Cleaning Brushes with Picasso

There are times when, despite the vast palette of descriptive shades and colors in the English language (affording it one of the largest vocabularies in the world), there are some experiences that I still, no matter how hard I try, can only describe as “cool”. As a conscientious blogger I should probably be striving to bypass such beige-colored words in search of richer hues, but sometimes a straight-out-of-the-tube adjective like “cool” just works. And that’s exactly what I’d use to describe what happened a few days ago.

I was sat on a forest green bench in Montmartre, in a sleepy square I know rather well as being the front yard of Picasso’s famous studio Le Bateau-Lavoir. Technically the original building has since burned down and been replaced with a replica but the vibe still pervades enough to invite lovers of art history to come and meditate momentarily under a tree. I still remember finding it for the first time with my mother and sister and how all three of us got chills as I read aloud my guidebook’s description of the artist’s life here. This is where he helped invent Cubism and almost single-handedly changed the modern art world with one solitary, scandalous painting: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

But this isn’t a post about that painting or that studio. It could’ve been, I suppose, had I not stumbled upon something even more interesting, more secret. More…cool.

My notes for the day showed that just around the corner from this tranquil square lay Picasso’s first ever studio in Paris, where he spent the fall of 1900. At the ripe age of nineteen the boy who would later become the most famous artist of the 20th century was just getting to know Montmartre and the city below it, painting and sleeping each night within the walls of my next stop at 49, rue Gabrielle. I was hoping to stand in front of the doorway of this private residence and push my mind back those 112 years, far away from the crisp lines and bright colors of modern day toward the watery spectrum of grays and browns of turn-of-the-century Montmartre, with its dilapidated brothels, dodgy alleyways, cheap wine and raucous cabarets that made up Picasso’s neighborhood at the time.

I managed to walk right past the address on my first attempt, overshooting it by half a block. After retracing my steps and scanning the small cobalt blue address plaques until their white numbers reached #49, I was blessed with an extremely rare occurrence in privacy-obsessed Paris — an open door! By habit I had approached the building from a distance with camera in hand expecting to get no more than a picture or two of the façade. But someone had mistakenly left open the magic rabbit hole leading to the fall of 1900, and I was more than happy to tumble down head first into it. I pounced into the entryway before anyone could show up and tell me otherwise.

 

I was in. As my ears and eyes adjusted to the new space my first reaction was gratitude that the interior still had an old unpolished feel to it. I loved that it was in need of a paint job. And judging from all the worn grooves and uneven humps in the floor tiles, I’d like to think they could be the originals from way back then. The air inside was still and brisk and had yet to be warmed by the pale zinc yellow of the sun coming through the south-facing windows. What caught the eye next was the wooden staircase, as successful as the entryway in exuding a rustic authenticity with a touch of Parisian grace.


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The building was dead-quiet and void of any residents. I moved further into it as silently and respectfully as if I were tiptoeing through a sanctuary during mass, and to the left hung a heavy stone plaque to confirm this particular church’s patron saint: “Here in 1900 Picasso had his first studio in Paris”.

 

While the sign evoked a desire to find his exact room, each nondescript door painted in its innocuous coat of dark burnt sienna seemed to mumble “Nothing to see here, move along,” leaving me only to guess at which one it might have been. I was nevertheless content to have already shared Picasso’s entryway and to have now slid my hand along his railing as I descended the curve of those time-worn stairs to the lower level, finding an equally silent space with more floral-themed tile work, an old utility sink, and a back door leading to a series of terraces.


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I doubt this porch was as bright and inviting in 1900, but I imagine he still would’ve come out here from time to time, a cigarette pinched between his pigment-stained fingers while he took stock of his new life as a Parisian and searched for inspiration along the jagged October skyline. Turning back around I was struck momentarily by the quiet dignity of this worn, ancient sink. It’s thoroughly possible, I mused, that this was the only source of water in a building like this 112 years ago—a line of thinking that led to the enticing conclusion that Picasso himself would have likely used it. To clean his paintbrushes perhaps?

