TRUE TALES OF THE ART: Juan Martin plays Picasso

Pablo Picasso gave the young guitar player a wink – the only reward for an unusual performance at the great painter’s 90th birthday party.

The 16-year-old Juan Martin had been asked to ditch his prepared music and “improvise the paintings on the wall, just look at the paintings and interpret them.” He says he thought these people were crazy and literally tried to escape out the back door, but it was no use. There was nothing for it but to dive in and do the gig. His mom was there, she was a painter, both she and Picasso were from the Spanish town of Malaga, so there was the connection.

That was a long time ago. The flamenco guitar master played Oct. 13 at Festival Place. Forty years ago, Martin played paintings for Picasso and 30 or so members of “Le Jet” – the Jet Set – some of the various friends, celebrities, hangers on and sycophants drawn into the whirlpool of Picasso’s massive fame at his palatial home in the South of France. Bridget Bardot was one of them.

Martin recalls, “I had hoped she would be there. She was my favourite pin up at the time, but I don’t think she made it.”

The guitarist remembers how “ridiculous” he thought it was to improvise music to paintings, but as he started to play – starting off by gazing at the original “Three Musicians” for inspiration – and the well-heeled audience started to dig this bohemian art-music happening, young Martin realized he was onto something. The improvised musical “sketches” he performed that day would eventually turn into his debut album, eventually released 10 years later, recorded with members of Jeff Beck’s band: Picasso Portraits.

Martin agrees this was one hell of a way to launch a career.

“I suppose it was,” he says with a laugh. “I didn’t know how much Picasso knew about music. Obviously I knew from his paintings that he loved guitar. He did so many in his cubist period, of guitarists, and in his blue period, ‘The Old Guitarist.’ The other thing was that in Malaga, where he lived, where he was born, just around the corner was the local flamenco club, what we call ‘pena flamenca,’ a flamenco gathering place, right where he grew up near the Square of Mercy, Plaza de la Merced, and he’d draw doves and beautiful things even when he was 10 years old, because his father was an art teacher.”

Martin talks at length about how long it took for the Spanish government to recognize Picasso, who effectively exiled himself from the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, vowing that one of his most famous works, Guernica – depicting the bombing of Basque separatists during the Spanish Civil War – would never hang in Spain as long as Franco was in power. Picasso never lived to see it happen. The painting was finally returned to Spain from where it had been on display in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1981 – same year Martin’s record Picasso Portraits came out. That’s timing for you.

Martin would revisit the “painting music” theme again in his career – at one point even tackling Guernica – helped by Picasso’s biographer Sir Roland Penrose, who owned several original Picassos (including “Weeping Woman,” purchased for $700 and sold by Penrose’s son for $7 million). Sir Penrose invited Martin to his home in London. It wasn’t strictly necessary to sit in the same room as the actual painting to get musical inspiration, Martin says, but it helped.

“The sheer presence of the original is a bit different than a print,” he says. “To sit there with your guitar with an original of Picasso is another experience.”