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Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso, Copyright: EPA/PETER FOLEY - dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

How German was Picasso?

Sabine Oelze / eg
October 27, 2015

Pablo Picasso is one of the most famous artists of the world. A new exhibition in his birth town in Spain explores how Germans played an unsuspected role in his career.


Although some might think everything has been said and written about Pablo Picasso (1881 -1973), the Picasso Museum in Málaga keeps coming up with ways to examine his works in a new light.

After juxtaposing Picasso with Martin Kippenberger and Louise Bourgeois, museum director José Lebrero Stals decided to explore Picasso's relationship with Germany with the current exhibition "Picasso: Registros Alemanes" (Picasso: German Registers).

The Picasso Museum draws tourists from all over the Costa del Sol. Around 400,000 visitors flock to the Palacio de Buenavista in Málaga's Jewish quarter every year since it opened in 2003. Eighty percent of them are from abroad.

Many Germans are among them - not just tourists, but also expats who moved to the Costa del Sol for the sunshine and warm climate. Some 80,000 Germans are permanently based there, a fact which may have contributed to the museum's decision to research the Màlaga-born artist's affiliation with Germany.

Without even seeing Germany

Picasso never set foot in Germany: Paris was the center of arts for the Spanish artist. But Germans followed his work closely.

The exhibition shows how German artists reacted to Picasso - both positively and negatively. It also portrays the development of Avant-garde art as it crossed borders. The revival of portrait painting, the reception of Cubism, the influence of primitivism and the search for new, straightforward motives from everyday life all interacted in this international cultural exchange.

The members of the Munich "Der blaue Reiter" (Blue Rider) movement and the artists in "Die Brücke" in Dresden refer to the Spanish artist. The exhibition includes paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, Otto Müller and Karl Schmitt-Rottluff, demonstrating the similarities in their visual language. For example, Max Beckmann's 1934 painting of his lover Naila, wrapped in a classy mink coat, reminds of Picasso's portrait of his Polish ex-wife Olga from 1922-1923.

"Lucretia" by Cranach, revisited by Picasso (left)Image: DW/S. Oelze

If Picasso was not interested in his German contemporaries, he loved the old masters of the German Renaissance. For example, he did 55 studies based on Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, in which he transformed the crucifixion scene into a battlefield of black lines. There is nothing left of Jesus except a skeleton and bones.

In a letter Picasso wrote when he was 16, he claimed that if ever he had a son, he would send him to Munich to study the Renaissance painters there. He praised their honesty and straightforwardness. In comparison, he found the Italian masters too decorative. He wrote this appraisal without having seen the original versions of these works of arts.

His initial supporters were Germans

Germans also recognized and started studying the works of Picasso before it became common in France or Spain.

The German-born gallery owner Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, based in Paris, discovered the Spanish artist in 1907 and started supporting him financially so he didn't need to worry about making a living while he was painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon."

A year later, the Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal bought its first Picasso for its permanent collection. In 1912, a special exhibition in Cologne dedicated a whole room to the artist, showing 18 of his paintings. As of that same year, art historians such as Carl Einstein started analyzing Picasso's Cubism in detail.

Somehow, Picasso is a bit the artist of the Germans, too.

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