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.

Like Picasso, Zuloaga discovered El Greco in the course of discovering himself. He had gone to Paris around 1890 and—with only a mad butler, Pedro, for company—shut himself away in a studio overlooking the Montmartre cemetery to concentrate on concocting a style. After experimenting with Symbolism and Japonaiserie to little avail, Zuloaga sought inspiration in photographs of the Spanish masters. And in this “magnificent lineage” he finally found artistic salvation, specifically in El Greco: in “his energy and madness…his marvellous sobriety” (to quote Santiago Rusiñol). Zuloaga’s immediate reaction was to make a pilgrimage to Toledo to see the Burial of Count Orgaz. He returned to Paris, a new man with a new, if somewhat turgid, style. His enthusiasm rubbed off on his friends: Santiago Rusiñol—a rich young Catalan aesthete who had formed a commune of kindred spirits in an apartment on the Quai Bourbon, and Miguel Utrillo, another jack-of-all-trades. Both were soon preaching the gospel of Greco. As luck, or serendipity, would have it, Zuloaga found two paintings—a Saint Peter and Mary Magdalene—in a junk shop on the Paris quais. Since he was short of funds, he arranged for Rusiñol to acquire them.

One of the earliest converts to Greco that Zuloaga and Rusiñol made was their Hispanophile friend Erik Satie, in the early Nineties a Montmartre pianist of Rosicrucian beliefs, who had invented a bizarre anarchistic cult, “The Metropolitan Church of the Art of Jesus the Conductor”—a cult which aimed at undermining society through the senses, i.e., via painting and music. Like Picasso some fifteen years later, Satie perceived the potential of El Greco as a vehicle for his mystic nihilism, and he gave way to ecstatic hosannahs in front of Rusiñol’s newly acquired paintings. (Appropriate that Picasso and Satie should ultimately collaborate on that most “undermining” work, Parade!)

On his return to Barcelona two years later, Rusiñol set about spreading the gospel of El Greco to his native country, where he was even less appreciated than in France. When he inaugurated his private museum, Cau Ferrat, at Sitges in 1894, Rusiñol had his two El Grecos borne aloft on a float through the streets of the town while a band played and flowers were scattered. And four years later, by which time Rusiñol was a local hero for having engineered the Catalan Renaixença, he convinced the town council to subscribe money for a monument to El Greco on the promenade at Sitges. Picasso, who was seventeen at the time, did not attend the inauguration in August 1898, as he spent the summer months recuperating from typhoid in the mountains. But when he returned to Barcelona in the fall, he was almost immediately taken up by Rusiñol and Utrillo. Their “little Goya” they called him. But at Els Quatre Gats—the bohemian tavern which these two men had launched so that Modernista artists and poets could eat and drink and put on plays, puppet shows, and exhibitions—El Greco was still very much their patron saint. It was through the Els Quatre Gats group that Picasso became friends, around the turn of the century, with Zuloaga. The latter admired the “little Goya’s” work and bought some drawings and one of his best bullfight pastels, although he failed to hang onto it. A year or two later, he sold the pastel to Rusiñol, who exhibited it with his El Grecos at Cau Ferrat.

After his move to Paris in 1904, Picasso saw rather more of Zuloaga, who continued to spend much of his time there. Zuloaga’s flashy Hispagnolist painting—at the 1900 Centennial Exhibition some of the sillier French critics had hailed him, too, as a little Goya—as well as his flashy Hispagnolist looks, “tall, athletic, bald even then, with a sort of classical beauty and dreamy, thoughtful eyes,” according to Picasso’s mistress, Fernande Olivier, soon brought him considerable financial and social success in Paris. And Picasso and Fernande would frequently make up for the sparseness of their daily fare by attending the scintillating dinners that Zuloaga and his wife Valentine used to organize. For instance, to celebrate the birth of their son on April 25, 1906, the Zuloagas arranged “une petite réunion Espagnole,” to which they invited Degas, Rodin, Rilke, as well as such Spaniards as the composer Albeniz, the Pichot clan (including Ramon Pichot, the painter, his sister Maria Gay, the singer, and brother-in-law Edouard Marquina, the writer), and presumably the Pichots’ closest friend, Picasso. La Carmela danced; Llobet played the guitar; Uranga sang. “The walls were covered with El Grecos and Goyas,” Fernande remembered: paintings “which he’d managed to get from churches and convents in Spain, often in exchange for one of his works.”

