The fifty-thousand-franc reward that the Paris-Journal had offered for information leading to the return of the Mona Lisa naturally brought numerous replies that proved to be hoaxes or false alarms. One response, however, led to the arrest of two suspects whose names were well known to the avant-garde art community of Paris: Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire.
The letter that set off this train of events appeared in the Paris-Journal on August 29, 1911, addressed to the editor, who reprinted it on his paper’s front page with the precise sum and time omitted:
On the 7th of May, 1911, I stole a Phoenician statuette from one of the galleries of the Louvre. I am holding this at your disposition, in return for the sum of _________ francs. Trusting that you will respect my confidence, I shall be glad to meet you at [such and such a place] between____ and _____ o’clock. 1
As the editor commented, although the newspaper had offered a reward for the Mona Lisa, it “has never undertaken to ransom all the works of art stolen from the Louvre.” Nonetheless, this “was an opportunity to check a detail that would be interesting if proven genuine,” so one of the paper’s reporters went to meet “a young man, aged somewhere between twenty and twenty-five, very well-mannered… whose face and look and behavior bespoke at once a kind heart and a certain lack of scruple.” 2
This was indeed the thief, and he showed the reporter what he had taken from the Louvre. The reporter described it as “a rather crude bust, an example of the somewhat rudimentary art of the Phoenicians.” 3 When a curator of the museum examined it, he confirmed from markings that it was from the Louvre’s collection (no one had even noticed it was missing) but said it was not a Phoenician but an Iberian sculpture, recently excavated from diggings at Cerro de los Santos near Osuna, Spain. Such details didn’t interest the Paris-Journal, which gleefully exhibited the object in its window and paid the young thief, who happened to be a writer, to tell its readers how he had obtained it:
It was in March, 1907 that I entered the Louvre for the first time — a young man with time to kill and no money to spend.… [Other newspapers had insisted that the Mona Lisa’s theft was the result of allowing the public into the museum free of charge. This letter seemed to confirm that, and the practice was soon stopped.]
It was about one o’clock. I found myself in the gallery of Asian antiquities. A single guard was sitting motionless. I was about to climb the stairs leading to the floor above when I noticed a half-open door on my left. I had only to push it, and found myself in a room filled with hieroglyphs and Egyptian statues… in any case the place impressed me profoundly because of the deep silence and the absence of any human being. I walked through several adjoining rooms, stopping now and again in a dim corner to caress an ample neck or a well-turned cheek.
It was at that moment that I suddenly realized how easy it would be to pick up and take away almost any object of moderate size.… I was just then in a small room, about two meters by two in the “Gallery of Phoenician Antiquities.”
Being absolutely alone, and hearing no sounds whatever, I took the time to examine about fifty heads that were there, and I chose one of a woman, with, as I recall, twisted, conical forms on each side. I put the statue under my arm, pulled up the collar of my overcoat with my left hand, and calmly walked out, asking my way of the guard, who was still completely motionless.
I sold the statue to a Parisian painter friend of mine. He gave me a little money — fifty francs, I think, which I lost the same night in a billiard parlor.
“What of it?” I said to myself. “All Phoenicia is there for the taking.” 4
The thief went on to describe how he stole and sold several other pieces before leaving the city. He had returned in May 1911 and resumed his career of looting objects from the Louvre. He noticed that the collection in the Phoenician room, his favorite hunting ground, was much diminished, and blamed that on “imitators of mine.” 5
Unfortunately, the thief wrote, what promised to be a steady source of income was now ruined because of “this hullabaloo in the paintings department [the Mona Lisa theft]. I regret this exceedingly, for there is a strange, an almost voluptuous charm about stealing works of art, and I shall probably have to wait several years before resuming my activities.” 6
Naturally enough, the article caused a sensation. The Paris-Journal encouraged its readers to think that the unnamed thief might well be the culprit in the Mona Lisa case as well. France’s undersecretary of state of beaux-arts, Étienne Dujardin-Beaumetz, under pressure because he was ultimately the person responsible for the Louvre, filed a complaint with the public prosecutor against a “person or persons unknown,” in an attempt to get the newspaper to reveal the name of the person who stole the “Phoenician” heads.
But nowhere was the consternation greater than at 11, boulevard de Clichy, in Montmartre, the artists’ quarter on the Right Bank of the Seine. This was the residence and studio of Pablo Picasso and his mistress Fernande Olivier — and Picasso was the artist who had bought the “Phoenician” statuettes from the Louvre thief. The apartment was a comfortable one, very different from the “starving artist” garret of myth. Picasso had finished with that phase of his career two years earlier when he moved out of his previous apartment, where the only heat had come from a rusty iron stove and there was no gas or electricity. There, Picasso had to hold a candle next to the canvas when he worked at night, his favorite time for painting. Now, he was selling paintings regularly to admirers like Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo, wealthy Americans who had settled in Paris. Picasso also had a dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who relieved the young Spanish artist of the need to struggle to find gallery space or, even worse, submit his paintings to a jury for the annual Salon des Indépendants. The Picassos (as Fernande liked to call the couple, mistaking Pablo’s affection for a permanent attachment) even had a maid now, the hallmark of the Parisian bourgeoisie. The maid liked her job, for the couple often slept late, relieving her from early morning duties.
On his first visit to Paris in 1900, just before his nineteenth birthday, Picasso and his friend the poet Carles Casagemas found rooms in Montmartre, where the atmosphere was startlingly free compared to that in Barcelona, their hometown. Pablo discovered that young, beautiful women were willing to pose nude for him (and sleep with him), and he and Carles often stayed out all night at cafés where art and literature and sex and politics were discussed far into the night. They took girlfriends dancing at the Moulin de la Galette, a gaslit dance hall next to one of the few working windmills left on Montmartre. Picasso was inspired to paint the scene, brilliantly capturing its garish, underworldly quality. He and Carles visited the Louvre, no doubt standing like any other tourists in front of the Mona Lisa, and the Museé du Luxembourg, where the works of then-modern artists like the impressionists were on display. When he left Paris, keeping a promise to his parents to be home by Christmas, Pablo told himself that he would return.
