The Lost Picasso Drawing:
Tenacity, Hope and Subversive Art
by Barry Campbell, Toronto
Dad insisted he had a Picasso drawing. “Le Coq” he said it was called, but he couldn’t find it anywhere. We had our doubts. He was a collector, but he was also meticulous in keeping track of things. In his last years, Dad was almost fixated on “Le Coq”. “It’s in a book,” he’d say, “I know I have it here somewhere”. It exasperated him that he couldn’t find it.
Dad died at 98 years old in 2018. With Mother still alive (she would live two more years), clearing out and closing up the large apartment where they lived was almost impossible. Confined to bed, Mother was isolated in the master bedroom in the company of her helpers and her memories. The rest of the grand apartment remained in suspended animation—the beautiful trappings of their large and vibrant life gathering dust. After Mother passed, the task of unraveling their life began.
We found rows of books behind books, enough art books to fill a small shop—high art mixed in with low art, antique furniture from the 1700s (now derisively referred to as ‘brown furniture” ), and reproductions. There was set upon set of “fine china”, as it used to be called, and flatware and serving pieces in silver and porcelain appropriate to another time and another world. There were over one hundred teapots! We were overwhelmed as the beautiful things that had been given meaning by my parents during their life and as seen and used by them in that life, became transformed into just so much “stuff”. We were desperate to be done with it all.
And then, almost overlooked on the floor of a closet in the study and buried under empty cartons and miscellany, we found a large beat-up grey book sleeve and decided to have a look. The sleeve was stamped “BUFFON” in gold. The title page told us that the book was: PICASSO Eaux-Fortes Originales Pour Des Textes De Buffon. The date of publication 1942. This copy, no. 172 of 226. We pulled the book from the sleeve.
The delicate pages of the large book were hard to turn. Every few pages there was a page covered in fraying tissue protecting an exquisite print, (thirty-one in all), of birds and animals described in Buffon’s writings. There was a print titled: “le Coq”, but this squat rooster was among the least impressive of all the birds and animals depicted. We were disappointed but thought this must be the Picasso sketch that Dad had gone on and on about all those years. It certainly matched what had come up when we had googled “Picasso” and “le Coq”. We started to close the book. But when we flipped back through to the front (we had missed the title page because the pages were hard to separate), there it was, a glorious and exuberant ink and wash drawing of a proud rooster, "Le Coq". We’d found it.
Filling the title page and flowing onto the adjoining page, this rooster did not disappoint. There is a handwritten dedication by Picasso: "Pour Jean-Louis Barrault" signed "Picasso" and dated by him, "Paris 30 Decembre 1942".
What a strange time to be drawing whimsical animals and who was Jean-Louis Barrault?
In December 1942, Picasso was holed up in his studio on the rue des Grands Augustins. He had chosen to stay in occupied Paris when others had fled abroad. He remained at some risk. As a foreigner (a Spaniard), he could have been deported at any time. His work was considered “degenerate” by the Nazis and his “Guernica”, was already a famous indictment of fascism. Perhaps, he counted on the fact that he was too famous to harm. He was productive, but could not sell anything and he crafted a quiet existence as neither hero nor collaborator. Picasso’s presence reassured others and the Nazis tolerated him as a way of suggesting that a brutal occupation was in fact benign. He was doing what everyone else was doing that December, trying to stay warm and queuing for food.
It was a grim winter. The Nazi's grip on Paris was tightening. For artists and writers who had chosen to stay or not fled in time, the German occupation was a daily humiliation. It was a soul-destroying time. How to work, cope and stay true to themselves were the central questions.
The artist had moved into the Hotel de Savoie in 1936. It was only a year later in this studio, which came to be known as the “Grenier Picasso” or “Picasso’s Attic”, that Picasso had painted his searing, monumental, anti-fascist, Guernica. The previous tenant, Jean-Louis Barrault, theatre director and friend of photographer (and Picasso muse) Dora Maar, had used the studio for theater rehearsals. He recommended the place to his friend Picasso. Barrault and Picasso not only traveled in the same intellectual circles, they were Communist “fellow travelers”. They stayed friends their whole lives and in the darkest days of the war, as we shall come to see, that friendship helped sustain them.
The building where the studio was located had a storied if fictional past. In The Unknown Masterpiece published in 1847, Balzac had set the action in the rooms of this vast studio. In Balzac’s novella, an impoverished, aspiring artist named, “Poussin” (a small chicken is a literal translation, but historically the name of a real 17th-century French painter) visits the great artist “Master Porbus” (the French version of the name of the 17th-century Flemmish painter Pourbus) in the artist’s grand studio. Another painter, a rival to Probus, by the name “Frenhofer”, also figures prominently. In 1936, when he moved into the studio, whether Picasso saw himself as the impoverished artist or the master artist (most likely the latter), we will never know, but Picasso undoubtedly knew the story well.
In 1931, art dealer Ambroise Vollard had suggested to Picasso that he illustrate “Histoire Naturelle” by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-88), a vast, if dated, treatise on the animal world. The lively style of Buffon’s writing delighted readers and Picasso, who adored drawing animals, agreed. The project stalled until 1936 when Picasso started to spend a lot of time at the print studio of Roger Lacouriere, turning his attention to prints and animals as a relief perhaps from his many emotional upheavals. Picasso worked away, on and off, on his animal drawings; however, when Vollard died in 1939, the Buffon book with illustrations was still not published.
Martin Fabiani, another dealer, took over the book project and asked Lacouriere to print the book in 1942. A benign natural history text would be of no interest to the German censors. And so, the project was revived. The images of the thirty-two animals depicted are considered to be “among the highest level of achievement in sugar-lift aquatint technique in the history of printmaking”. The depictions of animals delighted many looking for a diversion from the grim reality of that winter. The print run was small, just 226 books. A few went as gifts to friends, each of these with a different and unique drawing.
This drawing of “Le Coq” and the dedication by Picasso hadn't been seen since the 1990s when Dad purchased the book. In 1942, this particular drawing dedicated to this particular man was likely no accident. It was not strange that in occupied Paris of 1942, Picasso was choosing to do illustrations for a historic natural history book from the 1700s. He couldn't very well paint another anti-fascist Guernica. But were these illustrations or this ancient text somehow subversive? Somewhere in Buffon’s dense natural history text had Picasso found words that gave him comfort or perhaps had he inserted words of his own into the elaborate text? Maybe simply depicting the natural world in his drawings allowed him to transcend the moment and find solace in those dark days.
But it was the drawing of this “Le Coq” and the dedication of this sketch and book to his friend Jean-Louis Barrault that was the defiant act. This “Le Coq” is not an illustration of a simple rooster which the reader can find later in the Buffon book. This “Le Coq” is the proud Chantecler of ancient France, the symbol of perseverance and tenacity revived in the French Revolution. The dedication was not just to the friend who had found Picasso his beloved studio. This friend was a Communist, at a time when that was a dangerous political affiliation. The Germans were stalled in Russia and Stalingrad was going through the worst. Picasso drew this for his “comrade” (they would later both be prominent in the post-war French Communist movement) as if to say: “We must be brave my friend. France will rise again”. They were and it did.
Picasso died in 1973. His friend, Jean-Louis Barrault had an illustrious career after the War as an actor and theatre director. He died in 1994.
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