Picasso’s passion for El Greco dated from long before he first saw Zuloaga’s new acquisition. It dated back to 1897, his sixteenth year, when he had gone to study at the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid. Although he subsequently claimed to have hated the academy—“only attended once,” he said—and to have avoided the Prado, we know from a fellow student that he went there more often than that. And on the evidence of a letter to a friend in Barcelona, we know that he especially admired El Greco’s “magnificent heads.” True, Picasso produced very little work during his nine months in Madrid, but he painted at least one copy of El Greco: a portrait. When he proudly sent this copy to his father—who had also been his teacher—he was castigated for “following the wrong path.” The fact that El Greco was still perceived by most of the art establishment in Spain as a freak or madman only increased Picasso’s enthusiasm for the artist. In this spirit he went to Toledo to copy the Burial of Count Orgaz, but contempt for his teachers prevailed over admiration for the master of Toledo; and his copy—it has not survived—is said to have included caricatures of his stuffy teachers in place of El Greco’s mourning noblemen.

Back in Barcelona, Picasso continued to express his admiration for El Greco in page after page of sketches of heads of bearded men in ruffs, straight out of the Burial of Count Orgaz. Some of these heads bear a telltale resemblance to Picasso’s distinguished-looking but ungifted father: witness the studies of the very same parent that figure on the very same pages. Even more revealing is a sketchbook page wishful-thinkingly inscribed: “Yo el Greco, Yo el Greco—.” After first identifying the old master with his father, Picasso evidently came to identify El Greco with himself. No wonder his work of 1899—the period of his greatest involvement with Els Quatre Gats—includes so many pastiches of El Greco’s portraits.

Successive visits to Paris between 1900 and 1902 opened Picasso’s eyes to recent developments in French painting: Toulouse-Lautrec and above all Gauguin. And so his feelings for El Greco went into abeyance. But not for long. When in 1901 Picasso memorialized his great friend Carlos Casagemas, who had committed suicide (supposedly because of impotence) eighteen months earlier, his tribute took the form of two large Greco-like compositions, The Mourners and Evocation. But the former is too unresolved and the latter too jejune—especially the spoof apotheosis in the sky—to establish Picasso as El Greco’s rightful heir. “Which one [of some young Spanish painters exhibiting in Paris] will become their Greco?” asked Félicien Fagus in the Revue Blanche of September 1902. This was a challenge that Picasso needed, but five years would pass before he was in a position to assert his claim.

After he returned to Barcelona in January 1903, Picasso drew on El Greco more enthusiastically and with a deeper understanding than before. Witness any number of Blue Period paintings of figures that are manneristically attenuated and ascetically skeletal—what Richard Ford, the English traveler, writing of El Greco in the 1830s, called “lanky in drawing and coldly colored.” Thanks to his friend Utrillo, who was gathering material for a book on the artist, Picasso had access to a large repertory of El Greco reproductions. Indeed, Picasso is known to have covered the walls of his studio with photographs of the master’s works.

Aside from their penitential themes, the parallels between Picasso’s Blue Period works and El Greco’s are largely stylistic—a question of look-alikes, as we can see from a few of the more obvious examples. Take El Greco’s beautiful little Visitation at Dumbarton Oaks—as blue as any Blue Period painting, and astonishingly close to Picasso’s Two Sisters of 1903 in the Hermitage Museum. Although it has the hieratic gravity of an altarpiece, The Two Sisters actually represents a visitation of a sort, but between a couple of syphilitic prostitutes—whore-madonnas, such as Picasso had portrayed from life in the Saint-Lazare prison hospital the year before—as he wrote to Max Jacob.

No less striking is the similarity between El Greco’s magnificent Saint Martin and the Beggar in the National Gallery and the celebrated Nude Boy Leading a Horse of 1906, in William Paley’s collection. A comparison of the bottom halves of these two compositions reveals that Picasso pinched the intricate counterpoint of the boy’s and horse’s legs from El Greco. The horse’s head is also taken from the same source. But isn’t El Greco’s flattening of space more daring than Picasso’s?

And then compare that other great altarpiece from the Saint Joseph Chapel—the Saint Joseph with the Infant Christ which is still in Toledo—with the Blue Period Mistletoe Seller and Child. The Mistletoe Seller is a maudlin work, but with some reason: it was painted at the lowest, poorest moment of Picasso’s life (Christmas 1903), when he was freezing and starving, though surely never, as he later claimed (the incident is borrowed from the first act of La Bohème), reduced to burning his drawings to keep warm. El Greco’s Saint Joseph must have been a special favorite of Picasso’s, for he invoked it again three years later, in another somewhat sentimental but stylistically more adventurous painting, The Blind Flower Seller and Child, in the Barnes Collection. Typical of Picasso to give the picturesque subject a tragic dimension by blinding the flower seller! Unlike The Mistletoe Seller, the Barnes painting is redeemed from banality by the El Greco–like liberties that Picasso takes with the representation of form. Besides the Mannerist attenuations of the Blue Period, there is a flattening and faceting and conflation of figures, cart, and oxen into a single mass. The first intimations of Cubism.

