Some art historians attach exaggerated importance to the national characteristics revealed in a given work of art; others dismiss them altogether on the ground that genius transcends national boundaries. It is, however, undeniable, as was shown by Jean Cassou and other writers, that Picasso's Spanish extraction accounts for some essential features of his art. Picasso was stimulated by old Spanish masterpieces and by contemporary Spanish painters; his Spanish racial heritage is an integral component of his art throughout its transformations. That is why his works are so clearly different from related French works, for instance, those of Braque.
Although France has been his chosen homeland for several decades, although French art has influenced him more than any other, and although without it he would never have been what he is, he cannot seriously be classified as a French artist. Actually Picasso is a global artist; although he springs from a specific nation and remains bound to it, he has predominantly been formed by other forces, and by virtue of the universality of his art he belongs to the world as a whole. That is precisely why it is particularly fascinating to discover the national sources of his unique richness. For even in his very earliest works, he reveals not only his extraordinary gifts, but also his unmistakable Spanish characteristics which later recur in a thousand forms.
Pablo Ruiz Picasso was born in Málaga on October 25, 1881. His father was a teacher in the local art school (after 1901, Pablo used only the family name of his mother, Maria Picasso, as is often done in Spain). In 1891 the Ruiz Picassos moved to La Coruña in Galicia, and in 1895 to Barcelona. Only a few of Picasso's Barcelona paintings are known; among them is an oil of 1895, today in the museum of Málaga, showing an old couple in a kitchen. The theme is social, and the treatment naturalistic, but although the fourteen-year-old author is confined to the contemporary idiom, he reveals amazing technical skill. At that time the boy served as an assistant to his father who specialized in compositions representing birds and flowers; he would cut off the legs of a dead pigeon and pin them on a board, and Pablo copied them minutely.
To this day Picasso has retained a love for pigeons, which he inherited from his father, and he kept pigeons in his studio in the Rue des Grands-Augustins in Paris. The boy's sure touch and miniature-like accuracy in reproducing natural forms are particularly evident in his chalk drawings from casts. His drawings of arms and legs, for instance, are compaiable to similar things by one of the greatest naturalistic draftsmen, Adolf Menzel: they disclose the same obsession with detail, which endows his representations of objects with a demonic animation. In 1896 the fourteen-year-old artist was so competent that he took only one day to pass the entrance test for the Academy of Fine Arts, Barcelona, although the regulations allowed a whole month for this task.
Such great gifts were scarcely compatible with the academic teaching of the time, which confined the student to a secure routine. Thus we may presume that even if he had not fallen ill with scarlet fever, he would not have stayed at the particularly conservative Royal Academy of Madrid, where he was admitted with distinction in 1897. He spent a few months there in 1897 and 1898, and then returned to Barcelona. The following summer, which he spent as a convalescent in the village of Horta de Ebro, was particularly beneficial: during that time he entered into a close union with unsophisticated nature, which became a constant source of energy for him. In that early period, however, he still needed the stimulation of friends and city life, which brought him into close contact with the passionate intellectual and artistic currents of his time.
Barcelona, jealous of its special position as capital of Catalonia, was at that time far more advanced culturally than Madrid. Its literary and artistic Bohemia, which was anything but provincial, maintained close relations with Paris groups, and through these was in contact with the great international Bohemia in other European capitals. Like the Bohemians of Paris, Oslo, Berlin, or London, those of Barcelona were attracted by various contemporary movements—ivory-tower aestheticism, mysticism, humanitarian socialism, and philosophic anarchism; the latter was also nourished by the Catalan aspirations for independence. As elsewhere, a new young generation was up in arms against the "barbarians," as the Philistines were called in Barcelona, and by its eccentric and irresponsible behavior conjured up the spirit of the world cataclysm that was lurking in the background.
