Picasso’s Barber
by Peter Stone

The mountain town of Buitrago del Lozoya 50 miles north of Madrid is hardly the place you'd expect to find a Picasso museum. Yet it harbours what is probably the most intimate exhibition of the Málaga-born artistic genius's works.

The museum came about when Eugenio Arias, a hairdresser by trade and a native of Buitrago, unselfishly decided to keep gifts Pablo Picasso had given him over two decades instead of selling them and making himself a small fortune. Today the 60 strong collection - located in a modest town hall salon which is amply mirrored to make it seem bigger - includes eccentrically original creations such as the ink water colour Plato de Toritos Fritos, a lithograph El Prisionero y La Paloma and a small wooden box containing scissors, a comb and a pair of clippers, into which bullfight motifs have been etched with a hot iron.

It all began in France. In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War Picasso had moved to Paris, where he stayed all through the WW II occupation without making the slightest concession to the German invader and came to be regarded as a symbol of anti-fascist defiance. Unfortunately the number of constant visitors and admirers to his Parisian studio make it impossible for him to work so he moved to Vallauris in the South of France where he concentrated on producing ceramic work. Arias was operating a hairdressing salon in the same town and the two men were finally introduced to each other in Summer 1947 by the owner of the ceramics workshop where Picasso prepared and baked his pottery, Suzanne Ramié.

Both hit it off from the start: they had a similar earthy temperament and sense of humour. "When I’m with you I feel I’m in Spain," Picasso told his newfound amigo. "He was genuine. He told the truth," said Arias of the artist in return. The hairdresser was only in his late twenties at this stage of their relationship and looked on Picasso as a kind of second father. Arias in return became the artist’s other self. The fears and uncertainties he felt in other circumstances vanished when Arias was around.

Previously, the artist’s multitude of idiosyncracies had included believing, Samson-like, that whoever possessed his hair would have some power over him. He had even insisted that anything shorn from his head should be wrapped in silk paper and hidden away in drawers. After getting to know Arias he dropped these habits and was content to let the barber sweep up the scanty amounts shorn (he was nearly bald) and do with them whatever he wanted. When people joked with him about it being easy to cut Picasso’s hair because he hardly had any, Arias riposted that it was more difficult as you had to actually find the hairs before you could begin cutting them.

Such was Picasso’s fame that whenever he visited the barber’s salon, clients swarmed around just to see him and many insisted on giving up their place to him. Celebrities such as Jean Cocteau, Jacques Prévert and Luis Miguel Dominguin – on his visits to France – also came to have their hair cut and chat with the great artist himself. Feeling ill at ease with this lack of privacy and with what he regarded as unduly privileged treatment, Picasso invited the hairdresser to attend to him in his country villa "La Galloise". When he realized this was a long way for Arias to come on a regular basis the artist bought him a car to make the journey easier. "It was a grey Renault Dauphine, a truly marvellous present," recalls the barber, who at 94 still lives in Vallauris.

Arias went to the house twice a week, ostensibly to shave Picasso but more importantly to talk and shares jokes and political views with him. Both were communists and both had been at the 50th. Anniversary of Spanish communists exiled in Toulouse in December 1945 when they had both greeted their Russian based leader Dolores Ibárruri (La Pasionaria) without their own paths actually crossing.

The more the artist and hairdresser got to know each other the closer they became. Comparisons have aptly been made with the rapport-relationship the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda had with his postman when residing in Italy. The Spanish duo were seen regularly out and about together, especially at the bullfights in Arles and Nîmes. When he moved to a new residence, "La Californie", Picasso told Arias he could come to see him whenever he liked. The hairdresser became his confidant and guardian, acting as kind of a filter between him and the public, entrusted with taking key canvases to exhibitions and making decisions on the artist’s’ behalf. It’s said that even La Pasionaria’s successor, Santiago Carrillo, had to be vetted by him before being able to contact Picasso. The barber’s relationship with the former Communist party secretary general also included creating a wig which Carrillo used on clandestine visits to Spain. (Not that this stopped him from being recognized and arrested in 1976, the year after Franco’s death).

Arias was allowed to do things that even members of Picasso’s own family weren’t allowed to do. After his beloved sister Conchita and the French "vanguardiste" poet Guillaume Apollinaire passed away no one could mention the word "death" in his presence except the hairdresser from Buitrago.

Picasso has suffered from a bad press ever since the mid sixties when his then wife Francoise Guilot, mother of Claude and Paloma, published the destructive autobiography "Life With Picasso" (which was also made into a James Ivory film starring the chameleon-like Anthony Hopkins in yet another lifelike portrayal.) An even worse mauling, entitled "My Grandfather Picasso", came later on from his granddaughter Marina. In both books he’s portrayed as a monster who attempts to destroy or alienate everyone he comes into contact with, especially women.

A belated attempt to set the record straight and show the warm and generous side of his nature comes in a recent book on his relationship with Arias written by Monika Czernin and Melissa Müller and called "Picasso’s Barber". The two authors claim that Picasso actually came to feel more at home with Arias - who could never be anything other than Spanish, however long he lived in France - than with his own son Paolo who because of his upbringing was quintessentially French.

Picasso was a late riser so getting up before noon to attend his hairdresser’s wedding in 1957 was not only a supreme effort on his part but also confirmed the very high regard in which he held his Spanish camarada. Two sons, Pedro and Luis, were the result of this union, and when the hairdresser’s parents were able to visit Picasso the first torrijas the mother made were for the artist. Arias’ mother, who Picasso saw for the first time at the wedding, made such a strong impression on him that she is said to have inspired his painting of "La Espańola", used in 1960 as the poster of a campaign in favour of the amnesty for communist prisoners in Spain. When a copy of the lithograph was sold at a London auction the proceeds went to the Communist party.

When Picasso died in 1973 at the age of 91 the hairdresser wrapped him in a black cape which served as a burial shroud, especially cut by Arias’ father who was a tailor. Shortly afterwards he opened the museum in Buitrago.

 

Copyright © 2002 Peter Stone

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