Back, however, to the spring of 1906, when Picasso had reached something of an impasse in his work. The so-called Rose Period was a charming poetic prelude, but to what? For all his technical prowess and progress, for all the inspiration provided by his poet friends—Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire—his work still lacked demonic depth and visceral power. As he had done before—in the summer of 1898, when he and Pallares had spent months living in a cave at Horta de Ebro in the high sierra—and as he would again in the summer of 1909, Picasso decided to become a hermit, like his great-uncle Perico, the most famous Spanish hermit of his day. Hence his choice of Gosol, a village in the wilds of the Pyrenees, six hours on muleback from the nearest station.

It was Picasso’s intention to commune not so much with nature as himself, and come up with a style that would be more down-to-earth and expressive than the remorselessly romantic work of the last year. And then he had to face up to the challenges of the 1905 Salon d’Automne: the famous room of the Fauves, the exhibit of ten major Cézannes, and, no less premonitory, the great retrospective of Ingres. Besides these formidable challenges there was primitive Iberian sculpture to be digested: in the course of the previous winter, the Louvre had exhibited some reliefs (sixth to third centuries BC) that had recently been dug up at Osuna. And as Picasso would later insist, it was these archaic reliefs from his native Andalusia seen in the Louvre, and not the African masks seen at the Musée du Trocadéro eighteen months later, that first opened his eyes to the possibilities of “primitivism.” However, this Iberian influence would not manifest itself until Picasso returned to Paris at the end of the summer—ripe for that other Iberian revelation, The Fifth Seal.


The studies for The Blind Flower Seller, done at Gosol, reveal that Utrillo’s newly published booklet on El Greco (especially the illustration of the Saint Joseph altarpiece) was much on Picasso’s mind; however, he also had other art books or other memories to draw on, for the work of this productive summer manifests a no less sizable debt to Ingres and Greek sculpture: a certain “primitivism,” not of style but of subject, likewise came into play. The artist took a great fancy to an anthropomorphic tree trunk (“le bois de Gosol,” he called it), which he drew repeatedly and contemplated metamorphosing into the figure of a woman. He also took a fancy to the no less gnarled and skull-like head of Josep Fontdevila, a nonagenarian smuggler and owner of the local inn.

Picasso struck up a friendship of such black, Lawrentian intensity with this dour character that he contemplated taking him back to Paris. He painted Fontdevila more than once and drew him again and again, several times from memory after he returned to Paris. Indeed, in the months to come the smuggler’s rocklike image had almost as much impact on Picasso’s style as the Iberian reliefs: for instance, on the marvelous self-portrait done in the fall of 1906, which was acquired by Dr. Kramár, the Czech collector whose interest in El Greco instigated these researches. Fontdevila’s head was also the principal inspiration for the formidable Gertrude Stein portrait, the head of which Picasso had painted out before he left Paris after eighty abortive sittings. Ironical in the circumstances that during this summer Stein should have changed the name of her birthplace, Oakland, to “Gosol s” for the purposes of her autobiographical saga, The Making of Americans. Ironical, too, that the drawings which enabled Picasso to solve the problem of the Stein painting should turn out to be of someone so utterly different. Depicting one person in terms of another—the sturdy young writer in terms of the sturdy old smuggler—is something that Picasso would revert to in the future. But the personas and physiognomies—animal as well as human—often exerted as much of an influence on the artist’s vision as this or that painting or sculpture.

When the smuggler’s daughter came down with typhoid around the middle of August, Picasso, who had a pathological terror of illness, fled from Gosol, but not before this hot, dry place had recharged his psyche to such a pitch that he noted in his sketchbook: “a tenor who reaches a note higher than the one marked in the score. Me!” Since the artist also envisaged his development in messianic terms, he may well have envisaged his stay in Gosol as a version of Christ’s sojourn in the wilderness. Back in Paris miracles began to occur: the images Picasso came up with—a magnificent series of earth mothers done during the winter of 1906–1907—reveal that Picasso was ready to launch his demonic Demoiselles on the world.

The Fifth Seal—most dynamic and exalté of the master’s works—plays a major part in this breakthrough. Stylistic resemblances are no longer a matter of mere mannerism, but of basic syntax and structure. The links between The Fifth Seal and the Demoiselles also take on a decidedly psychic tinge. Whereas he formerly identified with El Greco as an offbeat Mannerist, a Modernista cult figure, Picasso now identifies with him as a prophet, a mystic, a visionary, who was both an outsider and a great Spaniard. By the time he embarked on the Demoiselles, Picasso seems to have convinced himself that he was “Yo, El Greco” at last. Hence the way he steals the thunder of El Greco’s altarpiece, harnesses its magic to his own demonic ends. Four years earlier Picasso had painted a series of whore-madonnas—devotional works. Now he gives us apocalyptic prostitutes who have the psychic energy and the redemptive power of The Fifth Seal, as well as the bang of an anarchist’s bomb.

