Picasso and Rising Damp
When our children were still young, we lived on the ground floor of a fin de siècle villa, surrounded by ancient trees, in a wild, overgrown garden not far from Lucerne’s lakeside promenade. Our venerable landlady, who occupied all three floors above us, rarely ventured downstairs. We mowed the grass, trimmed the rampant bushes, and enjoyed the verdant sanctuary as if it were our own.
In the musty cellar, a blue fox fur coat my parents had once sent me from Canada was being destroyed by mold, as were my beloved cowboy boots and a box of toys we’d forgotten to unpack. The damage was irreparable.
We’d moved into the freshly painted flat during the heating period. When our radiators were turned off, and warm air flowed in from outside, condensation formed on the walls. Soon, patches of gray bloomed and began releasing spores. I attacked them with every detergent that had the word “mold” or “mildew” on its label—and embarked on a daily crusade of ventilating, drying, dusting, vacuuming, and scrutinizing all nooks and crannies with fanatical frequency. We invested in two large dehumidifiers that hummed round the clock and pulled two full tanks of water from the air each day, and we taught our children to empty them in the garden. Our electricity bill skyrocketed.
Mold is very persistent. This was a job for professionals.
The professionals never came. Our landlady had other concerns.
Whenever I went upstairs to speak to Madame, it was all I could do not to stutter or blank out, because as soon as she opened the door, my brain was short-circuited by the sight of a huge masterpiece on the wall behind her: an original, monochrome painting by Pablo Picasso.
I wasn’t even a Modernist fan—but such is the power of art.
The artwork I admired most at the time was attached with magnets to our refrigerator door: drawings by our two toddlers who’d never heard of Picasso. They were fans of Barbie and Pingu, Lego and Duplo, running across the bumpy lawn and digging in a sandbox under a wildly proliferating fig tree that blocked all daylight from our living room. They had no interest in the fortune stored above their heads: three hundred paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by twenty-five of the world’s most renowned Impressionists and Classic Modernists.
Madame had once asked me if we might get a dog. She didn’t add: “… for your children.” Our family’s function was that of a human shield: a noisy presence in the garden flat, a supplement to the simple burglar alarm that triggered a siren whenever a bird (or bat) strayed through an open upstairs window. If not switched off immediately, police would surround the villa within minutes—as once happened in Madame’s absence. The sight of the armed and nervous posse of uniformed men and women was terrifying—but only to me, because my husband was at work and our children were indoors, mesmerized by the Teletubbies.
A spinster, Madame called her art collection “my children.” Although her charges delighted her, their safety was a constant worry. My husband and I also worried: about our own, flesh and blood progeny. No sensors were installed on the ground floor, and a band of robbers could have scaled the garden’s crumbling stone balustrade, broken a window and—on their way upstairs to nab a Picasso, Klee, Chagall, Miró, Renoir, whatever—murdered us in our sleep.
Things were about to change.
Madame had bought the former Lucerne domicile of the Swiss National Bank and engaged Switzerland’s best architects to transform the massive, neoclassical structure into a worthy and permanent exhibition space. With tremendous care, the art was packed, carried down the villa’s stairs, loaded into armored trucks, and transported to its glorious new abode.
With Picasso et al. behind meter-thick walls, protected by sophisticated, state-of-the-art security and climate control, our function as ground floor guardians devolved into mere gardening and futile mold restraint. A few years after Madame moved “her children” out of the villa, we moved ours, too.
Spores followed us to the new, bone-dry home. Both our son and daughter are artists today.
Genia Blum is a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian dancer, writer and translator. Her literary work has received several Pushcart Prize nominations. When not writing her memoir, Escape Artists, she tweaks fonts and photos on her website geniablum.com, and haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum. "Let Me Clarify: Unsolicited Advice by Genia Blum" a series of short pieces, based on Blum's personal opinion and experience.