“Live Like a Poet! At Home in the Bateau Lavoir,” by Rosanna Warren

On April 13, 1904, Pablo Picasso and his friend the Catalan painter Sebastià Junyer Vidal travelled from Barcelona to Paris and installed themselves in Montmartre in the studio just vacated by the Basque ceramicist and sculptor Paco Durrio. Junyer Vidal paid the rent. Called “La Maison du Trappeur” (The Trapper’s House), later renamed Le Bateau Lavoir by its denizens, this ex-piano factory and ex-locksmith shop converted to a congeries of studios in 1889 could be entered on the first floor from the rue Ravignan, but plunged in the rear down three storeys to the rue Garreau. Various Spanish artists had preceded Picasso in the building, including his older friends Ricard Canals and Joaquim Sunyer. In the 1880s it had been a popular haunt for anarchists, Gauguin had visited often, and the poet-dramatist Paul Fort had lived there while directing his Symbolist Théâtre de l’Art across the square. Poet Max Jacob, who visited every day and later lived there for a while, evoked it often. In a lecture in 1937 he remembered: “Picasso returned with what the dealers have called the Blue Period paintings, vaguely imitative of El Greco. He led me to the crown of the Butte Montmartre. We scorned all previous art and all the schools, and in the evenings, to amuse ourselves, we improvised plays, without spectators, which we never wrote down and which concluded in wild bursts of laughter. He lived at 13 rue Ravignan, today called the Place Emile Goudeau, a sort of hangar made of ill-fitting boards, at once cellar and attic, poised on a kind of cliff Montmartre still hardly conceals with its huge new apartment houses. Our neighbors were quasi-laundresses (de vagues blanchisseuses) and a fruit and vegetable vendor, and those poor people complained of the noise Picasso’s bitch Frika made at night with her chain.”In a memoir from 1933, Jacob gave even more detail: “A real barn, that studio of Picasso’s, with exposed beams, walls made of ill-fitting boards, an unbelievable floor on which one couldn’t walk without waking the neighbors…The admirable Mme. Coudray, the concierge, knew how to be kind when the rent was due, and how to put up with noise. Ah! Those dear old days of poverty, work, friendship, and joy. Many of the studios were cellars, and the stairs were never swept. Everything was made of wood.”

Junyer Vidal returned soon to Barcelona, so during Picasso’s first six weeks at the Bateau Lavoir the crowd was reduced to Jacob, a theatrical thief named Manolo, and a Gypsy guitarist, Fabián de Castro, who slept on the floor. Jacob visited every day. The complex tone of their friendship, tinged with Jacob’s adoration, irony, and self-abasement, can be gleaned from this memoir the poet composed in 1931:

It’s 1904, Picasso is already strong but his visitors are still only the picturesque Manolo and a poor little Jew (that’s what Vollard called him) who doesn’t believe he’s a poet. I lived at Barbès. I arrived at 13 rue Ravignan early in the morning. To my own bare bed, and my dark little work table, I preferred this doorway that had pretensions to grandeur a hundred years earlier, and Picasso’s narrow door decorated with bits of practical advice. It was at the end of a catwalk corridor, above the invisible cliffs of Montmartre geology, at the end of a cliff of stairs.

I called out his name. Hardly awake, Picasso opened the door. I had arrived across all the stone steps of Montmartre and oceanic Paris seen from on high.

