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Picasso’s Apocalyptic Whorehouse


For too long Picasso has been seen as a French artist. Haven’t we been told, time and again, how a succession of French painters—Toulouse-Lautrec, Steinlen, Gauguin, Douanier Rousseau, Ingres, Cézanne—rescued Picasso from the questionable clutches of Modernisme (the Catalan art movement), and lured him from his native land to become a founder of the school of Paris. This view is finally fading. It is now possible to see that Picasso’s roots in Spanish art and literature, mysticism and religion, go far deeper than anyone thought: far deeper than Lorca’s romantic concept of duende—Spanish darkness and gypsy doom which John Berger promoted. For all that he came under the sway of French poets and painters, Picasso was as Spanish at the end of his career as he was at the beginning. By failing to make allowances for his Hispagnolisme, historians have failed to plumb the Mindanoan depths of the artist’s psyche. Even the Demoiselles d’Avignon—cornerstone of modern art—turns out to have a few more answers to give once we realize that the painting owes at least as much to El Greco as Cézanne.

True, in later years Picasso boasted that Cézanne was not only a “father” and a “mother who protects her children,” but also “my one and only master.” But these boasts don’t hold up: Picasso’s “one and only master” was in fact his real father: a terrible painter called José Ruiz Blasco. In the circumstances who can blame him for laying claim to more illustrious artistic parentage? This myth about his provenance is one of many that have crystallized over the years into historical fact. If Picasso invoked the impeccable Cézanne as a progenitor to the exclusion of everyone else, it was partly pour cacher son jeu, and because he saw him as someone who conferred status. A bit like claiming Charlemagne or King David or Mohammed as a forebear. Leo Steinberg was the first scholar to question the nature of Picasso’s relationship to Cézanne.1 By analyzing some of the most Cézanne-like Picassos in the light of the artist’s equivocal admiration, Steinberg declared that they “amount almost to anti-Cézanne manifestoes.” Cézanne, he concluded, was someone from whom Picasso had to arrange an escape. Insofar as this is true, Picasso could be said to have escaped from Cézanne, for a time at least, by taking up with El Greco.

Someone as perversely paradoxical as Picasso is dangerous to quote since he is apt to refute himself. How, for instance, does his claim that Cézanne was his “one and only master” square with assertions that Cubism was Spanish in origin? And Picasso did not merely mean that the Demoiselles was primitive Iberian as opposed to primitive African in inspiration: he was referring to Cubism’s debt to El Greco. As he said to Dor de la Souchère,

It is true that Cubism is Spanish in origin, and it was I who invented Cubism. We should look for Spanish influence in Cézanne…. Observe El Greco’s influence on him. A Venetian painter but he is Cubist in construction.

Here Picasso, who had an intuitive understanding of art history, echoes the more perceptive pioneers in the rehabilitation of El Greco: Julius Meier Graefe, Max Dvorak, and, in our own day, Jonathan Brown. 2 Brown has specifically cited El Greco’s ability to “confound the illusion of space, producing a compositional pattern that hovers ambiguously between the second and third dimension—an effect that caused early twentieth-century artists and critics to liken El Greco to Cézanne.” “Cézanne and El Greco are spiritual brothers,” Franz Marc wrote in The Blaue Reiter Almanac of 1912, “despite the centuries that separate them…. Today the works of both mark the beginning of a new epoch of painting. In their views of life both felt the mystical inner construction, which is the problem of our generation.” This view of Cézanne as a conduit for the quasi-divine influence of El Greco, put forward by both the Expressionists and the Cubists, would have flabbergasted Cézanne. His admiration for the Spanish master was based on an acquaintance with very few works; and his one and only copy of an El Greco, Lady in a Fur Wrap, cannot have been made after the original, which was hidden away in a Scottish collection.

El Greco, it is true, has often been cited—mostly en passant, or in footnotes—as an influence on Picasso, but more on his Blue Period than Cubist work. Alfred Barr was the first to give the Cubist link any serious attention; alas, he left it dangling.3 Granted, Steinberg reproduced a detail of The Agony in the Garden in his study of Picasso’s Three Women, but he concluded that “one cannot be sure of specific links.”4 Ron Johnson, who has written so perceptively of Picasso and poetry, actually pinpointed The Opening of the Fifth Seal as “suggestive in relation to the Demoiselles d’Avignon,” but he, too, failed to follow up on his own clue.5 I was lucky: random research uncovered a Picasso letter referring to El Greco; and since the latter’s role in the former’s development has never been clarified, I decided to investigate.

The document in question surfaced in the course of a recent visit to Prague. When asked which Czechs I wanted to meet, I suggested the heirs of Dr. Vincenc Kramár, pioneer patron of Cubism and Picasso. Dr. Kramár’s daughter and son-in-law explained that the magnificent paintings which used to grace the Villa Kramár had been ceded to Prague’s National Gallery; so had an as yet unexplored archive, bulging with letters from Kahnweiler. All that remained in the family’s possession were a few prints and memorabilia, including a letter6 of introduction, dated May 27, 1911, from Picasso to the then celebrated Spanish painter Ignacio Zuloaga.

