“La peinture n’est pas faite pour décorer des appartements.” — Pablo Picasso
After allied victory and German surrender in 1945, my father was not immediately sent home. His outfit waited almost two months before being assigned passage on the Queen Mary. It was the Queen Mary, requisitioned as a troop ship throughout the war, that had carried him to Europe three years earlier.
During those two months, he and three other soldiers from his antiaircraft unit were put up in northern France, in a somewhat rundown château. There he gave drawing lessons to the two adolescent daughters of the marquis and marquess who owned it. For this, the marquis — if that was indeed his title — wished to pay him. Yet with currency in such a mess at the time, a settlement was instead made by barter, in the form of a small Picasso charcoal.
In theory, then, I am now the owner of a small Picasso charcoal. But there’s a catch.
When my parents were living in Manhattan in the early fifties, they kept the drawing hidden in a book case. The prices of even minor Picassos (and this was certainly a very, very minor one) had soared after the war. Doodles on napkins were going for ridiculous sums. Having neither the forethought to insure it nor any conventional means of protecting it from the bohemian riffraff and Fellow Travelers who came wandering through their flat at all hours, they elected temporarily to stash it between the covers of two dull volumes. An atlas and a cookery book, I seem to remember, although it’s possible I have merely invented this detail, unconsciously, after the fact. In time, with dispensable income and a move to the suburbs, they would be able to extract the drawing from hiding and hang it in their bedroom. Or that was the plan.
Alas, when the move finally happened, this particular carton of books, and the treasure squirreled within it, vanished. Forever.
In ensuing years I have leafed carefully — and repeatedly and to no avail — through every book of theirs remaining in my possession. They had been famously messy and erratic people; I needed to make sure the drawing hadn’t been wedged unnoticed among pages that they had failed to check at the time. I have also pored through auction house catalogs, searching without quite knowing what I was searching for. (I never saw the drawing myself, or if I did was too young to realize that it was something very special, something that I couldn’t have dashed off with my own Crayolas.) My mother described the drawing to me once, not long before she died. That is, she got part way through a description before trailing off and succumbing to sobs — not for loss of the drawing, I imagine, but because she missed my dad, for whom the wayward Picasso must have been a poignant reminder of deeper registers of anguish.
On another occasion, somewhat earlier, when they were both still alive, I overheard him at a dinner party, laughing wistfully about the mishap. “You must be so upset about it,” someone remarked. My dad said, “No, not that much. The thing is, it wasn’t a particularly great or even good Picasso. It wasn’t Guernica, right? I was proud of it. I’m just not sure I actually liked it all that much. But someone has it now who probably really loves it.”