Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Picasso's Lost Colouring Book

I was sitting in the study of my home near Antibes when I received a visitor.

‘Ah, Poulin,’ I said to the man, as Jean-Luc, my secretary, showed him in. ‘To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?’ Although I had overcome much of my English reserve when I first moved out to the Mediterranean many years ago, and usually greeted all my guests with an embrace, I could never bring myself to be so warm with Poulin, for he was a criminal of the lowest kind, who stole from those who could not afford to be stolen from, and I detested him for it. That much of what was stolen would then be sold on to me resulted, for a short while after each transaction, in a hatred of my own self that was almost as intense.

I had addressed him in French, yet he answered in English, comedically exaggerating his own accent in the process, as Dali once did. A simple trick employed to make him appear more human, as he pretended to struggle with his pronunciation and grammar. ‘Yes, Monsieur Silverwood, I have something that will have an interest for you. It may be a thing that is made from, ah no, is made by, yes, our Spanish friend.’

‘Do you now…’

‘Yes, our Spanish friend, yes.’

Our Spanish friend. Picasso, of course.

Poulin had sold me numerous items and souvenirs associated with Picasso over the years, many of them wonderfully transformed by the master’s hand. Some were mere trifles, such as the cork from a bottle of wine in which he had engraved a tiny portrait of Marie-Thérèse with his thumbnail, or a sentimental pen-drawing of a cat with a girl’s face he had once doodled on a napkin - made to impress a potential mistress perhaps. Yet some were fine works, such as the several oil sketches on board from the earliest years of his career in Barcelona that Poulin had once procured on my behalf. Now I freely admit that I am a wealthy man, but even I would struggle to pay the handsome price that some of these items would raise at auction. But with Poulin I needed not worry about that, for we had an arrangement.

I simply do not know how Poulin made these things happen. I can only think it was some supernatural power he had: a sixth sense for hidden booty. That unscrupulous gentleman could walk into any remote village in mainland Europe, and if there was a single undiscovered, unidentified art treasure - left behind by the artist on an undocumented visit and stored in a drawer of a peasant’s cottage; at the back of an old cupboard of a municipal building; in a wine-cellar perhaps; even crammed up in the rafters of a lonely tool-shed out on a bleak hill somewhere - he would know, somehow. There was something diabolical about it, I am sure. And it was certainly devilish the way that no sooner detected, the precious artefact would promptly disappear, with the owners of said artefact often unaware of its absence - if they were ever aware of its presence to begin with - that is much less its nature or value.

And so these items would end up with me, or some other gentleman art aficionado. It’s perverse in a way. He could get so much more for them, selling to billionaire Japanese businessmen and the like, but for some reason he preferred to deal with individuals such as myself: those who would truly understand the value of what had come into their possession. Perhaps there was a heart somewhere inside Poulin after all. In any case, he had done me well over the years, catering to my tastes. Certain Baroque and Rococo artists interested me, but my real passion was for early European modernism and its precursors. Corot; Bazille; Cezanne. Nolde; Soutine; Kirchner. But most of all, it was Picasso that I loved above all others. I had given much of my life to him: studying his art intently and intensely, resulting in several published volumes on the artist and his work. I do not boast when I say that although I do not often receive due recognition, I am one of the greatest authorities on the man alive in the world today. And this is not only due to my exhaustive research. I can also claim to have known him personally, having been allowed the honour of several visits to La Californie, not so far from where I now reside, in my youth.

I do not jest when I say, I know Picasso. Not only as a dim figure from my own past, but as a living, breathing person. I know the very essence of his touch, the immutable self that was, and is, Picasso the man: present in every stroke of the brush, mark of the pen or deft manipulation of clay. And thanks to the little treasures Poulin has brought to me over the years, I know sides of him that no one else can ever know. There are secrets that can never be shared without implicating my part in Poulin’s thievery, and so I must content myself by dropping the odd obtuse hint into my writing, in the hope that the more sensitive amongst my readers will understand my meaning. Possibly it is this secret knowledge that might account for the fact that I have never been known to be taken in by a forgery, for the forger only imitates the style. He cannot simulate the man. And I say, I know Picasso, more than a man knows his own wife, or perhaps even himself.

‘It is a most unusual item, Monsieur Silverwood,’ said Poulin, opening his briefcase. He pulled out a package, wrapped up in string, and handed it to me. I sliced the binding and carefully unwrapped it. Inside was an old, battered and musty black book with a red cloth spine. A ledger.

‘Open it, please,’ said Poulin.

I did so, and over the following minutes, as I turned the pages; puzzled at first, but slowly comprehending the possible nature of the strange sights with which I was confronted; a horror fell upon me that I knew I could not let register in my features, lest the monumental awfulness of its secret be even hinted at. As the terrible revelation unfolded before my eyes (although at this stage still not an absolute), I was already certain that none other than myself should ever have knowledge of it, not even somebody as clandestine in their nature as Poulin.

