BARCELONA — Tucked away down a narrow street in Barcelona’s Born neighborhood is an artistic jewel — The Museu Picasso. While Pablo Picasso exhibitions are plentiful, there were six in 2018 in Europe alone, the permanent collection here has a personal touch. The artist was actively involved in the museum’s development and donated much of his own collection.
Picasso’s family moved to Barcelona in 1895 when Pablo was 14, and he lived there until 1904. These are formative ages for anyone, and the friendships Picasso made there he kept throughout his life, especially with Jaume Sabartés, who became Picasso’s personal secretary in 1935.
In the 1950s, the pair arranged to meet, as the museum catalogue states, to embody the Catalan expression “Roda el món i torna al Born” — “roll the world and go back to the Born.” They came up with an idea to give back to the city where they grew up.
In 1957, building on a collection already owned by the Art Museum of Barcelona, the idea of a museum solely dedicated to the artist was proposed, with interest from Pablo and contributions from Sabartés. The museum opened in 1963.
When Sabartés died in 1968, Picasso honored his friend with a major donation. First, he committed to give the museum a copy of every print he made between then and his death. He also donated the Blue period portrait of Sabartés he painted in Paris in 1901.
The most important donation was the entire “Las Meninas” series from 1957 (which I will write about in the next installment).
Picasso donated more works from three generations of his family’s collection in 1970, including many early works. Overall, the donation included 82 oils on canvas, 131 oils on paper and other surfaces, 681 drawings, watercolors and pastels, as well as books, albums and other pieces.
The artist was so prolific that the best exhibitions of his work are often those that focus on a particular theme. Recent standout I have seen were “Picasso: The Line” at the Menil Collection in Houston and “Picasso Black and White” at the Guggenheim in New York. A simple overview is simply overwhelming. However, the Museu Picasso offers the chance to see the breadth of his career from his youth to his final works. It works because space has been allotted to allow the viewer the time to examine the works in each phase of his career. One should plan for two or three hours to really immerse one’s self in the experience.
The museum is housed in five buildings on Carrer de Montcada, one of the multitude of narrow lanes that make up El Born. The area grew in the 12th century as old Barcelona expanded from the confines of the walled-in Roman city. The Carrer de Montcada connected the port to the road to Rome.
In the 13th century, development saw palaces and mansions, and other important buildings built on the thoroughfare. The buildings of the 13th and 14th centuries typically included a rectangular courtyard surrounded by corridors. The Museu Picasso is housed in three of these buildings — the Aguilar, the Baró de Castellet and the Meca. All three buildings have medieval origins but were reworked over time. The site has recently been expanded to include the Casa Mauri and the Finestres Palace.
Visiting the museum is worthwhile just to see the buildings and the surrounding neighborhood.
It is interesting to see the early work. I always have people asking why Picasso painted such distorted images, as if he couldn’t “really” paint. The quickest way to destroy that assumption is to show the early work. A portrait of mother and a blue-toned profile of his father, both painted when he was 15, quickly reveal Picasso’s early mastery of technique. If an artist masters the medium at such an early age, what choice does he have but to stretch, or to break, the boundaries.
The museum features one of his early important works, “Science and Charity,” 1897, which Picasso entered in the National Fine Arts Exhibition in Madrid where he received an honorable mention. The Realist-themed work once again shows the young artist’s mastery of classical forms.
In 1900 Picasso made his first trip to Paris where he absorbed the Expressionists such as Toulouse-Lautrec and Munch. The brushstrokes in “Margot or The Wait,” reveal the influence, as the bright colors nod to Matisse and the Fauves.
Both the Blue and Rose periods are represented, but there are not as many Cubist pieces as one would expect. The collection really is a bookend of early and later works, which is fine.
Among the mid-career pieces, a standout is “Jaume Sabartés with Ruff and Hat” from 1938. Picasso was known for caricaturing his friends and Sabartés said that he would like to be portrayed “with a ruff like a gentleman of the 16th century, and a plumed hat to cover my head.” The resulting three paintings and seven sketches (five of which are in the museum) culminate with a painting that is full of whimsy and charm. The face is soft and, even with Picasso’s penchant for dislocating the features, clearly captures the subject’s personality. In his book “Picasso, Portraits and Memories,” Sabartés writes, “My portrait has all the features of my physiognomy; but only the most essential ones and if Picasso has put them together differently to the way most people see them, he took them from. Memory, thinking about me, with the intention of rendering them in a painting and organizing them in tune with his own sensibility and with the need to construct a harmonious work.” Both the painting and the written word reflect the pair’s respect and friendship.
The Museu Picasso is a must visit for any art lover. To be able to see the full breadth of the artist’s work — from painting to drawing to printmaking to ceramics — in a stunning environment is a delight.
Admission is 12 euros for the collection and 14 euros to include temporary exhibitions. The museum open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays, 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday. The museum is free from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Thursdays and on the first Sunday of each month.
For more information, visit www.museopicasso.bcn.cat/en/
Next: Picasso’s “Las Meninas” series.