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Picasso's Schmatte

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Picasso's Schmatte

I've probably been to the Four Seasons in New York half a dozen times in my life, and have always associated the iconic Midtown Manhattan restaurant -- renowned for its power lunches and Long Island duck -- with cause for celebration.

The first time I ate at the Four Seasons, back in 1967, we were celebrating a family Thanksgiving dinner with my grandparents following the success of my father's off-Broadway hit play Scuba Duba, which had opened a month earlier to rave reviews. All I really remember that night was that the turkey giblet gravy was a bit rich for my seven-year-old palate. My eyes lit up, though, when the waiter wheeled out the largest, most decadent-looking cake I had ever seen in my life, covered in dark sheets of chocolate.

"Would you like the whole cake?" my father asked me, half-jokingly, and winked over at the waiter (the cake did not make it home, but I did not seem to mind).

Years later, I had the good fortune to return to the Four Seasons with my then 10-year-old son, Max, who was well on his way to becoming a foodie. Max had researched his meal ahead of time, down to the blueberry cotton candy dessert that he had read about in Bon Apetit magazine; I couldn't help notice the purple mouth and fingers of a girl about his age at the next table who was thoroughly enjoying the sticky blueberry confection.

Each time I visited the Four Seasons, you couldn't miss the wall-length Picasso tapestry that practically greeted guests outside the Pool Room like an oversized maître'd, but I never really paid it much attention. What stood out to me was the bubbling white marble pool in the center of the Pool Room and the shimmering bronze-colored chain curtains that almost seemed alive. Indeed, the restaurant's dramatic sleek interior, designed by architectural legend Philip Johnson, remains the epitome in Modernist architectural design.

But on my last visit to the Four Seasons -- when I took my wife on a romantic weekend getaway to Manhattan -- I stopped by the large Picasso and just stared. Granted, we were half-way through a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, but time seemed to stand still; it was as if I were watching a movie unfold as the muted ochre- and burnt orange-colored 19-foot-tall canvas sprung to life. Named Le Tricorne (or "the three-cornered hat"), Picasso designed the stage curtain in 1919 as a backdrop for a production by the Ballets Russes. I must have stood engrossed in front of the massive piece for about 10 minutes -- certainly far longer than I ever observed any other Picasso painting or sculpture, before or since.

In the center of Le Tricorne a man with a whip is holding the reins of several horses that are dragging a dead bull across a Spanish bullring. The victorious toreador grips a lance while sitting atop his steed in the background. Behind him are blots of cheering spectators in the crowded stands. A more subtle story seems to be unfolding in the foreground. A boy with a basket of fruit is seen offering a piece of fruit to several women whose backs are turned to him. Oblivious of the boy, the women seem to be conspiring among themselves. To the left, a beautiful woman in a black shawl sits with a coquettish expression holding a fan in her lap while a courtesan dandy stands over her shoulder, casually taking in her beauty. An open bottle of wine rests on a tray at the bottom of the tapestry.

So it was with particular offense that I read that Aby J. Rosen, an executive with RFR Holding, the real estate company that owns the Seagram Building, home of the Four Seasons, had allegedly dismissed the Picasso tapestry as "a schmatte," Yiddish for a rag. I was equally outraged to learn that the famous tapestry was facing eviction due to structural problems in the limestone wall where the curtain hangs, which posed a threat to the tapestry. It was suggested that Rosen, a prominent art collector who is also chairman of the New York State Council on the Arts, sought to replace the Picasso with a more modern work of art from his vast collection, such as a Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst.

No knock on Koons or Hirst, whom I'm sure are first-rate modern artists, but I probably couldn't tell a Koons from a Hirst (I only first even became aware of the British-born Hirst following his recent series of skull prints). But I always felt a personal affinity with the large Picasso canvas which has served as the backdrop for so many family celebrations. I suspect many other long-time patrons of the Four Seasons feel the same. Indeed, the tapestry has stood outside the restaurant entryway since 1959, in what has been affectionately dubbed Picasso Alley -- no doubt to the delight of thousands of visitors. You can even observe the tapestry from Park Avenue just outside the Seagram Building.

Over the years I have seen a number of Picassos, in books and at museums. I remember once even blurting out to my childhood friend Bruce Altman while visiting the MoMA: "But what does it all mean, Pablo!" We were observing several enigmatic portraits of women whose faces were distorted, with disjointed noses and eyes. Indeed, one woman's long nose and jowly cheeks reminded me of Richard Nixon's with a severe five o'clock shadow.

Le Tricorne may be simplistic in scope and less recognizable than many of Picasso's other more avant-garde works, but reflected a more accessible side to the surrealistic painter.

They say all art is subjective, and there's no accounting for taste. But to paraphrase another famous saying, I would like to tell Mr. Rosen: I have seen schmattes, sir. My grandparents probably wore them on the ocean passage from the Old Country and even at one time sold schmattes on the Lower East Side. But calling Picasso's Le Tricorne a schmatte! What a shandeh!

Kipp Friedman is the author of the childhood memoir, Barracuda in the Attic, (Fantagraphics).