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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Exploring Picasso’s Málaga

A scenic walk in Malaga, Spain, March 28, 2023. One of the best places to learn about pre-celebrity Picasso is the late artist’s childhood home of Málaga, the Mediterranean port city where a museum bearing his name draws nearly 700,000 visitors a year.

By Andrew Ferren

In honor of this year’s 50th anniversary of the death of Pablo Picasso, museums and other cultural institutions are pulling out all the stops, with about 50 exhibitions and events in the United States and Europe. Some offer novel perspectives on the celebrated artist’s seven-decade career: At the Cincinnati Art Museum, “Picasso Landscapes: Out of Bounds” focuses exclusively on the artist’s landscapes, while at the Musée Picasso, Paris, the British menswear designer Paul Smith has added bold stripes and saturated hues to the walls where some of Picasso’s best known masterpieces are displayed.

But one of the best places to discover pre-celebrity Picasso is his hometown, Málaga, the Andalusian port city on the southern Mediterranean coast of Spain. This is where the artist was born and, long before he became a household name, where his extraordinary artistic talent became evident to his father, José Ruiz Blasco, a painter and an art teacher, and the rest of his family, as well as their circle of artist friends.

Though the family relocated to A Coruña in northern Spain when Pablo was 9 years old, and he would go on to study and live in Madrid and Barcelona before settling in Paris in 1904, Picasso always considered himself a malagueño. Many of the themes first depicted in his youth would continue to appear in his art until the end of his life.

“He adored Spain and always honored his Andalusian roots,” said his grandson, Bernard Picasso, in a telephone interview. “You can see it in the colors he used, the bullfighting imagery, the Mediterranean.”

Picasso last visited Spain in the mid-1930s, shortly before the Spanish Civil War, which ended in 1939 with Gen. Francisco Franco establishing a military dictatorship that endured nearly 40 years, outlasting Picasso’s own life by more than a year. The artist, who abhorred the repressive regime, never returned to his homeland again.

Were he to turn up in Málaga today, Picasso might be shocked to find a museum bearing his name — the Museo Picasso Málaga opened in 2003 and now draws nearly 700,000 visitors a year. Then again, given his reputation for having an outsize ego, maybe he wouldn’t be surprised at all by the museum, though he’d likely be charmed to find his childhood home, the square where he used to play, the church where he was baptized, as well as the art academy where his father taught — not to mention the city’s famous bullring, cathedral and other landmarks — pretty much just as he left them.

I chose to begin my 2023 Picasso immersion tour in Málaga, though not at the Picasso Museum or even at the artist’s childhood home, itself a charming museum. Instead, I started by climbing the hundreds of stairs that rise from Málaga’s first-century B.C. Roman theater to the Alcazaba, the Moorish hilltop fortress begun in the 11th century that overlooks the city and port from Mount Gibralfaro. Besides the sweeping views it offers of the entire city, the fortress is emblematic of the layering of Mediterranean history, symbols and mythology that Picasso would employ repeatedly in his art.

The Moors essentially used the Roman theater as a stone quarry to build the Alcazaba, which appears as a fortress on the outside, but inside shelters a sprawling series of rooms, patios, arcades, lush plantings and countless gurgling fountains. It goes a long way to revealing the idyllic aspects of the Mediterranean lifestyle and reinforces the city’s identity as a truly ancient hub of Mediterranean civilization, which began with the Phoenicians, who first established the settlement they named Malaka in the seventh century B.C.

That deeply layered Mediterranean heritage is abundant in Picasso’s many self-referential takes on such classical themes as the Minotaur, Pan and the idealized seaside Arcadian mythology with which he identified, and sometimes employed to portray his family, throughout his life.

My next stop was the Museum of Málaga in its gorgeous new home in the city’s former customs house, which, while it doesn’t have the name Picasso in the title, offers a fuller picture of the city’s artistic history before its most famous native son arrived on the scene. The museum, which reopened in its new location in 2016, provides an amazingly thorough and detailed chronicle of Málaga from the earliest days of classical antiquity to well into the 20th century. There’s a particularly wonderful display and explanation of the city’s cultural boom in the 19th century, when local artists excelled at portraiture and historical painting, and also depicted Málaga’s social gatherings and revelry. Paintings of elegant garden parties, moonlit festivities on the beach, and raucous celebrations after bullfights offer a delightful snapshot of the city’s ebullient fin-de-siècle social and cultural scene.

“Everyone asks how this creative genius could have come out of sleepy Málaga,” said Ana Gonzalez, a guide who left her job in the museum world to found a tour company, Arteduca Málaga, that works with multiple museums and sites to offer a more comprehensive approach to the city, including Picasso’s place within it.

“The reality is that Picasso was born in the right place, at the right time and in the right context. His father was an artist and teacher of painting, and many of his friends were artists who knew to encourage and foster the young boy’s talent,” she said. “When Picasso showed promise as a draftsman, he was given all the materials he needed.”

While not exactly among the city’s new movers and shakers — Picasso’s father often struggled financially — the Ruiz Picasso family enjoyed relative middle-class comfort as evidenced by a visit to Casa Natal, a small museum in the house where Pablo was born. Downstairs, an exhibition space focuses mostly on his prints and drawings as well as several of the artist’s sketchbooks. But it really sets the scene with insightful Picasso quotes — “I have never done children’s drawings. Never. Even when I was very small” — and archival photos covering many aspects of Picasso’s life, from his childhood in Málaga to later candid shots from restaurants and bullfights in the South of France, and wonderful images of him playing on the beach or bobbing in the sea with his young children. Upstairs are period furnishings, family heirlooms and more stories about the family’s life in Málaga.

