Although Pablo Picasso spent most of his life living in Paris, the city of Barcelona had a profound influence on him. From his formative years to his last days, the spirit of Barcelona was entwined in his work and his legacy has left an indelible mark upon the Catalan capital.
Llotja School of Fine Arts
In 1895, aged 14, Picasso moved to Barcelona with his family and enrolled at the Llotja School of Fine Arts, where his father had accepted a teaching post. Already a prodigiously gifted painter, Picasso honed a technically accomplished, classical style, winning awards and accolades within his first year of study.
After a further two years studying classical art in Madrid, Picasso returned to Catalonia, first living in the Catalan village of Horta de Sant Joan then returning to Barcelona. He was dissatisfied with the convention of academia and wanted to explore a non-conformist approach to creativity. Turning his back on his studies, Picasso looked for others who shared his taste for the abstract. His search led him to a decadent bar in the El Gotic area of the city, where a community of avant-garde artists and thinkers were redefining art.
Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats)
Opened in 1897, the Four Cats tavern was established by the Catalan artist Ramon Casas and his friend Pere Romeu. Two years later Picasso would become a regular, falling in with the modernists who frequented the bar.
Influenced by young bohemian artists such as Carles Casagemas and Jaime Sabartès, who were in turn influenced by the French art nouveau movement exploding out of Paris at the time, Picasso moved away from classical stylings in favour of simplified shapes, sinuous contour lines, and pastel colours. His signature style was beginning to take shape. In 1900 he staged his first solo exhibition at Els Quatre Gats, featuring numerous portraits of Casagemas and Sabartès. Today, the tavern that first fired his creativity is a tourist hotspot. Picasso’s influence is seeped into the fabric of the place, from the interior decor right down to the menus, which are based on his design.
The Blue Period
In 1901 a tragedy occurred that would shape Picasso’s artistic output for the next few years. Driven to despair over an unrequited love, his friend and fellow artist Carles Casagemas committed suicide, shooting himself in the head at the L’Hippodrome Café in Paris. The untimely death of his friend affected Picasso in a profound way. He found catharsis through his art, painting emotionally charged monochrome works in shades of blue and blue-green that were imbued with a sense of melancholy. This outward expression of inner turmoil was perhaps the first definable period of Picasso’s art, a period captured by the extensive collection at Barcelona’s Picasso museum.
The Picasso Museum
In 1960, Picasso directed his long-time friend and personal secretary Jaume Sabartés to propose the creation of a museum to Barcelona City Council. Three years later the museum opened its doors.
Today the museum is visited by more than a million art and history lovers from around the world. It contains 4,251 works by the great artist, covering the evolution of his early artistic output, right up until his famous ‘blue period’. The collection demonstrates the influence of Barcelona on the development of his creative process and his early works of art.
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Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
In 1907 Picasso painted what would become one of the definitive works of the cubist movement. Heavily influenced by African tribal art, he completely abandoned traditional form, using distorted geometrics in a revolutionary way and kickstarting cubism in the process.
Picasso originally referred to the painting as Le Bordel d’Avignon, as it was inspired by prostitutes working at a brothel located in Carrer d’Avinyó in the El Gotic neighbourhood of Barcelona. For fear of outraging the art world when it was first unveiled, exhibitor Andre Salmon renamed it Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. But the name change was to no avail. Upon its unveiling, the painting caused outrage.
It took nine months and hundreds of sketches to complete Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and a further nine years for Picasso to finally showcase it to the general public. It may have caused an uproar upon its release, but the genius of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon has echoed throughout the years and today it is regarded as a true masterpiece of 20th century art. One that was inspired by a street in Barcelona.
Col·legi d’Arquitectes de Catalunya
At first glance, the friezes skirting along the top of the outer wall of the Col·legi d’Arquitectes de Catalunya in Plaça Nova could be assumed to be modern street art. In fact these friezes, completed in 1960, are one of the few free public pieces of Picasso art in the world.
Xavier Busquets i Sindreu, the architectural director of the project, was inspired by a mural created by Joan Miró in collaboration with Llorens Artigas, blending modern art and architecture. He had met with Picasso in Cannes several years earlier and had been struck by the great artist’s intensity and curiosity. Due to General Franco’s fascist grip on Spain, Picasso had been living in self-imposed exile from the city he loved so dearly. Therefore, Picasso would work from afar and the project would involve a large scale reproduction of his drawings.
When Sindreu proposed a collaboration with Antoni Cumella, a renowned ceramicist, Picasso instead suggested working with Carl Nesjar, who had reproduced some of Picasso’s drawings for the Norwegian government headquarters in Oslo. Nesjar was mastering a new technique called sandblasting and Picasso believed their collaboration could produce something unique.
The results are startling. Even now, almost 60 years later, the friezes draw admiration from art lovers visiting Barcelona.
Picasso and Barcelona – A love affair from afar
Picasso moved to Paris in 1904 and spent the rest of his life in love with the city of Barcelona, albeit from afar. Ongoing political tensions meant that he felt unable and unwilling to return to his country of birth or to the city where his artistic freedom was realised.
When fascist dictator General Franco emerged victorious in the Spanish Civil War in 1939, Picasso vowed to never return to live in Spain again. His angst at the political situation at the time was channeled into creating perhaps his most renowned painting – La Guernica.
He did visit family and friends from time to time, especially in Cadaques – a beautiful fishing village on the Costa Brava that today celebrates Picasso as one of their own.
Sadly, Picasso died two years before General Franco’s reign came to an end. His legacy lives on, however, in particular in Barcelona, where his visionary creative spirit continues to inspire new generations of artists.
“A painting is not intended to decorate a drawing room but is instead a weapon of attack and defence against the enemy.”