Le bateau lavoir, c. 1905
Are there events in the lives of artists that you read about and wish you’d been around to see? I’ve read a lot of biographies, and the one that stands out for me is John Richardson’s Life of Picasso, Volume I. It covers Picasso’s life from his birth in 1882 to the middle of 1907, just before he started work on ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.’ Richardson discovered a wealth of new material about Picasso’s early years in Paris, and his descriptions of the bohemian life of Montmartre just teem with vivid detail.
I wish I’d had a studio in the Bateau Lavoir round about 1905. This was an old laundry building on a small square in Montmartre, the Place Emile Goudeau. The entry was on the square, and once you were inside, the building descended sharply through several levels because it was built on the side of a hill. The building is no longer there, but if you go to the square you can still see quite clearly what this would have looked like. My studio would have had no heating or water, but might have had one wall entirely of small glass panes—which would make it freezing in winter and boiling hot in summer. I would of course have had a round metal stove, with its thin chimney snaking out through a hole cut illegally in the ceiling or the side wall, where the smoke from the logs would have belched out and joined the smoke from the hundreds of other chimneys in the district. For lunch and dinner, I would probably go to Le Lapin Agile, a dive on the square where the local artists would gather to eat and drink. The locals—the non-artists, the civilians, the barrow-wheelers and draymen, the small store owners, the bank clerks—were known to refer to this tribe of artists as ‘the apaches’. And some of us would live up to this reputation by carrying a revolver, which we would occasionally fire out of one of the Bateau Lavoir’s windows at night to let everyone know that ‘the apaches’ were on the war path.
If I was lucky, maybe I would get invited up to one of the late night sessions in the studio of that Spanish artist, the small guy with the build of a wrestler who had that tall, regal-looking mistress with the Egyptian eyes. The party would start at eleven or so. Those two poets would be there—Apollinaire, with his incessant puns and his bumptiousness; Max Jacob, moody and serious, always glancing at Picasso to see if Apollinaire was getting too much of his attention. Picasso would smile more than he would talk, because he was self-conscious about his Spanish accent when he spoke French, particularly around Braque, who also had a studio in the building, and who was probably the only person Picasso was slightly in awe of. There would be anis, and absinthe, and as the night wore on, the hashish pipe would get passed around, which Picasso wouldn’t touch because he once had a bad trip. The talk would go non-stop. There would be shouting, laughter, voices talking back and forth and over each other. There would be merciless mockery of people who were present and absent. The future of art and poetry would be drunkenly argued to death. Eventually some would start to fall asleep, some would want to go back to their work, some would leave the building to continue the party somewhere else. And in the morning life would begin all over again.
Yes, the Bateau Lavoir, June 1905. That’s where I would like to be.
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