Picasso and Málaga


[Image: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Still-life with Jar, Glass and Orange (Paris, 19 July 1944), oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm, Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte, Madrid. © FABA Foto: Marc Domage. © Sucesión Pablo Picasso, VEGAP, Madrid, 2018]

El Sur de Picasso/Picasso’s South. Andalusian References is the current exhibition at Museo Picasso Málaga examining Picasso’s links to Andalusia, the region of his birth, and Spanish art (8 October, 2018 – 3 February, 2019). This review is from the bi-lingual catalogue.

Over the years curatorial approaches to famous artists get used up. There are only so many ways to recast a known oeuvre of a popular artist. Curators – like art historians and academics – have to find new angles to earn their laurels and gallery directors and press agents need fresh approaches to attract visitors. Of course, the greats will always sell tickets, but even their art gets tired without fresh perspectives.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) is the most famous artist in the modern era. We have had exhibitions, monographs, biographies, documentaries, biopics and periodical articles, all offering aspects of the life and work of Picasso. We have had Picasso the Surrealist, Picasso the erotic artist, Picasso the portraitist, Picasso the sculptor, Picasso the Communist, Picasso the Mediterranean, to name just a few perspectives. While we have had Picasso much discussed as a member of the Modernismo movement of Barcelona in 1895-1900, Picasso the Andalusian is less discussed. Picasso was born in Málaga and lived there until 1891, moving to La Coruña at the age of nine. In 1895 he moved to Barcelona and that is the Spanish city he is most closely associated with, despite the fact he lived as much time in Galicia and even longer in Andalusia. Málaga was a port city that had grown prosperous and significant due to the exporting of agricultural produce, especially wine, but it was entering a period of stagnation when Picasso was born in 1881. He began art instruction under his father (an art professor and amateur painter) before the family moved to Galicia.

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[Image: Juan van der Hamen y León (1596-1631), Still Life with Boxes and Sweets (1621), oil on canvas, 38 x 45 cm, Museo de Bellas Artes de Granada, © Museo de Bellas Artes de Granada]

For this exhibition, curator José Lebrero Stals has selected Spanish works that Picasso may have seen and been influenced by, as well as art by followers of Picasso. There are numerous works by masters of the Spanish Golden Age, including Zurbarán, Cotán, Murillo, Velázquez and others. There are many Baroque still-lifes and religious scenes, which is typical of pre-modern Spanish art. There is a very fine Crucifixion by Zurbarán which balances the sentimental and pitiless in an image that is stark and tender. Establishing direct links between specific paintings selected and Picasso are rather difficult. To be fair to the curator, the aim is draw analogies rather than to delineate strict causal links.

Picasso’s art can be seen as a fusion and conflict between the ancient Mediterranean south and the modern Parisian north. We see French critics claiming that Picasso draws on a so-called primitive, atavistic Iberian heritage and Spanish critics asserting that Picasso is wedded to sophisticated stylistic devices and intellectual concerns of advanced French painting running from Poussin to Matisse. This twin heritage has two outcomes. Picasso’s art is doubly rich; Picasso the man is doubly alienated. By having two homes (one might say a home separate from his homeland), effectively Picasso fully has neither. One might further say that his mature art is also alienated by having hybrid origins; however, as all art – certainly all interesting art – derives its most essential qualities from its impurities (not its purity) we should not read too much into that.

While in Madrid as a student at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (1897-8), Picasso made drawings of Goya prints. Picasso was an avid fan of bullfighting and it is apposite that the curators have included Goya aquatint prints of bullfights from the Tauromachie suite. If these influenced Picasso’s minotaur series from the 1930s is unclear. In terms of style and character, Picasso’s minotaur works are not close to Goya’s prints. Picasso’s appreciation of Goya extended to the royal portraits. Some of Goya’s most popular works today are the Black Paintings – murals that Goya painted for his house, made in his last years. Picasso does not seem to have responded to them directly and may not have found them to his taste. Picasso always seems to have preferred art of a fixed genre and status from historical artists and to have added his own Picassoid twist to his interpretation of such pieces. It may be that Picasso (from a purely utilitarian perspective) simply felt there was no way to approach and cannibalise the strange and obscure Black Paintings. The Black Paintings are already too full of dark humour, satire and sinister overtones for Picasso to have subverted.


