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A Brush with the Ghost of Picasso in Barcelona

June 16, 1991|ELLEN MELINKOFF | Melinkoff is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

BARCELONA, Spain — I went to Barcelona in search of the ghost of Picasso. I know what you're thinking: One goes to Barcelona in search of Gaudi. For Picasso, one goes to Paris.

But no--I wanted to find Picasso at the beginning of his career, and that meant Barcelona.

Picasso was a Spaniard, after all, no matter how much of his life he lived in France. There was always the sense of exile, the longing to speak Spanish instead of French, to consort with Catalans instead of Frenchmen.

He was born in the south of Spain, in Malaga, but moved to Barcelona in 1895 at age 13 when his father, also a painter, was appointed to teach at the School of Fine Arts. Picasso lived in Barcelona on and off (but mostly on) for nine years and returned many times after that. It was here that he began his transformation from classically trained artist to creative genius. By the time he left to conquer Paris, he had, in his own mind, learned everything he needed to know.

I became fascinated with Picasso rather late in life. A sorry statement for a former art history major, but there it is. Twenty years ago I memorized facts and slides of his works to pass tests. Then I came across "Life With Picasso" and, quite unexpectedly, began this journey.

The book, published in 1973, recounts Francoise Gilot's story of her nine tumultuous years with Picasso and his relationships with Gertrude Stein and such painters as Matisse ("In the end, there is only Matisse," said Picasso) and Braque (whom he derided as "Madame Picasso").

From that book I went on to others, more biographies, retrospectives of his work. After awhile, reading wasn't enough; I needed a pilgrimage. I wanted to do it all: the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where so many of his masterpieces are concentrated; Madrid, to see Guernica; Paris, to the Picasso Museum; to Vallauris in the South of France, where his goat sculpture gift to the village stands in the town square.

But as my budget limited me to one destination, I decided to search for Picasso in Barcelona. Walk where he walked, eat where he ate and try to imagine the transformation that took root in Barcelona and flowered throughout the art world.

When Picasso arrived in Barcelona, the city was at its height as a center for revolutionaries and artists. The opera house had been bombed by anarchists just two years earlier and there was a strong separatist movement among Catalans. Antonio Gaudi was out-rococoing rococo with his architectural marvels. It was a city with cultural and artistic freedom and intensity. Picasso savored it all.

My first morning in Barcelona, I headed for the Picasso Museum on Montcada, walking expectantly through the labyrinth of streets in the Gothic Quarter as if I were heading for Mecca. Housed in the Palau Aguilar, a 15th-Century mansion on a street just wide enough for a compact car, the museum is surrounded by souvenir shops filled with Picasso/Dali/Miro (the big three hometown-boys-made-good in Catalonia) post cards, T-shirts and posters (prices are cheaper inside at the museum gift shop).

With its graceful Gothic-Renaissance courtyard and only a small sign to identify it, the museum seemed at first an incongruous place to house the works of the modern master. The rooms have been turned into sleek-walled galleries, but as you walk from one to the next, the old stone walls are visible in the hallways. It is a serene setting, the perfect complement to Picasso's early traditional work, and yet, in turn, the perfect counterpoint to his later work.

Most of the art was donated by Picasso himself or by Jaime Sabartes, a Catalan who became his lifelong major-domo. Picasso painted many portraits of Sabartes and several are on display here, including the famous 1939 oil of Sabartes as Spanish grandee (one of Picasso's typical not-so-subtle put-downs of his friend as little more than a courtier).

The earliest works of Picasso's include pencil sketches he did as a child. Picasso must have had an air of destiny about him for these to have survived--little studies of doves done upside down over a sketch of a bullfight.

When he was 15 he painted his first significant work, "First Communion," a huge, very traditional painting with no hint of the wildness to come. It is almost impossible to imagine that such a fine work could come from the brush of a 15-year-old.

Many of the paintings and drawings were inspired by the people he met in Barcelona--the circus people, the people of the streets. Picasso captured the sensuality of the brothels, the dandyism in the cafes, the lost feelings of the city's outsiders.

"The Madman" is a watercolor from 1904 that catches the subject's wild look with a few unerring strokes. "Woman With a Mantilla," a 1917 portrait of his first wife Olga, is done in the pointillist style using precise dabs of paint in complex arrangements of color. The result cannot be reproduced on the page; the original holds viewers spellbound in front of it.

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