‘Monsieur Poulin, would you mind if you were to leave this with me for a short time, in order for me to ascertain its authenticity?’ I said.

‘Certainly, Monsieur,’ said Poulin,’ ‘would one day be, how you say, of sufficient? I must be on my way by the tomorrow afternoon.’

‘Yes, yes. I’ll certainly be finished by then.’

‘Then I shall see you at this time of tomorrow. Goodbye, Monsieur.’

Poulin stepped back from my desk. I rang a bell for Jean-Luc to show him out.

The ledger lay on my desk for what must have been an hour before I had the will to look at it again. I remember staring at its cover, knowing that which lay inside, if it meant what I feared, destroyed everything. A whole life’s work, rendered meaningless. But mine or his? Perhaps both.

With the grim solemnity of a man arranging his own funeral, I opened it. On the first page was a crude pencil copy of Picasso’s Blue Period masterpiece, La Vie, undoubtedly drawn by the hand of a child. Over the columns of the old Spanish ledger appeared the familiar figures of a naked woman and man, who in the original bore the face of the artist’s deceased friend Casagemas, but not here, alongside a mother and child. Some areas had been filled in sloppily with blue poster paint, while underneath the image, written in Spanish, in large spidery letters, were the following words: ‘In blue land everybody is sad.’ Below this was a name. Pablo Ruiz. And a date. 1887.

Over the next couple of pages were some more crude copies of Blue Period masterpieces: The Tragedy and The Old Guitarist, again with a thick poster paint coating. Then, in a slightly more assured hand, Rose Period works, mostly the masterful depictions of Monmartre circus performers, such as Acrobat On a Ball and The Saltimbanques; the various characters’ colourful stage-names and magnificent skills listed underneath them. Again, there was some attempt at colouring in, a bit more neatly this time, in pink-hued chalk. And again, the signature, Pablo Ruiz, and a date, 1888.

A recognisable if basic sketch of Picasso’s monumental and revolutionary brothel scene, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon followed: dated 1889, accompanied by the statement ‘Evil Witches Live in the Forest’. Cubist works, in brown and grey washes, were to be found over the page. According to the young Pablo Ruiz, ‘In the Land of Glass Everything Looks Smashed’.

Picasso’s Surrealist phase seemed to have caught the imagination of the child copyist just as he gained a level of sexual awareness. A very competent version of the beach scene, The Race, where gigantic semi-nudes gambol by the shore, was adeptly coloured in blue, grey and pink chalk and dated 1891, and came with the frantically written legend: ‘Two big girls run on the beach and when they run their big titties bounce up and down and their clothes which are not on properly and because they are running their big titties fall out and they are holding hands and want to touch each other’s titties.’

I could not bear to look at anymore, but all in all, I guessed that over a hundred Picasso masterpieces were copied out in that ledger. Although of course, ‘copied’ is the wrong word. For the more I looked, the more certain I was that what I held in my hand was the abyss into which all that I held dear would swiftly fall. No, these works were drawn from imagination. They showed the fantasy world of a child. It was the masterpieces, the major works from the oeuvre of Pablo Picasso that were the copies. Here in this ledger were the originals, drawn by little Pablo Picasso Ruiz in stolen childhood moments. Although I would have given anything to dismiss that which confronted me, I could not. The whole terrible truth had descended on me, and I could not deny the evidence of my eyes. I know Picasso, and I recognised his presence in the mark, even in these earliest clumsy efforts, all too resonant of the few remaining childhood drawings that survive. These were his. Picasso was in these drawings.

In painful yet necessary reflection, I have come to some conclusions about the nature of the ledger and the drawings within. It is not a happy thing to have to do: to admit that all this time I, whilst pretending to know all, truly knew nothing. But that is the point to which I have been led by the awful thing with which Poulin cursed me. And so I am left with a new biography of the man I thought I once knew better than my all my lovers; better even, than my own self.

Assuming that the dates are correct - and by the progress in maturity of the hand, there is no reason to think that they are not - the earliest drawings were made when the artist was but seven years old. No doubt the child was not yet considered ready by his artist father for good quality drawing paper, and so the ledger was provided for his juvenilia. The young Pablo must have envisaged the ledger not just as bound paper, but an actual book, in which he would create a whole fantasy land, as children are want to do, even those destined to be geniuses. His would be a land of sad blue people and shattered-glass ladies, wild musicians and strange moon-faced women. He added to it periodically for years, even at certain points using it as a self-made colouring book, trying out different techniques and materials. Until one day, he drew the last image, the ledger not even full: an eerie prediction of his own old age that would one day become the skeletal final Self Portrait. Although one of his very last works, at least in the official history, here it was dated January 15th 1895, and entitled ‘Old King of the Giants’. Carried out five days after the death of his sister Conchita, the drawing seems half-hearted, as if he knew that now was the time to put away such childish things.

