My approach to photograph Picasso BY Edward Quinn

It has been said that many photographers who have had a very different approach than mine have photographed Picasso. When they had an appointment with Picasso, they usually set up their lights in the corners of his atelier and placed their cameras on tripods. Picasso was very impressed by their preparations every time. When everything was ready, he sat or placed himself wherever the photographer wanted. Then the scene was lit to guarantee that particular photographer’s style. Picasso’s generous attitude, toward creative people always granted everyone complete respect in this area and kept him from mixing in. This manner of picture taking never struck me as the kind of true portraiture that would reveal his personality. It remained – even when the photographs were outstanding – stereotypical because it reflected the personality of the photographer more than the person photographed did.

My ideas were less pretentious. Picasso preferred them even though the technical results were sometimes not as good. The following episode might illustrate Picasso’s attitude toward photography. One of his friends was taking pictures in his atelier. An artist himself, he had altered the arrangement slightly in that he moved Picasso’s slippers a little in order to organize the visual composition more advantageously. When Picasso entered the room, he noticed the change immediately. «That will be an amusing photo, but not a documentary. Do you know why? Quite simply because you have placed the slippers somewhere else. I never place them that way. You did that, not I. The way an artist has his things around him is as revealing as his work.»

Being alone with Picasso was easy and difficult at the same time. Easy, because we went well together; we both let each other work in peace. Difficult, insofar as I had to weigh how far I could go to obtain the documentary photos I wanted without in the end disturbing Picasso at his work. A few observations I made over the years might be helpful in rounding out Picasso’s portrait.

The most striking and fascinating facet to Pablo Picasso’s image was the ever–changing manner in which he presented himself. This part of his personality also influenced his moods and work. When Picasso was in a bad mood (this was usually caused by familial problems or unsatisfactory results in his work), he was unbearable, and nothing was all right with him. He had a remarkable simplicity in his manner and never acted like the «great genius». On the contrary, he admired the work of others and was interested in everyone. When he showed new work to friends, he was very reserved and was delighted with compliments he was clearly not anticipating.

«I don’t paint what I see, I paint what I know» 

Despite his world renown and his great wealth, Picasso was insecure when in contact with people he didn’t know and often helpless with regard to the many problems of daily life. His friend Jaime Sabartés, himself no businessperson, often had to advise him on business matters. Because of his fame, Picasso felt himself in a vulnerable position and always thought he was being criticized. He was proud to be a Spaniard and expected to be valued for his own sake, as an individual, and not because he was a famous, successful, and wealthy artist. He wanted to know everyone’s reason for being interested in him. Though he examined the motives, he was also susceptible to flattery. Nevertheless, he became quickly aware of its superficiality and was irritated at being the way he was. At times he could be cruel, then sensitive again, warm and sympathetic. His charm and amiability often made him irresistible, particularly to women.

Picasso liked people with character; on the other hand, he did not like it when people opposed him too strenuously. He was generous and allowed everyone their freedom as long as this did not disturb him and his work. Nevertheless, his difficult personality never actually allowed him to endure anyone for long, with the exception of his friend Sabartés and his wife Jacqueline.

Picasso’s jet black, unmistakable eyes were extremely lively, often piercing, often fiery. They betrayed enthusiasm, curiosity, and alertness. He noticed everything. When he picked up a book, for example, he looked at it as if spellbound.

I was often able to observe this unique visual concentration of his, this physical attention when looking at things. Mind and body concentrated completely on what he saw. When he looked at something around him, it almost appeared as though he wanted to use his eyes in the way others would use a magnifying glass, as if he could see beneath the surface of things. With a few precise strokes he outlined all the characteristics of a face and made qualities visible which corresponded to the character of the person portrayed. That he truly perceived what he saw and could record it was Picasso’s forte. «I don’t paint what I see, I paint what I know,» he once said.

This book does not, to be sure, examine Picasso’s art from a theoretical point of view; nevertheless, the work of his final years should be addressed briefly. Throughout his entire life, for over seventy years with no great interruptions, Picasso worked, always striving to become better. At the end of his life, he was justified in claiming he could say something about art. In the works he painted during his final years, he used a kind of shorthand, a summation of his ideas. He was well aware that he didn’t have much more time and strived, by painting and continually repainting a canvas, to further improve it. He wanted to preserve his ideas as quickly as possible, wanted to limit himself to the creative act alone, drawing upon all of his experience. The pictures produced in this vein often appear brittle, as if unfinished (particularly the series of paintings that were on display in the Palace of the Popes in Avignon). Whosoever looks at them more closely, however, discovers the richness in background color, the opulent drawing, and the radiant luminescence of the subject matter. These paintings magnificently unite a creative technique with high artistic standards.

My last visit

In January 1972, I visited Picasso in Mougins. It was my last visit. I never saw Picasso again. The following notes, which I made at that time, illustrate his lively interest and his vitality – he was, after all, 91 years old.

I was taking pictures for a book on Picasso’s ceramic work at the Madoura Pottery. Around half past one I called Picasso’s house and Jacqueline answered. She asked me to call again because Picasso was not there. Around half past four, I stopped work at the pottery and went to Mougins in order to call from the telephone booths at the post office. The phone was out of order. I went into the post office but there was a long line of people waiting at the window. Irritated, I turned around and ran over to the cafe on the other side of the square to make the call. The cafe was in the process of being decorated, as I found out, because it was opening that evening. I asked if I could make a call and the owner pretended the phone was not yet hooked, «I only want to make a local call, here in Mougins,» I replied angrily and insisted on being allowed to use the phone. He finally gave in and let me call. At Picasso’s house Monsieur Miguel, his secretary, answered, and I explained to him that I wanted to complete a movie on Picasso, was preparing an exhibition, and wanted to tell Picasso about it. Monsieur Miguel replied that I should indeed come right away.

