Picasso and Me.

Whenever Picasso would arrive in a town or city he hadn’t been to before he’d always go to the highest point – church steeple, bell tower, hilltop – to see how he was going to conquer it. Well, he wouldn’t have seen me anywhere near there if he arrived in Antibes in ‘85, because I was at the lowest point in town, face down on the pavement, euphemistically speaking, and my life. Or at least the lowest point in my life up until then – even though looking back on it now I can’t help but think that it wasn’t really low at all. At least not compared to where I’ve been since. But that’s another story.

Which reminds me of a Nietzche quip, if you could call a brilliant intellectual distillation of a huge truth from a dour and absolutely humorless doubledome mid-18thcentury Germany philosopher a quip, then here it is: people can’t find God these days because they aren’t looking low enough. From the Latin: In sterquilinis invenitur– in filth it will be found, according to the ancient alchemists. King Arthur had the same idea – when he and his round-table knights went out in search of the holy grail, which is, really, just a metaphor for seeking redemption, they each entered the forest at the point he thought was darkest. 

I beg to differ with Nietzche: I was down and out and looking around the slough of despond for anything even remotely resembling a savior (or salvation) for a long time, and carefully, and didn’t see a damn bloody inkling. Wait a minute, that was Carl Jung, not Nietzche – never mind.

So Picasso sets himself up in the Grimaldi Castle, being as famous and celebrated as ever, and even though it’s probably not the highest point in town, it’s high and mighty enough. And he is Picasso, after all. High and mighty maybe, but at least he had a sense of humor. An old friend told me this story: one day Picasso bumps into some random French guy on the boardwalk who accosts him and says he has no idea the value of money anymore since he’s so famous and rich. Picasso tells the guy to hand him a 100 Franc note. The guy does. Picasso whips out a pen and draws a picture on the note and then signs it. He hands the note back, and tells the guy that it’s now worth a million francs.

I forgot where I was going with this. Oh, yeah. So I’m working as a boat baboon on some nouveau riche California car wheeler-dealer’s yacht, which actually isn’t a bad gig at all, considering. 3 hots and a hammock. We’re ass to on the biggest quay in Port Vauban, surrounded by the European must-be-seen quality, with the charming town itself completing the perfect impressionistic tableau. I’d wander its streets at night, past the house that W. Somerset Maugham lived in while he was writing The Moon and Sixpence, listening to the waves break, and dogs barking and my heart harking.

To put you in approximately the same frame of mind I was in at the time, break open your copy of The Razor’s Edge, which you’ve probably had on your bookshelf since you were a freshman in college. Admit it: you loved it and totally identified with the hero, Larry Darrell, an American pilot, traumatized by his experiences in WW II, who then goes on a spiritual journey to find the transcendent meaning of life. I won’t say “yawn, not another one of those” because it’s incredibly well-written, and a contemporary, at the time, take on the St. George and the Dragon myth. Larry returns home to rural Illinois after the war, and decides he can’t marry his fiancé Isabel and take a numbing job as a suited stock broker.

He then sets out for Paris, to loaf recalcitrantly on his small inheritance, and then later goes to India to seek spiritual enlightenment. Isabel marries some slimy toad, I forget his name, and when Larry returns to Paris he meets Isabel and her bank account spouse for dinner. There’s a scene in the cab ride home where Isabel is so overcome with lust for Larry that she nearly jumps out of her animal skin, to which Larry and the moneyman, as well as the cabbie, are completely oblivious. It’s a heartbreakingly lovely and lubricious longing, and then it’s gone. A lifetime of aching urge and unhappiness in a lascivious glance no one noticed.

The owner flies out from California, and we take the boat out for a sea trial, which was one of the oddest experiences I ever had on the ocean. The wind was blowing about 20 knots in the exact same direction we were travelling, at about the same speed, and I remember standing on deck and it was surreally calm, the flag, and the “F” I got in physics hanging limp on the pole, so-to-speak. We end up docking in the new port at Cannes right next to Adnan Kashoggi’s son’s boat.

Adnan’s dad was the personal physician to the King of Saudi Arabia, and he parlayed the connections he grew up with into one of the most successful businesses in the Middle East. His boat, Nabila, named after his daughter, was so big it wouldn’t fit in even the new port of Cannes. He offered to build a jetty long enough to dock his boat, and would pay for it all himself, which he would donate to the city, gratis. The city of Cannes refused. So instead, and out of spite, he rented out every single room in the Carlton Hotel for the next 2 years for his own personal use. Or so the story goes. 

