Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Picasso in Occupied Paris by David King

Another place Sartre, Camus, and Beauvoir could be seen that spring was at the restaurant Catalan, on rues des Grands-Augustins, sometimes seated at the table of their new friend, Pablo Picasso. Despite many invitations to come abroad, the Spanish artist had remained in Paris during the Nazis Occupation, painting in his two-story studio on rue Saint-Augustin, on the Left Bank. The sixty-two -year –old, with long white hair falling onto his shoulders, was surrounded by his work And his women, including his latest lover, the twenty-two-year-old painter Francoise Gilot.

In the eyes of the Nazis authorities, Picasso was a highly suspect artist. He had supported the Spanish republicans during the Civil War, raised money for their cause, and published caricatures of the military dictator in his Dream and Lie of Franco. He had commemorated the German firebombing raid of the Basque city of Guernica on the afternoon of April 26, 1937, on a three-hundred-square-foot canvas that had dramatically raised awareness of the tragedy. Hitler, of course, had place the painter on a list of modern degenerates, and the Nazis banned all his exhibits in Paris.

The French police had actually collected a sizable file on the Spanish painter, a dossier that was only discovered in 2003, when 140 cardboard boxes were returned to Paris from Moscow. The Russians had seized the archives in 1945 from the Germans, who had in turn taken during the Liberation. As historians had then learned, Picasso had applied for French citizenship in April 1940, but the state had rejected the application on the grounds that he was suspected of being an anarchist or communist, or harboring sympathies leaning in that direction. “He has no right to be naturalized,” an official wrote on the form, and “should even be considered suspect from a national viewpoint.”

Picasso had not even told his closest friends about this request. He had, however, let then know his fears: namely, that his authorization to remain in the country was about to expire and he had sworn never to return to Spain as long as Franco was in power. Fortunately for Picasso, a sympathetic police officer intervened. “Very Illegally,” Maurice Toesca wrote in his diary in September 1943, “I have prolonged his stay for three years.”

The Germans who visited Picasso’s studio during the Occupation were not the SS men who were rumored to be slashing his paintings, but instead a number of officials who admired his work. One frequent visitor was Lieutenant Gerhard Heller of the Referat Schriftum (Literature Section) of the Propaganda-Staffel. After his introduction in June 1942, Heller, a censor, would take a break from the stacks of manuscripts overflowing on the shelves, tables, chairs, and floors at his office at 52 Champs-Elysees to climb the spiral staircase, heart beating with excitement at another chance to observe the most infamous example of modern degenerate art at work.

As usual, Picasso was experimenting with color, texture, and form. In addition to woodcuts and pen-and-ink drawings, he worked on cardboard, matchboxes, cigarette boxes, even food, like a piece of bread – a reflection of his creative zeal as well as the shortage of canvases under Occupation. Many of the objects of his paintings – sausages, legs of lamb, grand buffet tables, and the empty cooking pot – reflect the preoccupations and hardships of the period, as did the death’s-heads and grotesque monsters reminiscent of his early cubist days. Even his choice of colors, more black, gray, and beige, seemed to parallel the drab palette of the Occupation.

On the evening of March 19, 1944, Picasso’s play Le Desir attrape par la queue (Desire Caught by the Tail) was performed at his friends Michel and Zette Leiris’s fifth-floor apartment on the Quai des Grands-Augustin. It was a dark surrealist farce that featured star-studded cast: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Picasso’s former lover Dora Maar. Albert Camus narrated, describing the largely imaginary sets – that is, except for a large black box that served alternatively as a bed, a bathtub, and a coffin.

Picasso had written the play three years earlier, beginning, as he recorded in a notebook, on the evening of January 14, 1941, and, in the tradition of surrealist automatic writing, finished it three days later. Reminiscent of 1920s avante-garde theater, the play revolved around deprivation and indulgence, or more specifically hunger and sex. Michel Leiris, who had selected the cast, played the lead role of Big Foot. Sartre was The Round End; Raymond Queneau, The Onion; and Jacques-Laurent Bost, Silence. Simone de Beauvoir played The Cousin, while publisher Jean Aubier was The Curtains.

When Gertrude Stein had read the script, she suggested that Picasso stick to painting. But the photographer Gyula Haasz, better known as Brassai, thought otherwise. He praised Picasso’s virtuosity, comparing the composition style to the “verbal trance that gave free reign to dreams, obsessions, unavowed desires, comical connections between ideas and words, everyday banalities, the absurd.” This play, he added, displayed the painter’s “humor and inexhaustible spirit of invention. . . in their pure state.”

As the play ended about eleven, just before that night’s curfew, Leiris had invited the cast and several friends to spend the night. They sang, listened to jazz records, and admired Sartre playing the piano. Camus and the host acted out various scenes, enhanced in part with wine served warm with cinnamon. Then party ended at five in the morning. Simone de Beauvoir was overjoyed: “A year before we would have never dreamed of gathering together like this and having a noisy, frivolous party that went on for hours.”

This was the first of the fiestas, as Michel Leiris dubbed them, that would take place in the spring of 1944. Beauvoir described another one not long afterwards, at surrealist Georges Bataille’s house in the Cour de Rohan:

We constituted a sort of carnival with its mountebanks, its confidence men, its clowns, and its parades. Dora Marr used to mime a bullfighting act; Sartre conducted an orchestra from the bottom of a cupboard; Limbour carved up a ham as though he were a cannibal: Queneau and Bataille fought a duel with bottles instead of swords; Camus and Lemarchend played military marches on saucepan lids, while those who knew how to sing, sang. So did those who didn’t. We had pantomimes, comedies, diatribes, parodies, monologues, and confessions: the flow of improvisations never dried up, and they were always greeted with enthusiastic applause. We put on records and danced; some of us . . . very well; others less expertly.

Beauvoir, looking back, remembered being “filled with the joy of living. I regained my old conviction that life can and ought to be a real pleasure.”

1 comment:

  1. From “Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris” by David King; Crown Publishers, 2011. The story of Dr. Marcel Petiot, a prolific and profit-making serial killer. Behind the ominous cloud of smoke that poured from his chimney in the heart of Paris’s chic 16th arrondissement was a terrifying tragedy; a predator brutally exploiting opportunities for gain, slaughtering society’s most vulnerable and desperate people, the majority of them being Jews fleeing persecution. Luring them with false promises of escape, Dr. Petiot had become the self-appointed executioner for Hitler, gassing, butchering, and burning his victims in his own private death camp.