Early in 1901, Picasso started an avant-garde art magazine in Madrid while Carles returned to Paris, trying to rekindle his relationship with a woman he had fallen in love with. When she spurned him, Carles shot himself (after trying to kill her first and missing). The news shocked Picasso, and he threw himself into the creation of art. This was the beginning of his Blue Period, named not only for the predominant color in his canvases, but for the melancholy quality he gave his human subjects. Later that year he moved into the apartment Carles had occupied in Paris and found backers for a well-received exhibition of his own work. He also met a neighbor named Max Jacob, a homosexual poet and would-be painter who would become one of Picasso’s closest friends. (Picasso, seeing Jacob’s paintings, advised him to stick to poetry. 7 )
After a return to Barcelona, Picasso settled in Paris for good in April 1904, renting a run-down apartment in an oddly shaped building on the hill of Montmartre at 13, rue Ravignan. Max Jacob called it the Bateau-Lavoir because it resembled one of the laundry barges moored in the Seine. The place was a haven for artists and other bohemians, and arguments, singing, weeping, and cries of passion could be heard through the thin walls at all hours. Picasso, who loved animals, kept two dogs and, in a drawer, a small white mouse. In August, during a thunderstorm, he found a sodden kitten on the street and picked it up. After he reached the Bateau-Lavoir, he encountered a young woman who had gone inside to seek shelter from the storm. He offered her the kitten, and when she laughed, he invited her to see his studio.
Her name was Fernande Olivier (the last name was her own invention) and although she was only a few months older than Picasso, she had already been married and given birth to a son. To him, she was a woman of the world, the first he had ever known other than prostitutes. Asking her to move into his apartment, as he did a few months later, was a rite of passage for him.
As for his appeal to her, “There was nothing especially attractive about him at first sight,” she was to recall. After all, he was five feet three inches tall, with stiff, unkempt hair and a gnome-like face. “But his radiance, an inner fire one sensed in him, gave him a sort of magnetism which I was unable to resist.” 8 That volcanic energy made itself felt through his penetrating dark eyes, which shine out from every photograph made of Picasso, regarding the camera with defiance.
Picasso was possessive of Fernande, preventing her even from going shopping alone, lest some man see her and carry her off. He forbade her to do housework, for he liked chaos where he worked (even later, when they had a housekeeper, the woman was instructed not to touch his studio), and Fernande was perfectly content to serve as his sexual companion. She showed up increasingly in his paintings, which now took on a rosy hue. It must have increased Fernande’s sense of security that he sometimes painted her with a husband and child.
Now with her on his arm, he circulated through the cabarets and bars of Montmartre, meeting others who aspired, as he did, to become artists of one kind or another. The most important of these to his career would be Guillaume Apollinaire, two years older than Picasso but very much a man of the world who had learned the invaluable skill of appearing to know far more than he did.
The story of how Apollinaire and Picasso met has many versions. Not even the year is certain, and the two principals themselves recalled it differently. Nevertheless, it was a signal moment in the history of art. Apollinaire would serve as Picasso’s herald and publicist; doing so would enhance Apollinaire’s reputation as well. Picasso was inarticulate on the subject of his art, and Apollinaire was articulate on everything. They were like two elements that, when combined, created an explosion.
Max Jacob offered one version of the first meeting between the two, at a bar on the rue Amsterdam:
Apollinaire was smoking a short-stemmed pipe and expiating on Petronius and Nero to some rather vulgar-looking people.… He was wearing a stained light-colored suit, and a tiny straw hat was perched atop his famous pear-shaped head. He had hazel eyes, terrible and gleaming, a bit of curly blond hair fell over his forehead, his mouth looked like a little pimento, he had strong limbs, a broad chest looped across by a platinum watch-chain, and a ruby on his finger. The poor boy was always being taken for a rich man because his mother — an adventuress, to put it politely — clothed him from head to toe [Apollinaire was living in a suburb of Paris with his mother].… Without interrupting his talk he stretched out a hand that was like a tiger’s paw over the marble-topped table. He stayed in his seat until he was finished. Then the three of us went out, and we began that life of three-cornered friendship which lasted almost until the war, never leaving one another whether for work, meals, or fun. 9
It was not long before Apollinaire visited Picasso’s studio, and he later recalled that it was “cluttered with canvases representing mystical harlequins and drawings on which people walked and which everyone was allowed to carry off.” 10 Viewing the Blue Period work, Apollinaire recognized the younger man’s genius and promptly took it upon himself to interpret and publicize it. Picasso’s paintings had previously been of interest to a limited circle, but now Apollinaire began to give life in print to the somber figures in Picasso’s canvases: “These children, who have no one to caress them, understand everything. These women, whom no one loves now, are remembering. They shrink back into the shadows as if into some ancient church. They disappear at daybreak, having attained consolation through silence. Old men stand about, wrapped in icy fog. These old men have the right to beg without humility.” 11 Descriptions such as these made others curious about Picasso’s art and led them to the Bateau-Lavoir to see it.
