The Man Who told Picasso

It was in the village of Maya, on the Mediterranean Spanish island of Lavinya that I met Herman Johnson, who not only met Picasso, but told him. But that’s not really what intrigued me about Herman. It was only when I thought about him later I realised that he was the happiest man I ever met. That was back in the days when I confused happiness and freedom, and Herman seemed to have set his life up so that he was free of all those things that we feel we have to do. Like going to work every day. And paying off houses.

Herman, of course, is not his real name, because he’s still in the same place and from latest accounts making out like he always made out – like a bandit. But I’ll write in the past tense because it seems to suit this type of story. Not that I am in any way wishing Herman into the past.

Herman was an artist. If you had to put a label on him, you’d probably call him an abstract impressionist. When I knew him he liked to play chess and ping pong almost as much as he liked to paint. He was a stocky man with humour in his face and grey eyes that laughed even when it hurt. He had grey kinky hair that stuck up either side of his head like Pan’s horns. He looked like a horny old Pan in an Arcadian olive grove. And a bit like the billy goat up by the estanco, the post office.

He’d gone to Spain to live after working a psychiatric discharge from the army. He’d only joined the army to get a pension, and now he lived on that pension, and a handout from the Jewish Veterans.It wouldn’t have been enough to live on in New York, Herman’s home town, but in Spain, he didn’t even have to sell a painting. Which was a very good thing. He didn’t sell a lot of paintings.

Every year, the Jewish Veterans sent him a clothing parcel, mostly old army clothes, and every month, he got his pension cheque. He lived in a rented house on the way to the sea, and had a studio underneath a bridge with a fig tree by the door. He’d sit there and listen to Beethoven and Mahler on an old tape machine for hours, not moving, just sitting and listening. Then he’d rush the canvas, and make a painting in twenty minutes flat. He’d put it away, usually in the house, and pick at it for months, staring at it while he ate. That was his style, his way of getting his moment onto canvas.

They told me Herman had been very fashionable in the fifties, had sold a lot of pictures. But Herman hadn’t changed his style since the fifties, his jokes since the forties, and his sox since the early sixties. I don’t think the Jewish Veterans expected him to have feet. They never sent him sox or boots. Every time I met Herman in the grocery store, wearing his old army greatcoat, he’d be buying some butter, and he’d make the same old joke. “You know why they call it mantequilla, doncha? Cause it is, that’s why. Cheez, this Spanish butter, it’s something else, ain’t it?” And he’d laugh so hard you had to join him. All those years in France and Spain and Herman still spoke with a heavy dose of the Bronx. Bronx English, Bronx French, and Bronx Spanish.

All the other American artists who’d come to live in this village, who’d been to art school in Paris with Herman, one way or another, they were rich or famous or both. Only Herman, he was neither. But he seemed to me to be as close to being happy as any man I’d ever met. Not that sickly bogus happiness that pretends to feel no pain, but the happiness that Shaw wrote about, alive and active. Every day of his life, Herman did most of the things he really liked doing. Herman liked painting, so he painted all day most days in the studio with the fig tree by the door. Herman liked to play ping pong, so he played ping pong in the afternoon and early evening with me or the doctor or the school bus driver. And mostly, he beat us. Then he’d go home and eat the chicken that had been simmering all day in the pot with carrots and mushrooms. Herman loved to play chess, so he’d play at night with another American painter who, by the way, painted Persian rugs on the wall when he wasn’t playing chess. Like I said, everything Herman liked to do most, he did most every day. Except maybe fuck.

Herman was a horny little Pan, and he never could get enough. Summer was a little better, for then the blue eyed Suecas flew south and gave it to Herman because he was a painter, and they had grey jobs in a frozen land and had never even met a painter, let alone slept with one. Herman gave them a couple of sketches, a lot of laughs, a new way of looking at the world, and they gave him what he needed most, which seemed only fair. In winter, when the Suecas were snowed in, Herman drew dirty little drawings. I’ve still got one he gave me, one that he did on a page he ripped out of a Spanish medical magazine he took from his friend the village doctor.

One afternoon, I met Herman in the estanco, and we walked together down to the cafe for a coffee and a cognac. We sat outside beneath the trellis, reading our mail. “Did I ever tell you about the time I visited Picasso in his studio?” he asked, finishing a letter, I guess it must have been from a friend in Paris.

“Bullshit Herman” I replied without even looking up from mine.

“No, really I did. It happened like this. I was at art school in Paris, and I was walking in Montparnasse one day with a folio of drawings under my arm. It was summer, a hot day. I saw this little bald guy come out of a cafe, surrounded by rich looking men and beautiful women. He looked like a stevedore, or a little peasant, that’s why I noticed him. He seemed hemmed in by all these well fed people. He looked up and I looked into these black eyes and then it hit me – Jesus, that’s Picasso! So I walked up to the group and I elbowed my way through all those great looking women and well dressed men around him and I said ‘Señor Picasso, I am a painter and I would like you to look at my work. I have some drawings here.’ “He was getting into a big black car and he turned to me, looking a little startled. He looked right into my eyes and said `Not here. Do you have a pen and paper?’ I reached into my pocket and pulled out a drawing pencil and ripped a piece of paper off my folio. `Write down my address’ he said. `No’ I said `you write it’ and shoved the pen and paper at him. He laughed out loud and scribbled his address on the paper and signed it. I put it in my pocket and went home.

