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A Picasso pilgrimage

Me outside the Bateau Lavoir, and (top) the building
in about 1905.
You know those people that are completely obsessed fans of Star Wars, Game of Thrones, or any other kind of chronicle/team/celebrity/et cetera? The ones who secretly hoard collections of memorabilia, who consume everything created by the object of their obsession or written about it? The ones who, when asked a question about their pet subject, find it hard not to start gabbling wildly, trying to tell everything they know as fast as they can, in a way that makes the person who asked the question freeze with a ghastly smile on their face and wide, unblinking eyes that cannot hide their deep regret at starting a conversation with this complete and utter nutter?

That's me, when it comes to Pablo Picasso and his early years in Paris.

Picasso on the Place Ravignan, in front of
Le Bateau Lavoir, in 1904.
Thankfully, it started with his paintings, and later the other kinds of art he made, so at least my obsession is moored in what really matters. I understood the importance of his painting, and quickly grew to love a lot of it, long before I read any biographies or visited any of his haunts in Paris or Barcelona. Yet ever since I began learning about his life in Paris, and particularly the years he spent in a studio building in Montmartre known as Le Bateau Lavoir, it's a story that I keep returning to, reading about, and often re-reading accounts that I've already read several times before. Whenever I return to Paris and visit the area where the studio stood, I realise that I've spent so much time there in my imagination that I know it almost as well as places I've actually inhabited. What is it about that place and those times that compels me to such a degree?

The story of the Bateau Lavoir and its residents has been told many times, but it's always worth hearing it again. It started life as a piano factory, then started being used by artists in the 1880s. It's an odd shape, with a long, low, single story front facade on the Place Emile Goudeau in Montmartre (formerly the Place Ravignan). Because it's built on the side of a steep hill, the other floors behind the front door drop sharply away, so that the courtyard at the rear is three storeys lower than the front.

The back of the Le Bateau Lavoir in the 1960s.
There was no plumbing in any of the studios, and only one cold water tap to serve the entire building, which you can see at the bottom of the entrance stairs in this photo:

The poet Max Jacob coined the nickname Le Bateau Lavoir (the laundry boat), because he thought it looked like the long, creaky washing-boats that crawled past on the Seine every day. An entire generation of more conventional artists had already made the studios their homes before Picasso moved in in April 1904. His first studio was on the upper floor: you can see the narrow balcony immediately to the right of the main entrance in that photo above, which led to the door of Picasso's studio:

The roof of the studio was all glass, as you can see in this photo that Picasso took from the roof:

This made the studio steam like a hothouse in summer, and freezing cold in winter. Most of the residents had wood or coal burning stoves, but this was often not enough to stop water from freezing if left out in bowls overnight. It was in this room that Picasso lived and worked from 1904 to 1909. Within a few months of moving in, he met and fell in love with Fernande Olivier, and she moved in to this studio-hovel with him in 1905. Within a year of moving to the Bateau Lavoir, writers Guillaume Appolinaire and Andre Salmon became, along with Max Jacob, part of Picasso's gang. They saw each other almost every day, and for years they would eat lunch and dinner together, go to Gertrude Stein's salons together, and hang around in Picasso's studio until late into the night, getting drunk, horsing around, dreaming of success, or frequently getting wasted on opium, For the first couple of years, Picasso was so poor that he sold small paintings and drawings for a pittance just to get by. The Steins paid more for his Rose Period paintings, as did a few dealers, but it was still hand to mouth until about 1907-1908. By that time, of course, he had met Georges Braque, had painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and had taken the bewilderment that greeted that painting and doubled down on it, creating paintings of radical distortions of traditional themes and methods, and in the process finding a market, at least outside France. By 1909, he was financially stable enough to rent an apartment on the Boulevard de Clichy, not far away from the Bateau Lavoir at the foot of the hills of Montmartre, but a decisive step away from the world of the bohemians. He kept using the studio at the Bateau Lavoir for a few more years, and rented additional space there too, before finally moving studio and home altogether in 1912, to the world-away climes of Montparnasse.

Most of it is vicarious wish fulfilment, of course. I read about the studio, the daily life inside those rooms, the daily life in the streets outside it, the circle of poets. painters, and lovers Picasso inhabited, the growing succession of buyers and dealers that began to come there, the lows and the highs of working in poverty yet being sure of your talent, and of course the revolutionary art he made while there--and there's a part of me that wishes I'd been there, that I'd been that person, that my career and life had proceeded like that. Yet I'm sure I'm not the only person who becomes fascinated by biographical details as an extension of an enthusiasm for beloved works of art. In the case of Picasso et al during these years, there are several other factors in play: with a great degree of self-belief, but with a huge amount of accident and luck, these artists fashioned one of the most revolutionary shifts in visual art that had occurred since the Renaissance, probably surpassing even the Impressionists in the effect it had on all the art that came after; and we are fortunate enough to have a large amount of documentary evidence about those years that puts us right there, in a particular place and time. There are very few seismic movements in art to which we can draw so close, to witness the almost daily unfolding of a new art coming into being.

Let's close with some art. Here is one of the first paintings Picasso finished after he moved to the Bateau Lavoir in 1904:

And one of the last, from 1912:


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