Picasso was fine – but Dali was a crook

As Tate Liverpool prepares to host a major Picasso exhibition, Laura Davis speaks to a Southport man who met the artist

BENEATH her wrinkles, there was still something of the young woman whose figure had been captured on canvas by one of the greatest artists of the 19th century.

She was old now, but the memory of that experience was still something to brag about to visitors to the small French town of Cagnes-sur-Mer.

“She popped her head out and said ‘quand j’etais jeune, je posais pour Monsieur Renoir’. Of course, it had been many years before,” recalls Max Eden, who was staying in the area in the 1950s.

Cagnes was a young artist’s dream. Not only was there an opportunity to exhibit in the town – Eden’s landscapes were hung alongside those of Picasso and Chagal in the local chateau – but there was also the chance that you might bump into one of your heroes.

At the time, Picasso was working in a ceramic studio “so small that he had to have his pictures coming from downstairs and moving upwards through the ceiling” remembers Eden, who was first introduced to the Spanish painter as he was leaving the building.

“He was OK . . . fine,” says the retired Southport College teacher of the artist once described as “a molten mind comparable to a volcano in constant eruption”.

“I asked him a silly question. I said ‘who do you think was the best painter of the lot?’ He said, ‘Sans doute, Cezanne’.”

Picasso’s favourite potter, Josef Llorens Artigas, who also worked with Joan Miró, told Eden the painter was “all right, but he was sometimes very rude indeed.”

Born in St Helens, Eden completed a fine art course at the Liverpool College of Art before spending a year studying at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, in 1952.

With a part-time teaching course at the Lycée de Nice, he was able to afford to stay in Cagnes.

His timing always appears to have been perfect.

As well as Picasso, in the French town he met Matisse, who was sitting up in bed at the time ripping out paper shapes that would form his famous “cut-outs” or paper collages.

In 1957, Eden arrived in the mountains of Cataluña, just as Artigas was preparing Miró’s famous mural Wall of the Sun, using 1,000kg of wood per day to fire his Chinese-style kiln.

Years later, he would visit Caracas with his wife, Valerie, to find avant garde artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray playing chess.

Now 86, Eden lives in a residential care home just a few minutes’ drive from his house in Southport, where Valerie remains surrounded by his paintings.

Sadly, he seems no longer able to draw out the finer detail of his memories, but he still retains plenty of the charisma that inspired his pupils, including comedian Alexei Sayle and Soft Cell’s Marc Almond as he regaled them with tales from his past.

To them, he was “the epitome of the brilliant/mad/genius artist”, as Almond described Eden in his autobiography, Tainted Life.

“With a shock of grey hair and a dashing moustache, Max often thrilled us with stories of his adventures in the art world. Everyone hero-worshipped him,” writes the singer.

He made such an impression on his students that Sayle recently spoke about him in a national newspaper feature, entitled My Best Teacher.

“He was wonderfully ­dismissive about things like art A-Level,” the comedian recalled.

“’Just draw the fingernails and you’ll pass,’ he told me.

“He also showed me how the way you lived your life could be a work of art. Recently, I opened a new wing of Southport college and they gave me one of his paintings, which I treasure.”

One of Eden’s favourite stories was of getting to know (the “bloody awful painter”) Salvador Dali, in Cadaqués, Spain, where they had regular arguments on the subject of art.

“If you know Picasso and Matisse, and you know Dali, then you know he was pretty awful really,” he explains.

“We disagreed about almost everything. I just could not take in his work at all.”

The surrealist was a “crook”, he continues, describing an encounter during which he showed Dali how to make a pair of sea urchins come out of their shells and “do a merry little dance” on a rock.

“What happened was within six months he had gathered some sea urchins and placed them in a cage and got them to move round on the bottom,” he continues.“He then invited the whole of the press to come round to his studio and observe them.“There was lots of music and noise and everybody falling over each other, then he got these sea urchins to make drawings.“Two months later, I was in Cadaqués again and he showed me how he’d done it – by pulling the sheet of paper out of the way and putting another one in which already had a drawing on.“He’d actually done that,” he exclaims incredulously. “You can’t think of anyone mad enough to do it, but he did it.”

Dali did, however, pay him a great compliment. He agreed to judge a contest between Eden and one of his own students – they would both draw a portrait and the winner would receive £75.

The St Helens-born artist chose a fisherman, Juan, as the subject of his work and was declared the winner.

“Dali liked mine very much indeed. He said, ‘ah, c’est bon ca’,” recounts the father-of-two.

The surrealist also took a shine to Valerie, who, at 18 years old, had married Eden the same year.

“He put a flower in her hair, jasmine it was,” recalls her husband, “and said she spoke ‘Liverpool English – very funny’.

“As we walked away, Valerie said ‘who were that mad lot?’.”

Liverpool Daily Post, 4/5/12