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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Metro | Region September 7, 1997

In Picasso's footsteps - continued

Wandering through the museum today, you can see works by Gauguin, Cezanne, Manet, and other masters whose lessons the young artist learned. In Picasso's day, these works were housed in the museum in the Luxembourg Gardens, France's official venue for exhibiting what was then contemporary art. That living artists could be so celebrated by French society no doubt impressed the fledgling painter.

He had come to Paris because one of his paintings, Last Moments, was appearing in the Spanish pavilion of the great Exposition Universelle. It was quite an honor for the teenager to see this painting, of a priest looking at a woman on her deathbed, play a part in the prestigious world's fair - even though it had been negatively reviewed when Picasso first showed it in Els Quatre Gats.

Last Moments can no longer be seen. In his youth, Picasso couldn't always afford new materials; he recycled the Last Moments canvas, painting his enigmatic 1903 masterpiece, La Vie, over it. New research and technical analysis done for the MFA show have revealed that there is another painting under most early Picassos.

Soon after arriving in the French capital, Picasso and his traveling companion, the writer and artist Carles Casagemas, set up shop in Montmartre. That part of Paris had escaped Baron Haussmann's 19th-century urban renewal, which changed the city from a medieval warren to a place of broad, sun-filled boulevards laid out in rational order. Montmartre was full of winding, narrow streets, places to hide; it was a perfect den of iniquity. The district also had a festive air, already recorded by Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec. Renoir's Ball at Moulin de la Galette depicts wholesome middle-class fun. In his painting of the very same subject, the 1900 Moulin de la Galette, Picasso shows a dark, surreal world populated by people whose facial features are smeared, whose figures are streaky. ``Moulin'' means ``mill,'' after the windmill that once stood on the site of this pleasure palace of drinking, dining, and dancing. Legend has it that in the 1814 Cossack siege of Paris, the owner was nailed to his own windmill, a vocation-specific crucifixion that must have appealed to Picasso's macabre side.

Picasso took his Spanish sadness along with him to France. Adding to the misery was his poverty: In his early years in Paris, Picasso ate not at the lively brasseries commemorated in paintings of the era but at a category of restaurant now nearly extinct, the bouillon, so called because ts menu focused on broth. Picasso's dire economic circumstances were also reflected in his Montmartre apartments. The most famous of them, in a ramshackle complex called the Bateau Lavoir, had no heat and just one faucet and one toilet for 30 artists' studios. But instead of seeking escape in art, Picasso sought out even more miserable subjects. One was the syphilitic prostitutes in the Hopital Saint-Lazare, a combination hospital and prison, which even today is a maze of wretchedly rundown, depressing buildings. Disease had blinded some of the unfortunate inmates; their unseeing stares became a staple of Picasso's paintings, where eyes so often seem to look inward.

Montmartre's mix of squalor, hedonism, and danger gave the context for a 1901 event that provided Picasso with a grim subject: the suicide of his friend Casagemas, who, in love with a woman who refused to marry him, shot himself at the end of a wine-soaked dinner with friends at a local restaurant. Picasso wasn't present; he'd gone back to Spain. But ``Casagemas's suicide literally colored Picasso's work,'' notes the artist's most dedicated biographer, John Richardson. The paintings commemorating Casagemas's death are among the first in Picasso's Blue Period. It would be a full two years before he would abandon that melancholy hue and turn to chalky reds.

Picasso had dabbled in blue even earlier, though, in, for example, a little drawing of an unknown woman from around 1897. It is one of the coups of the MFA show, a work probably never seen in public before. It recently surfaced in the hands of a prominent Parisian dealer, Anisabelle Beres, who, during my visit, proudly showed it off in the shrinelike hush of her back room. Its asking price? Three hundred thousand dollars. A lot for a drawing, yes. But this is a drawing by an artist whose paintings have fetched as much as $50 million at auction. That record was set by The Marriage of Pierrette, a work from 1905. Early Picassos, those from his most impoverished years, reliably sell for more than the later, more difficult works.

By the time of the great Casagemas paintings, Picasso had been to the Louvre to inspect its masterworks, including those of his countryman, the 17th-century painter Zurbaran, whose Exhibition of the Body of St. Bonaventure, a depiction of a laid-out corpse, influenced the Casagemas compositions. The Louvre also offered great collections of the ancient Iberian sculpture that affected Picasso deeply. Before finally settling in Paris, in 1904, Picasso alternated between France and Spain. On his third visit to France, he copied one of the Puvis de Chavannes paintings in the Pantheon, that gloomy 18th-century temple honoring French worthies. Like the influence of Catalan Romanesque art on Picasso, that of Puvis has been underrecognized. The MFA show acts as corrective. Beloved by Bostonians for his celebrated murals in the Boston Public Library, Puvis painted flattened, static, attenuated figures in powdery hues, a style Picasso borrowed and extended in his Blue Period.

