Picasso: The Early Life Part 2

I ended my last blog with Pablo Picasso and his family in Malaga during the summer of 1897 on vacation at the home of his uncle Don Salvador.  It was during this stay that Picasso’s father José Ruiz Blasco and his brother decided that the way forward for Pablo was for him to go to Madrid and attend the San Fernando Royal Academy of Arts where his father’s former employer, the director of La Llotja art school in Barcelona, was now one of the principal teachers.   With that in mind the two brothers approached the relatives for financial support to send the seventeen year old Picasso to the Spanish capital so as to further his artistic career.

So was everybody happy with this turn of events?  The adults were, the relatives were and yet the young artist was unhappy with the Academy and how it taught art. He disliked the artistic constraints of the Academia Real de San Fernando.   How many times have I written about young aspiring artists rebelling against the formulaic approach to art laid down by the Academies, whether they are in London or Paris?   He was also unhappy with the way the adult members of his family had taken it upon themselves and decided the future path he should follow in his artistic career.  He became rebellious and did little work at the Academy.  He would often skip lectures and go to the Prado where he fell in love with the works of the great Spanish artists such as Goya, Velazquez and Zurbaran but was specially inspired by the expressionist style of El Greco.  The news about Picasso’s lack of a work ethic, frequent non-attendance and general bohemian lifestyle soon filtered back to his father in Barcelona and his uncle in Malaga.  The uncle who was the main financial backer for Picasso’s living arrangements and academic tuition was so angered that he immediately cut off the young artist’s stipend and suddenly Picasso had to survive on the meagre financial assistance his father could provide.  He finally quit the Academy at the end of 1897.

Whether it was due to his impoverished existence in Madrid and the lack of good wholesome food or whether it was just fate, but Picasso’s health began to deteriorate and in the Spring of 1898 the seventeen year old had to return home to his family to recuperate from what was thought to be scarlet fever.

Portrait of Manuel Pallarés by Picasso (1895)

It was here that he once again met up with his friend Manuel Pallarés who had been a fellow pupil of his at the city’s Llotja art school.  In April 1898 war had broken out between Spain and America and young men were being conscripted to fight.  Pallarés, who was six years older than Picasso, to avoid the draft, left Barcelona and went back to his native village, Horta de Ebro, which was a small isolated community in the mountains on the border of Catalonia and Aragon.  Picasso accompanied his friend and the two stayed together in the small rural community for the next six months.  The two would roam the wild countryside with their easels and paints for weeks sometimes camping out in the open, other times they slept in caves on beds of grass, and survived on rice which they cooked over open fires.  All the time they painted and sketched.

The Mule by Picasso

The subjects were peasants at work in the mill, shepherds guarding their sheep, and old somewhat dilapidated houses surrounded by golden yellow fields of wheat.   They would often feature some of the animals they saw on their travels such as lambs, goats and the poor over-worked donkey.  When they needed money the two would return to Horta to help with the grape harvest.  Picasso remembered this time he spent with his friend in Horta de Ebro, saying:

“Everything I know, I learned in Pallarés’ village.”

By December 1898, Spain had lost the war against America and ceded both Cuba and the Philippines to the victors.  The fighting had stopped and Picasso returned home to Barcelona where he managed to eke out a living as a graphic artist, designing posters, illustrations for magazines and journals often influenced by the Swiss-born French Art Nouveau painter and printmaker, Théophile Steinlen and the French painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He also earned a little money with his pencil portraits of his friends.   His rejection of academic art made him search for a new artistic direction and he did this by joining an avant-garde group of artists and poets who congregated at a local coffee-house restaurant called Els Quatre Gats.