At first sight this letter seemed of little significance: all it asks is that Zuloaga should allow Kramár to see the collection of El Grecos assembled in his Paris studio. Odd, I remember thinking, that these Grecos were in Paris and not Spain. Odd, too, that Picasso should have bothered to send this progressive collector, who was buying works fresh off the easel from Kahnweiler, Vollard, and Sagot, to see someone’s El Grecos and not someone’s Cézannes. Odd, too, that the letter should have been written at the height of Analytical Cubism, rather than during the Blue Period, when Picasso had made no bones about his debt to El Greco. Although the artist had told Leo Stein in 1909 that he wanted to return to Spain “pour revoir Greco,” I had never attached much importance to this remark. Nor had anyone else. Everyone had assumed that the master of Aix had edged the master of Toledo out of Picasso’s affections long before 1911.

How blind we were! Picasso’s letter of introduction was the clue which ultimately enabled me to see the gestation of the Demoiselles d’Avignon, the early development of Cubism, and much else besides in a fresh light. Above all it revealed why Picasso had insisted that “Cubism was Spanish in origin.” Cubism was Spanish, I realized, to the extent that it emanated from El Greco, and from one painting in particular.

The scales fell from my eyes as soon as I started to look into Zuloaga’s El Grecos. There had been ten of them. Although all had been accepted as authentic by Manuel Cossío, the founder of El Greco scholarship whose pioneer catalog came out in 1908, most of the attributions now turn out to have been overoptimistic. According to Harold Wethey,7 who imposed a measure of order on El Greco’s oeuvre, eight were copies or workshop versions with one Christ on the Cross thought to be by the master’s hand; however Zuloaga had managed to acquire one incomparable masterpiece, The Opening of the Fifth Seal, now in the Metropolitan Museum. Moreover, he had acquired it in 1905 at a period when he, like Picasso, was based in Paris, and they were seeing each other regularly. (A relationship, incidentally, that was not destined to last: Zuloaga subsequently became Franco’s favorite painter, a leading denouncer of Picasso, and the perpetrator of a fascist riposte to Guernica. In 1938 this windy painting, The Defenders of the Alcazar of Toledo, was obliged to share London’s New Burlington Galleries with Guernica. Picasso’s room was always full; Zuloaga’s empty.)

Zuloaga had discovered Greco’s masterpiece at a doctor’s house in Córdoba, one of the stops on a triumphal tour of Spain he had undertaken in June 1905.8 His companions were Rodin—known by the Spaniards as the Eternal Father on account of his godlike beard—and Ivan Shchukin, an effete Russian collector of Spanish painting, not to be confused with his progressive elder brother Sergei, who was soon to become Picasso’s greatest patron. Zuloaga had hoped that this carefully stagemanaged trip would open Rodin’s eyes to the glories of El Greco and Goya—it failed to do so—and also encourage Shchukin’s penchant for El Greco, so that the gullible Russian could be landed with a few more dubious works by the master. When Shchukin, who was notoriously profligate, tried to fend off creditors in 1908 by selling the nine Grecos that Zuloaga had found for him, they all proved to be fakes, and “Ivan Ivanovich poisoned himself in the study of his Paris home.”9 Retribution of an appropriate kind was in store for Zuloaga: in the next few years Russia, which had become his principal market, was flooded with fake Zuloagas.

Until the 1880s or 1890s the painting now known as The Fifth Seal had belonged to Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, Spain’s liberal prime minister—not otherwise recognized as a collector. How or why this masterpiece passed into the possession of a Córdoban doctor, Rafael Vázquez de la Plaza, we do not know. Zuloaga liked to recount how the doctor kept the painting behind an old velvet curtain for fear that the sight of so many writhing nudes would corrupt his daughters. Rodin loathed the El Greco—predictably: in certain respects in anticipated his Gates of Hell. And his disapproval probably explains why Zuloaga was able to steer the only masterpiece that he ever discovered into his own collection instead of the one he was forming for the illfated Shchukin. At all events Zuloaga managed to buy The Fifth Seal for a thousand pesetas. And it was shipped forthwith to Paris to Zuloaga’s studio at 54 rue de Caulaincourt, where Rodin eventually came to admire it; and where Picasso saw it again and again over the next few years. It was the only great old master that Picasso would see—and see constantly at the most formative period of his career—dans l’intimité and not in a museum or dealer’s gallery. And it had an incalculable influence on his style, beliefs, aspirations; it reconfirmed his faith in his alma española (his “Spanish soul”); and it inspired him to conceive a chefd’oeuvre—Les Demoiselles d’Avignon—that would be as powerful in its way as El Greco’s altarpiece: a religious painting but with the religion left out.

  1. 1

    Resisting Cézanne: Picasso’s ‘Three Women,”’ Art in America (November-December 1978).

  2. 2

    Jonathan Brown and others: El Greco of Toledo exhibit (1982); Toledo Museum of Art; Museo del Prado, Madrid; National Gallery of Art, Washington; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts.

  3. 3

    Alfred Barr, Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art (1946).

  4. 4

    Steinberg, “Resisting Cézanne: Picasso’s ‘Three Women.”’

  5. 5

    Ron Johnson, “Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and the Theater of the Absurd,” Arts Magazine, Vol. V, No. 2 (October 1980).

  6. 6

    Published in Vincenc Kramár: O Obrazech a galeriích (Prague: Odeon, 1983).

  7. 7

    El Greco and His School, 2 vols. (Princeton University Press, 1962).

  8. 8

    For details of this trip and its consequences, see Ghislaine Plessier, Etude Critique de la Correspondence de Zuloaga et Rodin de 1903 à 1917 (Paris: 1984).

  9. 9

    Beverly Whitney Kean, All the Empty Palaces (Universe·Books, 1983).

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