 

I reflected on this as my hand slid along the paint-chipped contours of the spicket and down to the catch basin. I stood beside the master himself in my mind as I watched him like a hologram scrub and scrape the studio utensils which had most likely spent the day in contact with the canvas of Le Moulin de la Galette, his first Parisian painting and one that has since been considered a masterpiece. With his thoughts lost in the turpentine-scented contemplation that oil painters know so well, I recalled his famously dark piercing eyes and wondered what sort of self-critique might be churning behind them as he stood bent over this sink. It was a cool moment in a series of cool moments; a wonderful case of luck and timing working in tandem to offer you a personal role in those formative events of Western culture which as a student seemed to only exist on the pages of textbooks and the transparencies of overhead projectors. For a second I brought to mind the image of my 1995 self in an auditorium of hundreds listening to long art history lectures, and how that younger Corey—about the same age as the Picasso who rinsed paintbrushes at this spot—had no idea just how real that history would become for him later on.

Footsteps (which constituted the first sound I had heard since entering this place) creaked in increasing volume on the stairs above and startled me from my meditation at the sink. They were footsteps that would explain the mystery of the open front door, as a construction worker struggled to maneuver a long aluminum ladder around the baluster and onto the terrace. I gave him a hand with the ladder, as well as an apology-tinted Bonjour in case he was disturbed by my presence, and decided it was time to be on my way. After a few more pictures and a final tipping of the cap to the whole experience I exited back into Montmartre 2012, with the door swinging firmly shut behind me.


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There are the meaningful moments that we organize and plan for, but it’s often the ones that materialize out of nowhere that take on the most gravitas; they’re the brief experiences that seem to have already been fully formed by the universe and packaged like a personalized guided tour, simply waiting for us to show up. If I had arrived any earlier or later that day at 49, rue Gabrielle I would’ve surely missed my chance to get inside, and oddly enough my mistake of walking past it the first time aligned me perfectly with the construction worker’s trip out to his truck to grab a ladder.

I looked back one last time and wondered how many times Picasso had taken the same path I was about to borrow for the continuation of my afternoon walk. And I thought back to all those colors that my day had been painted with so far—the forest green of the park bench, the cobalt blue address plaque on the building, the pale zinc yellow of the sun, the burnt sienna of the apartment doors—and I imagined the ways they might have inspired that 19 year-old, were he still cleaning his brushes in that old Montmartre sink, to paint his next masterpiece. And that notion, if I may be so beige about it, is very very cool.

23 comments

  • Wow, wow, wow! What an *extraordinary* post, Corey. I would be envious of your experience, except that I feel as if I’ve joined you — footstep by footstep — in your wonderful adventure. Your photos are sublime, as well … you’ve provided a marvelous sense of place. Thank you for starting my day off on such a cool note. :)

    • Thanks so much Heather, that’s a wonderful compliment. Glad you enjoyed it and I look forward to whatever we stumble upon once you get here!

  • Oh, Co…my little Goonie…..you are so right. The english language has got to come up with a word that can describe that experience, Cuz it’s beyond cool. And I can’t even come up with a word that describes how well you wrote that blog…you gave me goosebumps…imagining the walk through Monmatre and stubbling upon such a treasure!
    As always, thanks for sharing Paris with us…it makes my heart yurn to walk the cobblestones of Piccaso again with you.

    -Mom

  • Such a beautiful post! I know the feeling, retracing the steps of some of the masters can be exhilirating. On my to do list the next time I am in Paris.
    Merci!

    • Thanks Bianca! Yes it’s extraordinary how much artistic greatness has touched this city; it seems to be around every corner once you start looking for it. Thanks for reading and feel free to drop me a line if you’re ever in town.

  • corey
    how colorfully, expressively, linguistically, charmingly written. cooool !! i enjoyed it so much. keep on keepin’ on with your writing. i love it.
    mary b

  • Hi Corey. Perfectly aligned piece of writing. Perfectly aligned experience. What terrific word choice, vocabulary, and metaphors. I was with you all the way. The entire piece was beautifully done. I especially enjoyed and wanted to memorize the paragraph about everything in alignment and yes, the greatest of life’s experiences are not those we plan (as if we were in charge, anyway). I also appreciated the paragraph summarizing the colors of the day, not beige at all. I knew you were an artist, an actor, but such a brilliant writer I have just come to realize.
    Sally Johnston (home economics teacher)and I (Kathleen O’Wril) are writing. She’s into plays and I’m into memoir essays. Your writing certainly supersedes mine by a light year. Friday evening I saw the play Red, about Mark Rothko (have I got the name right?). He pushed the cubists out of the lime light and was about to be pushed aside himself. All about his ego, anticipated death to his popularity, and his ethics. Loved the play. Hope you have a chance to see it, if you haven’t already. It’s COOL.
    Love and blessings from Dan O’Wril’s mother who lunches with your gram on Mondays
    Kathleen O’Wril

