We recently undertook the restoration of three landscapes from the collection painted by the young Picasso in the summer of 1896. As we will explain further on, we consider that the series should be conceived as a unit and for this reason the three works were intervened within the framework of the same project.
Process of restoration
Landscape as a theme
Landscape was a classic theme for painters at the end of the 19th century. Picasso’s father himself, Don José, produced a copy of a painting by Emilio Ocón in 1887 which would then serve as a model for his son to produce one of the first oil paintings from his childhood in 1889 which is conserved, a small view of the port of Malaga as ingenuous and rich in expressive quality and concepts of representation belonging to his childhood.
The museum counts on a varied collection of landscapes from his youth, given that the vision of the coastline as well as the mainland were a recurring source of inspiration.
We ourselves have received some tools that help us understand how fieldwork in the plein air was carried out. A small painter’s box conserved by the artist and subsequently donated to the museum of Barcelona, invites us to imagine him working in the open air. Strapped to his belt, this was used by him both to carry, still fresh, the small wood boards where he would paint life sketches, as well as a palette where he would apply the colours.
Pablo Picasso. Painter’s box. 19th century. Wooden box with metal clasps and leather handle. 16.5 x 11.2 x 4 cm. Gift of Pablo Picasso, 1970. Museu Picasso, Barcelona. Photo: Estudi Gasull. MPB 110.993
However it would be in 1896 when, already as a student of Escola de la Llotja, he would intensify the practice of landscaping, mainly the urban landscape that had caught his attention since his arrival in Barcelona.
During his summer holidays in Malaga, he implemented the skills he had attained throughout the academic year. Staying in the family property of Lagar de Llanes, close to the mountains of Malaga, he painted various small and medium-sized views, as well as some life sketches of animals and rural interiors.
Of all of these, Mountains of Málaga is the one that best symbolises the conclusion of his trips to the outdoors. He was no longer the little boy who painted more what he knew than what he saw, now he was a young artist in his formative years applying his academic knowledge, or perhaps looking for a way out so as to escape from it.
Back of Mountains of Malaga (MPB 110.177)
At the same time as restoring them, this has also allowed us to analyse them in parallel and to understand which of them may have been painted in nature and which might have been painted in the studio based on the sketches done in the field. Ordering them chronologically is relatively easy, with one of the first ones being the oil painting on wood MPB 110.177, dated on the back, June 96.
State of conservation
The three works had been restored beforehand, when, after the donation by the artist in 1970, the whole of the collection was treated in the municipal restoration workshops.
The most evident problem was the dirt on the pictorial layer which modified the correct vision and made the colours fade.
The two paintings on canvas had been subjected to similar treatments and showed common pathologies. As well as the alteration from the touching up of the colour applied in the restoration, the paintings had a yellowy layer on the surface with highly visible residues which has accumulated between the textures of the brushstrokes.
A quick overview of the work process
The first step prior to intervening in a work is to carry out an in-depth observation so as to understand how and with which materials it was produced. The most notable characteristics of each one being:
Mountains of Málaga (MPB 110.177) is a study of cloudscape and perspective. A quick life sketch (of those which were transported in his little field box) that even retains the imprint of his own fingerprint caught of the surface of the pictorial layer.
Before and after the restoration. Pablo Picasso. Mountains of Màlaga. Malaga, June 1896. Oil on wood. 10 x 15.5 cm. Gift of Pablo Picasso, 1970. Museu Picasso, Barcelona. MPB 110.177
Sketch for “Mountains of Málaga” (MPB 110.081) would be the first version of the final work, but on a smaller scale. The four marks of the angles and the lack of borders help us to deduce that it was painted on a fragment of another canvas, not mounted on a stretcher, surely pinning the canvas directly on a board with pins or thumbtacks.
