Between 1899 and 1903, Picasso turned out some 21 portraits of the Barcelonan artist Santiago Rusiñol. It is quite a tribute: of Picasso’s artist friends few were portrayed more. As a new exhibition at Barcelona’s Museu Picasso reveals, Rusiñol greatly impressed the young painter and shaped his enduring notions about the role of the artist in the world. Which is not bad going for a painter who has since slipped into undeserved obscurity.
In a fascinating array of drawings and paintings by both men, Picasso versus Rusiñol charts the course of a type of conflictive friendship that would recur throughout Picasso’s career. First comes admiration and fusion; then parody and separation; then years later (when Picasso had long outlived his competitor) a rueful reappraisal. Of such liaisons in Picasso’s life, Matisse and Gris may be better known – but Rusiñol was the first.
The story centres on Els Quatre Gats, the arty café founded in Barcelona by Rusiñol in 1897. Here, jobbing artist Ángel Fernández de Soto, the subject of Picasso’s The Absinthe Drinker of 1903, propped up the bar. This picture is to be auctioned on Wednesday at Christie’s London, carrying a pre-sale estimate of £30m-£40m.
Picasso’s other friends of the time were the equally obscure Carles Casagemes and Isidro Nonell. The suicide of the former in 1901 was a significant emotional trigger for the Blue Period, while the atrophied, attenuated figures of Nonell gave Picasso many vital elements for his poetics of melancholy and despair.
Guiding them all was Rusiñol himself, a man largely responsible for the cultural transformation of Barcelona in the last decade of the century. In 1899, Picasso was a young outsider from the uncouth south, with one blurred magazine reproduction to his name (which the editors had managed to misspell). The exhibition opens with a sheet of paper from that year, which Picasso had filled with signatures – not his own but those of the man he wanted first to be, then to supersede.
Rusiñol was born in 1861, the rebel son of a rich industrialist. A “total” artist (he wrote novels and plays too), he came back from Paris in the 1880s to discomfit his fellow Barcelona painters with empty cityscapes in Whistlerian grey tones. Shocking the local bourgeoisie was hardly much of a task: as the student Picasso would discover, a rigid classicism held sway in the city’s art schools, a style which Rusiñol, a proud autodidact, would challenge from the bar of Els Quatre Gats. With his shovel beard, the older artist looked like DH Lawrence but acted more like Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In his most notorious pictures, beautiful, addicted young women clutch the bedsheets with slender fingers: the opium chic of its day.
Rusiñol was also an event organiser, adept at pageantry. The riotous modernista festivals he mounted in the nearby fishing port of Sitges championed the long-forgotten work of El Greco, who was largely thought of at the time as weird or mad. Rusiñol, determined to reclaim him as the model of the misunderstood, mystical artist, paraded two El Grecos he had bought through the streets of Sitges in an “enthronement” ceremony.
A few sessions in Els Quatre Gats, in 1899, and Picasso soon had what he wanted. Rusiñol purchased several of the tyro painter’s pictures, his admirer reciprocating with a series of portraits that perfectly captured Rusiñol’s self-image: hands behind his back, pipe jutting and eyes lowered, conveying both the sense of a mover and shaker, and a melancholy loner. A series of Picasso’s cityscapes, tinted in blue from 1902 and 1903, owe a direct debt to Rusiñol’s own offbeat landscapes. Cultivated gloom, or “the beauty of horror” as one contemporary put it, seeped through fin-de-siècle Barcelona. In Rusiñol’s 1897 picture of a monk, a face floats deathly pallid from the shadows, while psychedelic gleams of colour streak past like phantoms. A few years later, a strikingly similar, long, bony face looms out of Picasso’s portrait of his doomed friend Casagemes.
Over and above formal influences, what Rusiñol almost certainly bequeathed to Picasso was an important and enduring idea. This was found not in Rusiñol’s art but in one of his plays (a commercial success at the time) entitled The Joy that Passes. It depicts a village whose residents are trapped by “prose” until a passing troupe of clowns offer the enslaved villagers “poetry”. In the end, bound to their prosaic bourgeois conventions, the villagers reject the clowns, who move on.
Picasso prepared his own tribute to the work: a pencil sketch of Rusiñol surrounded by pierrots. The notion of the clown-artist, rejected but redemptively powerful, seems to have been a potent one to a young artist barely out of his teens. Disguise, central to Rusiñol’s aesthetic, later fed in to Picasso’s repertoire of harlequins and minotaurs.
The adulation could not last, though. After Picasso’s return from his successful trip to Paris in early 1903, his break with Barcelona was inevitable, and he attacked Rusiñol’s reputation in a series of bawdy drawings. In one, his former hero is heavily pregnant. Another goes by the self-explanatory title “Glory and the Critic: Santiago Rusiñol sodomised”.
There is, however, a postscript to Picasso’s first, high-profile professional divorce. In the 1960s, just turned 80, he suddenly turned out a whole series of lino-cuts based on a story written long before by Rusiñol, entitled Senyor Esteve. This obscure allegorical tale centred on a solid Barcelona burgher whose grandson dares to be an artist. The show culminates with a side-by-side comparison of Picasso’s late homage and the original, naïf illustrations for the novel itself.
When these etchings were first produced in 1962, most critics talked of Ingres: they had no idea that it referred to Rusiñol’s story, probably because few remembered who Rusiñol was. The clues may lie in the Picasso-like figure at the centre of the family group in the story, occupying the place of the bourgeois Senyor Esteve. Was this a late, double-edged nod to Rusiñol, an admission that the once cheeky rebel artist was now famous and rich?
It is as if, hedged around with courtiers and admirers (one of the figures has been identified as Jean Cocteau) Picasso was still interrogating his role in the world. Who am I? What do they want me to be? What do I want to be? They are the questions Rusiñol himself had posed, and the questions Picasso would never stop asking.
‘Picasso versus Rusiñol’, Museu Picasso, Barcelona, until September 5. www.museupicasso.bcn.es
Bumpy road to star billing
Picasso’s “Portrait of Ángel Fernández de Soto”, sometimes called “The Absinthe Drinker”, is one of the star lots in Christie’s impressionist/modern sale in London next week. Picasso met de Soto – an artist whom he later called “an amusing wastrel” – in a bohemian café in Barcelona at the end of the 19th century. The two became close friends and shared a studio in Barcelona, writes Griselda Murray Brown.
The portrait was painted in 1903 at the height of Picasso’s Blue Period, a time when he was having to solicit funds from his family to make ends meet; its estimate in Wednesday’s sale is £30m£ 40m.
The road to auction has been a bumpy one. For the past four years the painting has been the subject of a restitution case between the Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation and Julius Schoeps, a German academic whose ancestor sold the painting in 1934.
The English composer bought the work in 1995 for £18m and put it up for auction again in 2006. In a surprising turn of events, the work was withdrawn just two days before it was due to go under the hammer following Schoeps’ claim that his great-uncle, the Jewish banker and art collector Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, had sold it as a consequence of Nazi persecution.
Lloyd Webber rejected the claim and a New York court ruled that Schoeps had failed to establish himself as a “rightful heir” to the painting. Schoeps’ subsequent appeals failed and the two sides reached a settlement in December 2009.
The de Soto portrait is not the only Picasso to cause trouble in recent years: in February 2009, Schoeps and other family members settled a dispute with New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Foundation over two other works that had belonged to Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.