Dick French: On The Town – March 2020

Dick French
March/April 2020

Who now remembers the fashion for wearing two pairs of trousers? It was all the rage in Camden Town twenty years ago but you seldom see it now. The outer pair would be cut at the knee to reveal the underlying pair. There’s one chap on Queen’s Crescent who carries on the tradition. Apart from the trousers, he wears nothing but a leather bondage harness and is festooned with pink feather boas, bracelets etc.. And such apparel serves him even in the most inclement weather. He was in the doctor’s waiting room a few weeks ago shooting everyone with a green plastic ray gun with sparks inside. In these grey days such eccentricities are to be encouraged … but never get talking to them. Eccentrics generally turn out to be colossal bores and offer to cast your horoscope.

What’s all this rubbish about? Well, I’m just trying to get myself warmed up to write about the Picasso show at the Royal Academy (until April 4th – illustrated Self-Portrait, 1918).

In the 1890s Toulouse-Lautrec would sometimes take acquaintances down narrow streets and up a dark staircase to

400 Bad Request

an attic in a home on the rue de Douai. He would knock on a dingy door opened by a woman visitors described as stooped, old, wrinkled and almost bald. Henri would give her chocolates and flowers and introduce her as Victorine Meurent, the juicy young morsel who had posed for Manet’s Olympia. She was then in her 50s and, like Henri, an alcoholic, but also a painter. I wonder what became of her work.

In the first room of the Picasso show at the RA is an exquisite drawing of Jane Avril, great dancer and friend of Henri. With a few delicate scratchy lines beneath the eyes Picasso has managed to suggest  that she is not very well. She was suffering from something called Sydenham’s Chorea which caused unco-ordinated staccato bodily movements. This contributed to her unusual dancing style, a strangeness which appealed greatly to the Parisian audiences of the 1890s. This was the time, of course, of Huysman’s A Rebours. After some time working in a brothel she met Henri at the Moulin Rouge and they became a famous duo. She said that she “owed him the fame I enjoyed from the moment his first poster appeared”. Along with La Goulue and Yvette Guilbert she was among the most famous performers of La Belle Epoque.

Picasso could have met her at the Moulin Rouge or the Café des Innocents in Montmatre, which later became the Café des Decadents and then the Concert du Pendue which featured an opening act partially hanging himself from a ten-foot rope. Is nothing new?

Another of Jane Avril’s friends was the English entertainer May Belfort who sang Daddy wouldn’t buy me a bow-wow. “I’ve got a pussy cat and I’m very fond of that but I’d rather have a bow-wow-wow…” The innuendo was the same as it is today. Did Uncle Mac have any idea of what filth he was broadcasting to English children on a Saturday morning?

A thing you notice in this show is that over a certain scale Picasso couldn’t convey form. He resorted to flim-flam and stick-ons or the rather ghastly pastel renditions of his neo-classical period. There’s an interesting series of photos showing the development of Guernica which didn’t change much from the initial drawing out. I’ve never been convinced that it is such a powerful war painting. It’s an agreeable triangular composition of flat shapes about which much ink has been spilt, and about which doubtless many other interpretations are possible.

“The hairs of my beard, though separated from me, are just as much gods as I am myself.” An egoist then, and how. Looking at this exhibition, and it is huge, you get the overwhelming feeling of ‘Yo Picasso!’ He just couldn’t get away from himself.

‘Yo Picasso! Give me

the money!’ He was of course obsessed by money and a notorious skinflint.

He often carried a small Browning pistol given to him by Alfred Jarry. If anyone criticised Cézanne he would “out with that thing”, as Damon Runyan would say.

Some of the drawings from the series Minotauromachie (illustrated above) are of interest, especially Dora and the Minotaur, in which he uses colour well, a rare thing for him. The Minotaur seems to have been anatomically complete at some stage but he chickened out and scrubbed the ‘cartso’.  He knew his clientèle and didn’t want to put them off.

He was still occasionally producing work of interest in the ’60s and ’70s, in particular the etchings for La Celestina by Fernando de Rojas and some etchings of brothel scenes after Degas showing a madam and three tarts. A number of largish paintings included here demonstrate that he was much better at drawing. Some of them are quite horrible.

There are some interesting stories of his early years, in particular about his lifelong friend Manolo, who had been lent a studio while the artist 400 Bad Request was away and sold all the Gauguins on the wall to Vollard. He also stole Max Jacob’s only pair of trousers but had to return them as no dealer would make him an offer.

Even when I was young and obsessed with Modernismo I never liked Picasso. I found him quaint, a tedious old clown who could do no wrong. Included in the show are a couple of those very late cavaliers smoking pipes. I have a friend, a merchant banker, who owns on. One day when I might have been a bit merry I advised him to flog it off while it was still worth something. ‘Yo boca grande!’ I was never asked back.

Dirty Harry offered me a free trip down to Bath to look at an exhibition by Perry Grayson. I don’t think I was the first to turn it down. He is a creature in the depths of crispation, encrusted by his own myth. I have no wish to draw any more attention to his narcissistic obsessions. His work is so feeble that if he didn’t go trolloping around as a Widow Twankey it would never have been noticed. But he is a national treasure…