    • Wow, Mrs. O’Wril, what a pleasant surprise! What fond memories I still have of all those days running around under your roof with Dan, and your famous mashed potatoes and turnips! (yes, I still think of them)

      Thanks for your fantastic, thoughtful comment. As a teacher and writer I’m sure you know as much as anyone how much darn work it takes to make it look like you didn’t work at all! So having you notice things like word choice and metaphor is a real pleasure and an encouragement to continue. I like this idea of “being with the writer all the way”. I had never put words to it but it’s such an important concept. Thanks for the kind words and say hello to your family for me!

  • The biggest superlative I can come up with is WAY cool. I savored every step, even as I tingled with the fear of a discovery that would have had you tossed out on your ear.

    • Thank you Lee. Yes there’s always that voice in the back of your mind during things like this that says “you’re not supposed to be here, somebody’s gonna get aaangryy…”

      I’m trying more and more to ignore that voice :)

  • I will see your “cool” and raise you a “coolio”! I think that you had such an awesome stroke of luck that day. What great photos and I totally loved the wavy tile in the entrance way. As a mater of fact, all the tile on the floor was unbelievably gorgeous! Just imagine all the people who have lived there since Picasso! BTW- I though that the sink for the paintbrushes was a urinal :)

    • Ha, well I guess “Peeing With Picasso” could’ve made for an interesting read as well. I agree those floor tiles were one of the best parts, and yes I was crazy lucky to be able to slip in that day. Thanks Ashley!

  • Fascinating post – hope I encounter similar serendipity when I visit Paris over Easter…..greetings from the riviera…..

  • Such a fantastic piece! I felt as if I was there with you (and Picasso!) throughout. Such a fantastic experience too, and a huge amount of luck (or coincidence) that you managed to sneak a peek inside.

    • Thanks wanderful, yes crazy luck and good timing. Exactly why I never leave the house without a camera! Thanks for reading and take care.

  • I had goosebumps as well while reading this post, and hoped you’d get to see everything you wanted to see before someone asked you to leave! I turned the staircase photos every which way on my iPad. Duh! It made me giggle as it just kept spinning around. Awesome. Thanks

  • This was the most enjoyable piece of writing I have read online all year. You are a wonderful writer and you clearly put a lot of thought into crafting this story. Thank you!

  • An English woman, about to leave my Kent coastal home to live in Paris for in indeterminate period, & sleepless, surrounded by packing boxes, I stumbled serendipitously & much impressed, on your inspiring Paris blog. Oui, your readers are right – your’ve written a colourful and evocative piece on Picasso’s early home. I’ve never blogged, am an IT novice (can’t even get my pics from camera to laptop). BUT, as you so deftly put it, fate takes a major hand in our lives and this time, returning to my beloved France (& closer to my 2 sons and grandchildren) I am going to give it a helping hand as, no longer working, I can give full rein to my curiosity and do what I’ve never had time for before – explore, read, write, learn to paint, and feast on Paris as I’ve always longed to and never had the time before. I shall also seek inspiration and encouragement from your fascinating blog. Maybe we’ll pass one another in some dusty alley or square ……. Keep writing … from your vocabulary you obviously paint. Thanks for a happy start to what is going to be an incredibly difficult and emotional but exciting day. This morning in Hythe, tonight in Paris …..sadly without my cat Mandu….. but with another adventure before me… Good luck!

    • Thank you Judith for your wonderful comment. Sounds like you have a quite an adventure in front of you! I appreciate your kind words about my blog, and I wish you lots of happy discoveries in this wonderful city. “Feasting” on Paris is exactly the right mindset to have; it sounds like you’re open to the experience so I’m sure the city will seduce you, as it has me.

      Please do keep following, and yes I’d be happy to meet one day for a cup of tea and an expat chat (I’m also a pretty decent tour guide if I do say so myself). Stay in touch and take care, and thanks again for reading and commenting. :)

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