A wistful delicacy informs the works that followed: the pictures of circus performers from the Rose Period. While they're not as despairing as the blue paintings, neither are they jolly. Their theme is the artist as outsider, as vagabond who can't connect with society at large - or even with fellow performers. These lonely clowns, each self-absorbed, stare off in different directions. The barren settings they inhabit underscore their status as nomads.

In early 1906, Picasso began the work that ends the MFA show: the celebrated portrait of Gertrude Stein, the expatriate American writer. Stein and her brother Leo were the artist's first serious collectors. The same year, Picasso embarked on a series of thundering, colossal female nudes influenced by emancipated women, including Stein. Not that his misogy ny had softened. The galumphing goddesses were the result of what Richardson calls Picasso's ``godlike compulsion to create a new image that would synthesize the sexes.'' Occasionally, one of these creatures seems to have both female breasts and a penis, a synthesis that heralds the scrambled anatomy of Cubism.

Stein's portrait gave Picasso no end of trouble. Usually, he was the most prolific of painters: For his 1901 exhibition at the gallery owned by Ambroise Vollard, his first solo show in Paris, Picasso turned out 60 paintings in six weeks, as many as three in a single day. But he grappled with the Stein painting for three months in his Bateau Lavoir studio. Still dissatisfied, Picasso painted out Stein's whole head, announcing, ``I can't see you any longer when I look.'' Leaving the portrait unfinished, he left Paris and headed for Gosol in May of 1906.

En route, he would have passed Montserrat, a bizarre topographical oddity northwest of Barcelona, a place Catalans consider the mystical locus of their national identity. Montserrat's eerie, steep peaks inspired Wagner's Parsifal; its Benedictine monastery houses the Black Madonna, a prime example of the attenuated, somber Romanesque statues whose starkness informed Picasso's early work. The nudes he painted in 1906 have the rugged, sharp contours of this kind of wood carving: They seem to yearn to explode into three dimensions.

Kissing the hand of the Black Madonna will heal the sick, legend has it; the used clothes of those she has reputedly cured are on sale in the monastery's thrift shop. It's not known whether Picasso ever kissed the statue's hand. But he was famously superstitious and religious, if not conventionally observant. ``Pablo,'' his second wife, Jacqueline, once said, ``is more Catholic than the pope.'' And Picasso's connection with Romanesque art certainly goes beyond the formal, into the spiritual realm symbolized by Montserrat. He borrows not only the severity of this early Catalan art but its intensity. Yet this influence has been underappreciated. One of the aims of the MFA show is to highlight the deep bond between the artist and the land he considered home long after he had shifted his base to Paris.

In Gosol, he painted Fernande Olivier all summer long, creating what Richardson calls ``a persona that [would show her] pictorially what he wanted her to become.'' He also drew and painted Josep Fontdevila, the crusty, nonagenarian smuggler-turned-innkeeper who was his landlord for the summer. He made Fontdevila's face look like an outcropping of stone, bones straining through the skin. And in Gosol he painted the great Woman With Loaves, a mute, majestic peasant balancing bread on her head: The pillow-shaped loaves are still sold in the village bakery. Gosol, an out-of-the-way place that became accessible by road only in the 1940s, so identifies itself with Picasso's visit that the centerpiece of the village square is an unfortunately bland 1992 statue based on Woman With Loaves. And the town's minuscule museum boasts a mixed-media version of the same work: The loaves are made of actual bread crusts, striated and beige, like the surrounding hills.

Fortified by his stay in the mountains, Picasso came down from the Pyrenees a month earlier than he had planned, frightened off by an outbreak of typhoid fever in Gosol. Back in Paris, back in a Bateau Lavoir infested with mice and bedbugs, he soon finished Gertrude Stein's portrait. Just as he would later make paintings in which the features of one mistress bleed together with those of her successor, so he gave Stein a face that belonged to someone else. It is the aged Fontdevila who stares out from this portrait, a touchstone of 20th-century art. At the time of its creation, people complained that it didn't resemble Stein. Picasso countered with one of the most famous lines in the lore of art. ``Never mind,'' he said. ``In the end, she will manage to look just like it.'' She concurred, with characteristic succinctness. ``For me,'' she said, ``it is I.''

Also in the autumn of 1906, Picasso painted a major self-portrait that will hang next to Stein in the MFA show. The painting is drained of color: The pared-down palette is all cool neutrals, a rejection of the frivolity of anything brighter from a painter who once said, ``The only real color is black.'' Nor does transient emotion play into this picture: Picasso shows himself still, expressionless, eternal. Into the self-image he poured influences from Iberian sculpture to Cezanne, turning himself into a receptacle for the history of art, a history to which he'd already added a page.

A few months later, he would start a whole new chapter, with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, a quintet of women who look like they've been dropped and shattered. The century was several years old, but Richardson is right when he calls Demoiselles the first masterpiece of 20th-century painting, ``the most innovative painting since Giotto.'' Picasso was on his way to inventing Cubism. Having conquered painting's past, he set out to define its future. Art would never be the same.