The ledger was discarded that year: given, I should imagine, to a boyhood friend in Corunna, somebody the young Picasso might have played mock-bullfights with in the streets perhaps, before the relocation of the Ruiz family to Barcelona. Then there would be a later death: the suicide of Picasso’s friend Casagemas in Paris in 1901, over which the artist felt the intense guilt that has been assumed by many, including myself, as the reason for the descent into the Blue Period and the beginning of the mature oeuvre. But now I can see that it was the beginning of something else also. The deep sense of loss in the young artist could only, he must have believed, be filled by one thing. The psychological reasons for any action such as this will always be obscure, but it is clear that the lost book - the book of fantastical drawings; his colouring book; his secret childhood companion that he discarded, just as he discarded Casagemas - needed to be recreated. And recreate it he did, in masterpiece after masterpiece.

Of course, he could never tell a soul what he was really doing. The entire enterprise was disguised in what appeared to be a life of incredible artistic endeavour: the most courageous, visionary and brilliant of the Twentieth Century. And yet what appeared to be a superhuman descent into the unknown of the artist’s psyche was really nothing of the sort. The great artist would have always known where he was going. Which phase would follow which, what influence would need to appear to have been assimilated next, every apparent breakthrough he would seem to be making, would be have known from the start. He even knew what his last great painting would be. He would have known when it was time to die. All the rest - the books full of sketches; the sculptures; not to mention the myriad references to his personal life encoded within the paintings - they were only there to throw people off the scent. Not that anyone would ever guess. How could they? Only the ledger held the secret.

That it might still exist must have haunted Picasso. He kept the existence of another, later ledger used as a sketchbook, full of adolescent erotica, hidden his entire life. Yet that only had the power to embarrass. This had the power to destroy him. And with it would go the biographies, the analyses, and all his acolytes. It certainly had the power to destroy me. If Picasso went down, I would be going down with him.

In order to protect myself, I needed to know the worst. My fingers shaking, I searched for the drawing that, if present, would break my heart forever. Guernica. That great protest against the evil of fascism: the most powerful declaration of pacifist conviction there has ever been. It stirred my soul like no other image when I was younger, and less numb to the pain of living. And here it was, or at least a workable prototype of it. Some details were different: the iconic electric light bulb was a gas lamp, and the representational techniques were less complex, but Guernica it was. The pre-adolescent drivel written underneath that revealed the work’s true meaning finally broke me. I sobbed uncontrollably for a long, long time.

Poulin returned the next day, as expected. I had got myself little sleep, and my face was gaunt, but I like to think that I managed to appear as sober and businesslike as one needs to be when dealing with people of his kind.

‘Good afternoon, Monsieur Silverwood,’ he said, as Jean-Luc showed him in. ‘I trust you slept well.’

‘Yes, very well,’ I said, preferring not to face him directly, instead turning towards the fire, blazing on that chill winter’s day.

‘And the little gift from our Spanish friend… do you think it is from our Spanish friend, for ah, how do you say, really?’

‘No, no, it’s not I’m afraid. There might be the odd tiny thing that is in his hand, but mostly it’s the work of Dora Maar, by the look of it, although I fear his son Paulo may have been responsible for some of the earlier drawings!’

‘Of course, of course,’ said Poulin, ‘but it is strange, yes, that it is in that old ledger; a Spanish ledger, mind, not a French one. And although I do not like to reveal my source, I will say I came by this object not in France, but in Spain. Corunna in fact.’

‘Undoubtedly there’s an explanation,’ I snapped. ‘Still, it is of interest, and I will certainly purchase it from you.’

We negotiated a price. I arranged for the amount to be deposited in the manner to which we had both become accustomed.

‘I hope to find more gifts for you from our Spanish friend soon, Monsieur,’ he said, as Jean-Luc waited by the door to hand him his coat.

‘Yes, of course,’ I said. I was no longer particularly aware of his presence. I merely stared into the fire. When he finally left, I did not notice.

When I awoke it was evening. Jean-Luc had brought me some food, and left it on a low table by my chair.

I turned to my desk. Although for a brief hopeful second I had hoped it may have been part of a vivid hallucinatory dream, and Poulin had never really visited, the ledger still waited for me there, as if glowering: smug in its knowledge of the power it had over me. Its power over Picasso.

I picked up the ledger and threw it in the fire. I did this out of my love for him. I watched it as it burned, until it was but a cinder.

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