Yet Jacob was far from craven in his relations with Picasso. Salmon remembers Jacob in the role of elder friend, initiator, and magus, calling the young painter mon petit.  The friendship between Picasso and Jacob in this period left many relics in the drawings they did of themselves and of each other. An ink drawing of Picasso in profile by Jacob is annotated in Picasso’s hand, “Retrato hecho por Max Jacob” (Portrait made by Max Jacob). It shows an exaggeratedly large head of dark hair—yet another homage to genius?—an intensely focused eye and thin mustache, a mustache that would soon disappear. Picasso’s portrait of Jacob, on café note paper, shows the writer, also in profile, with a high, bald forehead; scruffy hair still adorning the back of his skull; a dark, intelligent gaze further darkened by a pince-nez; a firm, compressed mouth; and strong chin. This is a portrait of power, not of pathos, and reminds us that the bond between the two men was not simply a matter of subservience on the part of one and dominance by the other. “I was no longer a store clerk,” Jacob remembers. “I wrote verses because Picasso thought I had talent and I believed in him more than in myself. As for my prose poems that would be published and appreciated later, I was far from suspecting they would succeed. I also wrote children’s stories; I lived in frightful poverty, but I didn’t want any more jobs.” Picasso plays the role, in this narrative, of liberating genius. Jacob told the memoirist Robert Guiette, “Picasso had come back from Spain and found Max desperate over the loss of his job. ‘What kind of life is that?’ Picasso asked. ‘Live like the poets!’” The liberation, the imperative to follow a life of art, extended even to physical appearance. Jacob told Maurice Martin du Gard in 1920, “It’s Picasso who changed my life…It was he who told me, ‘Shave off your beard.’ He who told me, ‘Take off your pince-nez, wear a monocle. Don’t be time-puncher. Live like a poet.’

Jacob not only “lived like” a poet in 1904. He was writing groundbreaking poems. When he wrote Tristan Tzara in 1916 that it was only in 1905 that he had “become” a poet, he must have been referring to his first serious publication, the five poems in Les Lettres modernes in May 1905. But by now Jacob had been writing for years. “Écrit en 1904,” which would appear in print for the first time only in 1921 in Le Laboratoire central, shows him already in command of sophisticated maneuvers which we recognize in hindsight as Modernist: a mobile geography, mobile and plural pronouns and centers of consciousness, discontinuities in tone and register, non-sequiturs, abrupt juxtapositions of reference and address, a dissonant prosody. “Écrit en 1904” is a fine example of an art of controlled discontinuity.

If I recall, the place of Pilate’s tomb
Was in Vienna, or else in Draguignan
Abd-el-Kader’s sons snapped photos there
To hang up as ex-votos in fresh air
Goddesses spun their silk from ocean foam
And fished for golden coinage in the ponds
Washerwomen beat the hours to pass the time
And the Loire revealed its soul at every bend…

…The sky contracts two atmospheres to one stair
…So patriarchs could prophesy from there

White sailors dressed in Oceanic blue
Offered Pilate’s glove to lordly Baal
And telepathy in telegrams seeping through
Inspired in all the cult of Pilate’s soul
The politicians and the men of Theodose
Had also taken of Pilate a mighty dose
Pantheons paralyzed for a hundred years
Are stirred by lightning and by blood besmeared.

“Écrit en in 1904” not only veers wildly in time and space, from Draguignan to Vienna, from Biblical Jerusalem to the chic new American cocktails in Paris; it imagines the city of Paris itself in motion, like a barge moving up the river. Male and female identities blend: “Moi j’ai les plus beaux bras, toi les plus beaux tétons/A nous deux nous ferions une femme parfaite” (I have the handsomest arms, you the handsomest tits/Together we’d make a perfect woman). What keeps this centrifugal poem coherent is the abstraction of poetic form: the kitsch alexandrines and rhyming couplets of the opening and closing passages provide the grid that allows the poem’s psychic vagrancies. “Écrit en 1904” comments comically on its own deformation of inherited form. On the one hand, “Double-six! À moi la pause!” (Double sixes! My turn to pause!) refers to a throw of the dice, an image taken from Mallarmé’s radical work Un coup de dés (A Throw of the Dice) which Jacob would recall in the title of his collection of prose poems in 1917, Le Cornet à dés (The Dice Cup). But it also describes, saucily, the classical, twelve-syllable alexandrine, complete with the central caesura: “À moi la pause!” In “Écrit en 1904,” the dismantling of a single center of consciousness, the social satire, the jangling of high diction with slang, the hallucinatory geographies, the puns (“Amer” means both “bitter” and “American”), all set the stage for an interpenetration of natural and supernatural realms, and the liberation of the soul from the social self. The poem maintains a comic relation to Christianity—it depicts, after all, a world devoted to Pilate—but Jesus does appear as an opening between realities, a force which compels a change of route (“Jésus barre la route entre les boulingrins”; Jesus obstructs the path between the bowling greens), and the poem concludes in a vision of sacrifice, worldly glory exploding in lightning and blood. Whether or not that blood might redeem is a question this poem leaves open.

