© Succession Pablo Picasso. VEGAP 2016
Working processes: Àngels Borrell, Reyes Jiménez and Anna Vélez
Estudi B2, Elena Pardo y Rubén Ventureira
This portrait of María Picasso (MPB 110.016) is one of the emblematic paintings of the Museu Picasso of Barcelona. Dated by the artist in 1896, it was produced in a singular moment, when, leaving behind his childhood in Galicia, he began his adolescence stimulated by his arrival in Barcelona and entering the school of la Llotja.
Despite the fact that painting his mother was something natural for the young Picasso, in this case he achieved a referential portrait; carried with a refined and vibrant technique, it stands out compared with previous small-format sketches produced of María in drawing albums. What is surprising is the apparent ease shown by the artist in the way that he employs a complex technique such as pastel, as well as his choice of such an ambitious format: by representing the model life sized, he gives the portrait an official status, worthy of a dedicated pastel painter.
The work remained in the family home in Barcelona until it became part of the museum collection thanks to the generous donation by the artist in 1970.
Observing from life: the family as a model
The portrait as an independent genre played a notable role in the first paintings of Picasso. During his years of learning, the family setting would provide a good creative ambience, and his parents and his sister Lola were the most accessible models.
Barely eleven years old, Picasso entered the Provincial School of Fine Arts of La Coruña (Da Guarda), where, under the guardianship of his father, a teacher at the centre, he began his academic practice, focusing on the principles of drawing.
Disciplining his hand, as an ordered precept, would allow him to awaken his talent while providing him with an early perception of the art of antiquity. However, particularly when faced with these academic exercises, whose execution was based on true copies of plaster casts, it is in the works based on life drawing where the talent of the budding artist can be perceived.
When, in February 1895, Picasso exhibited some of his paintings for the first time in a shop window of La Coruña, the local press augured a bright future for him.
Picasso always felt proud of the works that he produced in La Coruña. Perhaps that’s why he retained many of them, which kept them from being spread among private collections. Today they make up an exceptional documentary corpus for the analysis of his early stylistic evolution. If the interpretation of the life model would lead to very lifelike portraits, those which focused on his family members would exude intimacy. By freezing in these images moments of his daily life, he was capturing the course of everyday time and even, as in the case of some images of his father, the mental deterioration of the model. Painting a life model was, moreover, a greater challenge than working from a sculpture or plaster cast and also meant temporarily abandoning the discipline of black charcoal, and becoming submerged in the fascinating world of colour.
In April 1895, when the Picasso family left Galicia, the youth had got to know the principles of oil painting, but he also skilfully used other more complex techniques such as ink, pastel or watercolour.
We don’t know who introduced him to such a specific technique as pastel, a dry technique in which the pictorial material is not fixed, but it seems rather unlikely to have been his father, or the person who was then his master of figure drawing, the sculptor Isidoro Brocos. Although both were included among the key figures of his curricular programme at Da Guarda, there is still much to be clarified about other possible extracurricular links with the circle of regional Galician artists.
In this sense, the formal similarities cannot be avoided between The artist’s mother and contemporary works by the young portrait painter Joaquín Vaamonde – some of which were also produced in pastel – and in particular with the portrait painted in oil which was done in the same year, of a well-known Galician woman, Emilia Pardo Bazán. It is as if Picasso had wanted to evoke the imposing figure of this illustrious writer in his mother.
Conservation and restoration are structural functions of the activity of a museum. Thanks to the access to analytical techniques that are increasingly multidisciplinary and specifically adapted to the study of heritage, the research is oriented towards better documenting the works, and making in-depth studies of their constitutive materials. Knowing the composition and behaviour of the materials enables the approach to the work, to its historical background and to establishing intervention strategies so as to slow down its deterioration.
