Picasso Art: Sympathy with the Poor Isidro Nonell

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Tete d’une Femme Lisant by Pablo Picasso

In Barcelona there were already signs of the fierce and humanitarian Picasso, who was later roused to paint ‘Guernica’ and ‘War and Peace’ and to declare: ‘Painting is not done to decorate houses. It is an instrument of war for attack and defence against the enemy.’ His old Catalan friends say that he was an anarchist at this time, and his rather primitive drawing of an anarchist meeting was probably sketched from direct observation. The members of the group who met in ‘Els Quatre Gats’ had the same sympathies and wore trousers narrowing at the ankles, copied from those of anarchist agitators.

From 1895 onwards an anarchist journal, Ciencia Social, published, amongst other things, cartoons of Daumier and works by Millet and Courbet, and Joventut too, nearly always began with a long article on political and regional grievances. The works of Bakunin were well-known and Joventut carried advertisements for those of Kropotkin. The achievements of the Modernists took place against a background not only of bombs but of suppression. All the works of Maeterlinck and d’Annunzio were condemned by the Church, and Hauptmann Die Weber was banned from the stage because the workmen in it broke up a factory. Picasso and his friends may well have known the printed version of the play, with illustrations by Käthe Kollwitz.

Picasso had studios in the same building, and more than once Picasso drew Nonell’s portrait. Their influence on each other may have been mutual. There are works of Nonell from 1902 onwards which seem to derive from Picasso, but in earlier years Nonell was probably the originator. His ‘Grupo de Pobres’, dated 1899, with its miserable figures huddled in profile along the corner of a building, looks back to Goya and Daumier and forward to Picasso’s hunched, seated figures of 1902.

His solitary figure of 1901-2 (published in Pel i Ploma in January 1902) resemble those of Picasso’s Blue Period in motive, composition and the use of heavy, limp folds of drapery and are roughly contemporary with them, for though Picasso’s Blue Period began in Paris in late 1901, the most characteristic and the most Nonellian works of this phase were painted later, and this is especially true of his paintings of beggars sitting on the ground. The works done in Paris in late 1901 are mostly of people with their elbows on a café table, like ‘Le Bock’, or portraits, or the ‘Maternités’ which owe so much to Maurice Denis and Carrière.

Such works as ‘La Femme assise au Capuchon!, painted after Picasso’s return to Barcelona, seem to derive in part at least from Nonell’s early work. That this fact has not been more usually recognised may be due to a coolness which, according to some writers, later sprang up between Picasso and Nonell, but their relation must have been close, since Nonell at one time chose to live in the bateau-lavoir where Picasso was already settled.

In the motives both for Nonell’s crucial visit to Bohí and in many of the contributions to Arte Joven, the cult of the primitive was mixed with sympathy for peasants and the poor. Primitivism was an international taste, rooted in English romanticism, in the writings of Rousseau, and in the doctrines of David’s pupils, who called themselves les Primitifs. It was a revulsion against civilisation, stimulated in the second half of the nineteenth century by a growing dislike of industrialism and a feeling that men had not always so recklessly squandered their lives in pursuit of the means of life. It was the motive behind the mediaevalism of William Morris and Gauguin’s move to Tahiti; it finds a voice in Van Gogh’s letters; and earlier it had led Courbet’s friend Champfleury to collect popular songs and broadsheets and to write, ‘The idol cut on a tree-trunk by savages is nearer to Michelangelo’s “Moses” than most of the statues in the annual Salons’.

In Barcelona it particularly took the form of reviving old and popular Catalan music, which culminated in the foundation of the Orfeó Català and in the works of Morera. A common saying of the time was, ‘The songs of the people are the songs of God’. The old tales of the countryside also attracted attention and affected such works as Senties’s story of the Mad Woman illustrated by Picasso. The puppet shows held in ‘Els Quatre Gats’, though ostensibly designed to attract children, seem to have been taken very seriously by the regular customers, and the puppet was praised in Rousseau-like terms as ‘man denuded of all conventions, with all the good instincts of a new-born animal’.

Picasso Arte Joven shared this love of the child-like and primitive. One of the sonnets by Miguel de Unamuno selected for the first number begins: ‘I return to thee my childhood, as Antaeus returned to earth to regain his strength’. In an item called ‘Our Aesthetic’ the quotation chosen from Goethe is: ‘The true poet receives his knowledge of the world from nature, and to depict it he does not need great experience or great technique’.

Already a writer on architecture had declared in Barcelona that learning and experience are less vital than spontaneity and instinct, and this feeling, no doubt, played a part in the current revival of Catalan Romanesque and Gothic art. All this is certainly important for opening the way to Negro sculpture in Picasso’s mind, and it may also have some bearing on the fact that there are at least sixteen works of 1901 by Picasso in which children figure, including the well-known ‘L’Enfant au. Pigeon’, ‘Le Gourmand’ and the somewhat primitive ‘La Soupe’.

Picasso’s social ideas can best be illustrated from Arte Joven, the short-lived magazine of which he was joint-editor in Madrid in early 1901, since he probably had more influence on its contents than he had had on any publication in Barcelona. It is significant that the only paper over which he had control should be one with social and political leanings. The editors of Arte Joven adopted a tone of defiance. ‘We know that the gilded youth of Madrid and the illustrious ladies of the aristocracy do not like Arte Joven! That pleases us immensely.’

The first number showed a group of peasants, marching heavily under the weight of their misery. There was also a somewhat ‘extreme’ article which asserted that men should abstain from voting since it only fortifies the injustice of the state. The great necessity is ‘to kill the law’, a concept which must already have been familiar to Picasso in the moral field from such poems as Bridgman Cry of the Virgins which he had already illustrated. Arte Joven also published a poem by Alberto Lozano condemning the rich and idle, the sense of which was, ‘If you do not work and fulfil God’s command to Adam you are not my brother or God’s son’. There were also the inevitable articles on Nietzsche. It was characteristic of Picasso’s feeling for social outlaws that, soon after his visit to Madrid, he did a Munch-like drawing of a man resembling himself handcuffed between two gendarmes.

