Pablo Picasso: The Formative Years

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Woman with a Blue Hat by Pablo Picasso

Max Jacob said that Picasso and his friends were determined to make ‘beaucoup de pastiches volontaires pour être sûr de n’en pas faire d’involontaires’. Yet pastiche is hardly the word for the imaginative transformations which are illustrated. Whereas the young Degas, Manet or Van Gogh often copied literally works which they admired, Picasso after his early youth more frequently used other pictures as starting points for the creation of something very different.

There was an element of personal daring and perhaps of Andalusian panache in this independence of the model. An old friend of Picasso, remembers him coming into ‘Els Quatre Gats’ in 1901 and setting down on one side a copy he had just made in Madrid from part of ‘ Las Meninas’ and on the other his own ‘Dancer’, saying, ‘ Velasquez did that, Picasso did that’. Even earlier he was resolved not to be the slave of any one master, and wrote to a friend from Madrid in 1897, ‘I am against following a determined school as it brings out nothing but the mannerism of those who follow this way’.

Picasso’s constant traffic with other artists’ styles was partly the normal method of a young painter teaching himself his trade, carried to abnormal lengths by his tremendous power of imitation — he was able to use, transform or mock the idiom of others with a skill that reminds one of James Joyce (and since he could imitate everybody it was tempting to do so). But he was also interested in the different languages of art for their own sake, just as many early twentieth century writers had the habit of juggling with a variety of older styles.

Obvious examples of this tendency in literature were Picasso’s friend Max Jacob, whose poetry was full of parodies and reminiscences, or du Plessys, a follower of Moréas, who could write at will in the style of the Song of Roland, Villon, Jehan de Meung and others. A little earlier, Laforgue Complainte de Lord Pierrot begins with an ironic parody of Au clair de la lune, and later Joyce, Pound and Eliot were to make similar parodies.

All this seems very far from the nineteenth century and from Cézanne’s ‘We must give the image of what we see, forgetting everything that has appeared before our time’, for Picasso was a highly conceptual painter, more often excited by ideas or by the works of other artists than by that direct, prolonged and intense contact with the object that inspired Cézanne. His friends Mir and Raynal both confirm this, and the latter wrote, ‘ Picasso looked for the essence of things in other works of art, and he realised that in order to distil this essence himself, the most advanced starting point was not reality and nature but the work of other artists.

This is one reason for studying his early friendships and milieu in some detail. Other reasons are the great historical importance of ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, the strange, disquieting and experimental picture to which the work of all these years leads up, and the fact that Picasso, who was popular and had his choice of companions, chose to live in Paris amongst poets who were nearly all men distinguished or interesting in their own right. The ‘Modernists’ of Barcelona as well as Max Jacob, André Salmon and Guillaume Apollinaire were all lively and original characters who had a considerable impact upon Picasso’s development.

But to turn for inspiration from nature to the work of other artists was only in part a matter of temperament. The fact that it rarely occurred to Picasso in these years to paint realistically in the nineteenth-century sense of the word, although his earliest works had shown that he was capable of doing so, is of course connected with the literary, philosophical and artistic reaction against the Naturalists, who well before the turn of the century were considered stodgy and vieux jeu both in Paris and among the ‘Modernists’ of Barcelona. Courbet’s conviction that ‘Le beau donné par la nature est supérieur à toutes les conventions de l’artiste’ was rejected, in part because it was based on the discredited doctrine of Positivism; and Schopenhauer’s works, well-known in Barcelona, helped to popularise the idea that nature is only an appearance.

Maurice Denis, who was influential in the club of San Luc in Barcelona, and probably had some effect on the simplified rhythm and the sentiment of Picasso’s ‘Maternités’, wrote that ‘l’art, au lieu d’être la copie, devient la déformation subjective de la nature’. Denis was also highly indignant against the master who criticised his idealised nude study by saying ‘Vous ne coucheriez pas avec cette femme-là’. Some of the mediaevalists in Barcelona felt so strongly against satirical naturalism that they tore up the French comic paper Gil Blas.

Picasso’s choice of books showed a similar anti-realist taste. Raynal, writing probably of about 1905, said that Picasso owned the works of Rimbaud, Verlaine and Mallarmé, but no naturalist or psychological novels, which he detested. Mallarmé and Rimbaud both frequently declared that the true subject of art was the idea, the general, and not life’s particularity. This incidentally fitted in, or was made to fit in, with Gauguin’s synthesism and his linear simplifications.

Completely alien both to these writers and to Picasso was that affection for the unique, fleeting and particularised aspects of nature which made Constable date his cloud studies, adding the exact time of day and the direction of wind, or Duranty’s belief that in rendering a man’s back view one should show his age, temperament and social status. Picasso’s preference for more timeless and generalised subjects may be partly responsible for the choice of such ritual figures as mother and child, harlequin or clown. We know also that Picasso liked the works of the Catalan poet Juan Maragall which were published in 1906 just before the artist went to Gosol when he translated one into French. Like many Catalans of the time Maragall was more interested in German literature than in naturalism and he translated Novalis The Blue Flower into Catalan.

In turning away from the naturalism of his predecessors Picasso was also reacting against the practice of his own father. Apparently he told Sabartés that the latter painted ‘dining-room pictures’. ‘Fur and feathers, pigeons and lilac, together with an occasional landscape completed his repertoire. He was happiest when he could make his feathered models symbolic of moral or sentimental drama, as in his painting of a happy couple perched on the threshold of their pigeon-house, while a third party, ruffled with jealousy, spies on them from below.’ Naturally, the father could not at first reconcile himself to his son’s novelties. The painter Bernareggi declares that when he and Picasso were studying together in Madrid in 1897, they would send home their copies to Picasso’s father. If these were of Velasquez, Goya or the Venetians all was well, but when they sent copies of El Greco he replied severely, ‘You are following the bad way’.

Anti-realism was only one of many characteristics that fin-de-sièle, ‘decadent’ or symbolist movements had in common, but the atmosphere differed from country to country. Barcelona with its particular brand of modernism was important to Picasso’s development long after he first visited Paris at the end of 1900; for it must be remembered that Picasso crossed the Pyrenees seven times before he settled in Paris in April 1904.

In Paris he lived at first almost entirely amongst Spaniards from Barcelona and could not speak French. Even in the Rue Ravignan from 1904 onwards his old friends constantly visited him. Gertrude Stein and others have rightly perceived the Spanish basis of the Blue Period, even though this began in Paris shortly before his departure for Barcelona in December 1901 and owed something to Gauguin, Maurice Denis, Carrière and Van Gogh. His friend Nonell’s drawings are probably the forerunners of many of the crouching, outcast figures painted in the years 1902-4.

The Nietzschean writer and dramatist Jaime Brossa compared the artistic climate of Barcelona to hearing, in a fin-de-siècle café, a Ballade of Chopin and the ‘Marseillaise’ being played at the same time. This exciting ferment of literary and political insurgence must have had some effect on the parallel if unconnected extravagances of Gaudi and Picasso. ( Picasso, it may be said in parentheses, admired Gaudi as a curiosity but never met him; the architect was thirty years senior, a bigoted Catholic and member of the rival club of San Luc, disapproving strongly of the atheist, anarchist and Bohemian ‘Els Quatre Gats’.)

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