When Picasso returned from Madrid to Barcelona, the artistic headquarters of the local Bohemia was the recently founded cabaret Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats); patterned after the more famous Chat noir in Paris, it combined a bar, a restaurant, and a small stage. In 1898 the young Pablo, who still signed his name P. Ruiz Picasso, documented his close association with this meeting place of artists by a colored pen drawing for the restaurant menu, which is a typical early Art Nouveau production, and which reflects the young artist's interest in Japanese colored woodcuts. However, his friends of Els Quatre Gats, whose portraits he drew on the walls of the cabaret as early as 1897, led him also along other paths, more fruitful for the future of his art.
In 1891 two painters belonging to this group—the versatile Santiago Rusiñol, who also distinguished himself as a playwright, and Ramón Casas, had imported Impressionism from France. Ramón Casas was also a draftsman in the manner of Toulouse-Lautrec, who thus entered' Picasso's line of vision even before his trip to Paris. For some time he associated with the painter Isidre Nonell; Carlos Casagemas and Sebastián Junyer were among his intimates. More lasting than his associations with these painters was his friendship with the writer Jaime Sabartés who, decades later, published a valuable book containing a vivid account of those early days. He tells us for instance about the tremendous passion for work that distinguished. Picasso even then. He covered the walls of his and his friend's rooms with paintings, and produced drawings in such quantities that he could use them as fuel for his stove.
Only a small fraction is preserved: among these, Promenade, a chalk drawing dating front 1897, clearly reflects French influences: the subject matter is elegant and fashionable; the vigorous black-and-white, flat treatment combined with an illusion of depth suggests Manet, and the loose composition is reminiscent of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. Picasso's drawing most resembles Toulouse-Lautrec's contemporary lithographs. But a closer study of sheets in which Toulouse-Lautrec treats related subjects, and which are characterized by floating lightness, immaterial fragrance, and the dance-like animation and delicacy of intermediate tones, shows that Picasso is quite different: the sharp outline of the clothing, which has a hard and plastic quality, and the closed forms of the hat feathers are quite un-French. On the basis of such features Pablo's later Parisian works in the style of Toulouse-Lautrec can be distinguished at once from the latter's own.
In addition to fashionable society, two other frequently overlapping subjects fascinated the young painter in Barcelona—the everyday life of the street, and the relations between the sexes. Both were popular in Els Quatre Gats as generally among Bohemians. In his treatment of them Picasso was certainly influenced by French art, but here again a comparison clearly reveals his originality. As early as 1890 there appeared in Paris a two-volume work under the programmatic title Dans la rue: it contained texts by Aristide Bruant, cabaret star immortalized by Toulouse-Lautrec, and once famous for his ballads written in argot, and lithographs by Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, who had been connected with the Chat noir since 1885. Félix Valotton, too, a Swiss closely associated with the Nabis since 1890, portrayed Paris street life with its graceful trivialities and its frequent little joys and sorrows. To the unsentimental objectivity of these artists whose works were surely well known in Barcelona, Picasso added the spice of a truly unmerciful, sarcastic observation, particularly in his figures of women.
He reveals a similar ruthlessness in representing the importunate and greedy lover in the vivid drawing The Divan, of 1900, and in portraying the skimpy furnishings—on the bare table a solitary bottle from which the man has drawn courage; over the sofa, next to the oval mirror, a half nude, displaying a pair of breasts; in the doorway, near the border, the blurred figure of the matron. The awkwardness of the couple that cannot elude their fate is seen almost with the eyes of Goya; the effective chiaroscuro is also reminiscent of Goya. Looking at this drawing we can understand why a short time later the young Picasso was nicknamed "le petit Goya" in Paris, while the Catalans referred to him as "the young Andalusian."
One glance at ToulouseLautrec's colored lithograph Débauche, treating the same subject with a lascivious elegance, is sufficient to reveal the freshness of the eighteen-year-old Spaniard's realism. The inexorable young psychologist who penetrated into the dens of vice did not shrink from encounters with insanity, as we can see in the charcoal drawing of a madwoman with a vacant and hungry look in her large eyes, published in the magazine Catalunya Artistica in 1900. This drawing already heralds the so-called Blue Period.
