brilliance of Picasso and his companions, he hovered just outside that charmed circle, too unsure of himself to hold his own in that boisterous crowd. In the end, he lacked the hard instinct that allowed the Spaniard to negotiate the gauntlet bordered by poverty on one side and dissipation on the other and that destroyed so many of his contemporaries, succumbing to a lethal combination of drugs, alcohol, and tuberculosis before his fortieth birthday.

Picasso paused in front of a narrow, gray building. “That was my first studio, the one straight ahead,” he said, gesturing to the fifth-floor attic, where a wall of north-facing windows indicated the presence of a painter’s atelier. Here the eighteen-year-old Picasso and two of his Spanish friends had stayed during his first visit to Paris, spending a delirious couple of months wallowing in the decadent glamour of Montmartre, its allure infinitely enhanced by the fact that the studio came fully furnished with three pretty (and compliant) models. For Picasso, that first taste of Paris was exhilarating; for his friend, the brooding Carles Casagemas, that initial confrontation with the sexually adventurous Montmartrois female would bear tragic fruit.

“A little farther along,” Gilot recorded, “we reached a sloping paved square, rather pretty and a little melancholy. Ahead of us was the Hôtel Paradis and beside it, a low, flat, one-story building with two entrance doors, which I recognized, without his telling me, as the Bateau Lavoir. Pablo nodded toward it. ‘That’s where it all began,’ he said quietly.”

Where it all began . . . how much is conveyed by that wistful phrase! A line dropped into a dark pool, a beacon sent out across the gulf of years on the off chance it will fetch back some faint reflection. There’s a fierce pride here, but also regret, a recognition that, for all that was achieved, much was lost along the way. Those words measured the distance between desire and consummation, and in making the calculation Picasso discovered—like many who’ve made the journey from obscurity to fame, from poverty to wealth—that dreams, in coming true, lose much of their luster. A few months earlier, shortly after the Liberation of Paris, Picasso’s thoughts had inevitably turned to those halcyon days, before darkness fell. “We will all return to the Bateau-Lavoir,” he told his old companion the poet André Salmon. “We were never truly happy except there.”

• • •

What, precisely, began here? What vision sustained those who called the former piano factory on the rue Ravignan home and tried to wring some deeper meaning from that particular time and place, something to compensate them for the cold and hunger, the suicides and betrayals, something dimly perceived through the opium haze and nights of despair, some glimmer in the dark to ease their doubts, a signpost guiding them toward a limitless future?

Some insisted that it was nothing less than the modern world that was born here, that unique mix of infinite potential and unspeakable horror that characterized the twentieth century: an impulse to innovate at any cost, to transform every aspect of life whose benign aspect we call progress but whose malignant twin led to Dachau and the Gulag. Often compared to a laboratory—its inhabitants likened to alchemists who brewed strange potions for inscrutable purposes—the tenement known as the Bateau Lavoir has gone down in history as one of those sites of cosmic convergence, a gravitational vortex where random motes seemed to coalesce, to in-spiral in heated clouds, creating novel and hitherto unimagined forms of matter and radiating bursts of unpredictable energy.


Place Ravignan. Courtesy of the author.

To those of a more spiritual bent, the Bateau Lavoir was sacred ground, “the Acropolis of Cubism,”II a temple to that uniquely modern creed known as the avant-garde. Though it proclaimed itself the enemy of organized religion, the avant-garde was nonetheless a form of worship, a mystery cult where the sacred stuff of life was extracted according to formulas known only to initiates, a faith that gained in power as it wrapped itself in obscurity, with its own rites, customs, hierarchies, and keepers of the flame. Here vestal virgins came disguised as women of easy virtue, the ceremonies were conducted beneath heavy clouds of opium and hashish, and the high priests were poets, painters, and sculptors of equally dubious morals, scruffy avatars of a civilization addicted to lurid tales of its own demise.

Like all religions this one had a prophet. He was a stranger, a young Spaniard just arrived from Barcelona, crude of tongue (at first he could barely communicate with the natives, whose language he did not speak) and of gloomy countenance, who through some otherworldly power drew about him a circle of brilliant men and women, disciples who would soon proclaim the gospel they had learned at his feet to the far corners of the earth.