And because Picasso habitually worked late at night and slept mornings, the studio became a meeting place for many of the artists and writers who lived in the building or nearby. Picasso, encouraging them, painted a slogan on his door: “Au rendezvous des poètes” (“Meeting place of poets”). 12 Apollinaire frequently brought people who had new ideas that he thought Picasso should know about. Roger Shattuck, in his influential book The Banquet Years, called him “a ringmaster of the arts.” 13
One of Apollinaire’s great gifts was the ability to rapidly absorb the intellectual currents that swarmed around him. Paris at the turn of the twentieth century was a ferment of ideas and theories — not merely artistic, but scientific, and often the two worlds overlapped. Shattuck called Montmartre at this time a “central laboratory,” 14 where collaboration gave birth to radically new kinds of art. Experimentation was the order of the day, part of a shift in thinking that heralded the true beginning of the twentieth century. The dominant intellectual spirit of the nineteenth century had been positivism, the philosophy that posited that the only knowable reality was what could be observed. Yet even before the old century wound to a close, an increasing number of people were rebelling against that notion. The poet Paul Claudel wrote, “At last we are leaving that hideous world… of the nineteenth century, that prison camp, that hideous mechanism governed by laws that were completely inflexible and, worst of all, knowable and teachable.” 15
In science the new trend manifested itself through the work of such men as Max Planck, who in 1900 formulated the quantum theory, and Albert Einstein, who in 1905 extended Planck’s insight in a series of groundbreaking papers, one of which (his doctoral thesis) offered a proof for the reality of atoms and molecules. 16 These and other discoveries revolutionized the science of physics, establishing the fact that there was a whole world of unseen particles beneath the level of ordinary vision. Awareness of such theories was not confined to a narrow circle. Henri Poincaré, France’s leading scientist, gave public lectures and wrote pamphlets that were intended to make high-level mathematics and science accessible to the average person. These ideas, even if not fully understood, made their way to the cafés where Picasso and his friends met. Poincaré wrote, “A scientist worthy of the name, above all a mathematician, experiences in his work the same impression as an artist; his pleasure is as great and of the same nature.” 17
That held true in reverse for many of the avant-garde artists living in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century. The great achievement of Renaissance art had been the discovery of perspective, which allowed artists to portray three-dimensional scenes and objects realistically. However, the invention of photography by two Frenchmen, Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre, around 1840, made it possible for anyone to accomplish that perfectly. Though academic artists continued to work in the old tradition, others began the quest for a new kind of art that would reveal more than photography could. Manuel “Manolo” Hugué, a sculptor and fellow Spaniard who had known Picasso for years, said, “Picasso used to talk a lot then about the fourth dimension and he carried around the mathematics books of Henri Poincaré.” 18 (These were not textbooks, but books that Poincaré had written at a popular level for ordinary people to read.)
Picasso was not alone in his fascination with the fourth dimension. Inventions such as the telephone, wireless communication, and the airplane had revolutionized people’s experience of time and space. One could be there without being there. (In Paris, people with telephones sometimes connected them to a line that allowed them to listen to performances at the opera without leaving home.) Now, people speculated on the possibility of traveling through time as easily as one moved through space. If time was merely a dimension, as some scientists were already claiming, then it could be traveled. The publication of H. G. Wells’s popular novel The Time Machine in 1895 further brought the idea into the public consciousness.
As originally proposed, the fourth dimension was not merely identified with time; it was part of a new, non-Euclidean geometry and actually occupied some higher, unseen realm of space. Poincaré, among others, argued that “the characteristic property of space, that of having three dimensions, is only a property of our table of distribution, an internal property of human intelligence, so to speak. It would suffice to destroy certain of these connections, that is to say of the association of ideas, to give a different table of distribution, and that might be enough for space to acquire a fourth dimension.” 19
It was this more technical meaning of the term fourth dimension that most interested writers such as Apollinaire, who sought to find literary forms to express it. He began to abandon the traditional method of printing poems on the page in horizontal lines — instead creating arrangements of words that were intended to express as much as the words themselves. One of these so-called calligrammes was about time, and the words formed the shape of a pocket watch. Another formed the shape of the Eiffel Tower, which had a radio antenna at the top to transmit messages.
In some of Apollinaire’s prose works, he invented characters who moved across time and space simultaneously (a concept later termed simultanism). Apollinaire advised others to read the Fantômas novels as rapidly as possible, to heighten the impression of simultanism. In Apollinaire’s story “Le roi-lune” (“The Moon-King”), the hero wears a belt that enables him to make love to all the women of all times. A story in another work, L’hérésiarque et Cie., has as its central character the Baron d’Ormesan, whose toucher à distance enables him to appear simultaneously in many places around the world. 20 Not by coincidence, the baron was a movie director, for Apollinaire, like Picasso, was a great admirer of this new art form. (Apollinaire once wrote that typography itself was “brilliantly finishing its career, at the dawn of an age of new modes of reproduction, which are the cinema and the phonograph.” 21 ) French filmmakers had already discovered special effects, and Paris audiences had seen time speeded up and people disappear from one place only to reappear in another an instant later, exactly as Apollinaire’s characters did. One reason Apollinaire admired the Fantômas detective novels was that the antihero was able to create endless new identities for himself, changing with his surroundings.
Playing the role of “ringmaster of the arts,” Apollinaire introduced Picasso to Alfred Jarry, the playwright who had shocked and enraged Paris in 1896 with his play Ubu roi — not so much for its scatalogical dialogue as for its ferocious ridicule of bourgeois life and values. Jarry was known for his personal eccentricities — even in Montmartre, a milieu where eccentricity was commonplace. He would sometimes sit in a café and in a monotone utter endless strings of nonsensical phrases. He liked to carry two pistols, displaying them openly and occasionally firing them into the air. People enjoyed recalling the occasion when a stranger asked Jarry for a light, and he fired his pistol at the end of the man’s cigarette.
Jarry’s personal style as well as his artistic vision was rooted in his passionate anarchism. He saw society as corrupt and took every opportunity to mock it. Picasso too had been associated with anarchists in both Spain and France, and in fact the French police kept an eye on him, probably for this reason. (The police dossier on him is sealed until the year 2033.) The poet André Salmon, another member of what people called La Bande à Picasso (“the Picasso Gang”), traveled in anarchist circles and had even met Jules Bonnot, who was to achieve fame as the head of a gang that carried out spectacular crimes in the name of anarchy. When Picasso and Salmon first met, Picasso had recommended a book of anarchist poetry, which included calls to violence such as
But our mission is big.
If we kill, if we die,
It’s for the wealthy pig
Asleep in his money-sty! 22
Apollinaire embraced anarchy too, but his was of a more literary type, best expressed in poetry and essays. He promoted Picasso and other avant-garde painters partly because they attacked the established order, which — as an outsider himself — he opposed. It was, he believed, necessary to break down not merely the political order but the artistic establishment as well. A friend recalled that Apollinaire “took… me to the Louvre, to the gallery of antiquities. He spoke with great verve against the Antinoüs; it wasn’t that he was trying to destroy classical sculpture but rather that, in his love for a new art, for the need to surpass all that was known in art, he was attacking the foundations, impeccable in themselves, but the consequences of which lead to the academic style.” 23
Jarry, seeing Picasso as a kindred spirit, gave him a Browning automatic pistol (the same kind that the Bonnot Gang later used). Max Jacob saw this gift as the transference of a sacred symbol to encourage Picasso to break through to new artistic territory, the recognition by one anarchist of his successor. (Picasso is said to have fired the pistol whenever someone asked him what the meaning of his paintings was.)