Detail of the work Sketch for “Mountains of Málaga”(MPB 110.081) before de restoration. 1) Where de pin was placed 2) When the vegetation was painted, the sky was dried | Pablo Picasso.Sketch for “Mountains of Málaga”. Malaga, June-July 1896. Oil on canvas. 27.5 x 39 cm (irregular). Gift of Pablo Picasso, 1970. Museu Picasso, Barcelona. MPB 110.081
Just as he would later work in the final version, the composition was modulated from dark to clear. The white of the canvas was covered with brown areas and the sky was completed with a rhythm of slanted and parallel brushstrokes.
Unlike the previous board, this work doesn’t seem to be a quick sketch produced in one session (the sky at least was sufficiently dry when the vegetal elements were applied). Once complete, the work was signed in a visible way Malaga 96.
We concluded the series with his most ambitious landscape of the summer; Mountains of Málaga (MPB 110.008). The first thing that caught the eye was the difference of the treatment of the sky compared with the land. The upper strip of the sky was resolved in an impersonal way, with a sky-blue section where the brushstroke is just about inexistent. However, the lower part is full of energy with brushstrokes of clay tones. If you look for the chromatic vibration the result is more sculptural than pictorial. In his attempt to enhance the topography of the place, his work turns out to be closer to that of a modeller applying material than that of a painter trying to recreate the atmosphere of the surroundings.
Detail of the work Mountains of Malaga (MPB 110.008) before the restoration | Pablo Picasso. Mountains of Malaga. Malaga, June-July 1896. Oil on canvas. 60.5 x 82 cm. Gift of Pablo Picasso, 1970. Museu Picasso, Barcelona. MPB 110.008
In the same way as he did with the work MPB 110.081, he also structured this painting from dark to light with the same procedure of starting with an earthy glaze directly on the primer. This would allow him to define the areas of light, by applying a thick and pasty material, of those that remain in the shadow and in the background, achieving in this way the effect of depth of a steep terrain and the contrasts between the dryness of the land and the sky.
All the scholars coincide with the fact that it was produced in the studio. Due to its technical characteristics it seems that we are not talking about a work composed from small-format sketches produced live or in situ. Furthermore, the brushstrokes applied in a successive way and with different colours were necessarily carried out in different sessions of work. The thicknesses of the paint, which didn’t end up being mixed together, indicate that the inferior layers were dry when the following ones were applied.
Detail of signature at Mountains of Malaga (MPB 110.008)
He signed extensively and in a clearly visible way on the lower left side. But he didn’t do so right away, he waited for the exterior layer to be completely dry.
In this case we haven’t found fingerprints, but as well as his signature, he left a mark on the layer of colour when the paint was still wet. On the left side some writing is visible which seems to respond to the first letters of the word Malaga.
The restoration work was carried out in the workshops of the museum between December 2014 and May 2015. The main objective was to eliminate the surface residues of glue that affected them both mechanically and visually. To do so, we cleaned the pictorial layer and substituted the altered materials that had been applied during the restoration of 1970.
Microscope photo where we can observe that the underlying rose layer was dried when the blue was applied and detail of the paper and glue sticked | Picture showing the clean the area after removing repainting | Removing altered repainting
Removing the deposits of glue without damaging the texture turned out to be laborious. What was of great help was the study of images carried out with different sources of light as well as those obtained with a microscope. They not only helped us to control the cleaning, but also to obtain details in high definition of the pictorial layer that revealed peculiarities of the work process of Picasso. To differentiate the clean areas from those which hadn’t yet been intervened, we divided the painting into sectors that were marked thanks to the use of pieces of card. Finally, the altered repainting was eliminated that moreover hid part of the original painting, and was done by means of the chromatic reintegration of the losses of colour.
Eliminating the surface residues of glue
It has been a great opportunity to carry out the intervention of the paintings in a joint restoration project. The conclusions reached as a result of the analysis done of the works during their restoration has provided us with a better understanding of them, and has allowed us to establish reasoned work processes for future actions.
By restoring these landscapes of Picasso we have also aimed to reconstruct the artistic moment in which they were created and to gain a greater comprehension of Picasso as a landscape painter, and his evolution towards the ambitious panoramic views that he produced during his stay in Horta de Sant Joan in 1898.
Preventive conservation and restoration