Alas, we do not know exactly when Picasso saw The Fifth Seal for the first time, nor can we rely on stylistic evidence, because outside influences affected Picasso’s work in very different ways. Sometimes ignition was instant; sometimes it took months or years. I assume that he would have first seen the painting in the late summer or fall of 1905, soon after it reached Paris. Wouldn’t Zuloaga have wanted to show off his extraordinary new find to the one Spanish friend around most likely to admire it? On the other hand, Picasso may not have seen it for several months—not, for instance, until the Zuloagas’ christening party in April 1906. Nor can we be sure whether Picasso knew what he was seeing, for in the course of time the original subject of the painting had become obscured to the point of being forgotten.

Richard Mann’s excellent new study, El Greco and His Patrons,10 provides the first documented history of The Fifth Seal. According to contemporary records, El Greco had been commissioned in 1608 to paint a number of works for the chapel of the Hospital of Saint John the Baptist in Toledo, including an “Apocalyptic Vision.” Since the painting remained unfinished at the artist’s death (fortunately not completed by his inept son, Jorge Manuel) it was never installed in the chapel for which it was intended. Its subsequent history is a mystery until it turned up in the nineteenth century in the collection of Nuñez del Prado in Madrid. Thence it passed to Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, and on to the Córdoban doctor.

Through the years the painting has suffered untold damage. In the course of a relining by the Prado restorer in 1880, the entire top of the painting and a strip along the left-hand side were removed, because the canvas had deteriorated. Hence the awkward, almost square, format which, as we will see, Picasso adopted for the Demoiselles. Meanwhile the apocalyptic subject seems to have been overlooked: early enthusiasts of the artist’s work decided that the painting represented sacred and profane love. It was Manuel Cossío (in his catalogue raisonné published in 1908) who first came up with the suggestion that it depicted the opening of the Fifth Seal. The title has stuck, although, as Mann points out, this work is unlikely to portray that particular biblical passage in the Revelation of Saint John. The opening of the Fifth Seal calls for an altar under which the souls of the martyrs—a vengeful lot—repose in newly acquired white robes. El Greco shows us no altar, no white robes, and no repose. Since the artist made a great point of doctrinal accuracy, Mann convincingly claims that the painting illustrates the culminant scene of the Apocalypse, “The Final Resurrection of the Elect.” “The struggle of the kneeling figures to lift themselves,” he says, “and of the standing figures to stretch upwards indicates that the resurrection is in progress.” In this context the mammoth, upward-reaching figure of Saint John on the left would also be theologically accurate. According to Mann, “his heavenward gaze suggests that he is looking at a vision of God the Father or Christ—in fulfillment of God’s solemn promise of the Second Coming.”

Historians have assumed that an image representing Saint John’s vision of the Lamb of God would have occupied the area now missing from the top of El Greco’s canvas, and so it may. However, Mann thinks that El Greco proposed to complete the top of the altarpiece with a sculptural group of angels worshiping the seven-eyed, seven-horned Lamb of God, as described in the fifth chapter of the Revelation of Saint John. In evidence he cites El Greco’s 1608 contract with the hospital, which specifies a sculpture of this subject. The group was never executed, so there is no way of knowing, but it is a logical assumption.

Virtually none of the above information was known to Cossío, El Greco’s first serious chronicler, let alone to Zuloaga or his friends. However, Picasso would have taken a leading part in the discussions that Zuloaga’s great new find triggered; and he would certainly have been aware that Cossío, who was much in Zuloaga’s circle, was about to publish the painting as The Opening of the Fifth Seal; he would also have known that the new owner clung to the notion that his painting represented sacred and profane love (indeed he always exhibited it as such). Picasso might have gone along with one or the other or both of these ideas; he might equally have gone along with other interpretations—or, for that matter, misinterpretations. For nothing—in later life at least—made Picasso more impatient than the art historian who imposed a specific meaning, his meaning, onto a painting, above all onto a Picasso. What Picasso called “reality” was enhanced if different, not to say conflicting, meaning could be read, or misread (that too could be revelatory), into a painting, just as conflicting meanings could be read into the person or thing that inspired it. Hence the Demoiselles d’Avignon, which like The Fifth Seal has rightly or wrongly been seen as an allegory of sacred and profane love, can—indeed should—be read in more than one light, not excluding a false one, as Picasso once said to me of Guernica, and only half in jest.

