Art Sleuthing: The Painting Beneath The Picasso

Thanks to modern technology, we are more accustomed to the idea that painters have re-used their own canvases to create different works later on, for various reasons. we don’t often appreciate that sometimes, an artist might reuse the canvas of another artist, as well. Such is the case with a new discovery made at Northwestern University in Chicago, after examining a painting by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) now owned by the Art Gallery of Ontario (“AGO”). That story is interesting enough in itself, but I hope to add some armchair art sleuthing to it, if you’re willing to bear with me.

“La Miséreuse accroupie” (1902) [N.B. which I would have translated as, “Crouching Beggar Woman”, but be that as it may] is a painting from Picasso’s “Blue Period” of 1901-1904, when many of his works were heavily blue in tone and indeed in subject matter. At the time, the young Picasso was both professionally frustrated and severely depressed, a combination that affected his palette and his outlook. He was also spending a great deal of time traveling back and forth between Barcelona and Paris, trying to make a name for himself, and painting in both cities. Alongside his friend the Catalan Post-Impressionist painter Isidre Nonell (1872-1911), with whom he shared studio space in Paris, he spent time observing socially marginalized people, such as the mendicants who sat outside of church doors and on street corners, begging for money or food.

Mendiga

Via a partnership between the AGO and the National Gallery here in DC, scientists at Northwestern were asked to closely examine the painting, since it was apparent that another painting lay underneath the surface that we currently see. Using infrared reflectance hyperspectral imaging and other techniques, they found that the present work was painted over a landscape painting, which had been turned 90 degrees, and elements of which were used by Picasso in completing the final image. It is not known who painted the landscape, and the article does not identify what the landscape depicts.

Underneath

However, gentle reader, while I cannot tell you who painted the landscape, I believe that I can tell you what that landscape depicts: in fact, I recognized it immediately, given the Barcelona context for the painting’s origin.

The round, temple-like structure at the center of the underlying image is almost certainly the pavilion dedicated to Danaë, mistress of Zeus and mother of the Greek hero Perseus, which is located inside the park known as the Laberint d’Horta (“Labyrinth of Horta”), in the NE end of the city. Named for its intricate maze of hedges, the garden was originally laid out in the late 18th century as part of a country estate, and was expanded by the same family over the ensuing decades. Eventually it became a major cultural meeting point, not only for high society, but for thinkers as well.

Horta (2)

Like many of the northern neighborhoods of modern-day Barcelona, Horta was originally a town located a few miles outside of the city. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the well-to-do began to build weekend homes for themselves in these areas, so as to take advantage of the cooler temperatures and more open spaces afforded by these neighborhoods in the foothills of the Collserola Mountains that ring the city. Antoni Gaudí’s famous Park Güell development project is perhaps the most famous example of how the Catalan bourgeoisie began heading to the local hills on the weekend, building Art Nouveau and Beaux Arts mansions for themselves. Over time, the city grew up to swallow the empty spaces that lay between these villages and the downtown core.

By the late 19th century, even though it was still privately held by the family who originally commissioned it, the Laberint d’Horta was functioning as a sort of mini-Bois de Boulogne, where fashionable people could go to stroll or sit outdoors, and sometimes to hear concerts or see plays. When Spanish kings and queens came to visit the city, receptions and entertainments were often provided for them there. Artists, architects, and writers from the Modernista movement, the Catalan equivalent of Art Nouveau, came up to the park to stretch their legs and think great thoughts.

Here, for example, is an 1898 photograph of Joan Maragall i Gorina (1860-1911), Catalonia’s greatest poet, along with the painter, critic, and architect Miquel Utrillo i Morlius (1862-1934), father of the French painter and Maurice Utrillo (1883-1955). The two men are shown standing just outside the park’s Danaë Pavilion, which (I believe) is shown in the original work beneath Picasso’s painting. Picasso knew and admired both of these men, as well as the others with whom they formed the artistic and intellectual avant-garde in Barcelona while he was an art student there.

Maragall

In fact, Miquel Utrillo was one of the first publishers to take Picasso’s work seriously. He not only helped to organize and promote Picasso’s first participation in a commercial art exhibition, at the Sala Parés gallery in Barcelona in 1901, but he also wrote about the young artist in magazines which he had either co-founded or published. Meanwhile, Maragall’s embrace of a kind of intellectual anarchism, combined with imagery of curving, undulating landscape being evocative of the female form in his poetry and essays, had a lifetime impact on Picasso’s work.

Given the fairly apparent relationship of the landscape painting to the appearance of the gardens around the temple of Danaë at Horta, as well as knowing something more about the importance of Horta as a location during the period of time when Picasso painted over this scene, I’m fairly confident that this identification is correct, as far as subject matter. As to who actually painted the landscape, there are various possibilities to consider.