In 1900 Picasso also dedicated a sheet to free love, a favorite subject of the international Bohemia. It was published as an illustration to a poem by Joan Oliva Bridgman, in the Barcelona magazine Joventut. In the foreground is seated a sleeping girl with a nude torso and a veil-like cloth on her lap; from the dark background emerge the outlines of the head and the torso of a nude man. The girl's vision is intended to express the violence of her unquenched yearning. Here Picasso's world comes into contact with that of the great Norwegian Edvard Munch, who rendered the demonic side of erotic relationships in expressive allegories: at the turn of the century Picasso and Munch produced many similar pieces.
We find the most striking instance of this parallelism when we compare Munch's woodcut The Kiss in its various versions dating from 1897 to 1902, with Picasso's charcoal drawing of 1901, The Embrace. Both works show erect, embracing figures progressively merging into a single closed, dark form, and their faces into a single light spot. Picasso's drawing is the result of several preliminary sketches. These begin with a pen drawing of a pair, dressed in middleclass fashion, in intimate conversation in the street; then the scene is transferred to a popular milieu in a suburb, and the figures are shown clasping each other in their arms; the final sober drawing succeeds in conveying a sense of an unbreakable union, enhanced by the expression of momentary passion which, in conjunction with the dramatic black-and-white, once again reminds us of Goya's etchings. And, as is often the case with Picasso, a few years later he treated the same motif in different media—in the gouache, The Embrace, showing a nude couple leaning on each other, and then in the corresponding painting, La joie pure, both dating from 1903. Here too we are reminded of a Munch etching of 1895. Because the painting is based on old experiences, its earthiness is in striking contrast to the emaciated figures belonging to the later period.
Further similarities might easily be discovered in the way both Munch and Picasso subordinate form and color to symbolic expression; but this affinity is probably accounted for by the cultural climate of Europe at that time. On the other hand, Picasso could scarcely be entirely unacquainted with the works of Munch, who was in close contact with the Paris artists. Cirici Pellicer in his book on Picasso's early years shows in detail that northern literature and art were well known in Picasso's milieu in Barcelona. Schopenhauer's and Nietzsche's philosophies, Ibsen's, Wilde's, and Maeterlinck's plays and poems, and Richard Wagner's music dramas — Tristan and Siegfried were' performed in Barcelona in 1900 — impressed the Catalan elite as much as did Rossetti's Pre-Raphaelite paintings and Burne-Jones' or Böcklin's ardent and mysterious mythologies; and Joventut even published a special issue in honor of the twenty-year-old Heinrich Vogeler, who settled at Worpswede in 1894. The Promethean and visionary qualities of the Germans were in particular accord with the anarchistic instincts of the young Spaniards and with their romantic predilection for the Gothic Middle Ages. As regards Picasso's development, one is inclined to think that his contacts with German culture yielded their richest fruit only in the Blue Period, after his eyes and mind had come to know the treasures of French art in Paris.
In the fall of 1900 Picasso set out for his longed-for Paris; the trip was paid for by his family, who did not tell him that they had used their last savings for this purpose. He was accompanied by his friend Carlos Casagemas, who a short time later committed suicide because of a woman. What Picasso painted and drew in Paris was not too different from his previous works. He found the fascinating decadence of Toulouse-Lautrec's world confirmed, and in his own Spanish way paid tribute to the great Impressionists with his Moulin de la Galette. On Christmas he was back home, with an unquenchable longing in his heart.