“Many years later, I was down in the south of France painting. Someone told me Picasso lived nearby. I remembered my meeting with him. I still had the piece of paper with his name and Paris address on it, I’d kept it, like a talisman, even though I’d never gone to visit him, I don’t know why, I was doing well, I was too busy, I fell in love. Who remembers? But now I went. He lived in Mougins. It was a big white stucco place with a high iron gate. Out front on a plaque was the name Notre Dame de Vie. The man at the gate wouldn’t let me in, so I scribbled my name on the piece of paper beneath Picasso’s and handed it to him. He went away and came back in ten minutes time. “`Picasso will see you’ he said, and led me into the house.Huge white rooms, no furniture, the walls lined with Picassos but for one Miro.

“I was lead through room after room, along long corridors and through a courtyard. Finally, I was left in an entrada outside an arched wooden doorway. The door was flung open. He burst into the room, threw his arms around my shoulders, and boomed `Herman que tal? How have you been? It has been years, how is the work going?’ “I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t figure this at all. Later, I think I worked out what had happened. He was an old man, even then well over 80. And I’d handed him a piece of paper with his own handwriting on it. Maybe his memory was not so good, and rather than running the risk of snubbing an old friend, he faked it! He must have known a lot of people in his time. Everybody wanted to get close to Picasso.

“So I was led into the inner sanctum, his arm still round my shoulders. There were paintings stacked four deep leaning against the walls, sculptures and pots to the ceilings, at least five half finished works on easels. The sun shone and so did his eyes. We talked about painting and Paris. He asked me about New York. We dredged up a couple of mutual acquaintances. Then he said `come, let me show you what I’m working on now.’ “I walked around in silence. Picasso was standing behind me, also silent. I got the impression he cared what I thought. Me, Herman Johnson from the Bronx! `Well’ he said finally, `what do you think?’

“I didn’t know what to say. You see, I didn’t like them. There was a reclining nude with a big bushy box and a huge male face in grey staring at her. There was an artist and model, the model was OK, but the artist was bad painting. It was like he was going through the motions, recycling all the old themes, but trying to paint like a child. It didn’t work for me! It was my territory, but it wasn’t as good. He was faking. I read once where he said don’t worry about copying other people, it’s when you start copying yourself, that’s when you got problems.

“I said nothing for ten seconds that felt like ten hours, trying desperately to think of something non committal to say. It was no use. “`Pablo’ I said, `I don’t think much of them. You’ve done better.’ “The light went from his eyes. I started to babble, to talk of his earlier work, the work I’d seen coming in, wishing I’d said nothing, or just something polite. But what the fuck. He asked me. I told him. He stood there nodding, looking at the floor, maybe agreeing, maybe knowing I told him the truth, maybe wondering who was this little Jewish schmuck from New York anyway. Then he turned and walked away. I thought he was going to get his man to throw me out.

“But he went to a cupboard and opened it. In it was a bottle of wine, an old Rioja I remember. He bought the bottle back with two glasses, he poured a glass for me, a glass for himself. Still, he said nothing. We stood in the centre of the studio, Picasso and me, and we drank our good Spanish wine, saying nothing. Then he spoke.

“`Herman, when I was a young man, a very young man, I lived in Montmartre. Before Montmartre filled with bad artists and shits from all over the world. Then, Montmartre was a place to live and work. At night, after working all day, I would go with Fernande to the Place du Tertre with all our friends. We drank all night and we sang and we got very drunk very often. Some crazy Basque poet had given me a revolver. I carried it always. Late at night, when Fernande was carrying me home, I would take the revolver out and fire at the moon. I never hit the moon, Herman, but I never stopped shooting at her.’

“We talked some more. We finished the bottle, Picasso walked me to the door, his arm around my shoulder once again, and we parted amicably. We promised to meet again, the way people do when they know they never will. And of course we never did. “On the way home, I remembered that I had forgotten to get back the piece of paper with his name and mine on it.”

I was amazed. “Herman, you met Picasso, and you told him you didn’t like his paintings?”

He laughed. “What could I do? He asked me, I told him.” He waved his arm in the air, dismissing any further speculation. I paid for his coffee and cognac – well, it was a good story – and left him sitting there on the cafe terrace reading his mail. Who knows? Maybe Herman did meet Picasso. Maybe Picasso did shoot at the moon with a pistol. Maybe if he hadn’t been drunk he would have hit her. But Herman, Herman would never hit the moon. Because Herman would never shoot at the moon. Herman was far too happy to be free.


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