Jarry also helped point Picasso in the direction that the new art might take. Numerous European countries were still using their military might to colonize and control nations in Africa and Asia. In the case of France, this was justified as a “civilizing mission.” Jarry satirized this claim by telling the story of an African who had left a Paris bar without paying. Actually, Jarry said, he was an explorer from Africa investigating the culture of France and had simply neglected to provide himself with “native” currency. 24
In the summer of 1905, Clovis Sagot, a former circus clown, opened an art gallery at 46, rue Laffitte, in the ninth arrondissement, and Picasso provided some works to put on the walls. While visiting Sagot’s establishment, Picasso was struck by the appearance of a woman who had come to view the art. His mistress Fernande later described the visitor as “masculine, in her voice, in all her walk. Fat, short, massive, beautiful head, strong, with noble features, accentuated regular, intelligent eyes.” 25 It was a thirty-two-year-old expatriate from the United States named Gertrude Stein. She and her brother Leo lived off an inheritance and collected art in their apartment at 27, rue de Fleurus. As it happened, Leo liked one of Picasso’s paintings, Young Girl with a Basket of Flowers, but Gertrude did not. It was the girl’s feet that she detested, to the point where she asked if they could be cut out of the painting. Her more amenable brother purchased it for 150 francs — feet intact.
Picasso painted his address on the work he was doing, and the Steins came to visit his studio. In turn, they invited Picasso and Fernande to attend the soirées at their apartment. At one of these, Picasso met Henri Matisse, who was outgoing and charming in contrast to Picasso’s customary demeanor of moody silence (which may have been due to the fact that French was not his native language). Matisse was the leading figure of a group of painters who were called fauves (“wild beasts”) because of their extravagant use of color — again in contrast to Picasso’s almost monochromatic styles. That spring of 1906, Matisse displayed at the Steins’ apartment a large canvas titled Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), which represented a step forward not only in his own artistic development but in solving the problem modern artists were preoccupied with: of finding a new way to represent reality on canvas. Matisse had actually begun to discard perspective, the great achievement of Renaissance art, instead utilizing color and form to suggest the movement of human figures. Picasso, whose ambition was boundless, certainly saw the painting as a challenge — and Matisse as a rival. (Picasso’s friend Salmon loyally wrote on the walls of Montmartre slogans like “Matisse is mad!” “Matisse is more dangerous than alcohol!” and “Matisse has done worse than war.” These annoyed Matisse, who in spite of his revolutionary art sought respectability in his private life.)
Among the first of those searching for an artistic style that would reveal more than photographs were the impressionists, beginning around 1880. Much of their work is concerned with light, especially in landscapes, creating effects that earlier artists would have regarded as distortions. One of the impressionists’ artistic successors was Paul Cézanne. (He originally exhibited with them.) Not well known until later in his life, his work received major exhibitions in Paris from 1905 through 1907, the year after his death. Cézanne believed that all objects could be expressed as spheres, cubes, or cylinders, and this can be seen in his later work, though the objects are still represented in a recognizable way. Cézanne also took the first steps toward painting objects from different perspectives in the same picture. All of these techniques made their impression on Picasso, who was still searching for a new path of his own.
Picasso offered, or was asked, to paint the portraits of Leo and Gertrude Stein. The one of Leo was quickly completed, but Gertrude’s seemed more of a problem. She must have been unusually patient, for after she had come to his studio for eighty sittings, he still pronounced it unfinished. Usually a fast worker, he painted the head out entirely, leaving a blank space. “I can’t see you any longer when I look,” he told Gertrude. 26
Perhaps feeling for the first time that Paris did not provide enough inspiration, perhaps unhappy that Matisse seemed more successful, Picasso thought about going away. Apollinaire suddenly came to the rescue, bringing the prominent art dealer Ambroise Vollard to the Bateau-Lavoir studio. Vollard had previously rejected one of Picasso’s works when Max Jacob tried to sell it to him, and had even called Picasso mad. Now, however, he seemed eager to purchase almost everything he saw. He went off in a taxi with thirty paintings stuffed into the backseat, for which he gave Picasso two thousand francs. Though this was actually one of the great art bargains of all time, it was a windfall to Picasso, who had been scraping by on far less than one thousand francs a year.
To celebrate, Picasso took Fernande to Barcelona to meet his parents, showing off not only the beautiful woman he had acquired but some of his sudden wealth as well. He decided to spend the summer in Gosol, a tiny village in the Pyrenees that could be reached only on the back of a mule. It was a wild place, nestled between Spain and France, yet seeming to belong to neither. Fernande recalled, “In that vast, empty, magnificent countryside… he no longer seemed, as he did in Paris, to be outside society.” 27
There, that summer, he found the inspiration he had been seeking: the Iberian heads he recalled from the Louvre came to life in this desolate, ageless locale. When he returned to Paris, Picasso took out the unfinished portrait of Gertrude Stein and painted in a masklike face with almond-shaped eyes and a stern mouth. With the hands of the sitter in the foreground the only other visible parts of the body, it is Picasso’s Mona Lisa. When he showed the painting to Gertrude, she was delighted and put it on her wall. When others complained that she didn’t look like that, Picasso replied calmly, “She will.” 28
Later that same year, he made a self-portrait with a face clearly inspired by the same source. “I did not use models again after Gosol,” he explained. “Because just then I was working apart from any model. What I was looking for was something else.” 29
Picasso became interested not just in the Iberian heads that had inspired Gertrude Stein’s portrait, but in African art as well, particularly angular masks. The Bande à Picasso, perhaps inspired by their leader, began to look for and even purchase examples of “primitive” masks and statuettes in small shops. André Derain, a painter who frequently visited the Bateau-Lavoir studio, recalled, “On the rue de Rennes, I often passed the shop of Père Sauvage. There were Negro statuettes in his window. I was struck by their character, their purity of line.… So I bought one and showed it to Gertrude Stein, whom I was visiting that day. And then Picasso arrived. He took to it immediately.” 30
Years later, on one of the few occasions Picasso talked about his influences, he recalled those days. He had gone to the Trocadéro Palace, where an exhibition of African masks was on view. “I understood that it was very important: something was happening to me, right? The masks weren’t just like any other pieces of sculpture. Not at all. They were magic things.… The Negro pieces were intercesseurs, mediators; ever since then I’ve known the word in French. They were against everything — against unknown, threatening spirits.… I understood; I too am against every-thing. I too believe that everything is unknown, that everything is an enemy! Everything!… I understood what the Negroes used their sculpture for.… They were weapons. To help people avoid coming under the influence of spirits again, to help them become independent.… If we give spirits a form, we become independent.… I understood why I was a painter.” 31
At the beginning of 1907, Apollinaire met a young Belgian named Géry Pieret; they were working as writers for a magazine that offered advice to investors. (Evidently, the advice was not entirely objective, for the police appeared one day and shut down the publication.) The year before, Apollinaire had moved into his own apartment on the rue Henner, near the base of Montmartre. Picasso had introduced him to Marie Laurencin, a young woman who aspired to be a painter, and she had moved in with him. Marie recalled that they would make love in an armchair because Apollinaire did not like to muss the bed.
