"Picasso Speaks" (July 1957)
The Paris art critic for The Christian Science Monitor recounts a visit with Pablo Picasso at his home. By Carlton Lake
The year 1895, when Pablo Picasso was thirteen, brought his initiation into two mysteries—the mystery of power and the mystery of death. On January 10 his seven-year-old sister, Conchita, died of diptheria. Picasso watched her deteriorate from the smiling little girl with the blonde curls whom he had so tenderly drawn to the ghost of herself that he drew just before death snatched her away. He watched the desperate comings and goings of Dr. Ramon Perez Costales, a friend of his father's. He watched his parents' struggle to save his sister; and he watched bewildered as they celebrated Christmas and Epiphany and gave presents to the children, trying to shield Conchita from any knowledge of approaching death. In his anguish Picasso made a terrible pact with God. He offered to sacrifice his gift to Him and never pick up a brush again if He would save Conchita. And then he was torn between wanting her saved and wanting her dead so that his gift would be saved. When she died, he decided that God was evil and destiny an enemy. At the same time, he was convinced that it was his ambivalence that had made it possible for God to kill Conchita. His guilt was enormous—the other side of his belief in his powers to affect the world around him. And it was compounded by his almost magical conviction that his little sister's death had released him to be a painter and follow the call of the powers he had been given, whatever the consequences.
AFTER CONCHITA'S death the family moved from Corunna, in the northwest corner of Spain, to Barcelona. During his early days there Picasso did a revealing drawing, Christ Blessing the Devil, which was evidence of the deep conflict raging within him. Christ, with a shining aura around his head, is blessing with his left hand an overwhelmed Devil. At the same time he painted The Holy Family in Egypt and Altar to the Blessed Virgin. In 1896 came an abundance of religious pictures: Christ appearing to a nun, Christ being adorned by the angels, the Annunciation, the Last Supper, the Resurrection.
A year after he drew Christ Blessing the Devil, he gave tender expression to some of the most powerful symbols of religious worship, but he also did a picture of Christ with no face—impersonal, unreal, and with no answers. Catholicism, with its emphasis on ethical rules and the rewards of heaven, held no answers for Picasso, with his growing passion for freedom and this world. He would reject the Church, but he could not stop himself from returning throughout his life to the figure of Christ, as a symbol of his own suffering, in the same way that he would bury his transcendent longings but could not extinguish them.
TALK of nihilism, catalanism, anarchism, and modernism filled the smoky air of Els Quatre Gats, Picasso's main haunt in Barcelona. Els Quatre Gats was from the beginning a huge success, "a Gothic tavern for those in love with the North," where Uerillo staged puppet shows, where Rusinol, Casas, and Nonell, among other painters, showed their work, and where anyone with an apocalyptic gleam in his eye would gravitate to discuss the new ideas. Enthusiasm contended with a sense of futility, and the urge to create with the compulsion to destroy. The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin was one of the imported heroes of Els Quatre Gats: "Let us put our trust in the eternal spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unsearchable and eternally creative source of all life. The urge to destroy is also a creative urge."
Such was the intellectual milk that nourished Picasso in Barcelona at the turn of the century. Uneducated but quick to learn, he devoured ideas and philosophies through his friends who had read and absorbed them. Nietzsche's Will to Power struck an especially powerful chord in Picasso's heart. Power was the only value set up by Nietzsche to take the place of the transcendent values that had lost their meaning for modern man. And Picasso, for whom transcendent values were associated with Spain's repressive Church, found that Nietzsche's philosophy admirably suited his own needs and dreams of power.
PICASSO arrived in Paris just a few days before his nineteenth birthday, speaking no French and having no place to stay. At the beginning it did not seem to matter where he lived. Most of his time was spent on the streets, at cafés, in the Louvre, at the Universal Exhibition, at the Grand and Petit Palais, in the odd whorehouse.