Picasso & the Gestapo

Another guest post by Brendan Howley The first time I spent in Paris was a blustery March, out of season and dour; the city gathered itself for spring, hinted at in the cross-winds rising off the Seine the afternoon I chose to buy a book—any book—from one of the booksellers on the quai des Grands Augustins.

After several tries, I found what I was looking for, something unique, eccentrically Parisian: declining two different coffee table books (one on Utrillo and the other on Chagall) offered me by the cagey bookseller, a lean, vulpine fellow who wouldn’t have been out of place selling third-rate rugs at first-rate prices in some alley in Casablanca, I found it. For the fabulous sum of nearly US$30, I bought a Wehrmacht photo-guide to the city, pub lished in 1942, at the height of the Jewish deportations from the Marais to Auschwitz and Treblinka and the last days of the Free Zone before the Gestapo moved in.

Delighted with my bargain, I wandered up the street, knowing I’d pay my respects in the courtyard mews where Picasso had lived while painting “Guernica,” his massive anti-war mural commemorating the bombing of the Basque town by German aircraft during the Spanish Civil War.

It’s an oddly bourgeois place for the old Communist painter to have lived but then Picasso was a concerto of contradictions. The gate was open, so I walked into the courtyard and found myself locking eyes with a very Russian-looking fellow perhaps twenty years my senior: gingery hair, wide, flattish face, he looked like one of the great USSR hockey players whose names I could never remember.

He had a big 4×5 Hasselblad camera on a tripod and was fiddling with his light-meter. Several big photo-umbrellas focused light on the walls; a generator thrummed nearby. I introduced myself as a Canadian journalist, which didn’t interest him in the least, except, of course, when he thought to ask if I’d ever seen Gretzky play. (I had.)

Impressed, he was, he said, an architectural photographer for a French publishing house. I showed him the Wehrmacht photo-guide and he was much amused. Did I know the story? he asked me in heavily accented French. Which story? I replied. He offered me a Gauloise, which I declined and smoked while he worked.

I hadn’t known that Balzac had set his short story about the painter Nicolas Poussin, “The Unknown Masterpiece,” in this very building. But, my Russian friend went on, there was a twist in the tale. Picasso was asked by a publisher to illustrate the Balzac story and came to so identify with the old master-painter in Balzac’s story that he moved into the house in 1936 and lived and painted in his atelier-apartment for almost twenty years.

“The Gestapo gave (PIcasso) a very hard time during the war,” the Russian said. “One of them asked him if he’d done ‘Guernica’’’ and he replied, too fast for his own good, ‘no, you people did.’” The Russian laughed. I did too, not least because the story partly redeemed Picasso for me, given the old satyr’s abusive treatment of his women and children. I left the Russian; a hatchet-faced woman slipped out of one of the courtyard doorways and closed the gate behind me. “Hey, Canadian,” the Russian called out as I turned to go. “You forgot your book.”

I took the book back from him through the closed gate. In the windows above, three children watched us. One waved and the other two giggled, irritating the Russian; he called to the concierge, who ended the stand-off with a phone call, standing in the courtyard at the full length of the phone-cord, legs akimbo, all triangles: not a little Cubist herself.