Pablo Picasso: Catalan Modernismo

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Blue Nude, c.1902 .by Pablo Picasso

The version of the international fin-de-sièle movement flourishing in Barcelona emphasised ‘Sturm und Drang’, a Nietzschean energy and defiance of the bourgeois rather than the lilies and langours of Swinburne and Burne-Jones or the pessimistic irony of Laforgue. There was more vitality and toughness in Barcelona than in England (or France), partly because of the strenuous political movements and the fiery anarchism and separatism of Catalonia, which incidentally increased the popularity of the Middle Ages as the time of her grandeur and autonomy before the centralising policy of Ferdinand and Isabella.

When Picasso was first living in Barcelona hardly a year passed without a bomb outrage, and there was considerable feeling in favour of the prisoners detained in the fortress of Montjuich after one of these incidents. The hardships of the soldiers returning from the Cuban war also aroused popular sympathy and were probably the subject of one of the drawings of Picasso’s friend Nonell. We shall see from Picasso’s own works, such as the drawing of an anarchist meeting, that he was affected by this social unrest as well as by the poverty of his own family.

Perhaps the most obvious feature of the Catalan ‘Modernismo’ was an obsession with everything northern. Rusiñol even described ‘Els Quatre Gats’, which was modelled on a Montmartre café, as ‘a Gothic tavern for those in love with the North’. In the reviews to which Picasso contributed, such as Pel i Ploma, Joventut and Catalunya Artistica, there were frequently translations from German literature and articles on Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. From 1900 onwards an Asociación. Wagneriana, modelled on one in Munich, used to meet in ‘Els Quatre Gats’, and there were frequent performances of the operas, notably Siegfried and Tristan and Isolde. The new avant-garde theatres produced plays by Ibsen and Maeterlinck, most often Ghosts and The Intruder, which had an obsessive attraction for Picasso’s generation.

There was a natural link between the plays of Ibsen, Hauptmann, Strindberg and Björnson, exalting heroic individual action and the ‘vitalismo’ of Nietzsche. Nietzsche, probably the greatest intellectual influence of the time, came as an antidote to the numbing determinism of the Materialists, the cult of pity in Tolstoy and of death and pessimism in Wagner and Schopenhauer. A friend of Picasso has said that before he was seventeen he had read most of the works of Nietzsche and that this was characteristic of his companions in ‘Els Quatre Gats’. According to him Picasso took most of his knowledge of Nietzsche from Maragall. and from the rather banal poet Joan Oliva Bridgman, two of whose works Picasso was commissioned to illustrate.

Nietzsche was first introduced into Barcelona by Pompeyo Gener.Gener, born in 1848, took a medical degree in Paris and produced poetry, plays and translations. In spite of his age he was on the staff of Joventut and published numerous translations, extracts and articles on Nietzsche, including a long article, ‘Arte Dionisiaco’, on his death in 1900. Gener emphasised the need for men to be heroic and to reflect the rhythm of the universe, becoming fiery, revolutionary and progressive. Another disciple, Jaime Brossa, who had at one time been forced to flee to London because of his anti-militarism, extracted from Nietzsche’s works creeds which he called ‘the great Excelsior of the twentieth century’ and the ‘cult of the me’, adopting Nietzsche’s anti-Christian, anti-bourgeois, anti-Philistine teaching.

Nietzsche’s doctrine probably reinforced Picasso’s temperamental unwillingness to be a good apprentice, like Matisse, with steady artistic aims. His inclination towards constant changes of style would have fitted in with Nietzsche’s belief that art proceeds by violent explosions. The Nietzschean cult of unhindered self-expression and contempt for Philistine and bourgeois values may have helped Picasso to disregard criticism and with ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ even to invite it. Leo Stein describes Picasso as late as about 1905 in a Nietzschean mood, perhaps in jest, raging at a bus queue on the grounds that the strong should go ahead and take what they want. Nietzsche also condemned hedonism and sensuous art, and this became the creed of Picasso’s friends in opposition to that of the Nabis and Fauves.

The optimistic view about the future of art current in Barcelona — that it was eternally evolving towards perfection and that everyone was waiting on the threshold of the twentieth century for the appearance of a great new style of art — probably also owed something to Germany. The spread of Hegelianism, German historicism and contemporary ideas of progress perhaps encouraged such critics as Picasso’s friend Junyent to declare that it was impossible to resurrect any past style and that ‘the nineteenth century has died with the consolation of seeing on the horizon of the infinite the splendour of a great art, an elevated art, strong, complicated, earthy and spiritual’. This kind of belief created a favourable climate for producing experimental art; it was apparently not spoilt for Picasso and his friends by the fact that Junyent proceeded to declare that Turner, Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais had reached the highest point ever achieved by painting.

Two of Picasso’s early illustrations, ‘La Boija’ and ‘El Clam de las Verges’, seem akin to the world of another northerner, Edvard Munch (1863-1944), particularly to his work inspired by the morality dispute of 1885, which centred on questions of sexual ethics, raised by the controversial novel From Christiana’s Bohemia, written by Munch’s friend Hans Jagers. On a visit to Paris in 1889-90, where he was influenced by Gauguin, Munch had written, ‘No longer paint interiors with men reading and women knitting. There must be living beings who breathe and feel and love and suffer… People would understand the sacredness of them and take off their hats as if they were in church.’ The works produced in this spirit which are most akin to Picasso’s early illustrations were executed in Germany round about 1895.

Examples are the pictures of women brooding alone in rooms, like the characters depicted in the plays of Ibsen and Munch’s friend Strindberg, such as ‘The Morning After’, ‘Puberty’ (1894) or the ‘Frieze of Life’ although Picasso did not apparently know them at this period. The long faces drawn by Picasso in the Barcelona period such as ‘The Mad Woman’ or ‘The Old Man and Young Woman’ do resemble Munch, but they could have had other sources, such as El Greco or Dario de Regoyos who collaborated with Verhaeren in a book called España Negra which Picasso planned to imitate. In any case Catalan artists such as Casas, Rusiñol and Picasso’s friend Nonell, who went to France, may easily have brought back German editions of Munch’s graphic art.

Moreover Stuck’s silhouettes in Jugend and Paul Riethes’ diseuses are somewhat like those of Picasso in the Barcelona Museum and like the works of his friends Pichot and Opisso. The links between Munich and Barcelona at this time were strong, as can be seen from Picasso’s letter of 1897 when he writes, ‘If I had a son who wanted to be a painter I would not keep him in Spain a moment, and do not imagine I would send him to Paris but to Munik… as it is a city where painting is studied seriously without regard to fixed ideas of any sort such as pointillism and all the rest’.

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