In the spring of 1901 he again tried his luck in Madrid, i. e., he attempted to inject new blood into the somewhat anemic Madrid Bohemia, for instance, by contributing drawings to the newly founded Arte Joven (Young Art). This magazine ceased publication soon after Picasso left Barcelona for Paris in the summer of 1901. This time, as before, Picasso, who had not yet learned French, associated chiefly with congenial Spanish friends, among them the painter Sebastián Junyer-Vidal of whom he did several portraits, the sculptor Pablo Gargallo to whom we owe the excellent bronze portrait of the young Picasso, and Julio González whose wrought iron sculptures inspired Picasso much later.
While forming his literary taste by reading Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Rimbaud, he diligently studied not only the Impressionists, such as Manet, Renoir, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec, but also Van Gogh and Gauguin, Maurice Denis, and Edouard Vuillard—in brief all the painters of the Paris school of the day—displaying his amazing gift of assimilation. His first exhibition at Vollard's took place as early as June. Its lack of success is understandable: at that time his uncommon artistic abilities had not yet become crystallized into a convincing personal idiom.
The technique of these paintings of 1901 shown at that first exhibition in Paris accurately reflects the corresponding phase of French painting, Post-Impressionism, which revels in color; Maurice Raynal characterized the efforts of this school as "mining exhausted shafts." In 1900, when Picasso encountered this somewhat tired art, it had behind it the experiments of Divisionism (splitting of colors) and Pointillism (technique of dots). The painters still avoided linear contours, but the larger patches of color again belonged unmistakably to objects, e. g., as the ornament of tapestries or fabrics; the selected colors were partly vigorous, partly sugary and stylized.
That was, for instance, Pierre Bonnard's manner around 1900; it is also Picasso's in his bullfight pictures, and others such as the Girl with Pigeon, the Attente—a halflength figure of a rouged prostitute staring at the beholder—or the portrait of Bibi la Purée, as the model was known in the Latin Quarter, with its touch of caricature reminiscent of Picasso's earlier portraits of his comrades of Els Quatre Gats. Particularly fascinating from a coloristic point of view is the Danseuse name who stands close to the footlights, à la Degas, in her cinnabar-red, green-belted ballet dress, her pale lavender stockings, and her high black coiffure above the repulsive smiling face. This figure is placed against a background consisting of a firework of broad, mottled dots.
Whereas here the artist's delight in exposing ugliness once again reveals the "little Goya," his original, un-French taste is manifested in other paintings only by his predilection for blue-green tones. Even in pastels executed with the Degas pastel technique and representing cabaret singers in the manner of Toulouse-Lautrec, the details unmistakably reflect the Spaniard's taste for sharp and harsh outlines and clashing colors. One of the paintings of 1901, most important historically-one which also suggests a comparison with Degas and the Nabis— represents the studio he then occupied on Boulevard de Clichy.
This interior, with its bathing nude, is called The Bathtub or The Blue Room. The furniture with a rug and blankets, and the flowers on the table, remind us of the charming motifs treated by the "intimist" Vuillard; the woman standing in the bathtub, and her surroundings evoke a typical Degas situation. The Toulouse-Lautrec poster on the wall showing the clown-dancer May Milton, which Picasso is said to have removed from a wall on Montmartre, points to Picasso's own experiments with posters. But even though this painting suggests familiar comparisons, it strikes a new note: the objects are rigid, the texture is cool, the figure seems almost deformed, the space lacks warm breath; the temperature is determined by the predominant blue tone. This painting stands at the threshold of a new stage of development, in which Picasso for the first time freely unfolded his energies as a master in his own domain.
Pablo Picasso, Cubism, Pablo Picasso Biography, Picasso Paintings, Picasso Drawings, The Blue Nude, Don Quixote, Enamel Saucepan, Evening Flowers, Femme A La Fleur, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Spanish Art, The Dream, The Pigeons, Guernica, Musse, Bull with Bullfighter, Mediterranean Landscape, Nude and Still Life, Toros y Toreros, Mother and Child, Girl with Red Beret, Frau Mit Turban, The Bathers, The Lesson, The Old Guitarist, Three Bathers, Violin and Guitar, Lovers, Evening Flowers, The Kitchen