Updated: May 7
I knew that Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was a seminal painting in the history of art, the dividing line between modern art and all that had come before. Yet in the eight years I recently spent in Avignon, I never thought of it or Picasso, except one day. I was carefully placing my feet on the slippery cobblestones of Rue Laboureur, in the vicinity of the local library. In Avignon, the library is in a 14th century building, the former residence of Cardinal Ceccano. The reading rooms have the faded paint of heraldic shields on the walls and lovely painted designs on the beams that cross the ceilings. One of the joys of my stay in this historic city was studying from the wonderful art books in the collection and looking up from my reading to see history on the very walls that surrounded me.
However, on that day, it was the building across the street, the Musée Angladon that caught my attention, most particularly a poster of Picasso. I had never seen him like this. I mean we all have seen him in his usual south of France in the hot summertime garb of just a pair of pants and no shirt. However, this photo showed a beautifully dressed, distinguished man, in expensive shoes, a elegant suit and costly camel hair coat. He sat in a window casement, one leg crossed over a knee, as he calmly looked out of the window, confident, elegant, very famous, very rich, and quite appealing. It made me think, "What would it have been like to know him?" The next word that came to my mind was, "trickster." Yes, we all know that about him. We can see it in his eyes in every photo. His Demoiselles d'Avignon was originally called The Brothel of Avignon, where oddly all the women seemed to look like him. It took me back to something that Petrarch said in the 1300s, "You cannot cross the bridge into Avignon without encountering a thief, a beggar and a prostitute." Then a different memory came to my mind from 1996 - ah, a woman never forgets - of how Picasso played me in Paris at Le Grand Palais.
Now I readily admit that back then at that stage of my artistic awakening, I knew I was supposed to like Picasso, but.... At any rate, I went to the expo of the autumn season, Picasso and the Portrait, at the Grand Palais, which is indeed grand - enormous in fact. I mingled with the others who wished to do something cultural on a cold, rainy November day. We all looked so intelligent as we shuffled along from room to room, the master's works floating before our eyes. In one gigantic space, I found myself before a rose harlequin. A lovely piece, yes, but I was amazed and disturbed by the heavy dark brown line that outlined the figure. Why on earth did he do that? The whole thing looked so flat and lifeless with this ugly line around it. So I turned and looked diagonally across the room where I saw a portrait of Marie Thérèse Walter, his mistress in the 1930s. It was a typically deconstructed vision of her, but right beside it was what looked like a photograph. So I decided to go over and see what she "really" looked like.
As I made my way across the room, I noticed that the "photo" seemed to dissolve the nearer I came, until upon my arrival, I saw that it was a pencil sketch! What a slight of hand that was, and the magic tricks were not over. When I pushed my dropped jaw back into place and turned to where I had just come from, the rose harlequin leaped forth from the canvas, not longer flat and ordinary, but alive and vibrant. That heavy dark brown line contrasted with the pink to push the figure forward, bringing it out to greet the viewer. Who was this man? I think it was then that I fell for Picasso, or at least his paintings. He was a creative genius, with all the complications of personality and behavior that come with it. He was a master of ideas and images, a juggler like a harlequin, and an oddly honest trickster, who famously said, "Painting is a lie that tells the truth." Olé
Most of his works are not yet in public domain, though the pictures shown here are. To see the portraits of Marie Thérèse Walter look here:
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