There was a huge bash on Nabila at the time, and Kashoggi flew celebrities from all over the world to pack the party with glamour and (in)credibility. The whole weekend affair cost him something like 25 million bucks. There’s no accounting for taste as the saying goes, and if you know anything about that type of design sensibility, it’s all shag carpets, and garish gold trimmings and silvered mirrors everywhere. It’s a flashy riot; a magnificent triumph of epicene pharaoh-trash chic. I’m not kidding: try going to the toilet when all four walls of the bathroom, and the ceiling too, are all fun-house-like mirrored. Whizz! Sting, an attendee then at the height of his fame, and no stranger to big bucks deadpanned afterwards: “Now I know what real money is.”

I was above it all, even though below decks in the crew’s quarters, before the mast as it were, while all this was going on, head and bodily buried in Siddharthaby then, after having breezed through Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and probably, and embarrassingly, Huxley’s Doors of Perception, while Exodus was blasting on my Walkman. I forgot to mention the epitaph to Maugham’s masterpiece, from a translation of a verse in the Katha Upanishad: "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to 'enlightenment' is hard."

You can say that again. And expensive too. I took a detour to Berlin right after De Quincey’s laudanum binge-fest, in my mind only, and read Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Diaries. Money makes the world go around, world go around, and all that jazz. There’s a line in it somewhere that says: “There is a certainty in degradation.” I think that’s so true, imposed on or more likely welcomed by one’s own unsatisfied and miserable solipsistic self. I wallowed for more than a while in asceticism and shallow.

I never liked Picasso, as a painter or a man, mostly because, as you’ve already surmised, I was a shallow twerp with hopelessly shallow catholic tastes – an arrogant, indomitable ignoramus – and because he never wallowed in anything except brilliance and carnality. I remember going to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and seeing hisStanding Figureand thinking “What kind of pecker-head horseshit is this?” His Portrait of a Womanactually made me livid – if this was art then the Nazis might as well have won the war, fer chrissakes. Seriously, have you ever seen this painting? It looks like a drunk and depraved Quasimodo took an angry sledgehammer to the innocent apse of a medieval cathedral and riotously rubbled it. Woman? What woman?

As a man, I thought he was short, foreign, adulterous, uppity. He seemed way too unapologetically pot-bellied and louche – I mean I was an altar boy, literally, until I went to college, and I still may have served a time or two when I came home for Christmas. So you can imagine the disdain and almost revulsion I felt when confronted with his genius, his unapologetic licentiousness and insidious joie de vivre. He acted lusty and vulgar, but wasn’t talented enough to be as smug and glib and fat and hairy-chested as he was. The truth is probably more like he was getting a lot of action, if you know what I mean, or seemed to be, and I wasn’t. At all. In fact I was still a virgin at the time. In a lot of ways I still am. Ha!

But Winslow Homer – now there was an artist I could relate to. The Herring Net, Boys in a Pasture, and his masterpiece in my opinion, Breezin’ Up, which I’m looking at right now, still hanging in my office after almost 40 years. 

John Singer Sargent, another favorite at the time, and still. The Oyster Gatherers of Cancale; Two Girls Fishing; and his portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson and Madame X, were, and are, astounding paintings of the absolute highest caliber of talent and sensibilities. I feel the same about Treasure Island and Kidnapped, as literature and a sidebar RLS note.

A few years later I succumbed to cliché and took a class in art history I won’t tell you where since you probably wouldn’t believe me anyway, and what I remember most, and certainly a bit fuzzily, was that at the time in question, the literal nuclear bomb going off was like a figurative nuclear bomb going off – destroying the world everyone once knew and loved, boom, forever, in the time it took to split an atom. As Virginia Wolfe had famously said, albeit a bit earlier: “On or around December 1910, human character changed.”Artists tried to somehow embrace this paradigm shift in electrons and understanding, and then reflect in their work this whole new physics of reality, this quantum leap of faith everyone had to take, and cubism was an attempt at the answer. Or an answer. 

Rearranging the chairs on the Titanic was impossible after that – the curse of knowledge is the end of innocence. Looked at in that light, I could kind of see their lovely deconstructive point; a difficult, intentionally chaotic thematic attempt at daring to disturb the universe, as T.S. Eliot wrote.

Right around this time I was playing football (American) with a bunch of expats in the Tuileries Garden every Sunday morning, and then heading over to Longchamp racetrack afterwards to mingle with the mignons, when I happened to see a banner hung for an art exhibit on a building that said “Jeu de Paume.” This small neo-classical gem, that was actually at one time a handball court, thus the name, and that was used by the Nazis to house ‘degenerate art’ confiscated during the war, was actually one of the most famous museums of impressionist paintings in the world, unbeknownst to lunkhead gridiron-irony me. I went inside.

