Meeting the Master

Posted on December 8th, 2007 by Valerie

By Valerie Collins

There’s seldom space to swing a cat at the Museu Picasso de Barcelona. After all, Picasso was the great innovative genius of 20th century art. The crowds are particularly dense around the huge grisaille of Las Meninas, Picasso’s opening ‘interpretation’ of Velázquez’s celebrated 1656 painting in the Prado of the artist himself painting the royal family watched by the infanta Margarita Maria and her entourage. But the crowds thin, lingering less, perhaps slightly bemused, past the 58 paintings that form the series. Why the

countless variations on the infanta in all Picasso’s different styles? What have the dazzling Mediterranean-blue pigeon paintings got to do with it? Or the graceful Portrait of Jacqueline? We recognise the funny squashy dog in The Piano, but what does it all mean? Why, at the age of 75, did Picasso shut himself away for four months in a genius-to-genius tussle with the greatest of Spanish painters.

The answers are the subject of a fascinating book, Las Meninas de Picasso, by Claustre Rafart,  curator of the Museu Picasso, published this month in Castilian, Catalan and English by the brave new Editorial Meteora.

Barcelona’s Las Meninas is a unique treasure, the only one of Picasso’s series to have stayed together in one place, thanks to the express wish of the artist, who donated it lock, stock and barrel to the Museu in 1968.  There has always been a tremendous demand for a detailed yet easy-to-read explanation of the Meninas, Claustre Rafart tells me behind the scenes, away from the muddled crowds. Publisher Jordi Fernando became convinced of the need for a book midway between the general guide to the Museu, also penned by Claustre, and the specialist literature when head of publications at Barcelona City Council in the mid 1990s. When he set up Meteora in 2000, he finally commissioned Claustre to write it.

In her book, Claustre traces Picasso’s relationship with Velázquez. His first meeting with the master was clearly what we now call instant chemistry. He and his father, a drawing master, popped into the Prado on a brief stopover in Madrid in 1895, on the way from A Coruná to Málaga. The breathtaking canvas burned itself onto the 14-year-old’s retina (in his own words).

Picasso had an absolutely phenomenal visual memory, Claustre explains, showing me a photo of a sketch in the Museu containing fragments of three different Velázquez paintings: a scene from Las Meninas, beside it the Equestrian Portrait of Philip II, and down the side, a very rough sketch, almost a doodle, of The Spinners, plus assorted non-Velázquez bits and
pieces. (MPB 110.398). Even though we know that Picasso visited the Prado as a copyist, Claustre believes these sketches were done from memory.

You can’t break rules, crash through boundaries, smash moulds, unless you know what they are in the first place. The young Picasso received the purest academic training of the time, and you can see his juvenilia and orthodox early work at the Museu.  In those days, artists trained by copying the great masters. And Diego Velázquez was the star of the painting firmament, his Las Meninas an absolute masterpiece of technical and creative genius.

In 1897, Picasso went to Madrid to study at the Escuela de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, the most prestigious art school of the time. He swiftly rejected academic authority, and quit going to classes to wander around Madrid and paint the city and its people. But he continued to admire and respect the classical tradition and also paid regular visits to the Prado, where amongst others, he copied Goya, El Greco and Vela?zquez. ‘Velázquez, de primera’ he wrote to a friend in Barcelona. In a 1898 drawing done in Horta de Sant Joan, also in the Museu, he scribbled: ‘¡Greco, Velaázquez, INSPIRADME!’

The last time Picasso saw the wonderful canvas was in autumn 1938, during the civil war, when as honorary director of the Prado under the Spanish republican government he went to inspect the works evacuated to Geneva for safekeeping. According to his close friend and private secretary Jaume Sabarte?s, Picasso had a black and white photo of Las Meninas; probably a postcard of the time, says Claustre Rafart, although he almost certainly carried every detail in his head.

As she explains, from his early days Picasso was concerned with the model, the studio, the painter as the subject of painting.  In 1954 Jacqueline, who shared the last twenty years of his life, appeared in his work. In 1955 and 1956 he painted numerous scenes – ‘inner landscapes’ – of his studio at La Californie, the Cannes villa into which he had moved with Jacqueline. From his early years, too, he had made his own versions of the works of his
predecessors. Then, between 1954 and 1963, as well as Las Meninas, he ‘interpreted’ Delacroix’s Les femmes d’Alger (86 paintings and drawings) and Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (182 works). Picasso had made painting itself the exclusive subject of his explorations.

The studio-model-painter, the nature of pictorial reality and illusion, is precisely the subject of Velázquez’s Las Meninas; and in the summer of 1957, for reasons we can never truly know, the ultimate challenge of exhaustively probing all its possibilities, interpreting it, penetrating its secrets,  turned into an obsession. In Jordi Fernando’s words: “Picasso was seized by a kind of fever which he needed to sweat out of his system. This ‘sweat-out’ materialised in the 58 works.” Jacqueline is quoted in the book-  “Pablo […] never worked so hard in his life!”- as well as a guest at La Californie: “As soon as Picasso left his pigeon loft-studio, he started fretting to get back there. […] But the next day, when it was time to start work, he went upstairs as if he were going to the gallows.”

How the apparently non-Meninas paintings fit into the whole is particularly illuminating. The Meninas proper, so to speak,  are about the act of painting itself, the nature of perception, the process of creation in the artist’s studio: the inner landscape. Picasso portrays Jacqueline his model and partner of the time, who forms part of his, the painter’s, reality. Similarly, instead of the royal mastiff, Picasso puts his own dachshund, Lump, into the court scene.  With the pigeon paintings, Picasso looks up and out from the inner landscape to show us the view from his studio – the outer landscape.

The new book is by all accounts the first ‘popular’ work on Picasso’s Meninas, although Claustre Rafart, passionate about Picasso in general and the Meninas in particular, is uncomfortable with the word ‘popular’. “What I am doing is divulgación alta. My aim is to bring the Meninas closer to the lay person; to make it more comprehensible.” At the same time it is a painstakingly researched study that will be welcomed by art lovers and specialists seeking to explore the singular series in greater depth.

The Meninas series honours, explores and renews the Spanish artistic and cultural tradition in which Picasso grew up. His pictorial quest had led him to prefer variations to the concept of the single work. “If I search for truth in my canvas, I can make a hundred canvases with this truth.” And that’s what Las Meninas is all about.

© Valerie Collins
First published in The Broadsheet, 2001
Las Meninas de Picasso by Claustre Rafart, with prologue by Valeriano Bozal. Editorial Meteora, 2001.

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