A definition of modernity in poetry that Jacob gave to Marcel Béalu in 1939 describes the principles at work in his poems from 1904: “complexity in form; dominance of interior harmony over meaning; speed in the association of images, ideas, and words; love of words; surprises, willed or not; the appearance of dream or dream itself; invisible rhythms.” The disjunctive method permitted exploration of his perpetual themes, humour/amour (humor and love, a generative pun in French, with humor correcting and protecting love), and his descent into the unconscious where, he came to feel, he led the way for other poets.

* * *

Cooking was difficult in the studios, so the gang would often rollick down the Butte to eat at the grubby little restaurant run by le Père Vernin on rue Cavalotti, near the Place de Clichy. Vernin sometimes charitably forgot the bills his artist clients ran up, and they could usually count on a coarse but robust meal there. Actors as well as painters and writers turned up, and Fernande Olivier remembered the young Christiane Mancini memorizing her lines from the play propped up against her carafe of rouge. Gallivanting down the hill for yet another greasy meal at Vernin’s, the companions would chant Jacob’s ditty:

I’m tired of eating at Vernin’s
But that’s where everybody goes
Because they serve wine in thimblefuls
And helpings of cream cheese…

When they weren’t eating at Vernin’s, they stayed closer to the Sacré Coeur and went to Azon, who ran a little bistro called Les Enfants de la Butte. A meal there cost only 90 centimes, and Azon, susceptible to the idea of literary glory, often extended credit to writers, trusting he’d be paid back when their books appeared. He broke with André Salmon, however, when he discovered his client really hadn’t written the articles signed Paul Adam, Maurice Maeterlinck, and René Maizery, as he had claimed. Some nights—not often, because Picasso usually painted from 10 p.m. until dawn—the gang turned up at Le Lapin Agile, where Frédé’s wife Berthe served a hearty meal which cost two francs, but which Picasso and his friends could sometimes wangle for less. Dancing, at least, was provided by Jacob, famous for his jigs on the tabletop. Nobody needed to pay admission to a nightclub when Max Jacob could fly into his impersonation of a barefoot female entertainer, his trousers rolled up to expose his hairy legs; his vest tossed aside; his shirtsleeves flapping and his shirt unbuttoned over his thick, crinkly, dark chest hair; his bald head and his pince-nez gleaming as he wriggled, dipped, sashayed, and pointed his toes. Or he would snatch a woman’s hat and place it on his head, wrap himself in a shawl, and warble lyrics of sentimental ballads and comic opera, most memorably Hervé’s “Langouste atmosphérique” until the room collapsed in laughter.

Frédé kept a guest book. On one of its pages, one can chart the progress of the evening in Jacob’s improvised verses:

9 p.m.
Finding the rhyme for Frédéric
There’s the “hic”!
I prefer to wait to be drunk
Before I write aboard your book.

2 a.m.

On board! Piano A. Bord.
Ship’s register, bored,
Paris, the pensive sea will bring
Right to your door this evening
O innkeeper of the Misty Quai
Your sheaf of spray.

By this time, Jacob had initiated his walking discipline: in rambles throughout the city, he forced himself, in each interval between lamp posts, to come up with a new image or poetic idea or “relationship to a subject, whether a person, an object, a poster, a billboard, a postcard.” If no idea appeared, he halted at the lamp post until something occurred to him and he jotted it down (sometimes on telegraph blanks filched from a post office). These exercises contributed to the concentrated form of the poems. “Poème simultané avec superposition simple” (called simply “Poème” in Le Cornet) already has full control of pace and tone. It also has Jacob’s characteristic disorientation of narrative line, speaker, and personae; his teasing game between truth and falsehood; his ironic relationship to a classical past; and the geometric abstraction imposed by the title.

Simultaneous Poem with Simple Superposition

“What do you want of me?” says Mercury.
“Your smile and your teeth,” says Venus.
“They’re false. What do you really want of me?”
“That rod of yours.”
“I can’t be parted from it.”
“So bring it over here, heavenly postman.”