Pieret needed a place to stay, and Apollinaire unwisely let him use the couch to sleep on. Marie Laurencin recalled that he tried to make himself useful. One day, Pieret said to her, “Marie, this afternoon I am going to the Louvre: can I bring you anything you need?” 32 She assumed he meant the Magasins du Louvre, a department store. Instead he returned with the stone statuette that four years later, in his letter to the Paris-Journal, he admitted stealing from the “real” Louvre, the museum. The person he sold it to was Picasso, who purchased a second when Pieret pilfered that from the museum the following day. The theft of those two statuettes was to have a greater impact on the history of art than the disappearance of the Mona Lisa itself.
The previous winter, Picasso had ordered a large canvas stretched and mounted. He was preparing to paint a major work with several figures, something that would rival Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre and even Cézanne’s unfinished painting Baigneuses. Both of these works had depicted nudes in a landscape. Picasso almost never worked outdoors, so he chose a setting for his nudes that would, by itself, guarantee to shock: a brothel.
Picasso had patronized brothels in the prostitutes’ quarter in Barcelona before he reached his fifteenth birthday, 33 and he painted this picture entirely from memory. His first sketches for the planned painting showed four prostitutes with two customers, a sailor and another man carrying a skull. Eventually Picasso dropped the crude symbolism of the skull and then eliminated the men altogether, adding a fifth prostitute. The viewers of the painting would now be the “customers.”
Picasso continued to draw studies for the work, experimenting, trying new forms. No one is sure how long it took him, but finally he applied paint to his huge canvas, finishing the work, by some accounts, in May 1907. There are five figures in it, all apparently nude women covered only by a few scraps of white cloth. The faces of the three on the left reflect the Iberian sculpture that had already contributed to the portrait of Gertrude Stein and to Picasso’s 1906 self-portrait. The faces of the two figures on the right are more out of the ordinary — grotesque, some would call them. What they most resemble are bronze masks from the French Congo, like those then on display in the ethnological museum at the Trocadéro Palace. The Congolese masks were often covered with striations and incised lines, but Picasso had distorted even those characteristics, twisting and shaping them to his own design so that they are ultimately his own, not African.
The faces were not the only stunningly different element of the painting. Picasso had abandoned perspective altogether, flattening the images and showing the women in contorted poses. One, squatting at the far right, lets the viewer see her back, front, and sides at the same time. These are not the soft, fleshy nudes of earlier painters; they are all jagged edges and triangles, lines and plane surfaces. The only other recognizable object in the painting is a haphazard collection of fruit at the bottom, as if Picasso were thumbing his nose at all the formal still lifes and lovingly painted bowls of fruit of previous artists. Much later, Picasso was to remark, “When the cubist painter thought, ‘I’m going to paint a fruit bowl,’ he set to work knowing that a fruit bowl in art and a fruit bowl in life had nothing in common.’” 34
As a work by a serious artist, the painting was a departure of shattering proportions. It was as if Picasso had taken the pistol Jarry 35 had given him and fired it at all previous art. He had committed what anarchists called the “propaganda of the deed” — he had put the ideology into action. Though the figures are static, the overall impact was violent.
No one except Fernande had seen the painting while it was in progress. Now, Picasso allowed those closest to him, those he most respected, to view it. No one understood it. Max Jacob thought that the best thing a friend could do was to remain silent. André Derain worried that “one day we shall find Pablo has hanged himself behind his great canvas.” 36 Apollinaire, Picasso’s herald and promoter, muttered, “Révolution,” but could not bring himself to express anything at all about this painting in print. Later, writing about the theft of the two statuettes, Apollinaire said that he had tried to persuade Picasso “to give the statues back to the Louvre, but he was absorbed in his esthetic studies, and indeed from them Cubism was born. He told me that he had damaged the statues in an attempt to discover certain secrets of the classic yet barbaric art to which they belonged.” 37But it was not cubism that the statuettes inspired: it was this strange painting, which as yet had no name, so friends dubbed it The Philosophical Brothel. Not till later would it be given the title by which it is known today: Les demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon).
Some viewers were more outspoken. Matisse interpreted it as an attack on modern art, a mockery, and vowed revenge. 38 Leo Stein laughed when he saw it, thinking the painting a joke, but came closest of anyone to understanding it when he said, “You’ve been trying to paint the fourth dimension. How amusing!” 39 It was indeed a new dimension that Picasso had discovered, blazing a trail that other painters would follow. Just as non-Euclidean geometry posited a realm unfamiliar to those who saw only with their eyes, and quantum physicists dealt with things that could not be seen, so did Picasso, who once said, “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.” 40
At first, few were able to see his accomplishment clearly. The dealer Vollard, who had so recently bought up virtually every canvas Picasso had to offer, now pronounced a virtual death sentence on the young Spaniard, saying he had no future as a painter. 41 However, at the very moment Vollard was leaving Picasso’s studio, in walked Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, a German who had become a banker in London before deciding that his true calling in life was to own an art gallery in Paris. That day at the Bateau-Lavoir, he purchased most of the studies that Picasso had done for the startling new work — a windfall for Picasso because he usually let visitors carry such things away for nothing — and asked to purchase the painting as well. But Picasso must have realized from the reaction of others that it was not yet time for his vision to be displayed, and he refused to sell it. A year later, he removed it from its stretcher, rolled it up, and put it away. Kahnweiler, however, would remain Picasso’s dealer for the rest of his life.