Could the landscape have been the work of a fellow, struggling young artist in Barcelona, who was unsatisfied with his painting and about to throw it away, when the equally-struggling Picasso asked if he could take the canvas? Could it be a canvas pinched from Picasso’s artist father, José Ruiz y Blasco, who taught at the art school in Barcelona and, when not painting images of birds, painted somewhat conventional landscapes and seascapes? Or could it be an early, teenaged work by Picasso himself, left behind in the closet at his parents’ apartment, which he decided to repurpose rather than throw in the trash?

Perhaps science will be able to tell us, but for now, that’s one mystery solved, another to go.

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Visiting Vicens: Gaudí’s First House Opens To The Public

One of the things I’m hoping to see when I head to Barcelona in a few weeks is the Casa Vicens, the first private home designed by the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926). It was originally built to serve as a weekend retreat for a Barcelona stockbroker, over 125 years ago. The house served as a private residence until as recently as 2014, but as of this November, it has been opened to the public as a museum.

Regular readers will recall that I previously wrote about the ongoing restoration efforts at the Casa Vicens, a house which features a dazzling variety of materials and construction methods, both inside and out. As you can imagine, there had been a lot of wear and tear on the building, as happens in any home that is actually lived in. Yet while parts of the house were altered over the years, visitors to the new museum will still be able to witness many of the extraordinary architectural and design juxtapositions which the young Gaudí was able to pull off.

From the multimedia gallery on the museum’s website, I wanted to point out a few of the amazing details of the house, which was nothing like Barcelona – or indeed the rest of the world for that matter – had ever seen before. Here we see part of the façade of the house, along with its extraordinary gate and sidewalk railing. The color scheme is a mixture of salmon, turquoise, peach, and green, while an unusual range of materials from brick and stone to tile and concrete give some hint of the extraordinary design elements that await the visitor inside. Note also the ornate yet rather modern-looking wrought iron gate, which is composed of a series of panels in the form of palm fronds.

Facade

Once inside, many of the public rooms of the house have spectacular ceilings featuring bright color schemes, which forgo tradition and subtlety in order to achieve maximum impact. For example, this detail shows that Gaudí was quite capable of creating a ceiling design reminiscent of Perpendicular Gothic, which most architects would have left white. Here however, the stucco and tile elements are executed in a cobalt blue and a chartreuse yellow-green.

Ceiling

Here we see one of the public rooms of the house, with another extraordinary ceiling – this time of scallop shells and roses. The walls are covered with faux marble wainscoting below, and two-tone cranberry red plasterwork of vines up above. This room gives onto a tiled loggia, where the openings are simplified forms of architectural shapes that one would expect to see in Islamic buildings.

Interior

Head upstairs to one of the bathrooms, normally one of the more utilitarian areas of a house, and the unusual juxtapositions continue. Here, the architect places modern-looking corbels and compound support beams above a Pompeian red plaster wall with arcade detailing, baby blue and white checkerboard tile wainscoting, a slim chair rail border composed of tiles decorated with quinces and leaves, and bright yellow flowers festooned across the ceiling panels. Considered individually, none of these things should go together, and yet the overall effect is that of an ancient Roman bath somewhere in Provence

Bathroom

Finally, up on the roof of the house, we can admire a detail which hardly anyone would have ever seen up close, even when the house was filled with guests. The maids would have come up here to perform tasks requiring sunshine and breezes, such as drying the household laundry or beating the dust out of rugs. They would have seen not only the colorful elements of the building’s façade, but also this almost Mid-Century Modern railing of flowers contained within simplified, circular vines. The delicate design belies the sturdy, wrought iron craftsmanship that went into their execution.

Railing

Now, if you find all of this too much to take, don’t worry about it. Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by this house, but I understand that it may not be to everyone’s taste. And truth be told, I wouldn’t want to live in it, myself. (Where would I hang all the paintings?)

That being said however, you certainly can’t call the Casa Vicens a boring piece of architecture or design. The young Gaudí, with his first major commission to complete, and his patron, a man who clearly didn’t fear trying something bold and original in his own home, managed to create a truly unique house, and to do so with a great deal of self-confidence and aplomb. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to finally have a wander around the place.

The Curious Conundrum Of Catalan Vs. Castilian Coffee

I’ve recently returned from spending the holidays in Spain, which began with Christmas in Barcelona followed by New Year’s in Madrid. I also spent my summer vacation visiting both cities, enjoying time with family, great art/architecture, music, and of course, food. Yet a curious aspect of both trips was something which confused me and my traveling companions on both occasions: why was the coffee in Barcelona so good, and the coffee in Madrid so terrible?