The restoration of The artist’s mother represents a reference example within the conservation activity carried out at the Museu Picasso. By means of the intervention on the work, its documentation has been extended, its visibility has been improved and the materials have been stabilised. Furthermore, during the restoration process, an unpublished drawing attributed to the artist was discovered on the back, with the paper turned round 180 degrees: Figure with pipe, a masculine torso dressed in seventeenth-century fashion.
Four photographs dated between 1959 and 2011 show the different states of conservation and the progressive deterioration of the work. In an old restoration carried out during the 1970s, various grafts were applied so as to reconstruct the borders of the paper, which were subsequently stuck to a cardboard base. This adhesion caused structural tensions that ended up seriously deforming the support.
The prolonged tension produced by this old system of mounting led over the years to deformations and small cracks. The application of grafts by means of glue and the use of unsuitable paper produced stains mainly on the edges, where the colour was darkened to the detriment of the velvety aspect of the pastel. It is likely that the restorers used a press during this intervention, because the pictorial material of the pastel was quite compact.
Image of the state of conservation of the work prior to the intervention of 2011, where the deformations provoked by the perimeter fastening and the grafts applied in the restoration carried out in the 1970s can be appreciated, as well as the incidence of the high level of relative humidity.
The scientific and technical study, by means of the identification of the original materials and of those used in previous restorations, allowed a new proposal of conservation to be completed. The fibres of the paper were identified with an optical microscope, analysing their level of acidity and mechanical resistance. A microbiological analysis was also carried out to determine the surface stains, the cultivation of which indicated that there was no fungal activity. The documentation was completed by means of a photographic study with ultraviolet light as well as visible light.
The poor state of conservation of the work caused a distorted interpretation because of the disfigured image presented by the portrait. The support had been subject to an extreme deformation that was still actively ongoing. Its major deficiencies in terms of elasticity meant that it was in danger of fracturing, which would have supposed the irreversible destruction of the work. The aim of the intervention carried out by the Museum during 2011 was to eliminate the elements of distortion, return the flexibility to the support and recover in this way the original perception of the image.
1. Separation of the work from the secondary cardboard support.
Once the cardboard, which had been added during the 1970s, had been removed, visual access was gained to the back of the work. It was then discovered that Picasso had used a piece of paper with a previous composition, a masculine portrait that was entitled Figure with pipe.
The back of The artist’s mother as it was found prior to the intervention, with the cardboard that was stuck to the work.
2. Removal of the strips of paper stuck to the back.
After separating the work from the cardboard base applied in a previous restoration, the process began of the removal of the paper from the perimeter, while at the same time reducing the tension of the original support. In parallel with this, it was possible to assess the scope of the previous intervention and to locate the grafts.
Images of the process of removal of the perimeter fastening in which the state of the alteration of the edges of the paper can be appreciated, as well as the grafts applied in the previous restoration.
3. Removal of the grafts.
By means of the same procedure, the materials of the grafts were removed, maintaining only those that would compromise the structure of the work if detached.
4. Process for flattening the support.
Correcting and mitigating the deformations of the support was a slow process; as the sessions progressed, so the paper started recovering its flatness, as well as the hydration and flexibility of its fibres.
5. Reintegration of the support and repair of the tears.
To reintegrate the losses of material of the support, previously dyed Japanese paper was applied. The existing tears were also repaired.
6. Chromatic reintegration.
The aim was to restore the image as close as possible to the archival photographic references of 1959. The visual consequences of the previous colour alterations were thus corrected, achieving this aim of bringing the view of the character close to that seen in the archival photographs. To do so, two levels of chromatic intervention were established:
a. By means of added material (grafts for materially and visually reconstructing the gaps in the support). To be able to tonally integrate the two sides and manage to get a more suitable colour on each side, work was carried out by laminating pieces of Japanese paper.
b. By means of touching up the grafts applied during the intervention from the 1970s. This part of the process dealt with the grafts that were not removed during the current intervention because they were in areas that were too fragile.
Finally, specific work was carried out with a pastel pencil with the aim of visually integrating the stains.