One of those who had seen the painting and been awed by it was Georges Braque, a former housepainter from Normandy who had come to Paris and studied art in night classes. His first paintings were in the fauve style, of which Matisse was the master. Matisse, who may have been having second thoughts about Les demoiselles, brought him to Picasso’s studio to see it. Timidly, Braque pointed out that the noses were wrong. Picasso insisted, “Noses are like that.” Braque protested that Picasso was asking the viewer to accept something too difficult: “It’s as if you wanted us to… drink kerosene in order to spit fire.” 42
However, Braque turned out to be the first to imbibe. That winter he painted a large nude that had the striated features characteristic of the two African-inspired figures in Les demoiselles. He spent the following summer, 1908, at L’Estaque, a fishing village in Provence, where Cézanne had worked in his later years. The landscapes and village scenes Braque painted took another step toward simple geometric forms. At the same time, Picasso was working at La Rue des Bois, near Paris. Les demoiselles had exhausted him, and now — having actually discovered the body of another painter in the Bateau-Lavoir hanging from a beam, the victim of drugs and despair — he fled the city, searching for inspiration as he had once done in Gosol. He too began to turn everything he saw into geometric forms — not as spectacularly as the nudes of Avignon, but more severely and rigorously. Taking the most radical of the five nudes, the one on the far right, he further developed the ideas that had led him to paint it as if trying to see all sides at once.
When Picasso and Braque next met, they compared their summer work and discovered that they were going in the same direction. They decided to work together, in what became a unique artistic partnership that Braque described as two mountain climbers roped together. They stripped their palettes of all but a few colors — brown, white, gray, black — for what was important now was form alone. This new style was still (often just barely) representational: if the viewer looks hard enough, he can discern the subject of the painting. But perspective and three-dimensionality were gone completely. What Picasso and Braque did was to break down their subjects into plane surfaces that reflected all angles of view and then rearranged them on the canvas, where they fought for the viewer’s attention. If they were to be put together, it was the viewer who would do it.
Supposedly, when Braque submitted his work for an exhibition, Matisse, one of the jury members, scornfully said the canvases were full of “petits cubes.” 43 A reviewer, Louis Vauxcelles, is credited with coining the term cubism to describe the work. He didn’t expect cubism to last, but it proved to be one of the most influential artistic movements of the century.
Later critics pronounced cubism to be another reflection of the scientific currents of the time. William R. Everdell, in his book The First Moderns, says, “In effect, Picasso had done for art in 1907 almost exactly what Einstein had done for physics in his ‘Electrodynamics’ paper of 1905.”44Einstein had said that it was impossible for any single observer, standing at a fixed spot, to observe reality. Now Picasso and Braque were trying to capture reality by depicting an object from many points of view at the same time.
Though it is doubtful that Picasso or Braque ever read Einstein’s work, ideas like his were part of the intellectual atmosphere that made Paris such a stimulating place. Anybody could attend, for free, Henri Poincaré’s lectures at the University of Paris or Bergson’s at the Collège de France. Anarchists, socialists, and other groups sponsored free educational programs for their adherents. And of course, anyone dropping into a café in Montmartre might hear people like Apollinaire expounding on such topics. The cubists (there were soon more of them) sought, as scientists were doing, to find a deeper reality underneath the surface reality that anyone could see. It took an artist, like a detective, to find that hidden reality.
Kahnweiler displayed some of the cubist paintings in his gallery, where they attracted attention among both patrons and other artists. Some, like Juan Gris, enthusiastically took up the new style, contributing their own visions to it, and showing to what degree the concepts behind cubism were a part of the intellectual atmosphere of Paris. Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, who exhibited their work at the Salon des Indépendants, even claimed to have been cubists before Picasso and Braque, who responded by calling them les horribles serre-files (the awful stragglers). 45
Kahnweiler was successful in promoting and selling cubist art, and Picasso profited accordingly. In 1909, he left the Bateau-Lavoir and took an apartment on the boulevard de Clichy. This was a real home, with a living room, dining room, bedroom, and pantry, as well as a studio. By contrast, the furniture Picasso and Fernande brought with them was so shabby that the movers thought the young couple must have won the lottery to be able to live there.
It was certainly a more fashionable neighborhood. Paul Poiret, a dress designer who made clothes for the dancer Isadora Duncan and the actresses Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt, lived nearby, as did Frank Haviland, a porcelain manufacturer who was an admirer of African sculpture. Poiret was famous for the parties he threw for his customers, and he carefully chose art that would reflect his refined sense of taste. He visited Picasso’s studio, praised the paintings, but did not purchase any.
Picasso received numerous invitations from people like Poiret and Haviland and often accepted, but he was uneasy in their company. Fernande later explained, “Artists hate growing old. When they leave poverty behind them they are also bidding farewell to a purity and a dedication which they will try in vain to find again.” 46 Even going to the regular Saturday evening parties at the Steins’ apartment lost some of its appeal. According to Fernande, people would ask Picasso to explain his paintings, and he found it difficult to reply, partly because his French was poor, but also because he felt the work needed no explanation. He “would remain morose and dejected for the greater part of the time.” 47 To his old friends, he admitted experiencing moments of self-doubt, as if he had run up against a wall in his exploration of how far painting could take him.
As he had done before when his spirits ebbed, Picasso left Paris for a simpler environment. He spent the summer of 1911 in Céret, a little village in the western Pyrenees. Fernande, who evidently liked the comforts of the city more than he did, came down to join him after he rented a house. So did Braque. In the bucolic atmosphere, with Kahnweiler in Paris able to sell his paintings and provide him with an income, all seemed well.