• • •

Viewed from the chestnut-shaded place Ravignan, the Bateau Lavoir is a modest structure, presenting only a low stucco wall to the square. But the squat facade is deceptive. Like many of the buildings set into the steep sides of the Butte, it tumbles down the slope in back in a kind of slapdash architectural landslide,III so that, like Mary Poppins’s purse, it contains far more interior space than its exterior dimensions would seem to allow.

As Picasso led Gilot through the low door, they were plunged into darkness. The place was dank, with oozing walls and stagnant air, bitter with decay. The days when Montmartre, and the Bateau Lavoir in particular, had been the center of all that mattered had long since passed, and the building had the silent, musty feel of a tomb. As they wandered along mazelike corridors, groping their way forward in the grudging light, Picasso tried to make the building come alive by telling her stories of the old days: of the farcical Max Jacob with his top hat and monocle, his funny dances and barbed songs improvised on the spot; of the brilliant Guillaume Apollinaire hunched over his plate like a stray dog guarding a meat bone, whose conversation was a scintillating froth sprinkled with erudite references and obscene jokes; and of the beaming, childlike Henri Rousseau and the legendary banquet Picasso and his mistress Fernande Olivier had thrown for him. That drunken revelry—grown ever more improbable with each retelling by those who were there and those who only imagined they were—was long remembered as the outrageous apotheosis of bohemian Paris.

They stopped in front of a door near the stairwell. “He put his hand on the doorknob and the other on my arm,” Gilot remembered. “?‘All we need to do,’ he said, ‘is open this door and we’ll be back in the Blue Period. You were made to live in the Blue Period and you should have met me when I lived here. If we had met then, everything would have been perfect because whatever happened, we would never have gone away from the rue Ravignan. With you, I would never have wanted to leave this place.’ He knocked at the door but no one came. He tried to open it but it was locked. The Blue Period remained shut away on the other side of the door.”

As Picasso rattled the handle, the weight of years pressed in on him once more. The past, he realized, would lie forever out of reach, just on the other side of an impenetrable barrier. To live is to hear doors slam shut, dark corridors echoing with the regret of alternatives not taken; time’s arrow points in only one direction, and memory’s capacity to reverse the flow is only an illusion.

They reversed their steps and returned to the deserted square. Gilot could see that Picasso was struggling to contain his emotions. On previous visits, he reminisced, he would often see the concierge’s daughter, who used to skip rope outside the window of his studio. “She was so sweet,” Picasso sighed, “I would have liked her never to grow up.” But of course she did what girls (if not dreams) do and grew and aged, changing from a child into a handsome young woman, then becoming fat, each time shedding a bit of that grace that clings to all things fixed in memory. “In my mind’s eye I had kept on seeing that little girl with her jump rope and I realized how fast time was flowing and how far I was away from the rue Ravignan.”

With those gloomy reflections, they set out once more, making their way up the hill a few blocks until they reached the rue des Saules, where they stopped in front of a modest house. “He knocked at a door and then walked inside without waiting for an answer,” Gilot recalled.

I saw a little old lady, toothless and sick, lying in bed. I stood by the door while Pablo talked quietly with her. After a few minutes he laid some money on her night table. She thanked him profusely and we went out again. Pablo didn’t say anything as we walked down the street. I asked why he had brought me to see the woman.

“I want you to learn about life,” he said quietly. But why especially that old woman? I asked him. “That woman’s name is Germaine Pichot. She’s old and toothless and poor and unfortunate now,” he said. “But when she was young she was very pretty and she made a painter friend of mine suffer so much that he committed suicide. She was a young laundress when I first came to Paris. . . . She turned a lot of heads. Now look at her.”

This was Picasso’s final lesson on their shared journey through time, imparting to his young lover a wisdom that usually comes only through bitter experience. Weeks of instruction that had begun with Picasso leading Françoise Gilot through the conceptual thickets of Cubism now ended at the bedside of that time-ravaged woman.

