Conversations with Picassoby Brassai, Jane Marie Todd (Translator)
"Read this book if you want to understand me."—Pablo Picasso
Conversations with Picasso offers a remarkable vision of both Picasso and the entire artistic and intellectual milieu of wartime Paris, a vision provided by the gifted photographer and prolific author who spent the early portion of the 1940s photographing Picasso's work. Brassaï/i>
"Read this book if you want to understand me."—Pablo Picasso
Conversations with Picasso offers a remarkable vision of both Picasso and the entire artistic and intellectual milieu of wartime Paris, a vision provided by the gifted photographer and prolific author who spent the early portion of the 1940s photographing Picasso's work. Brassaï carefully and affectionately records each of his meetings and appointments with the great artist, building along the way a work of remarkable depth, intimate perspective, and great importance to anyone who truly wishes to understand Picasso and his world.
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Conversations with Picasso
University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003
University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Wednesday 20 October 1943
The table, only yesterday covered with dust, is completely clean.
Catalogs, brochures, books, and letters have been carefully dusted
and even arranged by size into regular piles. Picasso appears,
delighted with my surprise.
Picasso: I searched again all night for my flashlight. I hate it
when people pilfer my things. Since I wanted to make a clean breast
of things, I also attacked this whole heap of books. Maybe my
flashlight got misplaced in all that. Given that opportunity, I
arranged and cleaned everything.
Brassai: What about the flashlight?
Picasso: I found it. It was upstairs in my bathroom.
Picasso has errands to do in town and goes out. Shortly thereafter,
a woman enters with a package carefully tied up with string under
her arm. She would like to see Picasso "in person." She has
something to show him that will undoubtedly interest him. She can
wait for him all morning if necessary.
When Picasso returns two hours later, she undoes the package
and takes out a little picture: "M. Picasso," she says, "allow me to
present you with one of your old paintings."
And he, always rather moved to see again awork long lost from
sight, looks tenderly at this little canvas.
Picasso: Yes, it's a Picasso. It's authentic. I painted it in Hyeres
where I spent the summer in 1922.
The Visitor: May I ask you to sign it, then? Owning a real Picasso
without his signature is very distressing, after all! People who see
it in our home may assume it's a fake.
Picasso: People are always asking me to sign my old canvases. It's
ridiculous! In one way or another, I always marked my pictures. But
there were times when I put my signature on the back of the canvas.
All my works from the cubist period, until about 1914, have my name
and the date on the back side of the stretcher. I know someone
spread the story that in Ceret, Braque and I decided not to sign our
pictures anymore. But that's just a legend! We didn't want to sign
the painting itself, that would have interfered with the
composition. And even later, for that reason or for another, I
sometimes marked my canvases on the back. If you don't see my
signature and the date, madam, it's because the frame is hiding it.
The Visitor: But since the picture is by you, M. Picasso, couldn't
you do me the favor of signing it?
Picasso: No, ma'am! If I were to sign it now, I'd be committing
forgery. I'd be putting my 1943 signature on a canvas painted in
1922. No, I cannot sign it, madam, I'm sorry.
Resigned, the woman wraps up her Picasso, and we continue to talk
about the signature. I ask him if he purposely chose his mother's
Picasso: My friends back in Barcelona called me by that name. It was
stranger, more resonant, than "Ruiz." And those are probably the
reasons I adopted it. Do you know what appealed to me about that
name? Well, it was undoubtedly the double s, which is fairly unusual
in Spain. "Picasso" is of Italian origin, as you know. And the name
a person bears or adopts has its importance. Can you imagine me
calling myself "Ruiz"? "Pablo Ruiz"? "Diego-Jose Ruiz"? Or
"Juan-Nepomucene Ruiz"? I was given I don't know how many names.
Have you noticed, by the way, the double s in the names of Matisse,
Poussin, and Le Douanier Rousseau?
And Picasso asks me if it was the double s that led me to adopt my
pen name, "Brassai."
"It's from the name of my native city in Transylvania," I tell
him, "which contains the double s, but the sonority of the double
consonant probably played some role in my choice."
Among all the letters of the alphabet, the capital S is the
"And what other movement determines the S line? Its aesthetic
efficacity has long been noted by artists; the great English painter
Hogarth, in his Analysis of Beauty, even extols it as the most
perfect line, calling it the 'Line of Beauty.' In the engravings
that illustrate his book, which he himself did, he shows multiple
examples of its success, in the forms of the human body, in those of
a flower, in the felicitous fall of a drape, or in the outline of a
piece of furniture" (Rene Huygue, La puissance de l'image).
Another visitor arrives: the poet Georges Hugnet. He has just
discovered one of Picasso's old gouaches and intends to buy it.
"It's one of your finest gouaches: a popular fete with men and women
dancers. It's being offered to me for 150,000 francs."