Then a copy of the Paris-Journal arrived, carrying the story written by the thief who had stolen two stone heads from the Louvre in 1907. Picasso knew just where those statuettes were: in his apartment on the boulevard de Clichy. He rushed back to Paris, where he found Apollinaire in a panic. The news of the Mona Lisa theft had meant more to him than it had to Picasso. Apollinaire knew that Pieret had returned to Paris — had in fact been living in Apollinaire’s apartment. “He came to see me,” Apollinaire later wrote, “… his pockets full of money which he proceeded to lose at the races. Penniless, he stole another statue. I had to help him — he was down and out — so I took him into my flat and tried to get him to return the statue; he refused, so I had to put him out, along with the statue. A few days later the Mona Lisa was stolen. I thought, as the police later thought, that he was the thief.” 48
Things had only gotten worse when the Paris-Journal editors announced that the thief had brought them a statue he had stolen from the Louvre. André Salmon was now the art critic for the Paris-Journal. If he learned Pieret was the anonymous thief, he would certainly make the connection between him and Apollinaire. Salmon and Apollinaire were currently on bad terms, not having spoken since quarreling three months earlier, so Apollinaire could not appeal to him. When Pieret turned up again, Apollinaire took him to the railroad station, bought him a ticket to Marseilles, and gave him 160 francs. The police would later regard these actions as incriminating.
Neither Picasso nor Apollinaire was a French citizen, and thus they could expect harsh treatment from the authorities. Fernande wrote, “I can see them both now, a pair of contrite children, terrified and thinking of fleeing abroad. It was thanks to me that they did not give in to their panic; they decided to stay in Paris and get rid of the compromising sculptures as quickly as possible. But how? Finally they decided to put the statues in a suitcase and throw it into the Seine at night.” 49
Fernande thought that much of this was playacting. The pair ate dinner and then sat around nervously, not wanting to venture out with the statuettes until the streets were deserted. They whiled away the time by playing cards, but “neither of them knew the first thing about cards,” 50Fernande wrote. They just thought it was something gangsters would do, so they did it to build up their courage.
Finally, at midnight, they left, carrying the statuettes in a suitcase. But as they walked through the silent streets, their nerve began to fail. They feared that they were being followed, “and their imagination conjured up a thousand possibilities, each more fantastic than the last.” 51 If they were seen throwing the statuettes into the river, the penalty would be harsher than if they simply tried to return them. Finally they decided that turning the statuettes in would be the best course after all. And so they went back to the apartment at two in the morning, exhausted and still carrying the suitcase.
Apollinaire spent the night at Picasso’s apartment and in the morning took the statuettes to the Paris-Journal, which by now seemed the proper place to turn in such stolen objects. The news of this latest recovery ran under the headline
WHILE AWAITING MONA LISA
THE LOUVRE RECOVERS ITS TREASURES
That was just the sort of publicity Apollinaire and Picasso did not want, but at least the newspaper did not mention their names. In fact, the “mysterious visitor” who returned these stone objects was described as “an amateur artist, fairly well-to-do, [whose] greatest pleasure is in collecting works of art.” 52 That, they felt, was surely enough to keep the police off their trail. Moreover, a curator at the Louvre had examined the statuettes, which were described as the heads of a man and a woman, and pronounced them genuine. If Picasso had damaged them in his investigations, it was not noticed. He and Apollinaire hoped the entire affair would now blow over, particularly since Pieret had left Paris — though not before sending a mocking farewell letter to the Paris-Journal, writing, “I hope with all my heart that the Mona Lisa will be returned to you. I am not counting very heavily on such an event. However, let us hope that if its present possessor allows himself to be seduced by the thought of lucre, he will confide in your newspaper, whose staff has displayed toward me such a praiseworthy degree of discretion and honor. I can only urge the person at present holding Vinci’s masterpiece to place himself entirely in your hands.” 53
Unfortunately, Pieret’s comments only made it appear more likely than ever that he knew something about the Mona Lisa theft, and the police intensified their search for those who had purchased his previous stolen goods. No one ever learned how they identified Apollinaire, but on the evening of September 7, two detectives from the Sûreté appeared at his door. A search of his apartment turned up some letters from Géry Pieret, which apparently mentioned the theft of the statuettes. The police took Apollinaire into custody and brought him to Henri Drioux, the examining magistrate in charge of the Mona Lisa case. Drioux told him that the prosecutor’s office had received “anonymous denunciations… stating that he had been in contact with the thief of the Phoenician statuettes, and also that he was a receiver of stolen goods.” 54 He ordered Apollinaire to be imprisoned pending the results of an investigation.
Two days later, on September 9, Le Matin reported the sensational news:
It was not without emotion and surprise that Paris learned last night of the arrest made by the Sûreté in connection with the recent restitution of Phoenician statuettes stolen from the Louvre in 1907.
The mere name of the person arrested is enough to account for this reaction. He is M. Guillaume Kostrowky [sic], known in literature and art as Guillaume Apollinaire…
What exactly are the charges against him? Both the Public Prosecutor and the police are making a considerable mystery of the affair. 55
Mystery or no, the police intimated that it was far more than a case of a few missing statuettes. According to Le Matin’s editors, they were told, “We are on the trail of a gang of international thieves who came to France for the purpose of despoiling our museums. M. Guillaume Apollinaire committed the error of giving shelter to one of these criminals. Was he aware of what he was doing? That is what we are to determine. In any case, we feel sure that we shall shortly be in possession of all the secrets of the international gang.” 56
Apollinaire had been held in jail for twenty-four hours even before the police announced his arrest. Later, he wrote an account of his imprisonment: “As soon as the heavy door of the Santé closed behind me, I had an impression of death. However, it was a bright night and I could see that the walls of the courtyard in which I found myself were covered with climbing plants. Then I went through a second door; and when that closed I knew that the zone of vegetation was behind me, and I felt that I was now in some place beyond the bounds of the earth, where I would be utterly lost.” 57
Under further questioning, Apollinaire admitted that the person who had stolen the statuettes was Pieret, only confirming what the police already knew. The investigators wanted the name of the person Pieret sold the statuettes to, but Apollinaire would not reveal that. Back to the Santé he went, and surveyed his bleak cell with the eye of a literary man: “As reading matter they gave me a French translation of The Quadroon, by Captain Mayne Reid, whose adventure novels I remember reading as a schoolboy. During my confinement I read The Quadroon twice, and despite certain shocking improbabilities I found it a book not to be dismissed contemptuously.” 58
Géry Pieret, safely out of Paris, sent a wry note to the Paris-Journal, lamenting Apollinaire’s imprisonment and calling him “kindly, honest, and scrupulous.” Pieret signed himself “Baron Ignace d’Ormesan,” a reference to the main character in Apollinaire’s novel, who has the power to appear in many places at the same time. Artists and writers signed petitions to protest Apollinaire’s arrest, but the police still wanted to know who was the third man in the case. Finally, Apollinaire gave up Picasso’s name. “I did not describe his actual part in the affair, I merely said that he had been taken advantage of, and that he had never known that the antiquities he bought came from the Louvre.” 59
Early the next day, September 12, Fernande answered the doorbell at Picasso’s apartment to find a detective there. Trembling, Picasso dressed hastily. “I had to help him,” wrote Fernande, “as he was almost out of his mind with fear.” Picasso was taken to the office of the investigating magistrate and “saw Apollinaire — pale, dishevelled and unshaven, with his collar torn, his shirt unbuttoned, no tie, and looking gaunt and insubstantial: a lamentable scarecrow.” 60
There are differing accounts of what happened next. Fernande, writing long after she and Picasso had separated, declared:
Picasso became completely desperate: his heart failed him.… He too could only say what the magistrate asked him to say. Besides Guillaume had admitted so many things, true as well as false, that he had totally compromised Picasso.…
It has been said that Picasso denied his friend and pretended not to know him. That is quite untrue. Far from betraying him, that moment brought out the true strength of his friendship with Apollinaire. 61
Fernande, however, knew the story only as she had heard it from Picasso.