Arranging a confrontation between his young lover and this unfortunate wreck of a woman was characteristic of Picasso’s approach to life and to art, each of which he shaped in light of his own obsessions. Sex and death—Freud’s Eros and Thanatos—beauty and hideousness: these opposing forces were the elements that, bound together, gave the world its form. The encounter with Germaine was a flesh-and-blood version of the vanitas or memento mori, a reminder that even in the midst of life we are in death. The grinning skull, the guttering candle, the fly-specked melon—each of those symbols conjures up the process of decay that is inseparable from the ferment of life.

For Picasso, Pichot was the real-life incarnation of this morbid principle. “[W]omen are suffering machines,” he once observed, ignoring the fact that so often it was he who inflicted the pain. It was Pichot’s broken form, even more than the aging concierge’s daughter, that demonstrated the inexorable passage of years. She was the gatekeeper blocking the way of the hopeful time traveler, the embodiment of the principle of death. Confronting her in the company of his young lover was Picasso’s way of evening the odds, showing Françoise that while she might hold a temporary advantage over him, they were both subject to the same grim fate.

Why was Picasso so desperate to turn back the clock, and so bitter when he discovered that the past was denied him? In part it was the promise and the peril of a new love affair, exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. His passion for Françoise reinvigorated him, but it was also a vampirelike parasitism of age upon youth that conjured shades of mortality in the very act of trying to transcend them.

By 1945, Picasso felt the walls closing in on him; his best years lay in the past, and all he had to look forward to was a long, slow decline. Paradoxically, the Liberation of Paris had actually narrowed his own horizons. His current fame had a valedictory quality, as if he were no longer a living, breathing man but a fossil of something once great and terrible. Of course the Occupation had brought its own peculiar indignities, even if his fame had spared him the worst of its deprivations. Throughout the war he’d been harassed by officials who suspected him of harboring fugitives or, at the very least, sympathizing with the Resistance. But aside from occasional “Kafkaesque” visits from undercover agents of the Gestapo, he was largely left in peace, as fair-weather friends thought twice before allowing themselves to be seen in the company of a known subversive.

All that changed with the arrival of the Allied armies. He’d done little during the years of the Occupation except endure, but to a public yearning for heroes that seemed to be enough. “Oh, I’m not looking for risks to take,” he told Françoise during the darkest days of the war when she asked him why he remained in Paris after so many of his colleagues had fled to England or the United States. “I don’t care to yield to either force or terror. . . . Staying on isn’t really a manifestation of courage; it’s just a form of inertia. I suppose it’s simply that I prefer to be here. So I’ll stay, whatever the cost.”

The world, however, insisted on putting a more heroic spin on this mundane tale. In August 1944, when liberation came, Picasso was surprised to find that he was acclaimed as not only the greatest artist of the century but a symbol of resistance to tyranny. On one level he courted the attention, sitting down with journalists and opening his studio to dignitaries and fellow celebrities, but increasingly he saw fame as a trap. “Paris was liberated,” he complained, “but I was besieged.” Now instead of visits by the Gestapo he was plagued by a constant stream of tourists, “poets, painters, critics, museum directors, and writers, all wearing the uniform of the Allied armies, officers and ordinary soldiers, thronged up the narrow staircase in a compact mass.”IV “From that moment on,” Gilot observed, “Picasso had stopped being a private citizen and became public property.”

Against this well-meaning assault Picasso launched his own campaign of resistance. “Famous,” he later grumbled, “of course, I’m famous! . . . What does it all mean? It was at the Bateau-Lavoir that I was famous! When Uhde came from the heart of Germany to see my paintings, when young painters from every country brought me what they were doing and asked for my advice, when I never had a sou—there I was famous, I was a painter! Not a freak.” Fame, for him, became as much an enemy as time. Both represented a closing of options, doors slamming shut never to be reopened. As a teenager he’d thirsted for glory and raged at the world that ignored him. In retrospect he could see that it was far better to toil in obscurity than in the public eye; vistas of endless possibility were replaced by the claustrophobic view of a man hunkered down.

