Picasso looks at the six guns hanging in their worn holsters on the back of the studio door. Taking one of the guns, he feels its weight, the smell of the oil on the wood, the tang of the metal. He lifts the barrel and gently sniffs, memories coming back in a rush.
It was hot, sun behind the trees, cool shadows, that day he’d rode out of Barcelona for Paris on the old donkey. He’d saved up his pesos, bought some wine and bread for the journey. He’d left the old century back in the dust the burro had kicked up as he and his companion Casagemas headed north, lookin’ for fame and adventure, women, a little whisky… It was 1900, the start of the big show.
On the road, heat, dust, bull fightin’ in one horse towns. Just outside Lyon the first of many challenges to his authority. A skinny kid dressed as a priest, weeping. Why you crying? asks Casagemas. Kid looks out at them from under his black hat. I cry for you Señor, because I must kill you. Before he could draw Picasso sent him to the sweet hereafter with a single lucky shot to the temple. Looked damned like the kid had two eyes on one side of his face. The only weeping he’s going to do now is blood, Casagemas laughed, a hollow braying.
Poor Casagemas, dead of the consumption not even a year later. Picasso feels the notches on the pistol’s handle – all those dead men. How many had he put in their graves? Shot ’em down right on the streets of the 14th arrondissement? He’d killed men, women and children, killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another, all buried now up the hill, Montparnasse Cemetery, the ravens on the rusty gates. A day above ground is a good day.
He’d made friends, took some shootin’ lessons from good old Braque. He’d picked up the finer points pretty quick, but it was more those words of George that had helped in the long run – Look son, being a good shot, being quick with a pistol, that don’t do no harm, but it don’t mean much next to being cool-headed. A man who will keep his head and not get rattled under fire, like as not, he’ll kill ya. It ain’t so easy to shoot a man anyhow, especially if the son-of-a-bitch is shootin’ back at you.
The boy comes in with a tray. Sets it down on a rickety old table. Wine, cheese, a little meat. The boy runs out, knowing enough not to speak to the maestro when he’s lost in his thoughts. Picasso takes a knife, cuts a slice of cheese, puts it in his mouth, chews slowly.
Yes, Paris had been the town al-right, full of hoopleheads and Chinamen, cattle traders and whores, all ready to put down a few francs on a quick sketch. He and Georges had shot up the town, blown a few rail lines and done the same for perspective. Georges dropped out of view as folk were coming from all parts to see the shows he’d put on. Him and Matisse – gone now. Russians, Germans, yes, even filthy rich Yankees. He’d had some japes too, when him and Apollinaire had been pulled in for questioning on the Mona Lisa Heist, both innocent – or were they? It was more than a boy from Málaga could even imagine. He laughs, lights a cigarette.
And when he’d hit the heights there been a few who’d come to take him on, a quick moment that would end with blood on the cobbled streets of Montmartre. Slowly, eventually, no one could raise a gun against him, seein’ there’s a dignity in royalty, a majesty that precludes the likelihood of assassination. If you were to point a pistol at a king or a queen your hands would shakes as though palsied. And so he drifted into old age free to be, to paint and be the invention of his own mind, to forget the killing.
But he knew he hadn’t been acting correctly. He couldn’t hardly recognize himself sometimes when he was greased. He’d go on journeys out of his body and look at his red hands and mean face and wonder about that man who’d gone so wrong. He’d become a problem to himself. How would they remember him? A name to live on in infamy – or a sideshow gimp in a travelling show? Pay a bit to come in and gawk. Would there be no eulogies, no photographs of his body sold in sundries stores, would people crowd the streets in the rain to see his funeral cortege, would biographies be written about him, children named after him, would no one ever pay twenty-five cents to stand in a gallery and gaze at his doodlings?
The wine drunk, the cheese and meat left for the flies, Picasso puts the Stetson on the back of a chair, places the empty gun on the table and stares out the window. An empty canvas beckons. Picasso: wanted for murder.
Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris
Art Gallery of NSW
Until March 25, 2012
With apologies to the scriptwriters of Deadwood, Unforgiven and The Assassination of Jesse James…