April 18, 2014 6:25 pm

This lacy veil of tears

‘How quickly success can fade to failure in the engine of the unquiet mind’

What is it about ribbons that makes me so greedy? When I was finished with the shops that sell trimmings and passementerie near the Plaza de Pontejos in Madrid they were severely lacking in stock. I felt hot with triumph in some deep and ancient way, like a cave-dweller who has come back home with enough raw meat to feed the family for a week, perhaps longer. I had full-scale ribbon rush.

“Half a mile of ribbon? Have you lost your mind?” A dim voice berated me.

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Susie Boyt

No, no, no: you see, it’s not just ribbon. I have broderie anglaise as springy and white as crème Chantilly, like the lace on the sleeves and caps of grand maids in 1930s Hollywood films. I have lengths of inch-wide pale blue and pale pink organdie trim, scallop-edged and embroidered with white dots and flowers. I have silk rosebuds, some white fur pom-poms, some black and white lace butterflies that were five for a euro.

For the next year all the presents going out of this house will be absolutely splendid. And if babies and toddlers come round to visit, maybe we can put the ribbons on the floor and they can play with them? It will look lovely in photographs. Say what you like about Susie but she keeps a wonderful ribbon basket . . .

Oh. Do I really want to lead with that in life? How quickly success can fade to failure in the engine of the unquiet mind. After the ribbon raid I went to the Fundación Mapfre in the Paseo del Arte, where I had been invited to view the wonderful Picasso exhibition with the gallery’s managing director and one of the curators. There were 80 pictures, as well as suites of prints, drawings, paper models, photographs and ceramics. I have all my life tried not to be too interested in painting – having artists for parents – but how could I resist? I had most of the gallery to myself and the attention of two charming experts who spoke eloquently and with passion in what was not even their second language.

The show began with the famous self-portrait from 1906 of the artist in a white shirt holding a palette, the right hand made into a fist expressing determination where you might have expected a paintbrush. I thought about the certainty coming from a man aged 25, the statement of intent of this self-portrait of not so much a man as a PAINTER. It instantly made me think of Keats, almost 23 in 1818, writing to his brother George: “I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death.”

This exhibition, entitled Picasso. In the Workshop , took as its focus the meaning that Picasso’s many working environments held for the painter. It argued that his various studios were felt to be enclosed spaces, obstacles between the painter and what lay beyond, as well as interior landscapes. The experts spoke at length about what in Picasso’s studio pictures was real, and what was symbolic. They pointed with fondness at stripes that seemed abstract but also referred to the afternoon sun filtering through the studio’s shutters.

They dwelled on other repeated motifs, such as the pieces of furniture that recurred in paintings and were given human qualities. They spoke of the way the painter made use of the studio environment as a kind of experimental laboratory. Of course, the director said, the painter’s studio was not just a location; it was also a mental space. Almost anywhere could be a studio to Picasso: a beach, or a forest.

I cannot drive but I sometimes think I would like to when I remember that Picasso used to drive places and paint the view through the windscreen.

The dozen or so studios that Picasso worked in during the 60 years covered by this exhibition were all represented, from humble-seeming Parisian interiors, with the rooftop views and pipes and radiators that instantly announced that city, to grand châteaux in the south of France, palaces with their splendid windows and florid architecture and theatrical palm trees almost peeping inside like many-necked giraffes.

At the end of the show was a small side room with a glass case containing palettes belonging to the painter. I have never seen palettes included in an exhibition before. They made you think of what really goes on in a studio: the daily routines, the smell of paint, the endless standing, the weeks and months and years of hours of hard work. These assembled palettes presented such a sharp full stop.

“It’s so sad,” I said. “He was 91,” my guide said with a raised brow.

One of the palettes was thickly covered in bright oil colours almost like a painting itself; one barely used with just a small mark in the corner; one in muted shades. Completely without realising it was going to happen, I burst into tears. The curator looked at me, astonished.

I was a bit astonished myself.

susie.boyt@ft.com, @SusieBoyt

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