Picasso: That's not so expensive! I remember it well. I painted it
in Juan-les-Pins. It was a fete on the Iles de Lerins, on
Sainte-Marguerite. Old people were there. They were dancing almost
naked. Is that the one? Yes, you may buy it. You'll be getting a
Georges Hugnet leaves to acquire the gouache. I show Picasso my
twenty "arrondissements": a series of nudes done ten years earlier,
nudes made completely of round forms, curvatures, arrondissements.
Picasso sets them out on the floor.
Brassai: What excited me was the vase, musical instrument, fruit
aspect of the female body. That characteristic was captured in the
art of the Cyclades: the woman was transposed into a sort of violin.
And I was surprised to see how much the largest fruit, from the
"maritime coconut palm," resembles the female posterior and lower
Picasso: That enormous coconut you're talking about is the strangest
fruit I've ever seen. Have you seen the one I own? Someone gave it
to me one day as a gift. I'll go get it for you.
And Picasso brings back the enormous nut. Mine is in its natural
state, with granulated skin and hair. His has been polished and
shows off the grain of an exotic wood.
Picasso: That was a good idea of yours to chop up the female body
that way. The details are always exciting.
Then he looks at a few nudes, metamorphosed into landscapes. The
outline that circles the body and simultaneously traces a relief of
hills and valleys interests him intensely. You go directly from the
sinuous lines of the female body to an undulating landscape. Picasso
notices that in some photos the texture of "goose flesh" suggests
the skin of an orange, the network formed by sea waves seen from
afar, or the granulations of stone. One of the attractions of the
photo is that it fosters such associations, such visual metaphors.
And we talk about stones: sandstone, granite, marble.
Picasso: It seems strange to me that someone thought of making
marble statues. I understand how you could see something in the root
of a tree, a crack in the wall, in an eroded stone or pebble. But
marble? It comes off in blocks and doesn't evoke any image. It does
not inspire. How could Michelangelo have seen his David in a block
of marble? Man began to make images only because he discovered them
nearly formed around him, already within reach. He saw them in a
bone, in the bumps of a cave, in a piece of wood. One form suggested
a woman to him, another a buffalo, still another the head of a
We have returned to prehistoric times.
Brassai: A few years ago, I was in the valley of Les Eyzies in
Dordogne. I wanted to see cave art at the source. One thing
surprised me: every generation, totally unaware of the ones that
preceded it, nevertheless organized the cave in the same way, at a
distance of thousands of years. You always find the "kitchen" in the
Picasso: Nothing extraordinary about that! Man doesn't change. He
keeps his habits. Instinctively, all those people found the same
corner for their kitchen. To build a city, don't men choose the same
sites? Under cities you always find other cities; other churches
under churches, and other houses under houses. Races and religions
may have changed, but the marketplace, the living quarters,
pilgrimage sites, places of worship, have remained the same. Venus
is replaced by the Virgin, but the same life goes on.
Brassai: In the lower strata of the valley of Les Eyzies, excavation
archaeologists had the brilliant idea of preserving a cross-section
four to five meters high, with layers built up over millennia. It's
like a mille-feuille. In every layer, the "tenants" left their
visiting cards: fragments of bone, teeth, flints. In a single
glance, you can take in thousands of years of history. It's very
Picasso: And you know what's responsible? It's dust! The earth
doesn't have a housekeeper to do the dusting. And the dust that
falls on it every day remains there. Everything that's come down to
us from the past has been conserved by dust. Right here, look at
these piles, in a few weeks a thick layer of dust has formed. On rue
La Boetie, in some of my rooms-do you remember?-my things were
already beginning to disappear, buried in dust. You know what? I
always forbade everyone to clean my studios, dust them, not only for
fear they would disturb my things, but especially because I always
counted on the protection of dust. It's my ally. I always let it
settle where it likes. It's like a layer of protection. When there's
dust missing here or there, it's because someone has touched my
things. I see immediately someone has been there. And it's because I
live constantly with dust, in dust, that I prefer to wear gray
suits, the only color on which it leaves no trace.
Brassai: It takes a thousand years of dust to make a one-meter
layer. The Roman Empire is buried two or three meters underground.
In Rome, Paris, and Arles, the empire is in our cellars. Prehistoric
layers are even thicker. We know something about primitive
man-you're right-only because of the "protection" of dust.
Picasso: In reality, we know very little. What is conserved in the
ground? Stone, bronze, ivory, bone, sometimes pottery. Never wood
objects, no fabric or skins. That completely skews our notions about
primitive man. I don't think I'm wrong when I say that the most
beautiful objects of the "stone age" were made of skin, fabric, and
especially wood. The "stone age" ought to be called the "wood age."
