Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Party For Picasso (Excerpt) -- Julian MacLaren- Ross


Pablo Picasso arriving at Victoria Station, London, November 12, 1950

        We both bowed,  Picasso continuing to smile with steel grey hair smoothly brushed across his forehead and a face the colour of Spanish earth, oddly unlined for a Spaniard and a man his age.  In his rough sack coloured sack he looked like a well barbered version of Harpo Marx, perhaps owing to the intensity of his stare.

        I said:  'Do you remember, monsieur, saying once to Gertrude Stein.  .  .'

        Picasso nodded encouragingly, and I waited for him to say 'Gertrude' with the simple affection and confidence which according to Alice B. Toklas always characterizes his pronunication of the name, but he did not.

        Instead he said:  'Oui, oui, Mademoiselle Stein', his bright, prominent sloe brown eyes fixed unblinking on mine, and I continued:  'You told her, did you not, that when you make a thing, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly, but those that do it after you they don't have to worry about making it, and they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when others make it?'

Man Ray, Portrait of Gertrude Stein seated in front of Picasso's 1906 portrait of Miss Stein

        I was by no means sure if I'd got this quotation right or had translated it properly, it was some time since I'd spoken French, but Picasso said instantly: 'Oui, monsieur, I did indeed say something of the sort', and I went on: 'Then, monsieur, have you as yet descended, travelled by, the Tube, our English Metro?'

Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman (Femme en pleurs), 1937 

        'Non, monsieur', Picasso replied, 'I've not so far had that pleasure,' and I noted that after all those years in France he still retained his Spanish accent.

        'Then when you do, monsieur,' I said, and he nodded several times emphatically to indicate that he couldn't wait to get down the Underground:  his eyes were still fixed on mine and he must have been wondering what the hell, if anything I was getting at.

        'Then,' I said, 'you will realize from the crude imitation Cubist advertisements on the platform walls, the truth in reverse of your so brilliant axiom.  For, in seeking to exploit your discovery for vulgar commercial purposes, they have only succeeded in making the beautiful ugly'. 

Pablo Picasso, She-Goat, 1950

        I bowed, taking a step back to do so: sweat was standing on me as I ended, more or less as I'd begun, by saying it'd been a great honour.

        'That, monsieur, is reciprocal.' Picasso said bowing in his turn; at which Adair whose arm all this while had been hooked in his turned him about and led him away, completely bemused by now, to his corner where she left him among the indignant clucking women:  while I hurried back to the whisky bottle behind the statue.

        At the time I thought I'd carried it off rather well, only later did I feel embarrassment and shame, and later still in self defence began to think of it as funny.

Pablo Picasso arriving at an art exhibition, London, November, 1950


        Nonetheless, when beset by celebrity snobs, I can truthfully say that I've talked about painting with the greatest living painter:  moreover Picasso made a special point of turning to smile and bow in my direction.  Perhaps he really did believe he had met somebody important:  on the other hand, his politeness being almost oriental in its inscrutability, he may have been dying inwardly of laughter.

From Memoirs Of The Forties (London, Alan Ross, 1965)

Note to reader:  When I was researching illustrations of ugly London subway advertising during the period MacLaren-Ross is describing to Picasso in this excerpt, in order to include them here, I was extremely surprised to find the number of images I did, very few of them at all ugly, despite  MacLaren-Ross' account.  Most of what I viewed (and I trolled the years beginning about 1918 through the 1960s) was interesting and visually strong, especially London Transport's (now called Transport for London or TfL) advertisements promoting the Tube itself, as well as London's peerless  qualities and places to visit.

A vast quantity of these images can be viewed online at the London Transport Museum's website, a destination I highly recommend.  I've included a few of these below, including several by the brilliant American artist, Edward McKnight Kauffer, who is recorded as creating the first cubist-influenced subway advert.  Among the pictures shown, The Barmaid (what an unexpected image this is for display in a public transport system; it immediately summons up for me the world of Patrick Hamilton's Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky London trilogy) was created by the Royal Academician, Ruskin Spear, CBE, the father of the musician and painter, Roger Ruskin Spear of the Bonzo Dog Band.  Another, which recommends a visit to Highgate Ponds (a good idea) is by the contemporary British master Howard Hodgkin.   I have also included a nice, but rejected, work by the well-known painter and graphic artist John Nash (the younger brother of key British printmaker Paul Nash) to show that apparently not everything works in the subway context.  London Transport declined to use Nash's Chilterns piece because his color palette was deemed unsuitable for typical Tube station lighting.

Some of the most interesting and haunting posters were created during World War II and dictate war precautions and other matters of patriotic import.  Readers familiar with MacLaren-Ross will know that, despite his capacity for cynicism and his disastrous Army experiences, it would be out of character for him to criticize material created in support of Britain's war efforts merely on aethetic grounds. 

One thing I really enjoy about MacLaren-Ross's sketch is his description of Pablo Picasso's powerful and captivating way of regarding his partner in conversation.  It brings to mind the great line in the Modern Lovers' song, Pablo Picasso, which goes:  "He was only 5' 3", but girls could not resist his stare".  Possibly you know the rest.

Edward McKnight Kauffer, Daily Herald advertisement, 1919 (considered the first cubist-inspired subway advertisement)

Unknown Artist, Her Majesty The Queen Broadcasting To The Women Of The British Empire, 1943

Misha Black and David Langon, For Comfort's Sake, Stagger Office Hours, 1943

Howard Hodgkin, Highgate Ponds, 1989

Ruskin Spear, Bar Maid, 1987

Edward McKnight Kauffer, Shop Between 10 and 4, 1947

John Nash, Chilterns, 1950 (rejected design)

Abram Games, A Train Every 90 Seconds, 1937

Eric Henri Kennington, Seeing It Through (Station Woman), 1944

Julian Maclaren-Ross


  1. Okay that's it. I just ordered Memoirs of the 40s.

    p.s. Poster sale coming up at Swann. Thin on Kauffer, however.

  2. Memoirs of the Forties is really wonderful. I am a very big fan. J M-R's story is a disturbing one and it's well told (apart from his own recounting of it) in the Fear and Loathing In Fitzrovia biography. I am the lucky owner of an autograph J M-R letter, which he wrote in his amazing script with his fountain pen, The Hooded Monster. They say "speed kills", you know, but in his case it fueled him into middle-middle age. Apparently, it was drinking the cognac too quickly celebrating the surprise arrival of a royalty check that hastened his demise. Curtis

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