Pablo Ruiz y Picasso, known as Pablo Picasso, once said, “When I was a child, my mother said to me, ‘If you become a soldier, you’ll be a general. If you become a monk, you’ll end up as the Pope.’ Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso.”
Arrogant? Maybe — but Picasso earned a plethora of bragging rights as one of the most famous and influential artists of the 20th century. A painter, sculptor, printmaker and ceramicist who spent most of his adult life in France, Picasso’s signature work is a combination of cubism and surrealism – figures and forms with twisted, off-kilter facial features.
On Feb. 1, as a signature event of the city of St. Augustine’s 450th commemoration, “Picasso Art & Arena” opened at the Visitor Information Center on West Castillo Drive. The exhibit features 39 pieces, including ceramics, graphic art and illustrated books created by Picasso between 1929 and 1961. The show focuses on Picasso’s obsession with bullfighting.
“[Picasso] is arguably the greatest Spanish painter ever,” said Dana Ste. Claire, director of St. Augustine's 450th Commemoration. “We brought this collection to the city to help infuse more Spanish culture and elevate the awareness of St. Augustine. There’s also an economic impact variable.”
The St. Augustine Record reported that the city spent up to $150,000 in an exhibit fee to Fundación Picasso, Museo Casa Natal of Málaga, Spain, the museum that owns the artwork, in addition to marketing and security costs. City officials hope to recoup the money through ticket sales, merchandising and private rentals.
“The pieces are borrowed, but the exhibit is ours,” Ste. Claire said. “We’ve created an immersive exhibit symbolizing a bullring, with pocket galleries to show one of Picasso’s main themes: bullfighting.”
The signature series on display comprises 11 lithographs by Picasso from December 1945 to January 1946. “It presents a simplification of a bull’s profile, beginning with a realistic and traditional representation of the animal and gradually reducing the elements to a simplified form,” according to exhibit press materials. “The sequence demonstrates his innovative process and variety of creative options of working with one subject.”
“Picasso started these right after World War II,” exhibit chief curator Maria D’Adamo said. “All of the pieces [in the lithograph series] came from the same stone and they demonstrate his contribution to technique.”
The artist spent decades experimenting with brush-scraping, crayon, dry point, etching, engraving, lithography, linocut and wash-drawing.
In addition to engravings, Picasso expressed his fascination for bulls through illustrated books. For example, the illustrations he created for French novelist Honoré de Balzac's book, “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu,” are also on display at the Visitor’s Center.
What’s impressive about this collection, whether you’re a fan of Picasso’s work or not, is that it’s the first time these pieces have been shown in America. It’s the aim of Ste. Claire, D’Adamo and associate curator Nikole Alvarez to have as many people as possible view the Spanish masterpieces.
“We offer self-guided and docent-led tours in a bilingual format,” Alvarez said. “This has been a great opportunity for Spanish classes and other students to learn about Spanish art in a Spanish manner.”
As of Feb. 14, more than 3,500 people had seen “Picasso Art & Arena.” The exhibition, which is curriculum-related, is free to all students in St. Johns County schools, kindergarten through college. Teachers who want to take their classes to see the work are given a resource guide with activities for the students to do before and after visiting the exhibit.
Some community critics have said that the exhibition’s cost to taxpayers isn’t justified. Others have commented that the city has more British or Native American history than Spanish. The city responded by explaining the link between St. Augustine history and the Spanish cultural and artistic traditions that were introduced to Florida by Juan Ponce de León in 1513 and to St. Augustine by Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565.
Whatever your take on the politics, take advantage of this chance to see 39 pieces of art, all touched by the hand of the Spanish master, being displayed in the United States for the first time — maybe even once in a lifetime.