Gilot put it best:

In the light of that I could understand even better the meaning the Bateau Lavoir had for him. It represented the golden age, when everything was fresh and untarnished, before he had conquered the world and then discovered that his conquest was a reciprocal action, and that sometimes it seemed that the world had conquered him. Whenever the irony of that paradox bore in on him strongly enough, he was ready to try anything, to suggest anything, that might possibly return him to that golden age.

It was a crucial insight, a key to the sadness that clung to this man who appeared to have everything. That intuition allowed her to forgive him his cruelty, since it derived not from strength but from weakness: “I knew by now that although Pablo had been receiving the world’s adulation for at least thirty years before I met him, he was the most solitary of men within that inner world that shut him off from the army of admirers and sycophants that surrounded him. ‘Of course people like me; they even love me,’ he complained one afternoon when I was trying to break the spell of pessimism I found engulfing him when I arrived. ‘But in the same way they like chicken. Because I nourish them. But who nourishes me?’?”

That role, of course, would fall to Gilot. She would share his life for almost ten years, providing him with the warmth and sympathy he required, tending to his needs, bearing him two children, upon whom he doted and who restored, at least for a time, his zest for life, and fighting an ultimately losing battle against the darkness in his soul.V

• • •

As they descended the steep slopes of the Butte in the stilted silence of the limousine—a raft set adrift on time’s treacherous currents—Picasso was weary, disconsolate. He had begun the journey in a hopeful mood, convinced that in the company of his young companion he could reverse the tug of entropy, but the journey merely confirmed that the magic he was trying so desperately to recover was inaccessible, locked forever behind a battered door in an old piano factory in Montmartre.

Perhaps it was just as well, since few men were as ill suited as Picasso to the nostalgic role. He’d always been focused on the future, a step or two ahead of his contemporaries, peering ahead to the realm of shadows yet to come while they were still basking in the sunlight. It was this darkness that now made him seem like a prophet. “Picasso believes that art emanates from sadness and pain,” wrote Sabartés. “We are passing through an age in which everything is still to be done by everybody, a period of uncertainty which everyone considers from the point of view of his own wretchedness, life, with all its torments, constitutes the very foundation of his theory of art.”

Had he been a different sort of man and a different sort of artist—less death-haunted, less in touch with the horror that lurked behind the grinning mask of socialized Man—he wouldn’t have become the spokesman for an age that excelled in mayhem. Picasso’s pessimism struck a chord with a world still reeling from the disaster of war and genocide. His great rival Henri Matisse may have equaled, or even surpassed, him as a magician of paint on canvas, but there was something about the older man’s joyous, light-filled art that seemed out of step with the times. The golden age was over, not only for Picasso but for modernity itself; the promise of an incandescent future that had opened with the new century had been reduced to ash as the tools of progress were turned against us. During the very years Picasso was residing at the Bateau Lavoir, giving birth to a revolution in art, a former patent clerk in Bern was radically altering our notions of time and space, contemplating a simple equation whose solution would lead to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In retrospect it seemed as if Picasso’s work had anticipated the catastrophe: not only in Guernica (1937)—perhaps the most vivid evocation of war’s horror ever painted—but from the earliest works of his maturity. More than any of his fellow travelers in the avant-garde, he developed a visual language for the dawning age, describing its vertiginous logic in works of art that captured technology’s disorienting impact on our senses. But though he embraced modernity, he never succumbed to the illusion (shared by so many of his colleagues) that we were in the process of building paradise on Earth. The fractured mirror he held up reflected an image of our times as harrowing as it was exhilarating.

But Picasso was a reluctant Messiah. Others might recite the gospel they had first learned at his feet, but he himself was an apostate. He turned his back on the world that had failed to nourish him adequately, remembering its slights and then rejecting its honors with a sardonic laugh when he discovered how empty they were.