At the same time the apocalyptic subject of the El Greco would have struck an especially responsive chord in a mind that was already buzzing with mystic ideas. Picasso would have instinctively understood the divine nature of The Fifth Seal’s message. And given his chameleon-like spirit, he would have been only too ready to see himself as Saint John, to whom God ordained this vision of the end of the world; equally as the vengeful, omnipotent Lamb of God—divine yet demonic—“more like a ram than a lamb,” as Jung wrote: “the conjunction of good and evil.” The notion of a Second Coming would also have had premonitory significance for the artist.

These suggestions are not mere conjecture. Let us first of all take the artist’s attitude to religion. He may not have been very devout in the conventional sense, but just as he never rid himself of an obsession with death, Picasso never rid himself of a no less resentful obsession—more often than not expressed sacrilegiously—with the beliefs, imagery, superstitions, and spiritual power of the Church. “Pablo always claims he is not a believer,” Jacqueline Picasso once said, “but if you ask me, he is more Catholic than the Pope.” This ambivalence is not surprising in view of his family history. The uncle Pablo, after whom he was named, was a canon of such exemplary piety that he would have been made a bishop had he lived a few years longer. A great uncle Perico was a famous nineteenth-century hermit—almost a saint, to believe his memorialists. And, a few generations further back, Picasso could boast another uncle, the Venerable Juan de Almoguera, Archbishop of Lima and Captain General of Peru. Thus piety, not to speak of impiety, were part of Picasso’s inheritance. Trust him to deal with this atavistic burden in his own black fashion.

Another point that has been overlooked: Picasso’s imagination was steeped in Catholic lore, witness the countless studies of religious subjects that his father obliged him to paint as a student. Since most of them have only recently been published by the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, little attention has as yet been paid to these Annunciations, Crucifixions, Resurrections, Veronica’s veils, martyrdoms, and scenes from the lives of such saints as Agnes, Eulalia, Ines, Sebastian, Peter, Antony of Padua, and Ildefonsus, the patron saint of Toledo so often depicted by El Greco. What precocious knowledge of iconography they reveal! Among the most intriguing of these early studies (done at the age of fifteen) are projects for an altar commemorating the Sacred Heart. Intriguing because the symbolism of the Sacred Heart—the cult which Sainte Marguerite-Marie Alacoque had launched in the seventeenth century and which became so popular in Spain in the nineteenth—turns out to have had its origins in symbols of revivification in cabalistic iconography. Such arcane details would not have interested the fifteen-year-old Picasso. They would, however, have intrigued the fifty-year-old artist, who sacrilegiously used the Sacred Heart as a sexual pun in some of his works around 1930.

Picasso’s imagination was thus fertile ground for the apocalyptic seed that Max Jacob—the young and as yet unpublished poet whom Picasso had met on his second trip to Paris in 1901—proceeded to plant in it. Over the next few years Jacob devoted much of his energy and love to Picasso’s service. In return this saintly gnome—“a sodomite without joy but plenty of ardor” is how he described himself—asked no more than to move into a neighboring studio at the Bateau Lavoir, and be allowed to worship at the shrine of his young god. Devoured by Jewish Angst and homosexual guilt, not to speak of ether and henbane, Jacob ultimately found a measure of redemption in a vision of Christ and conversion to Catholicism (prompted by Picasso’s departure from the Bateau Lavoir). Meanwhile he had become absorbed in mysticism, especially Judaic mysticism: he had made a profound study of the cabala and the Book of Zohar. Jacob had also developed an obsession with the Apocalypse—not surprising since the Book of Revelation derived in part from cabalistic teachings, which were supposedly only available to certain initiates such as he had every claim to be. And long after his conversion Jacob continued to practice the occult under the tutelage of a magus, a middle-aged jeweler who had a rendezvous every Sunday morning with a female faun in the forest of Saint-Germain, and whose supernatural powers were embodied in the foulness of his breath. This at any rate is what Jacob told his friends, some of whom were inclined to suspect that the poet was touched with charlatanism as well as genius.

Jacob was a passionate proselytizer. From 1901 onward, whenever Picasso was in Paris, he would put his stock of knowledge and mystical lore at his friend’s disposal. Besides inducting him into the Parisian world, he gave him a crash course in French literature, metaphysics, classical drama, modern poetry, even opera (which Picasso loathed), and much else besides. But above all he initiated him into the mysteries of the tarot pack, astrology, palmistry, Neoplatonism, not to speak of the Apocalypse. Picasso was nothing if not a quick study, and he seldom forgot what he learned. Letters which Jacqueline Picasso once allowed me to glimpse reveal that the artist sometimes used the poet to do research for him: for instance into the meaning of certain hieroglyphs in 1914 or 1915; and again into details of period costume for his Tricorne décor in 1919. So, although it would be foolish to claim that Picasso actually read much about mysticism, we can nevertheless assume that through this friend he had access to a fund of esoteric information, such as Agrippa’s great work on cabalist magic, De occulta philosophia.

