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U3A Writing: Sticking Together

Derek McQueen "eavesdrops'' when two giants of modern art, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, meet in Paris to discuss the future of cubism.

Georges Braque had agreed to meet Pablo Picasso on the steps of the Sacre Coeur, the church of the ‘Sacred Heart’, in Montmartre, Paris. Pablo had said that it was important that they meet as soon as possible.

It was the summer of 1912 and the July day was perfect, the white dome of the church gleamed in the sunshine, high above the breathtaking panoramic view of Paris.

Picasso had arranged for the two of them to use his old studio in the Bateau Lavoir, a squalid looking block of buildings at 13 Ravignon in the Place Goudeau. Bateau Lavoir was a grotto of rented artists studios, some scruffier than others. It had become a meeting place of the Parisian avant-garde. Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Apollinaire, Matisse and many others, prominent in the arts, met there regularly. Picasso worked from studio 17 until 1909.

He relaxed as he sat on the church steps; Pablo was really looking forward to seeing Georges again. He pulled his two huge sacks nearer for security; it would be a disaster to loose them at this stage. He couldn’t wait to show his friend his cardboard guitar, lovingly wrapped in one of them. The other was full of unusual art materials. He was sure that Georges would bring along similar stuff if he’d read his letter properly.

The Bateau Lavoir was only a few minutes walk away; through the Place de Tertre, where painters made a good living from tourists and then a little down the other side of the Hill of Montmartre. Picasso screwed up his eyes in the bright sunshine. He was sure Braque would appear from behind the rocking horse carousel two hundred steps below. He could hear the fairground organ music even at this distance.

“Bonjour Pablo. Ca va?” Georges said, out of breath from the steep climb. Picasso wasn’t disappointed; Braque also carried a huge canvas bag.

“Where’s Frica? Don’t you have that scamp now?”

Picasso scrambled to his feet startled; Georges seemed to have appeared from nowhere.

“Good to see you again Georges. I’m well thank you.” There was a momentary pause. “Not so Frica I’m sad to say.’’ Pablo shrugged and arched his eyebrows skywards to indicate Frica’s new resting place. They slapped each other on the back and Picasso picked up his sacks.

“Let’s get this stuff to number 13; good job it’s not too far eh, old friend?

Do you need a rest first? That’s a heavy bag you’ve got there. Thanks for bringing some stuff – I was hoping you would.”

A few people called out to the two men as they made their way to Bateau Lavoir. Picasso, at 31 was very well known as a Montmartre personality as well as a successful artist. Braque, a well built handsome man and also popular with women had been at the forefront of Cubism, a major development of post impressionist painting.

Cubism had come to a dead end by 1912. In fact the reason for their meeting that June day was to discuss whether they could move the concepts and ideals of Cubism forward. Both men had been passionate about this new way of seeing, understanding and painting the world as they saw it.

“Come on George just one more flight of stairs to go to studio seventeen and we can drop these ‘putain’ heavy bags.”

The second floor corridor was dark with broken plaster walls and blackened doors. A few of the studio doors still had the original numbers, most had the number and sometimes who lived there, daubed in paint.

“Far end Georges, left hand side if you don’t remember. Number 17.”

At last they were inside, and what a difference. Sunlight poured through a huge North-facing window, set at an angle to the wall. Canvases and pots of paint were everywhere but it seemed warm and cosy; just right for the important meeting to come.

“That was the advantage of being on this floor Georges,’’ Picasso said, placing both sacks on a huge trestle table.’’ I loved this place – I sometimes wonder why I left. Put your bag on here Georges and I’ll make a pot of coffee.”

Georges Braque settled himself on the battered blue and white striped sofa and watched his friend rattling around with the coffee pot and mugs.

“You’ll like this Georges,” Pablo said lighting the single gas burner. “Raoul Dufy recommended it to me some years ago. He knows his coffee does Raoul- worked in a coffee house in Le Havre at one time.”

“Which of these bags has the ‘cardboard guitar in it Pablo? I’m dying to see it.”

Picasso filled two mugs with the Brazilian coffee and joined Braque on the sofa.

“We’ll drink this and then get started Georges. I’ll show you the guitar piece first and then we can look at all the other bits and pieces we’ve brought with us. Would that be good for you?”

Picasso carefully opened the first sack and gingerly placed his 3D Cubist piece, ‘Cardboard Guitar’, on the table. It was amazing - quite unique, a sculpture and yet, not a sculpture – a Cubist painting in three dimensions.

The opposite of the initial Cubism concept. Braque was at a loss for words - blown away by the sheer audacity of the piece.

Picasso was flattered by his friend’s amazed and complimentary reaction to the work. Cubism was a way of seeing an object from several viewpoints including the inside of the object, as well as the outside appearance. Increasingly Cubist paintings had included transparent surfaces to reveal the inner as well as the multi-point perspectives. This had led to less meaningful paintings and a gradual loss of interest in the genre. Picasso and Braque, the inventers of the Cubism technique, were the first to appreciate this and were now anxious for a new way forward for their work.

“Right George, I’ll put the guitar on the ledge there, out of the way and then we can empty the bags and see what we have between us.”

The precious piece was moved out of harms way and Georges bag emptied onto the floor. Mounting boards and card fell out first, followed by wallpaper and linoleum, sheet music, newspapers, magazines, even a small bag of sand.

“Wonderful Georges – fantastic. Now let’s see what I’ve got.”

More magazines, coloured paper, string, more music books, cardboard and finally two canvases, a box of charcoal and the all important tin of colle, spilled across the studio floor.

Studio 17 was Picasso and Braque’s for another four hours. and modern art collage, or papier colle (pasted paper) was born that day.

There was still life in Cubism yet.

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