On My Own for Vogue: First Visit to Picasso
I came back to Paris in my new capacity of reporter writing about the arts in general. I had no training, no directives. I simply lit out toward what seemed to be of interest.
It was in this capacity that I went to Geneva to meet the hard-drinking Albert Skira, whose publications were the sensation of postwar art books circles. There followed a number of long evenings spent with Albert in Geneva nightclubs, I nursing a single scotch while Albert dove into the hard stuff.
But it was worth it. It was Albert who arranged an introduction to Picasso. And later, also invaluable, an introduction to the Swiss printers who were to print the magazine I founded, L'Oeil.
"Don't wear a hat," Skira warned me, about meeting Picasso, "and don't ask any questions." I was surprised about the hat veto because Picasso had created so many fanciful, if not outrageous, hats for his favorite sitters.
At that time, 1947, Picasso had been living and working since 1937 in the top .oors of a large, once-aristocratic building at 7, rue des Grands-Augustins. In earlier years the actor Jean-Louis Barrault had used these spaces for rehearsals.
By an amazing coincidence, this was the very house Balzac chose as the setting for his "Le Chef-d'Oeuvre Inconnu" (The Unknown Masterpiece), which Picasso had illustrated for Ambroise Vollard in 1931. Balzac's story is about a .ctionalized seventeenth-century artist whose thirst for the absolute leads him further and further away from representation until finally nothing coherent is left.
I showed up for my appointment with Picasso looking properly inconspicuous and hatless. I walked through a large stone archway, across a cobbled courtyard, and up two flights of leg-breaking stairs, lit only by the occasional glimmer of a single bulb. A hand-lettered sign by Picasso, "ICI," was tacked to the door to identify his quarters. There was no bell. I knocked.
The door was opened reluctantly by a parchment-pale sharp-nosed apparition who peered at me through thick spectacles. It was Jaime Sabartés, Picasso's boyhood friend from Barcelona. He had come to Paris at Picasso's urgent request, in the 1930s, as companion, watchdog, and secretary and had never left. His main job was keeping people at bay who wanted to see the master. He had devoted his life to treading gingerly in Picasso's shadow, adoring him, and complaining every step of the way. Picasso teased him mercilessly but couldn't have done without him.
Sabartés led me through a small antechamber and into a barnlike studio where ancient beams held up the high ceiling. There was a large stove there that Picasso had relied upon during the terrible winters of wartime, when he chose to stay here all through the German occupation.
It was about noon when I went for the first time— the hour when he usually got up. Like many Spaniards, he lived by night.
He liked to work late at night and didn't care a hang for natural light. If anything, he preferred the strong projectors that Dora Maar, a photographer, had left behind at the end of their stormy love affair. It is thanks to Dora that we have a photographic record of the evolution of that great work, Guernica.
W hen I arrived, there were, as usual, about a dozen men standing around, waiting. I never saw a woman at these noonday receptions. There were editors, publishers, dealers, collectors, poets who hoped for illustrations, unemployed bullfighters.
Picasso finally came in, wearing an old brown dressing gown. The first thing you noticed was the extraordinary intensity of those remarkable eyes— the miradafuerte. I understood what Gertrude Stein meant when she said his dark gaze was so intense he could see around corners.
Picasso went around in European fashion and shook hands with each person. He had a ritual greeting, "Please sit down," but there was no question of that. There were sagging sofas and a chair or two, but every one of them was completely covered with papers, catalogs, fragments of sculpture, portfolios, not to mention dust.
I was extremely nervous, for in spite of his simplicity of manner, one was very conscious of being in the "presence." But I was in luck, because from all those years in Mexico, I spoke Spanish, albeit with a Mexican accent, which amused him. When he heard his native tongue, he lit up with friendly incandescence.
H e was so passionately attached to his native country and its language that from that moment on I felt accepted. H e beamed, he asked questions, he used the familiar tú form, he stuck around, and before long he began to show me things.
He was immensely proud of a Still Life with Oranges (1912) by Matisse that he had bought during World War II. I know, because Matisse told me himself that he was very pleased Picasso had chosen it. Perhaps in its honor, Matisse would send Picasso a crate of oranges from the south of France every New Year's Day.
I got a glimpse of some other paintings that Picasso had collected (they are now in the Picasso Museum in Paris). One was a self-portrait by the Douanier, Rousseau.
Then Picasso led the way to an informal arrangement of recent work, balanced somewhat precariously on a scaffolding. One was a grim still life dominated by an ox's skull that dated from the occupation years. "I didn't paint the war," Picasso said. "I'm not that kind of a painter, but the war is right there in the work."
I was introduced to Picasso's Afghan hound, Kasbec, whose elongated snout turned up on some of Picasso's more devastating female portraits.
All around was the astounding accumulation that became part of Picasso's décor wherever he lived and worked. H e could never bear to part with anything. E very book, every magazine, every catalog, every piece of wrapping, and every last length of string lay where it had fallen, together with flea-market finds, a stuffed owl, bulging portfolios of drawings and engravings. If anyone ever left anything behind, there was no hope of getting it back. It stayed on to enrich the loam.
From Some of My Lives by Rosamond Bernier. Copyright 2011 by Rosamond Bernier. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.