Back in May/June, when traveling with an American friend with ancestors from Catalonia, I introduced him to what is called a “tallat” in Catalan, and a “cortado” in Spanish, which is essentially espresso that has a shot of steamed milk mixed in with it. It’s similar to the Italian “macchiato”, although in Italy they use milk foam rather than warm milk. [NOTE: the flavored “macchiato” that you order in Starbucks bears no resemblance whatsoever to the real thing.] We began at Francesco, my favorite local café on the Passeig de Gràcia in Barcelona, where we went for breakfast every morning, but we also ordered it in many places around town. It was always hot, creamy, sweet, and delicious, no matter where we drank it.

When we got to Madrid, it was as if we had moved to another country where the same word meant something completely different, like how in Spain a “tortilla” is an omelet, whereas in Mexico it is a flat disc usually made of corn. During our entire time in Madrid, every cortado that we ordered was terrible: tepid, thin, watery, and bitter, whether it was in a corner bar or in a swanky restaurant. I was genuinely confused and apologetic, and wondered whether we were just having bad luck, but this seemed improbable given the wide variety of places where we drank it.

Over Christmas break the situation repeated itself. We drank cortados at Francesco every morning for breakfast, but we also drank them elsewhere. We had cortados for elevenses or after a meal at various restaurants and cafes in Barcelona, and we had them at the seaside in the resort town of Sitges, about a half hour south of the city. While Francesco is unquestionably the best, even at these other establishments, the coffee was always good.

In Madrid, the cortados were once again a serious disappointment. We tried corner bars, nice restaurants, and even the café at The Prado, but the only place where we were able to get a good cortado was at an Illy café located across from the Mercado de San Miguel in Old Madrid. The fact that this was an Italian establishment was not insignificant, because unlike virtually every coffee chain in this country that claims to make espresso-based drinks – which in fact taste like burnt worm excrement soaked in muddy water masked by large quantities of corn syrup – Italians do it better, as the saying goes.

While café society in Madrid looked to France for inspiration, coffee culture in Barcelona was heavily influenced by the coffee culture in Northern Italy, Sardinia, and the Italian cantons of Switzerland. Although the French originally invented the espresso machine, Italians bring the hot water in their espresso machines up to about 195 degrees Fahrenheit, so that espresso drinks prepared in this way arrive at your table nice and hot. While I can’t be certain, I suspect that the inevitably tepid coffee in Madrid is at least partially the result of not getting the water in their espresso machines hot enough.

Many Italian restauranteurs opened restaurants and cafes for the Barcelona bourgeoisie during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The now-gone Torino, for example, was an opulent establishment opened by the equally opulently-named Flaminio Mezzalama of Turin in 1902. It marked the only architectural and design collaboration between two of the greatest rivals for Art Nouveau outlandishness in Barcelona at the time, Gaudí and Puig i Cadafalch. As you can see here, it was quite a magnificent building.

And then there is the problem of the coffee roasting itself.

During the period of austerity which followed the Spanish Civil War, Spanish coffee importers began using a processing method called torrefacto, in which the beans are roasted with large quantities of sugar. This helps the beans to keep longer in storage, by coating them in a black film of burnt sugar. This coating comes off when the beans are ground for making coffee, and the result is the bitter, nasty aftertaste that we were experiencing. Even though the lean years of the Civil War era are long over, at least some Spaniards developed a taste for this abomination, I suppose in the way that many American GI’s during World War II developed a taste for spam, which is why you can still find this product on just about every grocery store shelf in America.

As a result, torrefacto-processed coffee is still widely and commonly used throughout Spain, either on its own or blended with other beans. You can even buy it from Spanish food importers in the U.S. (dear Lord, why would you do this?) However it turns out that Barcelona has long been in the vanguard of finally casting off this dark shadow. For years now, Catalan coffee importers and roasters have been rejecting the torrefacto process, in favor of single-source beans and bean blends roasted in the traditional way. This, in combination with the Italian coffee preparation methods that are a long-standing part of coffee culture in places like Barcelona, explains why the same drink tastes so much better in Barcelona, than it does in Madrid.

If you ever get the chance to visit both Barcelona and Madrid, visit any corner bar in the morning, and you will quite literally be able to taste the difference between the coffee cultures of these two cities. Taste is largely individual, of course, so it may be that you prefer the inky, oily taste of Castilian coffee. But for my money, when I’m back in Madrid this summer I’m sticking to the Italian coffee shops – or ordering a cup of tea.

Caffe Francesco, Barcelona