Mounting and presentation
With the aim of protecting the fragile pictorial material of the pastel and allowing at the same time access to both sides of the work, a new moulding was designed and provided by two sheets of conservation glass.
Two passe-partout of identical exterior dimensions were produced, but with slightly different-sized windows. The work was fixed with strips of Japanese paper on the passe-partout with the smaller window, in such a way that the other passe-partout would mark its perimeter.
This type of mounting allows the fixing of the support with uniform tightening and the maximum reinstating of its original dimensions, which had remained partially hidden in the previous moulding. At the same time, it allows the control and study of the drawing found on the back, and even the future presentation of the two sides of the cardboard, in such a way that both works could be exhibited simultaneously.
The study of the drawing discovered on the back of The artist’s mother during the restoration process, Figure with pipe (MPB 110.016R), was based on the comparative study with another work from the collection, Bust of a 19th-century gentleman, produced in 1895–96 (MPB 110.700r).
Taking as a starting point the work on the front with which it shares the paper, it can be deduced that the work on the back must have been produced beforehand, and been rejected by the artist before undertaking the portrait of his mother in 1896, using a fragile and unstable technique of pastel to do so.
The figure of the drawing that was found, a three-quarter torso that totally filled the surface of the paper, represented a bearded masculine character dressed in the fashion of the seventeenth century (a wide-brimmed hat, leather straps to hold his sword and a broad white lace collar). He is smoking a long ceramic pipe, which is similar to those used in Northern Europe.
Figure with pipe is an anachronistic work, evoking other times and a departure from the habitual models of Picasso in the school of Fine Arts. This led to beginning the research by comparing it with other works from his youth and to determining its character of being a copying or learning exercise.
Along these lines of argumentation the comparative study was incorporated of the Bust of a 19th-century gentleman, Ewhich has a clearly similar relation to Figure with pipe. It coincides in terms of the size, scale, shading technique, interpretation of chiaroscuro and use of charcoal and crayon on warm-coloured paper, which Picasso also took advantage of to do another drawing (MPB 110.700). Furthermore, the chemical analyses of the samples of paper fibre of both works provide similar results in terms of the composition; they are a mix of flax fibres with wood fibres.
The singularity of both models leads us to think of separate copies; while the model of Bust of a 19th-century gentleman has recently been identified as a terracotta from 1878, in Seville; for Figure with pipe,the author could have had as a model a copy of a painting, and more specifically, a print that he might have had access to from an illustrated magazine.
During the nineteenth century, the figure of the printer was habitual in the world of graphic arts, a skilled draftsman who interpreted the works by painters of the time that were exhibited at the big art fairs and universal expositions. Printers reproduced the selected works in black and white prints, stating both the name of the painter as well as the printing artist. These plates were included in the magazines, printed on coated paper of excellent quality and in a full-page format (in some issues of the magazine these would even be on a double-page spread).
Beyond the technical or stylistic analysis, Figure with pipe, qwhich is neither dated nor signed, has so far not provided us with any more clues that could help us with the identification. However, the study process has allowed us to produce in-depth documentation about Bust of a 19th-century gentleman.
On analysing this drawing, two visible inscriptions can be appreciated on the upper part of the paper: in the left-hand corner, the anagram ‘IB’ (or ‘GB’) in violet ink, and on the right, the number ‘2’ in black pencil. Having discarded the possibility that this was the number of the order of registration of the student, given that it doesn’t appear in any official document, this digit could indicate the number of the school exercise to be carried out. For its part, the anagram could correspond to the approval of the teacher, an official practice of evaluation in all the schools of Fine Arts. Both elements lead us once again to the curricular training period of the artist in La Coruña and perhaps to the teacher of drawing, Isidoro Brocos.
