On a recent trip to Barcelona, the recommendation constantly being thrown at me was to visit the Museu Picasso, in the city’s rambling Gothic district.
Clichéd that may be, but wrong it was not. The museum plunges you deep into Picasso’s style, life and artistic development – taking you on a journey through both Barcelona’s history and the inspiration it provided him with. This year it celebrates its fiftieth anniversary – half a century of displaying a mammoth but memorable collection of the famed artist’s work.
But first, a disclaimer: I am a novice when it comes to Picasso and much of the period he worked in. But while this may not be an accurate review, it is an enthusiastic account of seeing Picasso through new eyes.
Perhaps the museum’s greatest success is showing so clearly the artist’s development. Earlier rooms show soft charcoal academic studies of classical sculpture with a subtlety of form absent in later works. A portrait of Picasso’s father is tender, all tradition and tertiary colours; while seascapes are unadventurous and calm. Picasso soaked up his surroundings. There are richly expressive oil paintings, depicting Catalonia’s mountainous terracotta landscapes, and Monet-like renditions of Barceloneta. Sensitive religious works capture ceremonies such as ‘First Communion’ (1896) in a beautifully innocent way – the peaceful antithesis of a historic painting such as Delaroche’s ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’.
But Picasso quickly moved on from safe, traditional material. ‘Science and Charity’ (1897) was painted at the height of social realism, juxtaposing the themes of religion and medicine. It boosted Picasso’s artistic presence: signalling his power to show uncomfortable social tensions harmoniously. More morbid social realism was to follow: a stillborn; a sick woman’s bedside; a fantastical kiss of death; and the bedside of a dead man.
The iconic Picasso comes through from 1900 – his first trip to Paris gave birth to a harsher, intense style. ‘Still Life’ (1901) is vibrant and in-your-face; a mash of colours artfully splashed to form a table saturated with taste. His female subjects become sensual but unrealistic; ‘Waiting Margot’ (1901) complete with rouged lips and a bohemian turban against a green and yelow splattered background; ‘Old woman, seated’ (1903) is embryonic and scientific, while another female nude is encased in a deep cobalt womb-like oval.
There is a sense of violence pushing through Picasso’s work at this point: first with colour or distorted form – only later do the two combine. ‘Gored horse’ (1917) seems an isolated predecessor to ‘Guernica’ (1937) – the contorted pain represented in dead grey, as life withdraws to the earthy background. In fact, from this year he seems to have become ostentatiously more cubist – losing all realism from his younger works. This comes to the fore in his multiple studies of Diego Veláquez‘s ‘Las Meninas’ (1957). They have all the robust, grotesque confidence of ‘Guernica’, but are more innocent and composed in their subject. Picasso is stubbornly angular in his reshaping of the information he was confronted with – mixing flat black with blank primaries to emphasise this.
It is brilliant to see Picasso’s work in the Catalan setting that so inspired him. There are recurring images of the balconies and windows that cascade onto the streets of Barcelona; nighttime in the city is portrayed with modernistic blue rooftops. A favourite of mine was the unfinished ‘Woman with mantila’ (1917): Picasso’s later vibrancy is scaled down to detailed dots here, to form a stunning female embodiment of Barcelona – all old and new, beauty and exuberance. Nor is he the only artist to be inspired by Catalonia: Salvador Dalí’s house is in the coastel Cadaqués, and the Dalí museum is located in nearby Figueres. Picasso also painted one or two works in Céret, just across the French border. Most obviously, that Barcelona inspired Gaudí is evidenced all over the city: from Parc Güell to the Sagrada Família.
Museum Picasso is, above all, personal. A tenderly distorted ‘Portrait of Jaume Sarbatés with ruff and hat’ (1939) introduces the man who donated many of the works which make up the museum, and was Picasso’s great friend. The artist himself gave many works – thus ensuring a fantastic legacy for himself. You come across famous styles, and more unique pieces; ‘Minotauromachy’ (1935) reveals less-seen mystical forms with heavy shading compromised of tiny lines – none of the colour and shading Picasso is so synonymous with.
The temporary exhibition I visited was a series of self-portraits by the artist. Heavy line drawings of his youthful self are seen next to his scrawling, expressive, alternative signature – hints of the explosion of creative force to come. We see Picasso through all his confused styles – his development both physically and creatively. Heightened distortion correlates to the ageing process (as in ‘Self-portrait’, 1972). Wild experimentation is present with a photomaton photograph with added gouache – showing Picasso in reality with his ultra-modern non-reality creeping in. The star piece is ‘Self-portrait’ (1907): it is rough and earthy, angular and staring – the eyes of the artist seeing you in a way no one else could. Museu Picasso reveals the multitude of tension both in the artist’s work, and himself. His subjects are varied – but so is he. Though clearly a museum for one artist, the visitor comes away having seen a myriad of facets of artistic interpretation. Technique, style, subject and message is constantly conflicted.
It was once said of Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22 that it gave ‘the impression of having been shouted onto the paper’. But Heller by no means lacked classical training – this was the intended effect. Picasso strikes me as much the same. His most idiosyncratic works are a carefully composed shout – drawing on a plenthora of traditions, but inimitable in their modernism and innovation. Picasso once said ‘Painting isn’t a question of sensitivity; we need to take the place of nature instead of depending on the information she offers us.’ Picasso warped the information imparted on him by his surroundings; but though his work was not sensitive to reality, it was to meaning and message. To some, this museum may seem to bombarde the visitor with works to prove try and prove that thesis; but for a novice, it is the most intense way to nurture an understanding of one of the most studied artists.
For more information, visit http://www.museupicasso.bcn.cat/en/. With thanks to Museu Picasso and Wikipedia for photos.