You should read this in the original Greek: it’s called Idyll. At school a friend of mine, who was always failing his exams, told me, “If you translated one of Daudet’s novels into Greek, you’d be pretty clued up when it came to the exam! But I can’t work at night. It makes my mother cry!” You should read that in the original Greek as well, gentlemen; it’s an idyll too, eidullos, a moving little scene. (translation by Christopher Pilling and David Kennedy)

“For me,” argues Jacob in a letter of the period, “a work of art must be estranged from its author. I do not mean by the word ‘estranged’ a synonym for the word ‘exteriorized,’ as that goes without saying, nor a synonym for the word ‘impersonal’; a work estranged from its author is a work which, since it does not reflect him, cannot be substituted for him, if I may say so, as a core of force, but which truly adds to the cosmic patrimony. I don’t claim that my prose poems fulfill this ideal, but they lean in that direction, and their author expects soon to succeed in stepping outside himself. From a purely artistic standpoint, works estranged from their author gain in ‘perspective,’ in ‘mystery,’ and in ‘aerial arabesque.’” Though there have been objections to the idea of Cubist poetics, the poems’ disturbances do present a literary analogy to the disruptions Picasso and Braque would introduce in the depiction of objects in space—three years later—disruptions and discontinuities that may have shared a birthplace in the jagged passageways of the Bateau Lavoir.

Read more in Little Star #3! (Documentation for this article here)

Rosanna Warren teaches English and Comparative Literature at Boston University. Her most recent book of poems is Ghost in a Red Hat. She is currently at work on a biography of Max Jacob, from which “Live Like a Poet” is drawn. More of her translations of Max Jacob appear in her book Stained Glass

More on the Bateau Lavoir years:

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11 Responses to “Live Like a Poet! At Home in the Bateau Lavoir,” by Rosanna Warren

  1. Charles Loughhead says:

    Lovely depiction of a heady time.

  2. Roger Seamon says:

    What cubism and Jacob’s poetry depend on is our relentless insistence on making sense of things, and they happily stretch that. Of course it remains a mystery why other such efforts fail, but we value the success all the more.

  3. An artist says:

    Picasso has failed Jacob as a friend and because of that Jacob died in a concentration camp.An artist who behaves like that can not make any great art.Since when a swine can create a pearl ?

  4. Michael Mount says:

    Terrific piece. When does your book on Max Jacob come out?

  5. The last date cited in this excerpt from MS Warren’s forthcoming book is 1939. I hope that in her biography of ‘the poor little Jew’ MS Warren goes on to explain that while Picasso might have liberated the genius of his elder friend and magus, he refused to save his life. Max Jacob turned to his friend and begged for his help when the Nazis occupied Paris. As events proved, he quite justifiably feared that they were ‘on to him’ and feared for his life. However, Picasso refused to help his friend, explaining in the French equivalent, “You always land on your feet.” But this time Jacob didn’t. He may have lived like a poet in 1904, but without Picasso’s assistance, he died like a Jew in a concentration camp during the 40′s. Who knows if Picasso’s power in the art world would have enabled Jacob to withstand the Nazis; but without it, Jacob perished. The last time I visited Paris, I wandered along a lovely street crammed with art galleries and cafes named after Jacob, but there was no mention of how he died.

  6. This is, as one would have known it would be, the most get up in the middle of the night or morning or whatever piece to read imaginable: Max Jacob has finally found — as, of course, we knew he had — his writer. Nothing could be more appropriate to his genius.

  7. Ann Kjellberg says:

    Hey, enthusiasts! This section is just a tiny smidgeon of the piece appearing in Little Star #3! Click on our issues page to order.

  8. luke whitington says:

    jacob was killed by the french who were nazi collaborators, something the french might want to forget, the german nazis also hated bohemians, including their own, who mostly fled the homeland.
    this did not stop goebels who lived like a bohemian lord and acquired art, mainly from the jews, in confiscated truckloads.

    artists were seen as the next thing to gipsies, at best poor senseless fools, by a race determined to make everything sensible and orderly, sweeping away the messiness of “unpure” cultures

    the psychosis of “single white woman” but the flat to be tidied to a bare standstill became the wide horrified world.