Max Jacob was not the only mentor. When Guillaume Apollinaire appeared on the scene in 1905, and in turn launched his own cult of the artist—one with mythic as opposed to homoerotic overtones—Picasso found himself with yet another rich source of arcana. For Apollinaire still devoted much of his time to researching the wilder shores of literature, mysticism, and erotica in the Bibliothèque Nationale and to combing the bookshops and antiquaires of the Left Bank for additions to a library that covered everything from medieval cookbooks to medical treatises, pornographic classics, and “cabalistic manuals.” The fruits of his research are embodied not only in his catalog of the Bibliothèque Nationale’s “L’Enfer,” its collection of pornography, but in his erotic novels, La Fin de Babylone and Picasso’s favorite, Les Onze Mille Verges (he owned the manuscript), both of which end in apocalyptic mayhem. Since he could draw on the minds and memories, not to speak of the imaginations, of two great poet-polymaths, Picasso didn’t need libraries: Jacob and Apollinaire did most of his reading for him.

Nor should we overlook another formative influence on Picasso’s imagination: the infinitely subversive and sacrilegious Alfred Jarry, who shared Jacob’s sexual tastes as well as his penchant for absinthe, ether, and the cabala. Jarry came into Picasso’s life around the same time as The Fifth Seal. A period when, as Jarry wrote, “a revelation had taken place; even a verse from the Apocalypse is not too grandiloquent: ‘The sky opened and rolled back like a scroll.”’ No question that he reinforced Picasso’s own innate nihilism, instinctual obsession, and black humor, but Jarry was too far gone to become anything like such a close friend as the other two poets.

Exactly how much Picasso knew or didn’t know about the occult is a moot point. But given his consuming curiosity, we can assume that, thanks to Jacob, Apollinaire, and Jarry, he would have been fully aware of the significance of the Apocalypse for the avant-garde of the new century. As for its more abstruse ramifications, it is also possible—looking ahead thirty years or so—that Picasso had more than an inkling of, for instance, the connection between the Apocalypse and the cult of Mithras, god of the sun and the bull. The artist would certainly have relished the idea of Mithras, who functioned both as bull victim and bull god, sacrificing himself to himself. However, Mithraism is more germane to the artist’s work of the Thirties than the period under discussion, so let us go no further than seeing Picasso’s obsession with the Mithraic bull as an extension of his apocalyptic identification.


During the time Picasso was working toward the Demoiselles and, later, exploiting its consequences, it is significant that he was seeing Max Jacob (and to a lesser extent Apollinaire) day after day; and that Jacob had already embarked on a series of fantasy memoirs of his alter ego Victor Matorel. Not only do the Matorel books abound in references to the cabala and above all the Apocalypse, but one of them would later be dedicated to Picasso in a long apocalyptic litany that includes the revealing passage: “Satan is no bigger than a puppet. Remember that if you [Picasso] have horns, they are the same as Moses’s…. This is between the two of us, for you know it and I know it.”

I would even go so far as to suggest that the revelation of The Fifth Seal, coupled with Jacob’s apocalyptic veneration of the artist, is what catalyzed Picasso’s aspirations into a new pattern: at last he appears to have realized how to show Félicien Fagus (the critic who had challenged him) that he, Picasso, would be the next Greco; how to harness the spiritual energy of a great religious artist to his own demonic ends; how, in his own words, “to give the onlooker such an emotional punch that intellectual deliberation has no chance to intervene”; also how to tap El Greco’s spirituality and speak—and not for the first or the last time, either—with the authority of the wrathful, vengeful Lamb of God.

Tempting though it is to follow up the apocalyptic trend in Picasso’s later work, let us confine ourselves to one or two of the most striking examples. If in the Twenties Picasso paid so much heed to the Surrealist leader André Breton’s word of command, “Art should be convulsive,” it was partly because these words could also mean “Art should be apocalyptic.” The ultraconvulsive La Danse of 1925 looks back beyond the convulsive Demoiselles d’Avignon to El Greco’s convulsive reborn souls. Unquestionably, The Fifth Seal continued to reverberate in Picasso’s work for the rest of his life. And by work I mean not only his art but his poetry, which, as Lydia Gasman was the first to demonstrate, is frequently apocalyptic in imagery and biblical in style.11 See, for example, his surrealist poem, “L’Enterrement du Comte d’Orgaz” (1957–1958), in which Velázquez’s Meninas take over “the game of burying Count Orgaz.” Most apocalyptic of all, however, is Picasso’s play Les Quarters Petites Filles (1947–1948). Here (courtesy of Gasman) is a passage from it followed by one from the eighth chapter of the Revelation of Saint John:

Sounding through arum lilies the veiled trumpets of the unleavened bread of the last judgment…. Today the seventh day of the month of May…. Love spreads its lava on the rekindled fire of the sun-dials, the ark floats on the wheels of flame, oil flows on the storm in floods, the boat—blackened with weeping, a spout of ash…wrenched from the reddened blue of the trumpets.

