Picasso Accused

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Everyone knows that artists are crazy. The greater the artist, the greater the crazy. Look at Van Gogh for example, or Dali. However, one usually assumes that artists will keep their crazy to themselves in seedy little Absinthe houses or desperate garrets stinking of Gaulloises smoke and underage sex, rather than doing crazy things that involve outsiders or makes the papers.

However, when one of the greatest artists of the 20th century seemed to be mixed up in the theft of one of the greatest paintings of all time…well this was crazy that merited the front pages…read on to learn more.

The following is reposted from the Sunday Times.

The story behind theft of the Mona Lisa

Picasso and poet Appollinaire were prime suspects when Leonardo da Vinci’s best known painting was stolen from the Louvre

RA Scotti

On a mundane morning in late summer in Paris, the impossible happened. The Mona Lisa vanished. On Sunday evening, August 20, 1911, Leonardo da Vinci’s best-known painting was hanging in her usual place on the wall of the Salon Carré, between Correggio’s Mystical Marriage and Titian’s Allegory of Alfonso d’Avalos. On Tuesday morning, when the Louvre reopened to the public, she was gone.

Within hours of the discovery of the empty frame, stashed behind a radiator, the story broke in an extra edition of Le Temps, the leading morning newspaper. Incredulous reporters from local papers and international news services converged on the museum. Georges Bénédite, the acting director, and his curators were speculating freely to the press.

Louis Lépine, police prefect of the Seine, was annoyed by the curators’ loose talk. His men had found the frame, and he was confident they would soon find the painting. Until then he wanted to keep the public and the politicians calm. “The thieves — I am inclined to think there is more than one — got away with it, all right,” he told the press. While conceding that there were a number of plausible motives, he said: “The more serious possibility is that La Joconde was stolen to blackmail the government.”

If Mona Lisa were being held for ransom, Lépine expected a demand would be made within 48 hours.

On August 29, the day the museum opened its doors again, a “canary” began to sing to the editors of the Paris-Journal, which devoted its front page to a startling confession: “A thief brings us a statue stolen from the Louvre.”

It identified the thief as “a young man, aged between 20 and 25, very well mannered, with a certain American chic, whose face and look and behaviour bespoke at once a kind heart and a certain lack of scruples”.

In exchange for Fr250, the thief sold the journal a small statue he had stolen from the museum.

The thief made a full confession that in 1907 he had visited the Louvre’s Asiatic antiquities gallery, realised how easy it would be to pick up and take away almost any object of moderate size, and chose the head of a woman, which he concealed under his waistcoat and walked out. He sold the statue to a Parisian painter friend for Fr50. He had gone on to steal two more items, before “emigrating” to Mexico. But he had returned to Paris earlier that year, and on May 7 had visited the Louvre and taken the head of a woman.

The next day, August 30, the paper reported a second encounter with the thief, at which he revealed he was called Baron Ignace d’Ormesan. The recovered figure went on display in the window of the Paris-Journal, and hundreds jammed the newspaper office to view the stolen art.

For the first time since the Mona Lisa vanished, Parisians had cause to be optimistic. Prefect Lépine believed the same ring of international art thieves was behind both Louvre thefts — L’Affaire des Statuettes and L’Affaire de la Joconde. If he could collar the baron and his colleagues, the hunt would be over.

In a summer of unusually hot days, September 2 was a record breaker. In Paris, the temperature exceeded 97F. The investigation of the Louvre thefts was turning as hot as the weather.

In the seven years from 1905 to 1911, the genesis story of modern art was being written. Pablo Picasso was its genius; Guillaume Apollinaire was its impresario. A flamboyant poet and cultural provocateur, Apollinaire enunciated the modernist creed, adopting the Marquis de Sade’s maxim, “In art, one has to kill one’s father”. Urging the destruction of all museums “because they paralyse the imagination”, he championed Picasso “as a young god who wants to remake the world”.

Apollinaire and the artist were leaders of a group loosely known as la bande de Picasso. Familiar from Montmartre to Manhattan as the “Wild Men of Paris”, Picasso’s gang of painters and poets were the outlaws of traditional art. Young, brilliant and ruthlessly ambitious, they strutted through the cobblestone streets of Montmartre and filled the cheap cafes, defining themselves as well as a new creative idiom, breaking the rules to free art from art history.

After two frustrating weeks, Lépine believed he had cracked the case. In la bande de Picasso, he had found the international ring of art thieves he had been hunting.

To the police, the case was persuasive.

Seizing the Mona Lisa was an insolent act in what Apollinaire called “the endless quarrel between Order and Adventure”. It was a declaration of independence.

The excitement over the thief’s confession drifted slowly south towards Céret, high up in the French Pyrenees, where Picasso and his friends, including Braque, had taken over the first floor of the Hôtel du Canigou. They had settled in for the summer to invent cubism. The Paris-Journal of August 29 probably did not arrive there until September 1 at the earliest. When it did, panic set in. Picasso set out immediately for Paris. When his train pulled into the station, a frantic Apollinaire was waiting on the platform. The police had searched his apartment, he said, and Picasso’s would be next.

They were not innocents in L’Affaire des Statuettes. Buried in the back of a cupboard at Picasso’s Boulevard de Clichy apartment were two figures — a small, powerfully built stone man and woman carved by the ancient Spaniards during the Bronze Age. The bottom of each bore the stamp “Property of the Louvre Museum”. Picasso was the baron’s painter friend.

Apollinaire and Picasso acted like guilty men, concocting elaborate scenarios to elude the police. First, they made plans to flee the country, then abandoned them. Next, they hatched a plot to destroy the incriminating evidence. They would pack the stolen goods in an old suitcase and drop it in the Seine at midnight. They pictured themselves as actors in a drama, and they were certain the ending would be tragic.