Or perhaps he didn’t actually turn his back on the world because he had never really cared about it in the first place. Despite being anointed the voice of a generation by a public searching for heroes and in need of a guiding vision, his art was essentially autobiographical, an expression of personal pathologies rather than an exposition of an ideology. He was too much of a nihilist to make a good prophet. He accepted the public’s adulation as nothing less than his due but treated those who came to pay homage with either contempt or indifference. In any case, he would have thrown it all away for a chance to start over. Fame had turned out to be a burden, and time had cheated him. The door remained closed, the golden age remained tantalizingly beyond his grasp.

• • •

But was it really shut tight? Perhaps another try would do the trick: a more persistent banging or an extra hard twist on the knob. Picasso, in any event, would not let his frustration go to waste. His art thrived on disappointment. Melancholy was always followed by ecstatic fury as he returned to the studio, exorcising his demons by mocking them, making them leap and cavort like demented souls as he wielded his brush. If his art was driven by dark energy, it was energy nonetheless, and he relied on its propulsive power to fuel his creativity.

And even if, like Moses, Picasso was denied entrance to this promised land, might we still be permitted to cross the threshold? After all, André Salmon, who was there with Picasso and his friends and was as intimate as anyone with the strange sort of necromancy they practiced, described the rue Ravignan as “a fascinating square of the Fourth Dimension,” the kind of place where, employing Einstein’s equations, past and future might be bent sufficiently to converge in our present.

It takes a while for our eyes to become accustomed to the gloom, but if we concentrate it becomes apparent that a light still flickers, if only fitfully, from the chink in a darkened hallway, a remnant from the explosion of a distant star that carries messages from a vanished time. . . .

I. Most of the windmills are gone, but Montmartre is still home to the only vineyard within the city limits.

II. The phrase originates with Picasso’s friend the poet Max Jacob, who, according to legend, was also the first to name the old piano factory the Bateau Lavoir, “The Wash Boat,” due to its supposed resemblance to the barges on the Seine to which Parisians took their dirty laundry.

III. The original building burned down in 1970. It has since been replaced by a more presentable replica.

IV. One of them was Ernest Hemingway, who, finding Picasso out, left as his calling card a crate of grenades—presumably a tribute to the artist’s gift for exploding convention.

V. Françoise’s children with Picasso were Claude, born in 1947, and Paloma, born in 1949. Picasso also had another son, Paulo, born in 1921, from his marriage with Olga, and a daughter, Maya, with Marie-Therese Walter.

About The Author

Miles J. Unger writes on art, books, and culture for The Economist. Formerly the managing editor of Art New England, he was a contributing writer to The New York Times. He is the author of Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World; The Watercolors of Winslow HomerMagnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de’ MediciMachiavelli: A Biography; and Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces. Visit MilesJunger.com.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (March 2018)
  • Length: 480 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476794235

Raves and Reviews

The birth of modernism a century ago was one of history's greatest moments of creative disruption, including Einstein's physics, Stravinsky's music, and the writings of Joyce and Proust. One major spark was an astonishing painting by Picasso, and Miles Unger brings us both the drama and brilliance of that creation in this thrilling book.”

– Walter Isaacson, author of Leonardo da Vinci

“Riveting. . . . This engrossing book chronicles with precision and enthusiasm a painting with lasting impact in today’s art world.”

– Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Bohemian Montmartre comes brilliantly to life, as do the artist’s struggles."

– The New Yorker

"An engrossing read. . . . Unger draws not just from his own wide knowledge and considered taste but from an imposing array of journals, memoirs, biographies and periodicals.  From these he offers a historically and psychologically rich account of the young Picasso and his coteries in Barcelona and Paris."
 

– Alexander C. Kafka, The Washington Post

"This excellent narrative by art historian and journalist Miles Unger culminates in Pablo Picasso’s creation of 'Les Demoiselles d’Avignon' in 1907. In exploring the groundbreaking work, Unger combines the personal story of Picasso’s early years in Paris – his friendships, his romances, his great ambition, his fears – with the larger story of modernism and the avant-garde."

– Christian Science Monitor

"[A] vibrant biography. . . . Unger succeeds in making Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the book’s titular painting, accessible. Heady modern art is made over as approachable and exciting."

– Booklist

More books from this author: Miles J. Unger