Saturday, December 10, 2011

“Live Like a Poet! At Home in the Bateau Lavoir,” by Rosanna Warren

On April 13, 1904, Pablo Picasso and his friend the Catalan painter Sebastià Junyer Vidal travelled from Barcelona to Paris and installed themselves in Montmartre in the studio just vacated by the Basque ceramicist and sculptor Paco Durrio. Junyer Vidal paid the rent. Called “La Maison du Trappeur” (The Trapper’s House), later renamed Le Bateau Lavoir by its denizens, this ex-piano factory and ex-locksmith shop converted to a congeries of studios in 1889 could be entered on the first floor from the rue Ravignan, but plunged in the rear down three storeys to the rue Garreau. Various Spanish artists had preceded Picasso in the building, including his older friends Ricard Canals and Joaquim Sunyer. In the 1880s it had been a popular haunt for anarchists, Gauguin had visited often, and the poet-dramatic Paul Fort had lived there while directing his Symbolist Théâtre de l’Art across the square. Poet Max Jacob, who visited every day and later lived there for a while, evoked it often. In a lecture in 1937 he remembered: “Picasso returned with what the dealers have called the Blue Period paintings, vaguely imitative of El Greco. He led me to the crown of the Butte Montmartre. We scorned all previous art and all the schools, and in the evenings, to amuse ourselves, we improvised plays, without spectators, which we never wrote down and which concluded in wild bursts of laughter. He lived at 13 rue Ravignan, today called the Place Emile Goudeau, a sort of hangar made of ill-fitting boards, at once cellar and attic, poised on a kind of cliff Montmartre still hardly conceals with its huge new apartment houses. Our neighbors were quasi-laundresses (de vagues blanchisseuses) and a fruit and vegetable vendor, and those poor people complained of the noise Picasso’s bitch Frika made at night with her chain.”In a memoir from 1933, Jacob gave even more detail: “A real barn, that studio of Picasso’s, with exposed beams, walls made of ill-fitting boards, an unbelievable floor on which one couldn’t walk without waking the neighbors…The admirable Mme. Coudray, the concierge, knew how to be kind when the rent was due, and how to put up with noise. Ah! Those dear old days of poverty, work, friendship, and joy. Many of the studios were cellars, and the stairs were never swept. Everything was made of wood.”

Junyer Vidal returned soon to Barcelona, so during Picasso’s first six weeks at the Bateau Lavoir the crowd was reduced to Jacob, a theatrical thief named Manolo, and a Gypsy guitarist, Fabián de Castro, who slept on the floor. Jacob visited every day. The complex tone of their friendship, tinged with Jacob’s adoration, irony, and self-abasement, can be gleaned from this memoir the poet composed in 1931:

It’s 1904, Picasso is already strong but his visitors are still only the picturesque Manolo and a poor little Jew (that’s what Vollard called him) who doesn’t believe he’s a poet. I lived at Barbès. I arrived at 13 rue Ravignan early in the morning. To my own bare bed, and my dark little work table, I preferred this doorway that had pretensions to grandeur a hundred years earlier, and Picasso’s narrow door decorated with bits of practical advice. It was at the end of a catwalk corridor, above the invisible cliffs of Montmartre geology, at the end of a cliff of stairs.

I called out his name. Hardly awake, Picasso opened the door. I had arrived across all the stone steps of Montmartre and oceanic Paris seen from on high.

[ ... ]

Picasso plays the role, in this narrative, of liberating genius. Jacob told the memoirist Robert Guiette, “Picasso had come back from Spain and found Max desperate over the loss of his job. ‘What kind of life is that?’ Picasso asked. ‘Live like the poets!’ ” The liberation, the imperative to follow a life of art, extended even to physical appearance. Jacob told Maurice Martin du Gard in 1920, “It’s Picasso who changed my life…It was he who told me, ‘Shave off your beard.’ He who told me, ‘Take off your pince-nez, wear a monocle. Don’t be time-puncher. Live like a poet.’ ”


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