It seems significant that after the hearing, Magistrate Drioux allowed Picasso to go home and sent Apollinaire back to the Santé. Rumors spread that Picasso had denied everything, making Apollinaire out to be a liar. Nearly half a century later, Picasso told a journalist a version of the affair:
[Apollinaire] got himself arrested. Naturally, they confronted us. I can see him there now, with his handcuffs and his look of a big placid boy. He smiled at me as I came in, but I made no sign.
When the judge asked me: “Do you know this gentleman?” I was suddenly terribly frightened, and without knowing what I was saying, I answered: “I have never seen this man.”
I saw Guillaume’s expression change. The blood ebbed from his face. I am still ashamed.… 62
After another night in jail, during which he consoled himself by composing poetry, Apollinaire was taken to the court once again. Although this time he would have a lawyer present, he feared that Magistrate Drioux might find him guilty of complicity in the theft. He was held in the Mousetrap, a nickname for the “narrow, stinking cells” where prisoners awaited trial. Then a guard led him, handcuffed, down the corridor to the courtroom. The reporters and photographers pounced. “What a surprise to find myself suddenly stared at like a strange beast! All at once fifty cameras were aimed at me; the magnesium flashes gave a dramatic aspect to this scene in which I was playing a role. I soon recognized a few friends and acquaintances.… I think that I must have laughed and wept at the same time.” 63 It was humiliating for him, nonetheless, to be led through the crowd in handcuffs — and without a tie.
The prosecutors had raised the stakes: Apollinaire was now accused of being not merely an accomplice but the chief of the international gang of criminals who had come to Paris to loot its museums. Magistrate Drioux, however, seemed skeptical and questioned Apollinaire at length about his relationship with Pieret, whom Apollinaire was now calling his “secretary.” Apollinaire admitted allowing Pieret to stay with him in 1911, even though he knew he had stolen before, in 1907, and was even now resuming his career of crime. The judge expressed surprise at this “degree of indulgence.”
“Here is part of my reason,” Apollinaire said. “Pieret is a little bit my creation. He is very queer, very strange, and after studying him I made him the hero of one of the last stories in my L’hérésiarque et Cie. So it would have been a kind of literary ingratitude to let him starve.” 64
Apollinaire’s friends in the courtroom must have held their breath, for no one knew if Magistrate Drioux had a sense of humor or if Apollinaire’s sally might offend him. Opening the dossier that the Sûreté had prepared, Drioux started to read the accusations. Apparently there were some anonymous messages that he found absurd.
“You bought, very recently, it has been alleged,” Drioux said, “a castle in the départment of the Drôme?”
Apollinaire could not resist another humorous reply. “You must be referring to a castle in Spain,” he told the magistrate. “I have seen many of those evaporate.”
“I have a letter here,” Drioux continued, apparently falling into the spirit of Apollinaire’s testimony, “from someone who says you borrowed two books from him, and that one of them… you never returned.”
“I imagine his reason for lending them to me was that I might read them,” said Apollinaire. “I haven’t read them yet. I will return them to him as soon as I can.” 65
Magistrate Drioux finally announced that he was granting the petition of Apollinaire’s lawyer for the release of his client.
Ironically, the incident gave Apollinaire the fame that his writings had never brought him. Because the story of his arrest was so entangled with the theft of the Mona Lisa, it was reported worldwide. The New York Times called him “a well-known Russian 66 literary man living in Paris [who] underwent a searching examination on the charge of having shielded Pieret from the law.” 67 Publicity of whatever kind proved beneficial to his career: afterward, Apollinaire’s writings reached a wider audience.
Moreover, imprisonment provided inspiration for what may be his most enduring work, a book of poetry titled Alcools (Spirits), published two years later. One of the poems is “À la Santé”:
Before I enter my cell
I am required to strip naked
And then a sinister voice cries
Guillaume what have you become
I am a Lazarus entering the tomb
Not leaving it as he did
Farewell farewell the rounds are singing
To my years To the young girls
How slowly the hours pass
Like a funeral procession
You will mourn the hour that you wept
Which will pass too quickly
As every hour passes
I listen to the clamor of the city
A prisoner without a view
I see nothing but a hostile sky
And the naked walls of my prison
The daylight draws within itself
Yet here a lamp still burns
We are alone in my cell
Beautiful clarity Beloved reason
While Apollinaire looked for solace from clarity and reason in his cell, elsewhere in the city were many who sought to create chaos and disorder. Very soon, a few of those avowed anarchists — and not ones who merely fired pistols into the air, like Picasso — would tear the city’s attention away from the missing Mona Lisa. Real criminals were plotting a modernist crime.