And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound….

…and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood…and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up.

And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood.

One last example of Picasso’s identification with El Greco: a painting that dates from 1951, and takes the form of a baroquely distorted version of El Greco’s very puzzling portrait of his own son, Jorge Manuel, in the Provincial Museum, Seville. Puzzling, because it is painted as if it were a self-portrait by the sitter, whereas it is—like Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice Toklas—a self-portrait that is not by its subject. Given that Picasso was the genius son of an ungifted painter, and El Greco the genius father of an ungifted painter, this choice of portrait was eerily appropriate. Once again, Picasso’s attitude to El Greco turns out to be a peculiar mixture of I, the Father, and I, the Son. Typical of him to indulge in such a convoluted form of shamanism: reversing identities as if he were reversing images.

No less ramifying than the apocalyptic connection are stylistic parallels that stem from the special nature of Spanish art history. Since the Renaissance never quite took hold in Spain, Spanish art was not on the whole subject to the dictates of Renaissance science. As a result, El Greco and Zurbarán, even Velázquez, belong outside the mainstream of the European tradition. By virtue of being outsiders, they were in a better position to see a pictorial fiction, like perspective, for what it was: a bargain that a painter was not necessarily obliged to strike with appearances. True, as a young man, El Greco had spent some time in Venice and Rome, where he had absorbed and made good use of the conventions of the day. But we should also remember that he had learned to paint in Crete; that early works take the Byzantine form of gold-ground icons. This Byzantine background helps to explain why El Greco found fulfillment in Spain rather than Italy; why he developed an eye that was the more Spanish for being expatriate, and the more modern for having once been retardataire. The longer El Greco worked in Spain, the less he abided by such rules of thumb as perspective until at the end of his career he allowed everything to happen on the plane of the picture surface just as he had at the beginning. Take that gigantic icon, The Fifth Seal. The only perspectival continuum I can detect is an upward one culminating in heaven.

This respect for the two-dimensional picture surface as opposed to the rules of perspective is as fundamental to Cubism as it is to the art of Spain’s Golden Age. Hence Picasso’s assertion that Cubism is Spanish in origin. For instance in El Greco’s later work as in Cubism there is never a vanishing point. Take The Fifth Seal. The only indication that Saint John is nearer to us than the rest of the figures is simply that he is so much bigger. But as if to negate this illusionism, El Greco brings the sky forward and paints it as if Saint John’s left hand—the hand that Picasso adapted for the “demoiselle” on the left—were embedded in it. (Not the right hand, which has been reconstituted by a restorer.) El Greco does much the same thing in his famous View of Toledo in the Metropolitan Museum, where—as Professor Brown points out—the tree in the foreground appears to be rooted on the side of the river nearest us while its foliage sprouts on the opposite bank. This knits foreground and middle ground together. Recession is further nullified by storm clouds that hover seemingly within reach. This is very much what Picasso and Braque did in their landscapes of 1908 and 1909: those hillsides that tumble out at us. For El Greco, as for the Cubists, distance did not lend enchantment to the view.

Another striking parallel between The Fifth Seal and the Demoiselles is their similarity of format. The present proportions of the El Greco result from a restorer’s scissors, not the artist’s intention, but much as we may regret the lost verticality of El Greco’s altarpiece, there is no denying that the curious cropping heightens the drama. At all events this format that is not quite square—an anomaly by traditional canons—found favor with Picasso. When he set to work on the Demoiselles, he eschewed a standard-sized canvas and had a special stretcher made of almost the same awkward size and format as The Fifth Seal: 96 × 92 inches instead of 88 × 77 inches. He also went to the trouble and expense of having his extrafine canvas relined for added strength. The resultant close-cropping of his gang of girls greatly reinforces their impact.