[Image: El Greco (1541-1614), Saint James the Lesser (1600-1610), oil on canvas, 34 x 28 cm, Colección Artehispania, Barcelona. On deposit at the El Greco Museum, Toledo. © Colección particular. Foto: Guillem Fernández-Huerta]

El Greco was little understood and poorly regarded at the time Picasso became attracted to him around 1899. By allying himself to this strange painter (a mystic, Mannerist, obscurantist), Picasso was transgressing the boundaries of conventional French good taste, which dominated art criticism and theory at the time. Picasso was adept at taking the style of another artist and trying it out: part emulation, part parody, part appropriation. He would use the fusion of his art and that of a master to create a mask – a way of being something or someone else in both earnest and mockery. It was a process his biographer John Richardson described as a shamanistic evocation: becoming great by invoking the spirits of the glorious masters. In the case of El Greco, Picasso parodied the religious paintings but sought to emulate the eerie spectral qualities of the portraits, as seen in Man in the Style of El Greco (c.1899).


[Image: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Man, after El Greco (Barcelona, c.1899), oil on canvas, 34.5 x 31.2 cm, Museu Picasso Barcelona. Gift of Pablo Picasso, 1970]

Picasso’s primitivism is well known in his use of West African tribal carvings as inspiration for very early work in the Cubist period – notable in the tribal appearance of some of the women in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Iberian primitivism was also a wellspring for Picasso during his Gósol period (1906) and early Cubism (1907-8). This exhibition includes some ancient art and religious carvings from Spain. We know that Picasso studied art like this, mainly in Paris museums, 1906-8. There is drawing of a crucified Christ, heavily shaded, almost an ersatz carved sculpture. This quality has been noticed by Stals, who has presented the drawing facing images of polychrome religious carvings. Although Picasso was nominally an atheist, he was profoundly superstitious and marked by his Catholic upbringing. His reference points in life, culture and art were those of the Christian tradition.

Spanish Cubist contemporaries of Picasso included in this exhibition include Juan Gris, José Moreno Villa, Manuel Ángeles Ortiz, María Blanchard and others. It is good to be reminded of these painters who – with the exception of Gris – are less well known than Braque, Léger and the group called the French Salon Cubists. In a sequence of Cubist paintings of guitars and still-lifes, the pictorial wit and invention are in delightful evidence.

The Vollard Suite of prints from the 1930s is classical in outlook and the project is an expression of Picasso’s affiliation with the art of Greece and Rome. One might also see Picasso’s art of 1944-53 (the Francoise period) as an eruption of Mediterranean feeling after years under occupation in Paris. The art of this time is full of fauns, nymphs and nude youths, often frolicking on the warm beaches of the Cote d’Azur.

There are some fine lesser known paintings (many lent by Bernard Ruiz Picasso), including a tiny Dinard bather scene and a wartime still-life of a skull with leeks, where the crossed leeks stand in for crossed bones. Humble home-grown vegetables became the staple of survival in straitened wartime conditions. The tomato plant that Picasso grew on a window sill appeared in many wartime pictures as a symbol of the subsistence living of Parisians during the years of occupation.

One of the more original and striking paintings in this exhibition is Vanitas (1946). It shows a carved polygon with distinct flat facets, almost tactile in quality; symbols on the faces include a skull. It plays with flat planar forms and modelling of a volumetric solid in pictorial depth. The ambiguity of conceptualisation and execution keeps the painting balanced exactly so that both interpretations co-exist simultaneously. The virtuoso painting of the picture is in a bravura manner which is both roughly painterly and veristically illusionistic. The carved stone has sheen and weight. The mystery of the symbols on the smoothed stone sides applies to the meaning of the painting itself: it contains multitudes; it contradicts itself; it is complete in itself; it is both illegible and open to interpretation.

A number of Picasso’s 350 poems from the 1930s and 1940s show Picasso under the influence of Surrealism, most especially his friend Paul Eluard. The poems are written in the automatic free-association style, dense in images and memories. These were also calligraphic works of art, placed on the page in blocks in stylised handwriting, sometimes ornamented. The text is transcribed for reading purposes.

The book reprints various articles regarding facets of Spanishness in Picasso’s art, written over the years by prominent authors such as André Breton, William Rubin, Robert Rosenblum and James Johnson Sweeney. The main text in the catalogue is in Spanish with an English translation at the end of the catalogue. Overall, this catalogue brings together Picasso and the art of Spaniards in a mix that is thought provoking and very pleasurable. Although the disparate characters of the texts mean that this is not a definitive study of Picasso and Spanish art, this catalogue is an attractive acquisition for any fan of Picasso.


El Sur de Picasso/Picasso’s South. Andalusian References, Fundación Museo Picasso Málaga, 2018, 386pp, fully col. ill., hardback, Spanish/English, €39.90, ISBN 978-84-946475-3-6


© 2018 Alexander Adams

See my books and art at www.alexanderadams.art