When Pablo Picasso said “The purpose of art is to wash away the dust of the everyday life of our souls”, it was not a casual remark. Picasso thought a lot about his own soul, the soul of the Spanish nation, the soul of 20th century modern art, and he thought of it in very Catholic terms.
“Picasso is Spanish and Catholic. We have to admit it. It’s undeniable. It is at the heart of his training as a human being, ”said Art Gallery of Ontario curator Kenneth Brummel.
Until January 16, Brummel is presenting a major exhibition of Picasso’s first paintings from the blue period under the title “Picasso: Painting the Blue Period”. The exhibition presents, as one of the keys to understanding what this master of Modernism was doing from 1901 to 1903, two paintings by the Spanish painter of the Counter-Reformation of Greek origin El Greco. These two paintings from the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century – Penitent Magdalene with the Cross and Tears of St. Peter – were at the heart of the artistic training of the adolescent Picasso. The young artist considered himself to be El Greco’s heir as much for his artistic virtuosity as for his claim to the Spanish Catholic imagination.
Both paintings once belonged to Picasso’s mentor Santiago Rusiñol, founder of Catalan modernism. When a friend acquired the paintings in Paris for Rusiñol, the painter had them enthroned and then paraded through the streets of Barcelona. They were treated like icons, worthy of devotion. Catalan painters made pilgrimages to Rusiñol to see them.
In his late teens and twenties, Picasso was naturally drawn to Catholic subjects.
“He is a young boy whose first painting exhibition was El Greco and the Prado (Museum of Madrid)”, explains Brummel. “You think of the Prado and you think of what you see in the Prado. Well, you see a lot of things. You see a lot of Christs; you see a lot of Virgin Mary. He grew up with this long Spanish tradition of religious painting – the Catholic painting of the Counter-Reformation with the pathos in full exposure. “
After visiting Saint-Lazarre Hospital in Paris, where he himself was penniless after a failed exhibition, then returning home to Barcelona and seeing a sudden increase in homelessness on the streets, Picasso turned his gaze artistically on the plight of the poor – especially the poor, single women reduced to begging or working for less than living wages.
“Even within the anarchist circles of Barcelona, very leftist agitators, thinkers and writers – they invoked Catholicism as the justification for social justice,” Brummel said.
So when Picasso decided to paint a homeless beggar crouching in the street, he was naturally inspired by El Greco’s very Catholic image of a penitent Mary Magdalene. El Greco’s painting was steeped in the false legend of Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute. For Catalan Catholics at the time, the story of Mary Magdalene stood at the crossroads of the sacred and the profane – a fallen woman who hungered for God.
“In the popular imagination, among the people of Barcelona in the 1890s and early 20th century, the content of this painting mattered,” said Brummel.
In Crouching Beggar, Picasso borrows the bowed head, the narrow silhouette and the atmosphere of nostalgia and regret from El Greco’s painting of the penitent Magdalene. Picasso echoes El Greco’s color choices and projects the female figure against an almost abstract bed of color.
He was urging his Catalan and Catholic audiences to make the connection, Brummel said. In all of his paintings of poor and homeless women, he wanted viewers to “regard these oppressed women as saints, as figures worthy of reverence, as almost devotional figures before whom one would meditate and perhaps contemplate one’s own actions. “said Brummel. .
Picasso’s attention to women throughout 1901 and 1902 is impossible to miss.
But it was something he shared with other painters concerned with social justice.
“Those who wanted to correct issues of class and inequality, those who wanted art viewers to focus on issues of poverty, (for them) the single woman – that’s, I have to say, a poignant trope. when you think of single women struggling with children, forced to work, living in poverty. It’s a universal allegorical image that anyone can relate to, ”said Brummel.
After two years of focusing on women, Picasso in 1903 turned to painting men – especially veterans who had returned from the Spanish American War, many of whom were blind and mutilated. Although it is still generations to recognize post-traumatic stress disorder, Picasso understood that these men had been ruined for life by one of the earliest examples of industrial-scale warfare.
El Greco’s Tears of St. Peter becomes the source of the young artist.
“He uses El Greco to try to create a pathos around these blind men, these mutilated men, so that you, as a spectator, don’t just sympathize with them, but I also think that you are outraged by them. name, ”Brummel said.
For Picasso and the generation of young artists who surrounded him in Barcelona and Paris, Catholic culture was always at hand to provide visual language for their concerns.
“They were extremely progressive Catholics, who used their beliefs as a justification to think about social justice and to right the evils of industrial society,” Brummel said.
Fast forward a few decades and progressive Catholics lost to the generalisimo Francisco Franco and the fascists, who declared a cultural war on modern art and artists. An increasingly rigid and reactionary Church in Spain accompanied them. For Picasso, who imbued his faith with art and his art with faith, it was a horror.
“When you believe in the power of art and its autonomy, and you believe that art is capable of bringing about social change, and you almost ask people to worship a painting because you believe it has power, there is a certain belief system that is very similar to religion, ”Brummel said. “As a modernist, which is what Picasso is above all else, I think the ban on abstract forms by fascist governments in the 1930s was an assault on his being.”