Pablo Picasso sits on a bench in Plaza de la Merced in Málaga. Looking forward, notebook in hand, aged and made of bronze, he is as much a part of the city as he is of the sea. It is a melancholy work. Picasso spent most of his adult life – and died – in France, but no 20th-century artist is more Spanish than Picasso, with his bull motif, his machismo, his characteristic Civil War image and his penchant for Malaga wine.
“Living abroad”, he said, “you become even more Spanish”.
On the 50th anniversary of his death (April 8, 1973), exhibitions are being held around the world throughout 2023. Spain is the country with the most, and a selection can be combined with a walk in the Spanish destinations that inspired him for a multiperspective, and therefore rather cubist, portrait of the maestro.
Born in Málaga in 1881, Picasso spent 10 years living in one then another of the tall, green-shuttered houses flanking the Plaza de la Merced, now with bars, tables and parasols on the ground floor . The Museo Casa Natal in his first home contains books, furniture, and works by his art teacher father, José Ruiz y Blasco. A walk through the city, enjoying the light, the street life and the doves, gives a better insight into how his birthplace shaped his vision, and it’s easy to imagine him doing draw outside a cafe in the Plaza de la Constitución as he did on later visits.
Between Plaza de la Merced and the cathedral, the Museo Picasso Málaga has a permanent collection that covers its Blue and Rose periods, Surrealism and Cubism – including paintings, sculptures, illustrations and ceramics – and is unbeatable for an overview.
Among the temporary exhibitions, Picasso seen by Otero (until April 23), which presents notes of conversations and flying photos of the artist at work and in his spare time, is a real treat for nosy visitors.
When the family moved to the northwestern tip of Spain, Picasso complained that it kept raining, that there were no bulls and that he missed Málaga, but admitted later that La Coruña – full (until the Civil War) of artists and intellectuals – “awakened his senses”. He studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts where his father taught (Picasso’s school reports are on display in the hall), and had his first exhibition at Rúa Real, 20 – then a furniture store, now selling shoes. A review in the local newspaper confidently predicted that he had a bright future.
About 100 pieces from – or influenced by – this Galician period have been loaned for exhibition at the Museo de Belas Artes da Coruña, until June 25. A self-guided Picasso itinerary (available from the tourist office) takes in Orzán Beach and the Tower of Hercules for views that inspired the works (reproductions) displayed alongside his father in the small but bright house- Picasso museum.
Picasso arrived in Barcelona as an impressionable teenager in 1895 and settled full-time in Paris in 1904. The dodgy streets of El Raval, drunks, beggars and the emaciated sick appear in his canvases of the period blue, while bohemianism, politics, absinthe and modernisme that he found in bars from the age of 17 had a similar catalytic effect.
It is said that he (along with Dalí and Hemingway) drank at the London Bar, although it opened after he left; and at Bar Marsella, which must not have changed too much. El Raval is neither as miserable nor as challenging as it once was.
Across La Rambla in the Gothic Quarter, Carrer d’Avinyó, the street of brothels that inspired Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, is packed with shops: the site of his first studio is a boutique hotel ( Serras), and a nerve center of art intellectuals; Els 4Gats is a well-restored upscale restaurant and bar.
Sometimes the stops on Picasso’s self-guided routes produce a thrill. For those familiar with Picasso’s Passeig de Colom, painted from the balcony of the Hotel Ranzini during a stay with his future wife, ballet dancer Olga Khokhlova, a pause in front of number 22 is haunting, though – may -because – the view is mostly on the road, and the hotel is now a corporate courier office.
The painting can be seen – along with 4,250 others – in the Picasso Museum, which occupies five Gothic palaces. This is the most comprehensive art collection of his formative years, so good shoes are advised.
Horta de Sant Joan
According to Picasso, he learned everything he knew in this village halfway between Barcelona and Valencia. An early journey spawned traditional landscapes of farms and fields, and images of donkeys. A decade later, visiting from Paris (with a lover who caused a sensation by sharing his bed and playing dominoes in bars like a man), he captured and immortalized Horta in the first great Cubists. The Picasso Center has interesting reproductions and props from both trips. Picasso traveled by train to Tortosa, walking the last 40 kilometers with his luggage on a mule; by more conventional car, it’s two and a half hours from either town.
At 16, Picasso spent a year at the august Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. Superb for Goyas and its cool marble in summer, the academy presents until July 2 the most important private collection of Picasso in the world: the Nahmad collection.
Picasso skipped most classes, preferring to copy the works of Old Masters in the Prado Museum. The Picasso of the Prado – El Greco (June 13-September 17) presumably addresses the merits of this.
Elsewhere on Paseo del Prado, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum presents Picasso: The Sacred and the Profane (October 4-January 14, 2024), and the Reina Sofía Gallery, Picasso 1906: The Great Transformation (November 14-March 4, 2024), plus the almighty Guernica on permanent display.
Picasso stayed in a Pension in Lavapies during his stay here, and the building (Calle de San Pedro Mártir, 5, near the top of El Rastro) is an eye-catcher with ceramic murals depicting Picasso young and old, and some of his works.
If you’re walking there from Reina Sofía, stop by La Casa Encendida to see works inspired by the artist’s last decade in Picasso: Untitled (May 19-January 7, 2024 – it’s a bonus offer in a inspiring space with shows, concerts and classes all year round, and an excellent cafeteria run by Pum Pum Café.
Guernica and Bilbao
The Guggenheim Bilbao is a perfectly muscular sculptural place for Picasso Sculptor: matter and body, who is transferred after five months to Malaga (September 29-January 14, 2024). And, 30 km to the east and accessible by train, there is Guernica. Although of great cultural significance to the Basques, Guernica is best known to the world as a painting and not a town, and a visit can be disappointing. The masterpiece, produced in response to the April 1937 aerial bombardment by German and Italian forces in support of Franco – which left 2,500 dead or injured and leveled almost everything except the Assembly Hall – is a visceral depiction of agony. The city, rebuilt, is a bit dull.
However, in addition to an exceptional market on Mondays, Guernica has the Museum of Peace, which details the attack and a ceramic version of the other, more famous Guernica, made to scale.
Buitrago del Lozoya
Just an hour’s drive north of Madrid on the A-1, or a bus ride from Plaza de Castilla, this picturesque village with a medieval castle and walls built by the Arabs, nestled in the hollow of a river, has a unique personal collection of Picasso. Villager Eugenio Arias met Picasso while living in France, and for the last 26 years of the artist’s life he was his friend and barber. He bequeathed many Picasso gifts of lithographs, ceramics, posters, sketches, books, and photos to the town hall, which now houses the Museo Picasso-Colección Eugenio Arias.
Links to information on all Picasso-themed actions are available on España Es Cultura