Probably the first Spanish painter of the time to show the poor with realism and compassion, rather than as the stock, picturesque beggars of traditional genre, was Isidro Nonell (1873-1911). Some time just before 1900 he lent his studio to Picasso, who was eight years younger, and it is almost certain that his works influenced the paintings of the Blue Period in both style and content. Nonell, the son of a man who made pasta for soup, began as a plein-air painter, but soon reacted both from Impressionism and from what was called ‘la sweetness inglés’ (presumably the Pre-Raphaelite sentimentality of Brull and de Riquer).

In 1896 he went to Bohí, in the Pyrenees, and made studies of the Crétins living there, which he worked up into paintings later shown in the Salon of La Vanguardia in Paris and in ‘Els Quatre Gats’. Nonell made use here of expressive deformations and the simplified closed silhouette which is so often employed by Picasso in his Blue Period. His contour lines are heavy and dramatic; there are strong reminiscences of Japanese prints and of Daumier, whose work he could have seen in the pages of Gil Blas. The woman huddled over her baby is a kind of caricature without malice. It was, of course, not till much later that Picasso turned to this kind of theme. At this time, when he was only fifteen, he confined himself almost entirely to depicting his family or street and café scenes, and was about to go to Madrid where he made copies in the Prado.

In 1897 Nonell went to Paris, held an exhibition at the Le Barc de Bouteville Gallery, and was compared by enthusiastic critics to Edgar Allan Poe. Judging by his later works he must also have studied the art of Van Gogh and Daumier. On his return to Barcelona he made some impressive drawings of the miserable people repatriated after the Cuban War, one of which, a dragging line of figures, is reminiscent of Van Gogh’s ‘Prison Yard’. About this time Nonell and Picasso had studios in the same building, and more than once Picasso drew Nonell’s portrait. Their influence on each other may have been mutual.

There are works of Nonell from 1902 onwards which seem to derive from Picasso, but in earlier years Nonell was probably the originator. His ‘Grupo de Pobres’, dated 1899, with its miserable figures huddled in profile along the corner of a building, looks back to Goya and Daumier and forward to Picasso’s hunched, seated figures of 1902. His solitary figure of 1901-2, published in Pel i Ploma in January 1902) resemble those of Picasso’s Blue Period in motive, composition and the use of heavy, limp folds of drapery and are roughly contemporary with them, for though Picasso’s Blue Period began in Paris in late 1901, the most characteristic and the most Nonellian works of this phase were painted later, and this is especially true of his paintings of beggars sitting on the ground.

The works done in Paris in late 1901 are mostly of people with their elbows on a café table, like ‘Le Bock’, or portraits, or the ‘Maternités’ which owe so much to Maurice Denis and Carrière. Such works as ‘La Femme assise au Capuchon!, painted after Picasso’s return to Barcelona, seem to derive in part at least from Nonell’s early work. That this fact has not been more usually recognised may be due to a coolness which, according to some writers, later sprang up between Picasso and Nonell, but their relation must have been close, since Nonell at one time chose to live in the bateau-lavoir where Picasso was already settled.

In the motives both for Nonell’s crucial visit to Bohí and in many of the contributions to Arte Joven, the cult of the primitive was mixed with sympathy for peasants and the poor. Primitivism was an international taste, rooted in English romanticism, in the writings of Rousseau, and in the doctrines of David’s pupils, who called themselves les Primitifs. It was a revulsion against civilisation, stimulated in the second half of the nineteenth century by a growing dislike of industrialism and a feeling that men had not always so recklessly squandered their lives in pursuit of the means of life.

It was the motive behind the mediaevalism of William Morris and Gauguin’s move to Tahiti; it finds a voice in Van Gogh’s letters; and earlier it had led Courbet’s friend Champfleury to collect popular songs and broadsheets and to write, ‘The idol cut on a tree-trunk by savages is nearer to Michelangelo’s “Moses” than most of the statues in the annual Salons’. In Barcelona it particularly took the form of reviving old and popular Catalan music, which culminated in the foundation of the Orfeó Català and in the works of Morera.

A common saying of the time was, ‘The songs of the people are the songs of God’. The old tales of the countryside also attracted attention and affected such works as Senties’s story of the Mad Woman illustrated by Picasso. The puppet shows held in ‘Els Quatre Gats’, though ostensibly designed to attract children, seem to have been taken very seriously by the regular customers, and the puppet was praised in Rousseau-like terms as ‘man denuded of all conventions, with all the good instincts of a new-born animal’.

Picasso Arte Joven shared this love of the child-like and primitive. One of the sonnets by Miguel de Unamuno selected for the first number begins: ‘I return to thee my childhood, as Antaeus returned to earth to regain his strength’. In an item called ‘Our Aesthetic’ the quotation chosen from Goethe is: ‘The true poet receives his knowledge of the world from nature, and to depict it he does not need great experience or great technique’.

Already a writer on architecture had declared in Barcelona that learning and experience are less vital than spontaneity and instinct, and this feeling, no doubt, played a part in the current revival of Catalan Romanesque and Gothic art. All this is certainly important for opening the way to Negro sculpture in Picasso’s mind, and it may also have some bearing on the fact that there are at least sixteen works of 1901 by Picasso in which children figure, including the well-known ‘L’Enfant au. Pigeon’, ‘Le Gourmand’ and the somewhat primitive ‘La Soupe’.

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