Besides the odd format, Picasso’s use of enveloping draperies in the Demoiselles is also borrowed from The Fifth Seal. And in countless Cubist figures and still lifes over the next few years he continued to use similar draperies for a variety of pictorial purposes: for dramatizing entrances, for playing around with space, above all for relating the principal subject of a composition—whether a seated girl or a fruit dish—to its setting. The draperies set up rhythms, serve as scaffolding, articulate surfaces, and conflate disparate elements. Why else would Picasso go on using this fustian device—done to death by hack portraitists and photographers 12—in so many Analytical Cubist paintings? Take the Reclining Woman of 1910 that Dr. Kramár acquired on his visit to Paris in 1911: the Mannerist attitude of the figure and its relationship to the draperies hark back to the figures in The Fifth Seal. No wonder Kramár was anxious to see Zuloaga’s collection. No wonder he turns out to have been one of the earliest people to write about El Greco’s influence on Picasso, which, incidentally, he saw reaching a climax in 1909. Alas, to judge by a friend’s translation, Kramár’s article “Spain and Cubism,” which appeared in Czech in 1937, may be on the right track—not least in seeing “Cézanne as a quasi-modern version of Greco”—but it is turgid stuff. Its one redeeming feature is that it reflects the views of Kramár’s great friend Max Dvorak, the art historian responsible for making Mannerism respectable. If only Dvorak had written it.

In his enthusiasm for The Fifth Seal Picasso even went so far as to paint the draperies in the Demoiselles two separate colors, as in the El Greco: rust-colored instead of yellow on the left, pale blue instead of green with golden highlights on the right. El Greco’s colorful draperies were apparently intended to represent the shining garments that the Just will wear in heaven as a symbol of immortality. Picasso’s colored draperies serve a pictorial rather than a symbolic purpose in that they give an extra measure of structure and coloristic variety to the composition. While the contrast between earth colors and what Brown calls “the shrill, arbitrary shades” of the Mannerists is redolent of El Greco, it also reveals that Picasso was learning from Cézanne how to use color to build up form.

Given the mysterious links across the centuries that were thought to exist between El Greco and Cézanne, their union in Picasso’s work of 1907–1909 was remarkably fruitful. After 1909, however, El Greco gradually fades from the picture. The emergence of Cézanne as the most active ingredient in Picasso’s style is another chapter in the development of Cubism. Cézanne’s influence is a phenomenon that William Rubin has taken great pains to establish,13 and Leo Steinberg equal pains to question. Having no desire to be caught in the cross fire, I would merely suggest that El Greco be given the recognition hitherto denied him; that way the intricate subject of the Demoiselles can be opened up instead of boiled down to a matter of sexual provocation and repulsion. By limiting the meaning of Picasso’s great work we limit its power. Concentration on El Greco implies no belittlement of Cézanne’s enormously formative influence. I would merely point out that we cannot understand Cubism without taking account of Spanish as well as French sources; and cannot fully understand the artist’s cosmology without taking account of his apocalyptic view of life and death, heaven and hell, good and evil.

Many more aspects of El Greco’s impact on Picasso deserve to be addressed, but I will limit myself to one: the link between the revelation of The Fifth Seal and the revelation of African tribal art that occurred on a visit to the Musée du Trocadéro in the summer of 1907; witness the partial repainting of the two right-hand “demoiselles.” Picasso’s description of this experience has often been quoted. African masks, he told Françoise Gilot, served

a sacred purpose, a magic purpose…. Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires.

Couldn’t the same be said of The Fifth Seal? Picasso’s perception of African magic did not rule out his perception of apocalyptic magic; if anything the one validates the other; and it is in the light of these two sacred fires—so different and yet so similar—that the Demoiselles lives up to the artist’s awesome claim to Malraux: “my first exorcism picture…absolutely!”

Yes, exorcism is unquestionably a key aspect of the Demoiselles, just as it is a key aspect of African masks and El Greco’s Fifth Seal. Given that the Apocalypse was the ultimate exorcism, I think we are entitled to see Picasso in the role of the vengeful Lamb of God described by Saint John: “He that sat upon the throne and said ‘Behold I make all things new…. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.”’ Doesn’t the Demoiselles stand, like The Fifth Seal, for a Second Coming, for the end of the old, the dawn of the new? And doesn’t it afford us a revelation of divine purpose—the revelation of Saint Pablo the Demonic instead of Saint John the Divine?

  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).

  10. 10

    Cambridge University Press, 1986.

  11. 11

    Lydia Gasman, Art as a Form of Magic in Picasso (Yale University Press, forthcoming).

  12. 12

    Elizabeth Hutton Turner has made the interesting suggestion that the pose of the central “demoiselle,” with arms upraised, derives from an academic photograph entitled “indulgence,” published in L’Etude Académique, November 15, 1906. See her article, “Who is in the Brothel of Avignon? A Case for Context,” Artibus et Historiae (Vienna), Vol. 9, 1984.

  13. 13

    William Rubin, “Pablo and Georges and Leo and Bill,” Art in America (March-April, 1979).