What I most distinctly remember was Watteau’s Giles, a harlequin dressed in all white, and for some reason Picasso’s Pierrotwas also there, Or maybe it was his Old Guitarist. I stared (and compared) at the painting a long time and realized there’s more to this impish Spanish gnome than I thought. Or maybe there’s more to me than I thought. A girlfriend, and a motorcycle intervened at around this time, which I wrote so eloquently about, if you remember, in the meandering, unmitigated mess of a trip I took to Chartres. The cathedral. The labyrinth. The moules frites. Remember? So glad you don’t. 

Back to Picasso and the boat. I spent a couple of days in Vallauris and was fascinated by the whole pottery-making scene – Centered, I think, was a book I really liked as a kid. I just looked it up – yes, Centered, Inspiration from the Hands of the Potter, by Terrance and Anita Painter. Anyway, earth and fire, on the most basic level, melded together by human hands for utility first, art second. Still, it seemed a silly, sidebar play date with kindergarten clay – a puerile and uncalled for detour into household utility and whimsy. 

Later that summer we sailed the boat I was then on, a C&C 66 named Fantome, to a small fishing village called Porto Banus, on the Spanish coast, that had became a haven for the flash and cash types. Cheek by jowl with the dust and peasantry were all of these Lamborghini Countachs (look up the Piedmontese meaning of this word) and Ferrari Diablos and Dinos. I abandoned ship and went to see a bull fight in Malaga. Somehow, improbably, I ended up in Madrid around midnight a few days later, and the place was lit up, everyone still out in restaurants having dinner and chain-smoking, enjoying life. I’m not sure if it was a holiday, or just a typical summer night, but the Prado was open and I walked in.

I may be misremembering this, but Guernica was right there, front and center, huge, in plain view, yuge, as you walked in. I’ll look it up after I write this paragraph, but I remember the painting filled the whole wall, and thinking to myself not only did he use a hell of a lot of paint, but that it must have also been a physically demanding and exhausting undertaking. 

My initial impression was something I had heard when I was in the army and have probably mangled bloody since: all war is about is people doing horrific things to each other’s bodies. Excuse me again, I just looked up the Christopher Isherwood quote and it’s not his, it’s T.E. Lawrence, from his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and the quote is misquoted, slightly: “There seems to be a certainty in degradation.” Roughly speaking, the same, but qualified with a nuance for the worse I think.

The painting is a powerful humanitarian statement, larger and more immediate when seen in real life, in unmistakable, photographic-like in black and white. I’m still not convinced, by either the palette or the politics, even though I’m now at least a sentient enough human to realize the astounding talent and wisdom of the man. Doesn’t mean I have to like him, and I don’t. Not really.

Don’t worry, there is a character arc to this story, and it will turn out to be a comedy, not a tragedy for those of you bored already, or with more important things to do. Which I hope is most. Now is a good time to bail.

Many years later, and many years ago, I had some guests visiting me when I lived in New York, and we went to either MoMA or The Guggenheim for an exhibit of Norman Rockwell paintings. Go ahead and laugh, but it was a fantastic experience, and that guy could chuck the pigments around with impunity and purpose. And no, they weren’t crackers from Willacoochee, AK. They were German, and very sophisticated thank you very much. Anyway, I’m taking a quick look around the rest of the museum as we’re leaving and I see something on a far wall in another room that catches my eye. It looks like a bicycle seat. I get closer. 

I’ll quote Picasso himself:

“Guess how I made the bull's head? One day, in a pile of objects all jumbled up together, I found an old bicycle seat right next to a rusty set of handlebars. In a flash, they joined together in my head. The idea of the Bull's Head came to me before I had a chance to think. All I did was weld them together... (but) if you were only to see the bull's head and not the bicycle seat and handlebars that form it, the sculpture would lose some of its impact."

Just like that. I’m not sure why this piece made such an impact on me, but it did, and has. I still laugh up my own sleeve every time I see it, I guess because it seemed like art that was making fun of itself, that I could make it myself, in theory anyway – even though in reality I lack the talent, wisdom, intelligence, abstract reasoning, humor, or craft to do it. But other than that, it’s seems like such a simple and accessible and easily eaten piece of art cake. In filth it will be found, and I’d never ride a bicycle the same again.

Inspired, and with a flash of spontaneous insight, I said to my Teutonic tourist friends: let’s go to the top of the Empire State Building and have a look down at this town to see what we can do to make it ours. And we did.

January 14, 2024 — Johnny Mustard