Postcard from Paris: a night in Picasso’s favorite hotel
The myth of the starving genius artist in an attic wields timeless power, not least because it contains so much truth. Take Pablo Picasso. In 1900, on the eve of his 19th birthday, he traveled from a comfortable home in Barcelona to Paris and instantly fell in love with the city and a low-cost way of life that combined passionate friendships with sexual and artistic freedoms. . Money – not to mention heating or water supply – appeared as a secondary concern.
Over the next decade, surrounded by a group of like-minded friends and operating mostly from a dilapidated studio in Montmartre that swayed in the wind (and was thus nicknamed the Bateau-Lavoir after the washhouses on the Seine), Picasso changed the world. From physical and moral misery, he warded off his blue and pink periods and supervised the birth of Cubism. Any apparent financial failure only added to the allure.
But critical acclaim came late, followed by a trickle of cash, then a flood. In 1918 Picasso was still in Paris, now celebrating his marriage to the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova in the grandest of the grand hotels, Le Meurice on the rue de Rivoli, with Jean Cocteau and Serge Diaghilev as groomsmen.
Such was Picasso’s reputation that when a flying champagne cork damaged a lavish oil painting of Madame de Pompadour in one of the hotel’s lavish reception rooms, management was savvy enough to know that he better to keep the mark left by Picasso’s champagne than to repair the paint.
The damaged portrait remains in situ to this day. Just like the magnificent reception rooms, overflowing with gilding and Versailles-style mirrors, now punctuated by contemporary art. The luxurious and appropriate guest rooms always overlook not only the Tuileries Garden, but all of a sudden can also admire, with the slightest neck, the Louvre, Notre-Dame, the Orsay Museum, the Invalides, the Grand Palais, Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe.
Unsurprisingly, Le Meurice’s historic guest list is filled with royalty — both Hollywood and real-life — but the hotel has always particularly bragged about its artistic and literary clientele. Dalí was a regular, taking a suite for a month each year, which he adorned with characteristic self-promotional paraphernalia such as a flock of sheep, a Harley-Davidson chopper or Andy Warhol. Further on, Balzac, Thackeray, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky were linked to the hotel. More recently, Bob Dylan and Beyoncé stayed.
Le Meurice has never been shy about talking about his connection to Picasso, but it was only recently, as Paris seemed to emerge decisively from Covid restrictions, that he introduced a Picasso-themed package, with an overnight stay and a private tour of Picasso in Montmartre with the art historian and writer Marta-Volga de Minteguiaga-Guezala (like the artist, a Spaniard living in Paris). She manages to pull off the remarkable trick of finding relatively off-the-beaten-track tracks through a now well-heeled Montmartre that had begun to attract tourists even in Picasso’s time.
My visit with her included a visit to the unprepossessing site of a long-vanished cabaret frequented by the artist – the improvised name Zut – a bustling scene as Marta revealed the rags part of Picasso’s story. The original Bateau-Lavoir burned down in 1970, but the reconstructed version can be seen, as can Picasso’s first Paris studio on rue Gabrielle (where he refined his signature work from various iterations of Pablo and his paternal surname Ruiz to the most emphatic and Picasso, friend of the mark) and which attracts remarkably few tourists.
The owner of Zut, Frédé Gérard, was also the owner of another Picasso haunt, the Lapin Agile, which still operates today. The painting commissioned by Gérard in 1905, “Au Lapin Agile”, presents Picasso himself in the bar as a Harlequin alongside the lover of a close friend who had committed suicide (and with whom, all too predictably, Picasso later had an affair). Gérard himself is in the background playing the guitar and for years the painting served as Picasso’s “credit card behind the bar” for his wine bill, Marta explained. When it was last sold, in 1989, it brought in $40.7 million.
The hotel’s Picasso package coincides with a major new double exhibition at the Picasso Museum in Paris, home to the mother lode of his art, which also reflects the role money ultimately played in his career, and beyond. Half of it is dedicated to work related to her daughter with her lover Marie-Thérèse Walter, Maya Ruiz-Picasso. It features a series of portraits of Maya taken by her father when she was a young child in the late 1930s, as well as rudimentary toys made from workshop odds and ends. The other section features works recently donated by Maya to the French state in lieu of taxes, including a portrait of Picasso’s father, made when the artist was just 14, and a Polynesian tiki sculpture , part of the collection of African and Oceanic art he started. at the time of Montmartre and who had such an influence on his work.
Picasso’s financial affairs are infinitely complex – he died without leaving a will – and just a few months ago there was a public row within the family over whether his work could be presented under the form of NFTs currently in vogue. But despite it all, he lived most of his long life tempering an appreciation for the finer things (expensive cars were a weakness) with simpler pleasures and a primal commitment to his work. As he recalled 50 years after he and his comrades left the material misery of their time in Montmartre: “We had no other concern than what we were doing. . . and saw no one but each other. . . Think about it, what aristocracy! “.
Nicholas Wroe was a guest at Le Meurice (dorchestercollection.com); Picasso’s Montmartre pass starts at €1,330 for two. ‘Maya Ruiz-Picasso, daughter of Pablo’ is at the Musée National Picasso-Paris (museepicassoparis.fr) until December
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