Menu for Els Quatre Gats designed by Picasso (1899)

Picasso earned some money by designing their menu.  The artists and poets who gathered here were known as the modernistes or decadentes.  It was here in 1900 that Picasso held his first solo exhibition.  At Els Quatre Gats, Picasso met and became great friends with many of the bohemians who frequented the establishment including a young artist, Carles Casagemas and an aspiring poet, Jaime Sabartès, who in the 1930’s became Picasso’s secretary and invaluable confidante.   Sabartès wrote about their early friendship and their daily routine in his 1949 biography of Picasso entitled Picasso: An Intimate Portrait.  He wrote:

“…After lunch we met in Els Quatre Gats and from there I accompanied him to his studio.  Henceforth, every day was the same.  At times I left him at the foot of the stairs; at others, if he insisted, I went up with him.  Sometimes he was more at ease once he began work than if he was alone, for with me at his side, he did not need to think about me…”

Picasso et le peintre Casagemas by Picasso (1899)

Although Sabartès probably considered himself as Picasso’s best friend it was probably not the case for Picasso had forged a great friendship and working relationship with Carles Casagemas.   Casagemeas was the youngest child of a very wealthy family and was probably overindulged by his parents.  He kept a studio in a wing of his parent’s house where he and Picasso worked together.  They were almost inseparable much to the annoyance of Sabartès.  Casegemas led a decadent lifestyle, addicted to both morphine and alcohol and was involved in the anarquismo sin adjetivos movement, the anarchist movement that flourished in Barcelona at the end of the nineteenth century.  From the wing in Casagemas’ parents house the two artists moved to an unfurnished atelier in the once affluent but now impoverished and run-down Ciutat Vella district of the city, populated mainly by beggars.

Picasso made very little money from his pencil portraits but to his great surprise and pleasure his oil painting entitled Last Moments, was accepted for the Spanish pavilion at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.  The work depicted a dying woman in bed attended by a priest.  This was without doubt a great honour for a young man who had not yet had his nineteenth birthday.  Unfortunately the painting does not now exist as Picasso painted over it in 1903 with his work La Vie.  Picasso was keen to see his work hanging at the Exposition and so after cajoling his father into funding the journey, which left him and his wife almost penniless, Picasso and his friend Casagemas left Barcelona and headed for Paris and the artistic district of Montmartre.

Le Moulin de la Galette by Picasso (1900)

Now ensconced in a studio on rue Gabrielle in Montmartre Picasso absorbed the works of the French artists of the time such as Corot, Courbet and Manet as well as the academic painters such as Eugène Delacroix and Jacques-Louis David.  He would see the paintings in the private galleries of the art dealers such as Durand-Ruel and Ambroise Vollard.  He also visited Le Moulin de la Galette which in those days was where working class Parisians would dress up and spend time there dancing, drinking, and eating galettes (round crusty cakes).  Picasso painted a scene of this dance hall in the autumn of 1900 entitled Le Moulin de la Galette, which is now housed at the Gugenheim Museum in New York.  In it we see how Picasso has portrayed the women in a manner which suggests that they are almost dominating their male partners.  It is believed that the woman on the left is Germaine Gargallo who would soon play a fateful role in the life of Picasso’s closest friend, Casagemas. They are depicted as being coquettish and confident.  Picasso witnessed a woman different from the downtrodden Spanish females or the subjugated Spanish whore.  Here he observes the sophisticated French women, who are able to manipulate their men folk.  He immediately acquired a profound and intense respect for these women.

His friend from Barcelona, Manuel Pallarés, arrives in Paris and joined up with Picasso and Casagemas.  The three live together along with three girls, who they employed as artists’ models.   The girls, Germaine Gargello and her sister, Antoinette and their friend Louise Lenoir, known simply as Odette, speak little or no Spanish and Picasso and his two friends speak little or no French.   Odette becomes Picasso’s first girlfriend in Paris.  Casagemas falls deeply in love with Germaine which leaves Antoinette to pair off with Pallarés.

So was this ménage à six a success?  Surely, three men and three lusty women in a cramped but intimate room was a recipe for a wonderful sexually-fulfilling life.  Alas there was one slight problem to this sexual Arcadia.  It is believed that Casagemas was impotent and lovemaking in front of his fellow flatmates in that studio of theirs was a humiliating disaster for Casagemas.  In Norman Mailer’s 1995 book entitled Picasso: Portrait of Picasso as a Young Man he wrote about the situation Casagemas found himself:

“…In fact the situation (living) proved disastrous for Casagemas. Lovemaking in that studio must often have been a spectacle: the humiliation of Casagemas had sought by never going with others to brothels may now have suffered from open display.  He was hardly in a position of the kind of readily available virility that could undertake the tests of an orgy…”