  9. [...] Star features an intriguing piece by Rosanna Warren that vividly imagines Le Bateau Lavoir, the Montmartre building that served as a [...]

  10. Rosanna Warren replies: The article “Live like a Poet! At Home in the Bateau Lavoir” is a reduction of chapters 3 and 4 of my biography of Max Jacob, “Max Jacob: A Literary Life.” The selection in Little Star describes the years 1900 to 1909, and Jacob’s emergence as a poet. The readers are correct in pointing out that Jacob died at the hands of the Nazis, and they are correct also in noting that Jacob’s great friend Picasso refused to intervene with the German authorities in Paris to try to free the poet from the concentration camp of Drancy, outside of Paris, where he was on the list for deportation to Auschwitz. I shall, of course, narrate these events in detail when I arrive at that part of the story. Throughout my book, I am trying to provide thorough and accurate documentation for everything I relate, and I shall do the same for Jacob’s death.

    The bare facts are these. Jacob, who wore the yellow star of a Jew, was arrested on February 24, 1944, by three Gestapo agents at his modest rented lodgings in the village of St. Benoît-sur-Loire where he lived closely connected to the Basilica of St. Benoît; he had just helped to serve the Mass in the chapel early that morning. He was held for four days in the prison at Orléans in a small, stinking room with about sixty other Jewish prisoners. On February 28, he was sent by train to Drancy where he was placed in an icy chamber reserved for those about to be deported. Jacob, who had suffered repeated bouts of pneumonia in his life, quickly contracted the disease again, and died on March 5.

    I interviewed his close friend the composer Henri Sauguet about the efforts made to liberate Max Jacob. Jacob’s friends Jean Cocteau, Sacha Guitry, Marcel Jouhandeau, and André Salmon (all of whom entertained cordial relations with the occupying Germans in Paris), along with Pierre Colle, Georges Prade (an ex-municipal counselor of the City of Paris), Sauguet, and others exerted themselves to obtain Jacob’s freedom. Cocteau was especially active, calling Gerhardt Heller, the Nazi special officer for propaganda, who promised to help; Guitry went to Otto Abetz, the Nazi ambassador to Vichy France. Sauguet and Pierre Colle appealed to Picasso. Picasso, who was not a French citizen and had reason to be worried about his own safety in Occupied France, replied: “Max is an angel. He doesn’t need us to help him fly out of prison.” Whether or not Picasso’s intervention could have helped is a real question, but not one that changes the fact of his having refused to try. Prade, for his part, advised Picasso not to sign the letter circulating among Parisian intellectuals asking for Jacob’s release; he thought Picasso’s anxiety, and his status as a non-citizen and as decadent artist, would not help the cause.

    On March 11, Jacob’s friends still did not know of his death, and had been assured by German authorities that he was about to be released. Not until March 13 did the death certificate from Drancy reach the town hall of St. Benoît, where the mayor immediately notified Jacob’s supporters. A Mass was held at the Church of Saint-Roch in Paris on March 21; Picasso attended. (Jacob’s early biographer, Pierre Andreu, is mistaken in claiming that he did not). And on March 19 Picasso attended the reading of his own play, “Le Désir attrapé par la queue,” at the apartment of Michel and Louise Leiris, in the ceremonial presence of the artist’s 1915 drawing of Max; the gathering, which included some of the notable artists and intellectuals of Paris, served as an informal memorial tribute to the poet and has been described as an act of intellectual Resistance. Similarly, the efforts to release Jacob tell us much about the intricate layerings of Collaboration in the cultural life of Paris under Vichy.

    The relations between Picasso and Jacob were intense and complex from start to finish. But this is not a simple story of betrayal. Reliable accounts of Jacob’s death can be found in Hélène Seckel’s catalogue “Max Jacob et Picasso” (Paris: Réunion des Musées nationaux, 1994) 272-277; and in Patricia Sustrac’s article “La Mort de Max Jacob” on the website of Les Amis de Max Jacob, http://www.max-jacob.com/arrestation.html.