At the villa, he greeted me and suggested I leave my cameras in the car until it was certain I could photograph. He led me through the long hallway into the living room. There was Picasso sitting with Jacqueline and Mme. Gagarine, who had taken over the publication of the volumes of Picasso’s catalog of works in the Cahiers d’Art.

Picasso was happy at my arrival. I told him about my new movie. Suddenly, William S. Rubin, curator of the Museum of Modern Art, came into the room, a tall man with bushy, curly hair. He limped slightly and carried a beautiful walking stick. Everyone sat down, and Picasso leafed through a copy of the new volume of his catalog of works. He commented on a few pictures and was delighted to see others again in reproduction. While he was leafing through it he suddenly said, «I’m really glad I painted them.»

Jacqueline offered us marrons glaces, and Picasso insisted that everyone try one, including himself. I had begun filming and taking pictures. After Picasso had looked through Mme. Gagarine’s layout, I asked him to show me his most recent work. He led me into his atelier, which was adjacent to the living room. There he stood beside the Portrait of a Woman (1895) by the customs officer Rousseau, which was almost as tall as he himself was. The light was not good, and Picasso tried to turn the picture so it wouldn’t reflect. He took great pains and finally placed it just as I needed to photograph well. Then he brought out a few of his recent drawings, all of which had been produced in the days preceding. Represented was a group of people, a few nudes, a young girl in a realistic style.

Picasso was wearing gray and black check pants, a fawn–colored wool jacket, sweater, and vest. He was in excellent condition, very animated, very active, and his memory was as good as ever. He hurried through the house to find books or work that he wanted to show.

We sat at a large table, and Picasso drank his health tea from a very beautiful cup, which, as he proudly announced, was English, and from the 18th century. Jacqueline, beside him, was wearing a kimono, which further emphasized that austere beauty of hers so often painted by Picasso. Like Picasso, she was also in the best of moods and full of energy for new ideas.

We talked about Picasso’s pictures in the Museum of Modern Art, the creation of Guernica, and the Massacre in Korea, which he still had in his atelier. Meanwhile, he fished a reproduction of Cezanne’s Mardi Gras (1888) out of a mountain of papers and explained he had discovered that Cezanne must have conceived of the entire scene from an elevated position with a forward falling perspective.

Suddenly, he spotted Mr. Rubin’s beautiful walking stick, examined it with great attention, and then related that Apollinaire at one time had had a walking stick that suddenly sprouted shoots, blossomed, and became a tree. Both St. Paul and St. Francis, for example, had also had walking staffs, which could blossom. Mr. Rubin was greatly amused and asked if the tale of Apollinaire’s walking stick might not be a fable. No, it was true that shoots had appeared on his stick, and it had been a sensational opportunity for Apollinaire to show the stick off everywhere. Jacqueline reported on Picasso’s dog Kabul for whom Mme. Leiris had brought along a lady friend so that the then seven–year–old fellow would no longer have to remain a bachelor. To Picasso’s great satisfaction, Kabul had joyfully given up his bachelordom when the opportunity arose, and someone had even preserved the important moment in a photograph.

I had collected a few items for Picasso since my last visit and brought them along. One of them was a small package with «secret» written on it. Picasso became very curious. Because he didn’t want to cut the wrapping string, he opened it very carefully and found a puzzle game made out of little chrome tiles which were stuck onto cardboard with adhesive tape. It happened to be arranged very nicely so he left it as it was. I also had a tweed hat with a feather from Moll’s Gap near Kenmare, Ireland, and a box of incense. Picasso quickly lit one of the sticks and then another since he liked the scent which slowly drifted through the room. 

In addition, I also brought him a little Indian bell for hanging on a door or window. He rang it, but finding its tone a little thin, took it, fetched a large bell with a full, somber tone, and quickly asserted that it came from the same place as the small one.

Then he began to play on a stringed instrument that looked like a harp; I think it came from Africa. Jacqueline was of the opinion, however, that he should stop, since he wasn’t as good a musician as he was a painter. With that, the conversation turned to Man Ray, whom Picasso, of course, knew quite well.» Man Ray wanted to become known as a painter, not as a photographer,» Picasso remarked and maintained that most photographers were jealous of painters and definitely wanted to paint as well. Apparently, they did not consider photography creative enough. He told about a photographer who had come to him and taken pictures of his sculpture bathed in a colored light. «He was most likely not happy with the sculptures and had thus wanted to make more of them with skillful illumination,» said Picasso with amusement.

«He doesn’t want to admit to himself how old he really is,» Jacqueline interjected, suggesting the end to the visit. «He still thinks he’s a young man. When he saw himself in a snapshot with 18 other people recently, he did admit, though, «I really do look like the oldest one here.»

Mme. Gagarine asked whether he was really still doing sculpture. «Of course, but only at night, when I’m in bed. Then I imagine all the things I could still do and how I would do them.» «Yes, he keeps me awake and describes his ideas to me,» added Jacqueline.

We all left Picasso together. I shut the garden gate of Mas Notre Dame de Vie behind me. It was 10:03 P.M., January 7, 1972.

Picasso and I talked on the phone again a few days before his death. His voice sounded strange, and I had the feeling something was not right. He said that we had to get together again soon. These words were very important to me for they confirmed our friendship. I had not been to his house in over a year. Picasso did not want to be photographed anymore. He had changed. He died April 8, 1973.

Edward Quinn: Picasso y los años dorados de la Costa Azul

Comisariada por Cristina Carrillo de Albornoz