On the night of September 5, a gang of four — Picasso and his mistress, Fernande Olivier, Apollinaire and his lover, Marie Laurencin, the painter — sat nervously round the dining table in the apartment. Although none knew the first thing about cards, they pretended to play all through the interminable evening.

At midnight, painter and poet slunk out to dispose of their contraband. Even following an arrowlike route, the distance from Montmartre to the Seine is three miles. They walked because they were afraid of attracting attention by lugging a suitcase in a cab. By the time they reached the river, they were already tired.

Picture the pair — Picasso, small and sullen, and Apollinaire, robust and ribald — skirting the Right Bank in the dead of night,

Apollinaire bent at a downward angle and Picasso reaching up because one was so much taller than the other, toting their cheap scuffed suitcase, the Céret holiday clothes replaced with the Louvre stash. At first they tried to carry the case between them, but they were too mismatched in size, and so they took turns.

They looked constantly over their shoulders, starting at the slightest sound, fearful of every footstep behind them. Electricity was coming slowly to the City of Lights. In the shadows cast by the uncertain gas flames, they imagined uniformed figures flattened against tree trunks and crouched on the riverbank.

Two hours later, they returned to the studio, trudging up the steep hill of Montmartre, puffing, breathless, exhausted by their paranoia as much as by their aborted mission, still carrying the suitcase and its contents. They had never mustered the courage to act.

Apollinaire spent what remained of the night at the apartment, and in the morning Picasso brought the incriminating evidence to the Paris-Journal. On the evening of September 7, Apollinaire was arrested.

Nineteen days after the Mona Lisa disappeared, the police paid a visit to Boulevard de Clichy. Picasso, who liked to sleep until noon, was roused at 7am by a persistent knocking at the door. A groggy Fernande, a gossamer dressing gown wrapped around her extravagant body, opened the door.

The studio presented a scene of chaos. In the early light, the chalky silhouette of the Sacré-Coeur gleamed through a high window. Easels and canvases shared studio space with ceremonial African figures, an immense Louis-Philippe couch upholstered in violet velvet with gold buttons, and stolid, ungainly, second-hand furniture that Fernande referred to as Picasso’s “Louis XIV style”. Suspended randomly and at odd angles on the walls were tattered Aubusson tapestries, primitive masks, battered musical- instrument cases, chipped gilt frames, and a lovely small Corot painting of a woman. Picasso was a compulsive collector.

The detective read a summons from the safety of the doorway, ordering Picasso to appear before the examining magistrate, Henri Drioux, for questioning. The artist was suspected of dealing in art stolen from the Louvre.

Picasso had visited the Louvre display of primitive Iberian sculpture several times and had been profoundly affected by it. He had probably heard the flamboyant “Baron d’Ormesan” — properly known as Honoré Joseph Géry Pieret, a Belgian — boast of his light-fingered activities. At the very least, Picasso knew the statues he had bought from Géry belonged to the museum. At worst, he may have commissioned their theft, ordering two specific figures from the exhibition, describing exactly which pieces he wanted to use in his new painting — a large, disturbing brothel scene that André Salmon would name Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

If the detective had searched Picasso’s studio, he would have found the incriminating evidence. But instead, he remained at the door, while Picasso dressed. In an attempt at bravado, the painter chose his favourite red and white polka-dot cotton shirt and an elegant silk tie that clashed violently. He was shaking so uncontrollably that Fernande had to button the shirt for him.

He was taken by bus from Pigalle to the Palais de Justice. No police vehicle was available. The government would not pay the taxi fare for an alleged criminal. Picasso would never again take the bus that went from Pigalle to Halle aux Vins.

Apollinaire and Picasso faced each other across the courtroom like two strangers. Picasso appeared even smaller in that imposing hall of justice. His polka-dot shirt and clashing tie were a gesture of bravado that appeared more pathetic than defiant. After two days in jail, Apollinaire had a hollow, haunted aspect. He was grey and unshaven, his shirt unbuttoned, the collar torn. His suit was rumpled and ripped.

Painter and poet were so nervous that in their confusion and desperation to assert their own innocence, truth and friendship were forgotten. They contradicted themselves and each other, each accusing the other of bringing the stolen statues to the newspaper. Both men wept and begged for forgiveness and freedom.

Apollinaire, after being grilled for hours like a criminal, had confessed to everything: harbouring Géry, possessing stolen goods, signing a manifesto that called for burning down the Louvre. He had implicated and identified Géry and Picasso in the theft of the Iberian figures. Now Judge Drioux fixed on the painter. Glaring at Picasso through his pince-nez, he rasped out questions in his gravel voice. Picasso’s tough-guy pose evaporated like colour under turpentine. In his fear, he pleaded absolute ignorance. He swore he knew nothing whatever about L’Affaire des Statuettes. He did not know the primitive Iberian heads were stolen goods, and he did not know Apollinaire. Like Simon Peter when asked “Do you know this man?”, Picasso replied: “I have never seen him before.”

At the end of the arraignment, Picasso, who had bought the stolen goods, was released on his own recognisance and warned not to leave Paris. For weeks afterwards, he lived furtively. By nature brooding, he became paranoid, worried he would be arrested again. He ventured out only at night, and then in a taxi. He was convinced he was being shadowed and would switch cabs to shake his tail. He slept fitfully, always listening for another knock at his door.

Later, Apollinaire would call it “strange, incredible, tragic and amusing all at once” that he was the only person arrested in France for the theft of the Mona Lisa.

 

 

Adam and Eve ban

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