I was invited to stay at the home of a couple living in Cannes on the French Riviera. The wife, Renée, was an art dealer who had known Picasso quite well. Over the years she'd handled his art sales around the world and had quite a few stories to tell about the famous painter, which she referred to as Maestro.
One story in particular stands out as an example of how the perception of a work of art created even by an internationally acclaimed Maestro is not always enough to convince someone of more common taste to hang it on their wall. It's a bit of a shaggy dog story but worth the read.
Picasso and the tavern across the road
There was a time in the late 50s when Picasso was famously making ceramic pottery in a small dirt floor studio near Saint Tropez. Directly across the road from his studio was a sleepy little tavern where Picasso would go every afternoon to have a glass or two of three of wine. It was a small family business run by a man described as being rather gregarious. It didn't take long for the two to become good friends and companions in drink.
Picasso was by this time quite well known and his regular presence in the quiet little tavern began to draw in customers who came hoping to catch a glimpse of this famous painter. Before long the quiet little tavern was doing a brisk business much to the delight of the owner. His Tavern was doing so well that one day when Picasso was sitting at the bar he loudly announced that he was going to commission an artist to paint a mural on the back wall.
Picasso spoke up immediately saying that the owner should save his money because he would paint the mural for free. It was obviously a very generous gesture of friendship considering the value of Picasso's work. But the owner responded, "What? I want beautiful women with big bosoms on my wall and you paint women like pigs."
Picasso took this all in good humor. Here he was, perhaps the most famous living artist in France, offering to paint a mural for free and he was being turned down. Sure enough the owner eventually commissioned a local sign painter to create a mural depicting ladies with large bosoms just as he had described.
Renée said Picasso told her this story himself and they both had a good laugh. According to Renée had the tavern owner allowed Picasso to paint that mural, it would not have mattered what the painting depicted, that bar would have become a huge tourist attraction and the owner of that bar would have a work of art on this wall that could have financed his retirement in grand style. But the affable fellow did not perceive Picasso's art for the value it offered. He just didn't like how the artist painted women.
Another Picasso story from Renée
Speaking of how Picasso painted women, Renée told another story which is again about the perception of art. Only in this case it was more a matter of misperception. Picasso was very prolific and had many art shows, and over the years quite a few were held in Renee's own Gallery in Cannes.
Always in attendance at these shows, besides Picasso, was a wealthy widow that he absolutely couldn't stand and was generally rude to her even though she was an important patron. She would always cause a stir as she swept through the gallery looking for the most expensive painting. She would then invariably make a fuss over some aspect of the art, demanding the artist's attention as she let it be known that she was not entirely happy with the expensive work she was about to purchase.
She collected his art as an investment but personally didn't care for the way Picasso painted. She would complain that his work looked dark and messy. As you may recall, some of Picasso's figurative works were a bit abstract and it wasn't always easy to decipher what you were looking at as was the case with this wealthy collector.
On this occasion she had made a haughty beeline straight to the largest canvas in the room depicting Picasso's version of a woman disrobed and standing boldly in a full frontal pose.
The painted subject was clearly that of a female form. But the wealthy buyer insisted the figure in the piece looked to her more like a man. Thus Picasso was called over to clear up the matter given that he was the one who painted it. He was clearly impatient and did nothing to mask his disdain for this woman as she again proclaimed for all to hear that the subject looked like a man.
The gallery fell silent waiting for Picasso's response. Without saying a word he reached into his coat to retrieve a small leather case from which he withdrew a vine of charcoal with a theatrical flourish, as if he had anticipated this very situation. He then called for a small stepladder upon which he climbed to reach the face of the painted subject, and proceeded to draw a thin black mustache on it in two quick strokes, declaring loudly "Madam I do believe you are correct."
In the end the woman bought the painting which would actually gain even more in value due to the story that could be told as to how the painting's female subject came to have a such a spontaneous and out-of-place mustache. Clearly this was a case of how the value of a work of art was enhanced through misperception.