Pablo Picasso – The early days, Part 1

Having returned home from a four-day vacation in Paris I need to catch up with writing my blog.  In my last blog I promised two entries with regards the life and works of Picasso and so, true to my word that is what I will give you.  Before I start I have a terrible admission to make.  I do not like the works of Picasso.  Yes, I know that is artistic anathema but at least I am honest.  I suppose the one caveat to that controversial assertion is that it is the later works of Picasso which I do not like and so my next two blogs will cover some of his earlier paintings and the fascinating beginnings to the Spanish artist’s life.

Pigeons by José Ruiz Blasco (Picasso's father) 1888

It was 11:15pm on Tuesday October 25th 1881 that Picasso was born in Malaga, Spain.  His father was Don José Ruiz y Blasco, a painter of birds in their natural habitat, especially pigeons, and who at the time was a professor of drawing at the Escuela Provincial de Bellas Artes in Malaga and a curator at the local art museum.  Picasso’s mother was Maria Picasso y Lopez.  He was the first-born of their children.  He was baptised Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Crispiniano de la Santísima Trinidad, honouring a number of saints and some of his relatives.  To that already long name was added the names of his father “Ruiz” and his mother “Picasso” which was a requirement of Spanish law.  He was known simply as Pablo Ruiz.  Picasso’s father’s marriage to his wife was considered at the time as his father marrying beneath himself as he was from minor aristocracy and had a much higher standing in the community than that of his wife who was also without a dowry.  Although she brought no money into the relationship she did bring energy and thriftiness which was to serve her husband and family well.  Another thing Maria brought to the marital home was a bevy of females – her family, which consisted of her widowed mother and two unmarried sisters, Eladia and Eliodora along with a maidservant and so the young Pablo was brought up in a household full of women, all of whom were devoted to the little boy.

In late December 1884 Picasso’s sister, Lola was born, just three days after the devastating earthquake which destroyed large parts of the city of Malaga, killing almost eight hundred people and destroying 4000 homes.  The Picasso family fled the city and temporarily took refuge at the house of his father’s employer.  One wonders whether the young Picasso associated giving birth with the cataclysmic earthquake !   A second sister, Concepcion, was born when Pablo was six years old.  In 1891 the art museum which Picasso’s father had been its curator had closed down and as this was the main source of his income the father decided, for economic reasons, to uproot his family from Malaga an move everybody to La Corunna in the far north west of the country where he had gained employment as a teacher at the Guarda School of Fine Art.  By now, Picasso, aged almost eleven had developed a talent for drawing and his artistic skills blossomed to the detriment of his normal school work.  His father realised that his young son’s artistic talent would soon outshine his own and decided to transfer his own ambitions to those of his son and concentrated on getting his son, and now protégé, the very best artistic training.

In late 1894, when Picasso was barely thirteen years of age, tragedy struck the family with his four year old sister, Conchita, contracting diphtheria.  The young Picasso related years later that at this time he entered into a bargain with God that if he spared his sister’s life then he would give up all thoughts of painting again.   The fact that she was dying was concealed from Conchita and the family, for her benefit, celebrated the Christmas period as usual but sadly on January 10th 1895, she died.  Picasso was devastated by the death. In Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington’s biography of Picasso entitled Picasso: Creator and Destroyer, she relates a conversation the artist had with his young lover Françoise Gilot, during which he tells her about his bargain with God with regards the life of his sister and his artistic career and the dilemma that had encompassed.  Huffington explains the thought process of the guilty Picasso regarding the prodigious bargain he had made with God saying:

“…he was torn between wanting her saved and wanting her dead so that his gift would be saved.  When she died, he decided that God was evil and destiny an enemy.   At the same time he was convinced that it was the ambivalence that had made it possible for God to kill Conchita.  His guilt was enormous, the other side of his belief in the enormous power to affect the world around him.    And it was his compounded by his primitive, almost magical conviction that his little sister’s death had released him to be a painter and follow the call of the power he had been given, whatever the consequences…”

In September 1895, the family made the sea passage from La Corunna to Barcelona, stopping off in Malaga to visit relatives.  Once in Barcelona, Pablo entered the local art academy, La Llojta School of Fine Arts, where his father had just gained the post as professor of drawing.   As far as Picasso and his father were concerned this was a great move as they were leaving the northern provincial town of La Corunna and moved to the great artistic centre of the Catalan capital.   Barcelona was the making of the adolescent Picasso.  It is in the Catalan city that Picasso starts to look into two utterly diverse worlds, the world of religion and the world of sex.  Pablo often received religious guidance from his wealthy and devout uncle, Doctor Salvador Ruiz, who would also aid him financially and who first met with young Pablo at his birth when he breathed life into what, at first, was considered to be a still-born baby.  His sex education comes to the fourteen year old Picasso by way of his frequent visits to the city brothels in the Barrios Chino.

First Communion by Pablo Picasso (1896)

In 1896, after a lot of persuasion from his father and probably through the good auspices of his father, Picasso entered a painting, entitled First Communion, into a major art competition, the Exposicion de Bellas Artes, in Barcelona, which was a means for young aspiring Catalan artists to exhibit their works of art.  His father posed as the model for the father in the painting and his sister Lola posed as the First Communicant.  The son of a friend of his father posed as the altar boy.  Picasso was just fourteen years of age when he painted this work.  He not only concentrated on the three individuals but spent a similar amount of time in depicting the still-life floral arrangement, the candelabra and the altar cloth.  The painting did not win a prize at the exhibition but for a fifteen year old having his work accepted into the exhibition with such aspiring artists was an honour in itself and his road to artistic fame had begun.

Science and Charity by Picasso (1897)

It was his father’s belief that his son would achieve success as an academic painter, and this heartfelt belief started to bear fruit in 1897 with Picasso’s painting entitled Science and Charity, which was awarded an honourable mention in Madrid at the General Fine Arts Exhibition.   Picasso’s father once again poses as the man in the painting, this time, the doctor whose skill and knowledge will determine the patient’s fate.  Picasso commented on the use of his father in his early paintings and how it remained with him all his life, saying:

“…Every time I draw a man, I think of my father.  To me, man is don José, and will be all my life…”

The painting did not win any medals but received an “Honorable Mention” albeit the critics were not happy with the way Picasso had depicted the woman’s hand which lies limply at the side of the bed.  The dark coated doctor at the bedside symbolises learning, literature and science whilst the religous nun symbolises all that is good, succour and charity.     Although put up for sale in Madrid the work was not sold and Picasso and his father presented the work as a gift to Picasso’s Uncle Don Salvador Ruiz whilst spending their summer vacation with his family.  The painting is now housed at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona.

It was during this summer sojourn that Don Salvador and Picasso’s father planned the next step in Picasso’s career and managed to gather together enough money from their relatives in Malaga to send Picasso to the Royal Academy in Madrid but as you will see in the next blog their plans failed.

My next blog will look at the adolescent Picasso developing an independent spirit, free of parental control.  I will also look at some of his early friendships and yet another tragedy which was to remain with him for the rest of his life.