Jay Stone pays a visit to five stone mansions filled with sun-faced ceramics and sunburned tourists taking in once-outré art, now made safe by fame
By Jay Stone
Barcelona, Spain — Among the many things the savvy traveller must do, once he has wiped the tapas crumbs out of his beard, is to tour the Picasso Museum, situated in the colourful El Born neighbourhood. El Born is reminiscent of Old Montreal: cobbled streets, ancient buildings, gentrified restaurants, the same duality of language. In Spain, Catalan is the language of the oppressed minority, and Spanish cereal boxes come with instructions in both Spanish and Catalan. My morning museli has “5 frutas” and “5 desecadas” and everyone’s happy, especially me.
But you were asking about Picasso. The artist (1881-1973) lived in Barcelona during his teenage formative years, and the museum, spread across five old stone mansions linked with cool courtyards, traces his early history. There’s also a lot of stuff he did in Malaga, Madrid, Cannes (where he seems to have been obsessed by the local pigeon population) and elsewhere, but only in Barcelona are you a stone’s throw from the 4 Cats, where a bunch of the boys used to hang out during their boho days and where we have lunch reservations on Monday. It’s all part of the All-Food, All-Cubism tour that I’ve organized for myself.
Of course, you seek clues to the influence of Barcelona on the art, and they must be there: it’s too much of a coincidence that Picasso, Gaudi, Miro, Dali and others were so driven to the surreal edges of perception. There’s something in the air here, or in the light or (very likely, this one) in the wine. However, aside from a drawing of Barcelona beach featuring a horse standing in the sand — one of the many works that proved that Picasso could draw a horse that looked like a horse when he wanted to — there’s not much.
What great art, however: the wild colours, the eyes all bunched up on one side of the face, the triangles of features poking this way and that. At one stage, Picasso was obsessed with Valesquez and the museum here features 57 works inspired by the earlier artist’s Las Meninas, sometimes done a day apart and with only minute differences. There are ceramics festooned with human faces or happy suns, and, set off by itself, the 1957 lithograph Vase of Flowers that is a delicate stalk of blues and reds, flat against the magic light.
The gift shop is also pretty swell (you can get erasers in the shape of Picasso doves) and lends itself, as does the entire enterprise to thoughts of an audience. For indeed, as we all troop through in our shorts and sandals — fat men, chunky women, bored children, the entire lot of the modern tourist crowd — you again realize that what was once shocking and outré is now safe and famous, there to be seen because everyone’s heard of Picasso. Still, there’s power here, and genius, untamed by being stuck in a museum or viewed by the masses.
There’s a pretty good pasta place around the corner too, if you can get past the gypsy klezmer band and a guy selling little Home and Marge Simpson toys that shuffle along the cobbled pavement. I resisted, but I probably should have grabbed a dove eraser.