How many African statues are made of stone, bone, or ivory? Maybe
one in a thousand! And prehistoric man had no more ivory at his
disposal than African tribes. Maybe even less. He must have had
thousands of wooden fetishes, all gone now.
Brassai: Picasso, do you know what the earth preserves best?
Greco-Roman coins. I've followed the excavations in Saint-Remy,
where a Greek village is being uncovered. With every shovelful of
dirt a coin appears.
Picasso: It's insane how many Roman coins are being found! It's as
if all Romans had holes in their pockets. They sowed coins wherever
they went. Even in the fields. Maybe to grow money ...
Brassai: With excavations, I always have the impression they're
breaking a mold to take out a sculpture. In Pompeii, it was Vesuvius
that did the casting. Houses, men, animals were instantly caught in
that boiling gangue. There is something deeply moving about those
convulsed bodies, captured at the moment of death. I saw them in
their glass cages in Pompeii and Naples.
Picasso: Dali was really obsessed with the idea of such monstrous
castings, of that instantaneous end to all life by a cataclysm. He
talked to me about a casting of the place de l'Opera, with the opera
building, the Cafe de la Paix, the high-class chicks, the cars, the
passersby, the cops, the newspaper kiosks, the girls selling
flowers, the streetlights, the clock still marking the time. Imagine
it in plaster or bronze, life-size. What a nightmare! If I could do
that, I'd choose Saint-Germain-des-Pres, with the Cafe de Flore, the
Brasserie Lipp, the Deux-Magots, Jean-Paul Sartre, the waiters Jean
and Pascal, M. Boubal, the cat, and the blonde cashier. What a
marvelous, monstrous casting that would make.
Monday 25 October 1943
Picasso wants to show me the display case, or, as Sabartes calls it,
the "museum." It is a large metal and glass cabinet, locked, placed
in a little room adjoining the studio. To open it, he takes out his
voluminous set of keys. About fifty statuettes are piled up in it,
along with wood he has sculpted, stones he has engraved, and other
curious or rare objects, such as an agglomeration of twisted,
misshapen drinking glasses, crumpled one on top of another, which I
stare at wide-eyed! Could this be one of Picasso's "experiments"?
Seeing that this strange object has piqued my curiosity, with
infinite care he takes it out for me.
Picasso: I see these glasses intrigue you. Magnificent, don't you
think? Well, they're bordeaux glasses! They come from Martinique.
You're too young to remember the terrible cataclysm that destroyed
the city of Saint-Pierre: the eruption of Mount Pelee, in 1902, I
think. In a single night, the volcano obliterated it. But although
it destroyed many human lives, it also created something: strange
objects such as this one, found in the ruins. Like you, I was
intrigued and bowled over by its beauty. And to make me happy,
someone gave it to me as a gift. All these glasses melted down by
the heat of the earth, they're as beautiful as a work of art, don't
Then I catch sight of the Glass of Absinthe, such a bold work in its
time. It is the first time an object so simple has become a
sculpture! It is also bold in its approach: to give the illusion of
transparency, Picasso has cut away the "glass" in spots.
Picasso: I modeled it in wax. There are six bronzes of it. I colored
each one differently.
Also in this display case is a mold of the Venus of Lespugue. There
are actually two copies of it: one conforms to the damaged model,
the other is whole, restored. Picasso adores this very first goddess
of fecundity, the quintessence of female form, whose flesh, as if
called forth by male desire, seems to swell and grow from around a
kernel. Then there is the white skeleton of a bat, attached to a
black support, in the attitude of crucifixion.
Picasso: I love bats! Women are scared of them. They think bats can
get caught in their hair, don't they? But bats are the most
beautiful of animals, extraordinarily delicate. Have you observed
their brilliant little eyes, gleaming with intelligence, and their
skin, silky as velvet? And look at all these delicate little bones.
Brassai: I knew you liked skeletons! I've studied them; I've had fun
taking them apart and assembling them. To understand the genius of
creation, there's no better way than to put a skeleton back
Picasso: I have a real passion for bones. I have many others in
Boisgeloup: skeletons of birds, dog's and sheep's heads. I even have
a rhinoceros skull. Maybe you saw them in the barn? Have you noticed
that bones are always modeled and not carved, that you always have
the impression they come from a mold, that they were first modeled
in clay? Any bone you look at, you always find fingerprints on it.
Excerpted from Conversations with Picasso
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
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Meet the Author
Brassaï (born Gyula Halász, 1899—1984) was a photographer, journalist, and author of photographic monographs and literary works, including Letters to My Parents and Proust in the Power of Photography, both published by the University of Chicago Press.
Jane Marie Todd is a translator whose books include Brassaï's Henry Miller, Happy Rock and Largesse by Jean Starobinski, both published by the University of Chicago Press.
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