THE latest show to grace the wonderful 15th-century Palazzo
Strozzi in the heart of Florence opened after a freak hailstorm had
caused millions of euros of damage to the city on the day of the
private view. Happily, this did not deter the Italian PM (the
former mayor of Florence) from attending.
By the time I got there, the principal galleries and museums
were back in business, although the Boboli gardens were still
closed, and there were trees down around the city, including a tall
pine snapped off in the cloister of the Badia like a spent
Picasso was already famous by the time of his first visit in
April 1917, although he came in amorous pursuit of a ballerina from
the Ballets Russes rather than to study the art seriously. On his
last visit to Florence, in 1949, he stayed overnight at the Hotel
Berchielli on his way back to France from Rome, where he had
attended the world congress of the Partisans de la Paix.
Then he lamented the destruction of the houses around the Ponte
Vecchio which had not yet been rebuilt, weeping over the city much
as his tear-filled Guernica is an internationally
recognised lament for the course of human destruction.
In 1963, the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno,
established by Cosimo I on the advice of the artist Giorgio Vasari
in January 1563, elected Picasso to an honorary membership, marking
their 400th anniversary. It remains a unique honour for any Spanish
artist of the 20th century.
In 1931, the art dealer and editor Ambroise Vollard invited
Picasso to illustrate Balzac's 1831 short story Le
Chef-d'oeuvre inconnu, which he later (1846) included in his
Comédie Humaine. Picasso provided 13 etchings and 67
drawings for the edition.
The story tells of Frenhofer, an older but struggling artist in
the age of Poussin and Porbus, who has failed to complete a
masterpiece for a decade and which he has kept hidden away. When he
does finish it, using Poussin's mistress as a model, it finds no
favour with the critics, and so he destroys it, dying the same
Much like Cézanne, who reportedly once claimed to be Frenhofer,
Picasso strongly identified with the artist who failed to be heard
and understood in his day. Indeed, there will be many gallery-goers
who have stood in front of one of his paintings and been scarcely
able to make out more than a foot in the swirl of colours.
Picasso himself always claimed that he never painted a single
abstract picture. This exhibition, which deliberately covers only
the period from 1917 to 1963, makes clear how much a figurative
artist he remained. It opens and closes with paintings from
Picasso's 1963 series of The Painter and the Model,
autobiographical explorations by an artist who is no longer young
but whose yearning for a muse remains an impulsive force, à
The exhibition is also very much about the destructive havoc of
war. When I last visited the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid (from
which all the exhibited works have been exceptionally loaned), I
found two museum members of staff seated, rather like umpires at
Wimbledon, either side of Guernica on high laddered
chairs. They took turns, 15 minutes on and 15 off, to guard the
work. For a long time, as I was the only visitor in the gallery,
and as closing time drew near, my interest occasioned increasing
concern and no little bemusement.
I cannot profess to understand the work that Picasso worked on
throughout the first year of the Spanish Civil War in his Paris
studio, at the same address in the Rue des Grands-Augustin as
Honoré Balzac had assigned to Frenhofer.
As an exile, he was attempting to tell the world the cost of the
war that engulfed his home country after the genocide of the Condor
Legion. Like the artist himself, the masterpiece never returned to
Franco's Spain. Studies for it, linking it to his earlier studies
of bulls and of rearing horses, form the core of this exhibition,
and are displayed in chronological order.
If Picasso was confronting one side of his personality with the
fabled Minotaur (in the Minotauromachy of 1935), the inclusion of
the bull-man in the final composition came only after a long period
of self-examination and a crisis for this once assured artist.
Other Spanish artists in this carefully organised display did
not have the freedom to get away from the carnage of war. Alfonso
Ponce de León had moved to Madrid as a five-year-old in 1911. From
1926, he studied alongside Dalí and Maruja Mallo, two of the 35
painters shown in this rich retrospective.
The enigmatic Young People and a Fisherman is one of
his last works. Two lovers huddle in the safe seclusion of a covert
of reeds while an angler stands on the riverbank behind them.
Unlike the harsh reality of the 1930-31 Shipwrecked Men by
Aurelio Arteta (1879-1940), presaging abandonment and loss, de
León's riverine scene is totally calm, as if the sounds of war
belonged to another world.
The luckless de León joined the Falangists shortly before the
outbreak of the Civil War and was shot dead outside his Madrid
house one evening in September 1936. Arteta had served for three
years as the Director of the Modern Art Museum (1924-27) in his
home city of Bilbao. He was sacked for overspending on his budget,
despite an international outcry by intellectuals who saw him as a
victim of the dictatorship of the marquis Fernando Primo de
Rivera's government (1924-30). Apparently, it was buying more than
100 Gauguins that did for him.
Arteta left his native Basque country and moved, first, to
Madrid, and then, at the outbreak of the Civil War, to the relative
safety of Valencia, before he emigrated to Mexico City, where he
was killed in a tram accident.
By way of underscoring the purpose of the exhibition, the
director of the Strozzi Palace has produced a little book, No
More War, which collates children's experience of armed
conflict during the past cen- tury.
By bringing together letters from Somalian refugees and Syrian
children, pictures of the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, and
the memories of a ten-year-old who survived the Dresden bombing of
13 to 14 February 1943, for in- stance, it lets children's voices
be heard above the din and confusion of a disintegrating world. In
much the same way, Picasso's pen has given us the international
"Picasso and Spanish Modernity: Works from the collection of
the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía" is at the Palazzo
Strozzi, Piazza degli Strozzi, Florence, until 25 January 2015.
Phone 00 39 055 2645155. palazzostrozzi.org