BARCELONA — For the past 20 years, I have found that my painting seems to go in series. I do a series of paintings or drawings around a theme and suddenly I will get a wild hair to try something else. Then it is off on another series. To the casual observer, it may not look like a shift. Other times it looks as if I have gone off on a completely different tangent. But most of the time, in my mind, it’s just a tweak, just a thought that demanded exploration.
When I visited the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, I had not taken my usual time to educate myself, to prepare myself for what I wanted to see. I knew Barcelona was where he spent six years of his late teens and really honed his skills, and I knew he had been instrumental in establishing the collection. So, of course, I was going, regardless of what was there, no preparation was necessary.
Imagine my joy at discovering the museum featured the entire “Las Meninas” series. For the unfamiliar, Picasso, in 1957, decided he wanted to really examine one of Spain’s greatest paintings — “The Family of King Philip IV,” or “Las Meninas,” by Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velazquez. The 1656 painting, in the Prado in Madrid, depicts the Infanta Margaret Theresa and her meninas — her ladies in waiting — and other attendants. What resulted was a series of 58 oil paintings painted between August and September 1957, including three landscapes, two free interpretations and nine “pigeons” (from Sept. 6 to 14, Picasso took a break and painted a series of birds with a view of bay of Cannes. He considered these works part of the “Las Meninas” series). That sort of prodigious output is mind-boggling.
To see the entire collection together is a treat. It is the only Picasso series in its entirety in a single location. Claustre Rafart’s text in the museum’s catalogue describes a conversation Picasso had with Jaume Sabartés, his close friend and personal secretary who was one of the initiators of the museum.
Rafart quotes Picasso saying, “If anyone someone set out to copy “Las Meninas,” in all good faith, let’s say, when getting to a certain point, and if the person doing the copying were me, I would say to myself: how would it be if I put this one a little to the right or to the left? I would try to do it my way, forgetting Velazquez. The attempt would lead me, certainly, to modify the light or to change it, because of having moved a figure around. So, little by little, I would paint my Meninas which would appear detestable to the professional copyist; they wouldn’t be the ones he would believe he had seen in Velazquez’s canvas, but they would be “my” Meninas….”
One needs to have a giant ego to believe that one can appropriate one of the world’s most iconic artworks, and Picasso was certainly sure of his abilities. But this is no mere act of hubris. Picasso is deliberately testing himself against a work that is known the world over. Where would be the challenge to play against a lesser work?
The resulting series is an absolute delight. I darted from piece to piece and back again, seeing where he had shifted figures, what elements he had abandoned, what elements he was playing with — for this whole series, for all its academic exploration, is, indeed, play.
There are detailed portraits of the Infanta. Some of the paintings are cubistic, some brightly colored and detailed, others are mere brushstrokes. My favorite is painted in monochromatic greys. The composition is more or less true to Velazquez, but it is painted in Picasso’s inimitable style. The figure to the right is scribbled, while to the left, where Velazquez stands in his version, the figure is complexly abstract. Some images are Cubistic, others feature the dislocated facial features for which Picasso is famous. One version is mostly black with large blocks of color that approximate his friend and rival Henri Matisse’s late paper cutouts.
The series allows us to get a glimpse into the artist’s inner thoughts. I am fascinated to see how many different ways he can interpret the same image. Picasso was 76 when he painted this series. Setting aside the physical energy required to produce that volume of work in two months — and many of the canvases are quite large — it is astonishing to think that his creativity still burned with that intensity.
The “Las Meninas” series, taken as the singular unit Picasso intended, is one of history’s great pieces of art.
Admission to the Museu Picasso 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/