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Arts & Life

The Story Behind The Pictures Of Picasso At The Nelson-Atkins

Gift of David Douglas Duncan
Gjon Mili, American (b. Albania, 1904–1984). David Douglas Duncan with Pablo Picasso, 1960.";

In October 2013, photographer David Douglas Duncan, a native of Kansas City, Mo., donated 161 photographs to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Some of these photographs document the Korean War, but most were taken over nearly two decades at the home of artist Pablo Picasso.

Keith F. Davis, senior curator of photography, describes Duncan's work as having "a true 'War and Peace' range, from his gritty records of combat to his highly intimate and often playful images of the 20th century's greatest artist."

"Shooting pictures for the fun of it"

David Douglas Duncan turns 98 on January 23.

After graduating from Southwest High School in Kansas City, Mo., he studied at the University of Arizona and University of Miami and embarked on a career as a freelancer photojournalist. Duncan then "went all through Mexico and started shooting pictures for the fun of it," as he told me.

As a member of the U.S. Marine Corps and combat photographer during World War II, Duncan documented the invasion of Okinawa and the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri. He also covered conflicts in Turkey, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Africa as a photographer for Life magazine, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

Credit Courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art / Gift of the artist
Gift of the artist
David Douglas Duncan, American (b. 1916). After Jacqueline gave up trying to teach Pablo a ballet routine, the moment she sat down, he twirled away in his own routine, stomping and whirling, a combination square dancer and dervish, 1957. Inkjet print (printed 2013), 13 15/16 x 20 7/8 inches.

It was between the wars that Duncan started taking photographs of Pablo Picasso.

When Duncan first met Picasso at his home, Villa La Californie, in Cannes, France, the artist was in the bathtub. They forged a friendship, and Duncan returned over the next two decades to take thousands of images of the artist and his family.

In his 1958 book, The Private World of Pablo Picasso, Duncan wrote, "I have covered many, many subjects as a photographer. This is the best."

Meeting Picasso in the bath

In a conversation by phone, Duncan shared his story about meeting Pablo Picasso. He recalls that it was a colleague war photographer, Robert Capa, who encouraged him to seek out Picasso when he was in France. And, so Duncan did, in February of 1956:

"I telephoned. A lady answered the telephone. As I started in on my lousy Spanish, I explained about seeing Capa. She said, 'Thank you, I'm Jacqueline. Wait a minute.' I held on, held on, held on. She said, 'David, come now. Picasso will see you now, come right now.'"

"She told me how to get there. I drove up. This is about 10:30 in the morning. The door swung open to his Villa La Californie. A Victorian, very 19th century building, an old dilapidated, handsome building.

Credit David Douglas Duncan
On February 8, 1956, artist Pablo Picasso greeted David Douglas Duncan from the bathtub. Picasso's wife, Jacqueline, scrubbed his back.

"This beautiful girl in a black scarf, black sweater, black shoes, about the size of my little sister, Jean, maybe 5'1 - she could walk under my arm - she took me by the hand, not one word, through the entrance of this ancient home.

"(There were) stacks of crates all over the place. Sculptures, bronze, up a 19th century staircase. Not a word. Up to the sitting room. Not a word. Went into another corridor. There's a telephone line leading in to another room, turn in.

"This guy, Picasso, is in the bathtub. Just a smile, kind of waving his hands. 'Buenos' (for buenos dias, good morning). I explained that Capa sent me...

"(I) went back to my car, got my camera, came back upstairs. This time I knew exactly where I was going. He was still in the bathroom, scrubbing his back. That first shot I made was Picasso scrubbing his back, like a little kid or like an emperor. He didn't give a damn for what anyone felt, the king of the world.

"This gentle, lovely man. It began a friendship that lasted for 17 years, the end of his life. That's what the pictures are at the Nelson ... a part of my life that I can share with all of you."

 Celebrating Picasso: Through the Lens of David Douglas Duncan through January 26, 2014 in the Bloch Lobby at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

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