The house sits at the corner of the Plaza de la Merced, which had an outdoor market in Picasso’s day, so it would have been a colorful and lively place to grow up. Steps from the plaza on Calle Granada is the Parish Church of Santiago Apostal (St. James the Apostle), where Picasso was baptized as a baby. The 16th-century church has a relatively humble facade and a far more ornate interior, with curlicue frosting-like stucco reliefs animating the vaulted ceiling, and a handsomely carved wooden retablo over the altar painted a somber shade of olive green. The very simple baptismal font stands near the rear of the church and might be missed if one is not on the lookout for it.

A hundred yards or so from the church is the entrance of the Museo Picasso Málaga, which features a chronological and thematic overview of the artist’s career, as well as various special exhibitions each year, some dedicated to the charming ceramics Picasso started creating in Vallauris, France, just after World War II. Another gallery typically displays photographs of the artist and his life made by many of the great 20th-century photographers whom he befriended and who had privileged access to him and his family. Opening May 8, the special exhibition “Picasso Sculptor: Matter and Body” is surprisingly the first major exhibition in Spain to focus on the artist’s sculptures.

The building housing the museum was a 16th-century nobleman’s handsome stone palace, now deftly expanded by the New York architect Richard Gluckman to seamlessly blend with the city’s whitewashed buildings. With two floors of galleries around a pretty marble courtyard of the Renaissance palace, the museum tells the story of Picasso’s career with about 250 works — many donated to the museum by Christine Picasso (the wife of Picasso’s oldest son, Paulo) and her son, Bernard.

What astonishes many visitors is not merely the chronological sweep of the artist’s career (more than 70 years) but the range and diversity of painting styles (many of which he invented) and the seemingly boundless materials he transformed into art. There are painted roof tiles; charming sculptures made from bits of scrap metal artfully folded into evocative figures; and ceramic platters transformed into bullrings, with the audience “seated” around the plate’s elevated border and the bullfight occupying the center.

A highlight of the current selection of works is a 1958 tapestry version of Picasso’s groundbreaking 1907 painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” woven by Jacqueline Dürrbach. Only one such tapestry was ever made, and Picasso kept it until the end of his life, hanging it over the fireplace at his villa La Californie in the South of France.

As much of a splash as the museum has made in its first 20 years, there was in fact an earlier attempt to display works by the city’s most celebrated artist. In the mid-1950s, Juan Temboury, then Málaga’s fine arts commissioner, wrote to Picasso’s secretary asking for a few exemplary works to include in the city’s museum. Picasso was said to be delighted and was ready to send two trucks full of artwork. But suddenly there was no further communication from Málaga. Picasso’s son and daughter-in-law, Paulo and Christine, rode a motorbike from southern France to Málaga to investigate, only to discover that a local official of the Franco regime had forbidden the display of Picasso’s work in Málaga.

From that point on, “Pablo Picasso had a strong desire to have a museum in his native city to feature a display of his work,” said Bernard Picasso. “My mother and father tried to help my grandfather make it happen in the 1950s, but it ultimately took another 50 years to become a reality.”

Christine Picasso renewed those efforts in the 1990s by offering to donate a portion of her own collection of Picasso’s work to establish a new museum in the city. Her son Bernard aided in the project with a considerable donation of his own and many ongoing long-term loans. Since the Museo Picasso Málaga opened in 2003, it has helped convert the city into a top cultural destination, not just in Spain, but in southern Europe. In addition to local institutions like CAC, a contemporary art center, and the Museo Carmen Thyssen Málaga, the city has lured satellite branches of the Pompidou and the State Russia Museums. The sidewalks and pretty pedestrian streets of the historic city center once again bustle with pedestrians amid the palm trees, geraniums and bougainvillea.

It’s a far cry from the decaying city center of the 1980s and ’90s, when Málaga’s airport and railway stations were merely steppingstones on the way to the sun-kissed paradise of the Costa del Sol, which stretches west from the city.

“It was inconceivable at the time this museum started to take shape, back in the 1990s, that the city could possibly be so transformed, but it’s fantastic what’s happened with culture in Málaga in the last 20 years,” said Bernard Picasso. “Evidently, people don’t want to just lie on the beach.”

If you go

Within Spain, Málaga is a short flight from both Barcelona and Madrid; the latter is also less than three hours away on Spain’s high-speed AVE rail network. About 300 feet from the Picasso Museum, Hotel Palacio Solecio offers luxury accommodations in a beautifully restored 18th-century palace; doubles from about 300 euros, or about $326. Closer to the port, which has become a restaurant-and-bar hub, the stylish Hotel Only You has doubles starting at 275 euros. Málaga has at least two legacy taverns that remain from Picasso’s day, but despite being founded in 1971 — a mere 52 years ago — the sprawling restaurant, tapas joint and wine bar known as El Pimpi is almost as integral a part of Málaga’s self-image as the city’s most famous artist. Lunch for two, about 40 euros.

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