PABLO, PABLO, PABLO
By Thomas Connors
By Thomas Connors
It’s a Friday night in Málaga and a constant hum runs through the streets of the city’s historic center. At a restaurant on the Plaza del Obispo, steps from the massive, Baroque cathedral, a group of mature women sings happy birthday to one of their own. A few streets away, voices raised in civil disputation flow through the open door of a narrow, standing-only bar. On the Calle Larios, Málaga’s main shopping street, a beefy, tattooed fellow stops to take a photo of his ice cream cone. Down the block, a family of four also comes to a halt, their blank faces bearing the weariness of the tourist just looking for a place to eat.
As the gateway to the Costa de Sol, this Andalusian city teems with visitors. While many come to shop and dine and hit the beach, plenty include Pablo Picasso on their agenda. This is the artist’s hometown, and when it comes to things to see and do, his birthplace and the Museo Picasso Málaga are right up there with a visit to the 11th-century fortress of Alcazaba and a dinner at El Pimpi, the wildly alive wine cellar across from the Roman amphitheater.
In a way, Picasso is a ghost here. Not because he died 50 years ago, but because, as a young artist, he spent more time in Madrid (where he haunted the Prado) and Barcelona (where he had his first exhibition) than he did in this Mediterranean town. Born in 1881, the son of a painter, by 23, he’d left Spain for Paris and made France his home until his death in 1973 at age 91. Prolific in many media—painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics—he was excessive and inescapable. The sheer volume of his output made him, at times, easy to dismiss, but impossible to ignore. A protean talent whose life and work were threaded with narcissism and cruelty, he was no saint but was widely revered. Not every art aficionado fell under his spell and plenty of casual museum-goers have scoffed, “My six-year-old could do that,” but like him or not, it’s tough not to be impressed by his powerful, never-ceasing commitment to creation. Whether driven by an utterly assured ego or pathetic insecurity, his all-consuming passion led him to produce a body of work that fundamentally challenged the way we understand art. As he once said, “I have a horror of people who speak about the beautiful. What is the beautiful? One must speak of problems in painting!”
In an era when the Italian conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan can duct tape a banana to a gallery wall and a work by British street artist Banksy self-shreds moments after it fetched $1.4 million at Sotheby’s, even the most extreme of Picasso’s images seem downright accessible. Not all his pieces are easy to read, of course, but they do welcome repeated viewings, they do continue to intrigue and repulse and no matter how simple, offer that deeply satisfying experience of sensing the artist’s hand at work.
Throughout 2023, dozens of museums and other institutions across Europe and in the U.S. have been reexamining the artist’s work under the banner, Picasso Celebration 1973-2023, an initiative organized by the governments of Spain and France. As summer rolls into fall, venues across Spain are readying an array of exhibitions. The Museo Picasso Málaga presents The Echo of Picasso, which looks at how later artists have leveraged the freedom inherent in Picasso’s practice to develop their own creativity (October 2 – March 30). The Museo Picasso Barcelona and the Fundació Joan Miró have teamed up for Miró-Picasso, which recounts the artists’ friendship, their links to the city, and the themes and subjects—bullfighting, the circus, the Spanish Civil War— that engaged both men (October 19 – February 25). Meanwhile, the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum does a deep dive into sculpture with Picasso: Matter and Body (September 29 – January 14).
In Madrid, the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza will hang its eight Picassos and loans alongside a selection of Old Master paintings to consider how the artist addressed traditional genres, from history painting and myth to portraits and still life. And the nearby Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, which houses Picasso’s gargantuan and horrifying Guernica (named for the Basque town bombed by the Nazis in 1937), offers Picasso 1906: The Turning Point (November 14 – March 4) examining the artist’s complicated response to African art.
Clearly, anyone crisscrossing Spain this autumn and winter will have ample opportunity to enjoy a wealth of Picassos, key works from major collections. And for the true aficionado, the one for whom the life of Picasso is as intriguing as the work, a jaunt to Buitrago del Lozoya might be in order. Approximately an hour drive north of Madrid, this small town houses a collection of Picasso material with a unique provenance.
When Spain fell to Franco in 1939, Republican fighter and barber Eugenio Arias fled from Buitrago del Lozoya to France. In 1948, he opened a shop in Vallauris, where Picasso kept a home. The artist became a customer, and the two men formed a special friendship, one infused with a love for the country they had left behind. Over the years, Picasso made small gifts of all sorts to Arias—posters, ceramics, lithographs—that the barber gave to his hometown and are now housed in the Museo Picasso – Colección Eugenio Arias. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is not here. Neither are any Blue Period beauties or stunning examples of analytic cubism. However, to encounter in these few small galleries the classic lines, the singular gestures that define the artist, to know that these pieces are the legacy of a special bond, is to appreciate the master as a man, the genius as a friend.