Furthermore, some similar initials, on this occasion ‘M.M.G.B.’, appear on another work of the collection, the small drawing in graphite pencil entitled Pigeons and other drawings (MPB 110.864R), done by a very young Picasso in La Coruña in 1894. The similarity regarding the graphology with the two handwritten texts from the notebooks of Isidoro Brocos is so surprising that, as it is not in his handwriting, it poses the question of whether the young Picasso was trying to imitate the signature of his master, as it seems he could have done with the one of Antonio Amorós in another small drawing (MPB 111.404), dated June 1894 and belonging to the first album of La Coruña.
The training of the artist in the nineteenth century was based on drawing. Following the norms for the teaching of Fine Arts imposed in the eighteenth century, the copying of Greco-Roman casts was one of the core subjects. From the middle of the century onwards, the Cours de Dessin of Charles Bargue, published in 1868, was one of the reference manuals that facilitated the interpretation of line, volume and scale based on a series of sheets that had to be copied with precision. From the plaster cast to the life model, including printed reproductions of the grand masters, future artists developed their practice with the repetition of exercises.
Figure with pipe and Bust of a 19th-century gentleman respond to the same aim: the interpretation of the model without the use of colour. The student resolves them with an exercise of chiaroscuro, with black and white as the only plastic resource and the tonality of the paper as the base colour.
Through the study that has been carried out, our knowledge of the history of several aspects of the young Picasso’s training programme is innovatively expanded. Nowadays we know that he not only copied the classic ‘white’ sculpture or plaster model, but he was also capable of interpreting other materials such as terracotta and choosing the right working procedure. Bust of a 19th-century gentleman and, by extension, Figure with pipe could have been carried out in La Coruña in the class of Ancient Drawing during the 1894–95 course. The teacher of this course was the sculptor Isidoro Brocos, who could have given his approval in his own handwriting, which would explain the anagram found in the first drawing mentioned above.
Images of a drawing notebook of Isidoro Brocos in which the graphological analogies can be appreciated with the inscriptions of the drawing on the back of Bust of a 19th-century gentleman..
Isidoro Brocos. Sketchbooks, 1869-1897. Colección de Arte ABANCA
Characters of Baroque style filled the popular consciousness from the end of the nineteenth century. Among them, the so-called ‘Dress coat paintings’ that evoked, with their clothing of the period, scenes from the French eighteenth century and which, going beyond the limits of the rooms of Fine Arts, were spread by means of images from the illustrated magazines. In Picasso’s work, the image of the musketeer appears in the early period; of this character with the wide-brimmed hat and the pipe in his hand, various small-format drawings are conserved from 1894, produced in the second sketchbook from the training period in La Coruña, and even some in the margins of his textbooks (see page 202 of MPB 110.930). It is the preamble of a topic that would occupy him until his latter days and whose model would reappear transfigured in prints, paintings and even some ceramic plaques.
The study that we are presenting is the result of a multidisciplinary work. The cooperation and harmony between various professionals has allowed this fruitful collaboration that has led to a benefit in terms of better conservation of the collection and has contributed new visions in the knowledge of Picasso’s work.
We would like to pass on our thanks and gratitude to Professor Josep Girbal, who carried out the microbiological analysis; to Patrimoni 2.0, responsible for the analysis of the paper; to Estudi B2, who collaborated in the technical process of the restoration and stabilisation of the work; and to Elena Pardo and Rubén Ventureira, who discovered the terracotta model dated 1878 and signed by Peñas y León (Granada, 1815 – Seville, 1886), from where Picasso presumably made the life copy of his Bust of a 19th-century gentleman.
There is still much to learn regarding the influence of the Coruña period and the first works produced in Barcelona. What is true is that the young Picasso already had a solid training when he entered the school of Fine Arts of la Llotja, given that he was just 15 years old when he passed without any difficulty the drawing section of the entrance exam that included life drawings of a model and a statue. Picasso’s father was a key figure during the period but, as well as him, other artists cemented his training by introducing him to the use of artistic materials and their application to various pictorial techniques.