Michael Blackburn's ART ZERO


At university during the 1970s I made the acquaintance of Eric van Straaten. His father was a wealthy Swiss businessman and his mother an Englishwoman from the Home Counties. I could never work out how Eric came to be studying in a provincial English university and he himself was surprisingly unforthcoming about it. He spoke French, German and Italian fluently. Despite these talents, he was studying Chemistry.

Our acquaintance began through a shared interest in student drama. We both has parts in productions of Waiting for Godot and a Shaffer play, Black Comedy. While not being particularly close, our friendship was easy and familiar, despite the complete disparity in our backgrounds. For a period of perhaps eight months we met a couple of times a week for drinks and the occasional meal.

For a time he was living with his girlfriend, but when they split up I let him stay at my place for a few weeks. I thought nothing of this (he was easygoing, tidy and clean - qualities not usually associated with students) and I was pleased that he contributed generously to the food and drink of the household. Not long after he found a new place for himself he turned up at my house with a gift - a small drawing by Picasso given by the artist to his father in the mid 1960s.

The drawing is of some minor local official (Monsieur Dupont). Eric said he chose the picture himself, when, as a child, he was taken by his parents to meet the artist in the south of France. The picture has always remained in private hands and has never been valued.

Eric never completed his studies and left abruptly the spring after we had been friends. I was told that his father had suffered financial problems and bad health. The night Eric appeared with the Picasso in his hands was the last time I saw him. To be quite honest, he had said, I don't like it. I don't really like Picasso. I think he was an old fraud.

Postscript: not long after I received the picture it was stolen. If you want to know how I got it back I'll tell you next week.