Pablo Picasso was born on October 25th 1881 at house No 15 in Plaza de la Merced, Malaga. The family lived in a third floor apartment with a grandmother and maternal aunts; with two sisters and a brother to come, there can have been little room to spare. The building is still there but nothing remains of the original interior; instead, the curators offer displays of artefacts and some furnishings that suggest or are similar to what is known of his home.
Why visit a birthplace? What can it tell us that isn’t available in a biography? The most obvious answer is the physical and visual impact of the building and the surrounding area. Plaza de la Merced is in a central area of Malaga. The houses are tall, generously proportioned and well mannered with shutters and balconies. This would have been a pleasant environment with a sense of status but also with close neighbours and a community. And what could be more nurturing and secure than the sunny climate …that brightness of the blue sky and the reliable heat. There is no dourness here.
Picasso’s father, Don Jose Ruiz, was a technically competent but uninspired painter of still lifes who taught at the School of Fine Arts and was a curator of the municipal collection. I cannot remember ever having seen an example of his work before. But here in the house many of his canvasses have been gathered together with some of Picasso’s earliest works. They bring home the fact that Picasso was born into a world saturated with art and painting. And some of his subjects – doves in particular – are there in his childhood.
Of the various artefacts – the christening gown, the documentation, photographs – little comes to life. Young Pablo lived here for only his first 10 years before the family moved to La Corunna and then to Barcelona. Still those first ten years are very important. Picasso’s first school was just round the corner and close to his father’s place of work. He did not like school and often played truant. He was both too clever and already too interested in art. But that close proximity and the maze of narrow streets that make up the old centre of Malaga, and the ships and coast near by – all help to give one a feeling of Picasso’s beginnings – what he saw at an early age – and what contributed to his felt experience.
Birthplaces are one thing and endings are another. There may be a trajectory but we do not have to be defined by our beginnings and Picasso certainly was not. However modest our talents by comparison, still, like him we can choose to be defined by our potential.
Camille Corot 1796 - 1875
On a recent trip to France I had the pleasure of walking through a ravine called the Corot trail where followers of the artist identified landscape that was inspirational to him.
Corot, influenced by Poussin, painted supremely classical landscapes with mythological figures – cool, detached, lofty; but later he moved into a freer, sensual and poetic style. He was the later Nineteenth Century’s painters’ painter, revered by the Impressionists and known as’ Papa Corot’.
He came from a comfortably-off bourgeois background - his father a Parisian wig-make (later a cloth merchant) his mother a fashionable milliner in Paris; Camille never lost his respect for their exacting manners or his pleasure in their company. They could afford a good education for him albeit at boarding schools from a very early age so that he seems to have suffered some emotional underdevelopment. He tried to please them by becoming a draper but, by his teens, his heart was already in painting. He longed to break free.
Unlike so many of his artist friends (he was popular with his contemporaries) he never had to scramble for a living. In his mid- twenties, after the sudden illness and death of his only sister, his parents blessed his ambitions and gave him the income from her dowry as an allowance. So, although his fame and his own material wealth only came late in his career, he was always just comfortable enough.
He never married but was not, as Ian Nightingale puts it in his book Corot, ‘impervious to feminine charms’ and did fall in love with one of his mother’s seamstresses. Marriage would have been too much of a distraction and Corot was entirely dedicated to his art - always working long hours en plein air whenever possible. In his youth he was familiar with red light districts both in France and Italy – and although appreciative of sensual pleasure was mindful of the costs. He was a kind and considerate man - deeply religious: everyday he would read Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and throughout his life carried out many acts of charity to his fellow artists.
While browsing biographies and picture books I found a gem – an old biography from 1908. Old biographies are so interesting in style and approach. While the authors may be outdated and unreliable, they were often living much closer to the time of their subject and interesting material is to be gleaned from their work. If you saw the recent Television programme on Van Gogh’s Ear you may recall the art historian, Bernadette Murphy, finding crucial clues in old biographies.
Everard Meynell’s Corot and His Friends presents a Corot who is too pure by half – no mention of the brothels here. On the other hand Meynell brings some Edwardian colour to the description of Corot’s time in Rome where he and his friends (mostly younger artists) would gather in the evening after a long day’s painting to enjoy company and food at a café called Il Lepre – The Hare – which was popular for its low prices and inventive chef. Corot was known for his singing – he sang at the easel, he sang at home (often to the discomfort of his neighbours) and no doubt he sang at these evening meetings that were so important to the development of the artists' ideas about their work.
Meynell writes, “It (Il Lepre) was the chief dining-place of the youth of the studios, and its proprietors were not without a sense of the spirit of their customers. If the young Romanticists came to their tables with the gleam of a crimson sash at the waist and swung athwart their chairs the swaggering folds of a Spanish cloak, they, the proprietors, on their part brought colour and a strain of rarity to the carta. The cuoco even experimented with roast parrot, and found pleasure and fame in the exotics of the saucepan.” (Page 42)
Meynell says that Il Lepre, on the Via Condotti near the Piazza di Spagna, was still in existence when he wrote in the early years of the twentieth century...and that Thackeray used it in one of his novels – which makes me think about the importance of cafés in the life of artists and writers. It takes a certain kind of patron to tolerate or enjoy these colourful and no doubt troublesome customers. (How many bars can you find which are named after or associated with Hemingway?)
But for the moment my interest is caught by the biographer Everard Meynell – one of the eight children of Alice and Wilfrid Meynell, who together formed a nexus of the Edwardian London literary world. I have long wanted to write about Alice and her sister, the military painter, Elizabeth Butler. A book on the Meynells for at least three generations is surely long overdue. They will be the subject of my next blog.
©Victoria Manthorpe 2016 Photographs courtesy Peter Jamieson
author and feature writer
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