The inability of Casagemas to perform sexually with Germaine affected him mentally and there is evidence that she would taunt him about his impotency.  It got so bad that Picasso decided to take Casagemas back to Barcelona with him.  The departure from Paris at a time when his work was selling well wasn’t solely a selfless act on behalf of Picasso as he, being loosely associated with Catalan anarchist groups in Paris, had become the subject of great interest to the Paris gendarmerie.   Picasso went from Paris to Barcelona with Casagemas in time for Christmas and then the two headed down to Malaga. Casagemas could not get over his love affair with Germaine and would write to her daily expressing his love for her, asking her to marry him and terming her as his fiancé.  Sadly for Casagemas it was unrequited love. Picasso became weary with the inconsolable Casagemas’ distraught lovelorn attitude and his constant demands on his time when he had to listen sympathetically to Casagemas’ outpourings of his love for Germaine.  Picasso had had enough and got his uncle to arrange a boat passage back to Barcelona for his lovesick friend.  It was to be the last time Picasso would see Casagemas alive.  Picasso headed alone to Madrid where he worked on new magazine entitled Arte Joren started by his Catalan friend Francisco de Asís Soler.  Picasso was to provide the illustrations.  The magazine eventually closed due to lack of advertising revenue.

Meanwhile Casagemas could not remain in Barcelona knowing his “true love” Germaine was living alone in Paris so on February 16th 1901, having bought himself a new suit, he headed back to Paris.  Germaine met him at the railway station and bluntly told him that she would never marry him.  Casagemas was devastated.  However the next morning he told her that he would return to Barcelona and he invited her, Odette, Pallarés and a few friends to a farewell dinner at L’Hippodrome Café.  That afternoon, he spent hours composing a suicide note and whether because he knew his torment was about to be ended, he arrived at the restaurant in seemingly good spirits.  During the meal, Casagemas stood up as if to make a speech and took out a letter for Germaine.  He then took a pistol from his pocket.  The diners scattered and Germaine dived under the table and placed herself behind Pallarés.  Casagemas looked at his lover Germaine, pointed the gun at her and fired shouting Voilà pour toi (this is for you).  Germaine slumped to the ground and Casagemas believed he had killed her, when in fact she had just fainted.  Casagemas then put the gun to his head and cried: Et voilà pour moi (and this for me).  He fell to the ground.  The police arrived and Casagemas who was still alive was rushed to a chemist and then on to the Hôpital Bichat where he died just before midnight.

When Picasso heard the news in Madrid he was devastated.  Maybe he believed that he had abandoned his friend and that he could have done more for him.  He condemned Germaine for her attitude to his friend and was very critical of the type of women who demanded and took but were reluctant to give back in return.  Picasso returned to Paris after the failure of the Arte Joren and carried out a number of commissions for Pere Mañache, his unofficial agent, and the gallery owner, Ambroise Vollard.  These were varied works, some portraiture and others depicting the happy life of Parisians.

Death of Cagemas by Picasso (1901)

However in that same year and possibly countering the joy shown in the paintings he had done for Vollard, Picasso painted a portrait of his dead friend entitled Head of the Dead Casagemas.  It was only a small work measuring eleven inches by fourteen inches (27cms x 35cms).  We see just the right side of Casagemas’ head with the mark of the bullet entry in his skull.  On the far side we see a candle burning brightly which in some ways symbolises the sorrow of Casgaemas’ mother sitting in vigil.   Picasso must have been wracked with guilt as he painted this picture as he remembered how he had initially done everything to persuade Casagemas’ mother to allow her son to leave home with him and head for Paris.

I will end the story of Picasso’s early life at this point, just before the start of his Blue Period with its entire works evoking a somber mood which may have been as a result of the death of his friend for Picasso is reported to have said:

“…When I realized Casagemas was dead, I started to paint in blue…”

I leave you with a very sad Picasso, wracked with remorse for his friend but pose this question.  How is it that if Picasso blamed Germaine for the suicide of his friend why would he take her for his lover when