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A Centennial Day With Picasso

If you're not the sort of person who becomes obsessed with your favourite artists to the extent that you lap up even the tiniest details of their biography, then read no further: this post is not for you.

If, however, you get a kick out of that sort of thing, then here's what I want to talk about. Roughly twenty years ago, I found a short book that became a valuable addition to my collection of biographical materials about Picasso. It's called A Day With Picasso, and it came about when a researcher called Billy Kluver decided to track down all the photographs taken by Jean Cocteau during a single afternoon lunch session with Picasso, in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, some time during WWI. You can read the full story in his own words in the essay that prefaced the book. A brief summary: photos like this one were known to biographers and cultural historians...

L to r: Kisling, Ortiz, Jacob, Picasso, La Paquerette.
... but no-one had tried to track down all the photos that Cocteau took that day, and no-one had ascertained even the year that the photos were taken. Kluver's method involved talking to collectors, biographers, museum people, and other related parties; hunting through archives; and most ingeniously of all, matching meteorological charts from the time to arrive at an exact day when a) all the people in the photos were in Paris at the same time, and b) to judge by the angle of the shadows what time of day the photos were taken. 

The result: Kluver named the day as Saturday, August 12, 1916, and the shooting time was from about 12:30 in the afternoon until about 4:00 pm. Cocteau met Picasso at the Rotonde on the Boulevard Montparnasse, where they were joined by the poet Max Jacob, the writer Henri Pierre Roché, the artists Moise Kisling and Amedeo Modigliani, and the model La Paquerette. A few other members of the Montparnasse artistic demi-monde dropped by at different times. Cocteau took a series of relaxed, candid shots of his friends outside the restaurant, at the junction of the Boulevard du Montparnasse and the Boulevard Raspail; inside the Rotonde; outside on the street again, fooling around next to a vegetable seller's cart; and (after Picasso had gone home) outside the church at the western end of the avenue.

Standing, l to r: Jacob, Roche, Picasso

L to r: Ortiz, Jacob, Kisling, La Paquerette, and Picasso inside La Rotonde
There's nothing particularly dramatic about the photos. It's entirely possible that the conversations, locked forever inside the silence of the still image, were about banal things like the price of coffee, or what they were doing for dinner later. They were almost certainly joking around about people they knew, art dealers they were struggling with, and perhaps talking about weightier matters like the terrible war that was taking place a few dozen miles away to the north of Paris. But it's precisely the informality of the shots, and the fact that Mr. Kluver tracked them down to a particular day in a particular order, that gives the extraordinary feeling of sitting next to people in a cafe, a whole century ago, as they go about the work of creating the milieu that lit the starting fuse for twentieth century art.

Some other related biographical information that pertains to the photos:
  • It's likely that the reason they were all meeting was because the artists had work in a show at the nearby Salon d'Antin. Picasso exhibited his 1907 masterpiece Les Demoiselles d'Avignon -- the first time the painting had ever been shown in public:

  • Picasso's studio was less than a kilometre away, next to the cemetery on the Rue de Schoelcher ( the red marker on the following map). I wrote a previous long post about Picasso's association with that address. The meeting and photos all happened close to where it says Vavin metro stop on the map:

  • La Paquerette was actually the lover of two of the people in these photos, neither of whom seemed to mind. She was a model for the fashion designer Paul Poiret, who in turn was one of Picasso's patrons beginning in the Cubist period of Picasso's work (about 1911 onwards).
  • In the second photo above, the chap in the military uniform is Henri Pierre Roché, a journalist who about ten years earlier had helped introduce Picasso to Gertrude Stein, who in turn became Picasso's first significant patron. Roché would later write a memoir about a thorny love triangle he had been part of, which in 1962 would be turned into the film masterpiece Jules et Jim by director Francois Truffaut:

  • I was born in 1962.


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