Horta de Sant Joan: a visit to Picasso’s landscapes

Making the most of the past weekend, I made a personal trip to Horta de Sant Joan, where Picasso stayed on two occasions. Both stays had a great impact on his work: the first was in 1898, when he was still a teenager, and the other in 1909, by which time he was a fully fledged painter immersed in the cultural life of Paris.

Picasso in Horta

The memory of Picasso is still very much alive in Horta and the fact is that if the town constituted an important chapter in the artist’s life, his visits have left their mark on Horta, too. Picasso first came to the town with his friend Manuel Pallarès, a fellow student the Llotja art school who was born and bred in Horta. This gave him access to local knowledge of the area and its people, and helped him establish a very close relationship with the place.

Left | Portrait of Pallarès painted by Picasso
Right |  Pablo Picasso and Manuel Pallares in a photo taken in 1960 and retouched by the artist

One of my strongest memories of my visit is of our arriving and seeing the view of the imposing mountain of Santa Bàrbara with the convent of Sant Salvador at its foot, which straight away reminds us of one of the works from his second stay, in 1909: Landscape. Horta d’Ebre, now in the collection of the Denver Art Museum. From here on the references are many and varied, and relate to both of his visits: from the light that the artist captured so skilfully to the Mediterranean landscape, to the plaza in front of the church -with what was once the Hostal del Trumpet where Picasso stayed with Fernande Olivier-, including Picasso Street, the first street in Spain to be named after the artist in 1967 at the height of the Franco regime, or the still recognizable atmosphere of those first ever photos of Horta, taken by none other than Picasso, who had just started to experiment with a camera.

Mountain of Santa Bàrbara | Pablo Picasso. Landscape. Horta d’Ebre, 1909. Denver Art Museum

For all those who want to know more about this relationship, a visit to the Centre Picasso d’Horta, displaying facsimile reproductions of all the works the artist created there in 1898 and 1909, is an absolute must. The Centre provides an overview of the repercussions that Picasso’s experiences in Horta were to have, in both personal and creative terms, and a clear appreciation of the magnitude of the art he produced there, even though the works on show are not the originals. This overall vision is the result of the first-rate research undertaken by the founders of the Centre, Josep Palau i Fabre and the Associació Amics d’Horta, and is well documented with explanatory texts, drawn in some places from the writings of Palau i Fabre himself.

Centre Picasso d’Horta

One last ‘Picassian’ touch was a visit to the cave where, in the summer of 1898, Picasso and his friend Pallarès lived for several weeks, in the very heart of nature. This was an initiatory experience from which Picasso emerged with the ability to break with his previous academic training and present himself to the world as an avant-garde painter.

To get to the cave you take a very well marked path, about 3 km long, which starts from the Parc de la Franqueta. At first I felt a little guilty about dragging my family on this monothematic adventure, but as we walked through the woods of the mountainside, through places of great beauty, my misgivings soon vanished. In fact, the path is really quite easy and we all had a great time.

The cave (which once had another name but is now known as Picasso’s Cave) is actually a rock which projects out from the mountain and was in the past closed off with stone walls for extra shelter. There’s something special about being there: you feel very far from the world, and it’s easy to imagine the two boys, naked, living their adventure of a return to nature and a primitive state.

Picasso’s Cave and poster of the cave

Following the path you come to the Mas del Quiquet farmhouse, which Picasso painted during his first stay and where the two friends would go when they needed food. I was pleased to see that the farmhouse has been conserved in memory of the part it played in this adventure of Picasso’s, though the criteria adopted at the time of its restoration are not those that would be followed today.

Mas del Quiquet | Pablo Picasso. Mas del Quiquet. 1898

All in all it was a very rewarding visit, which provided me with a lot of information: not only about two crucial stages in the life and work of Picasso, who was always to recall the time he spent in Horta with great fondness (‘Everything I know I learned in Horta,’ he said many times), but also about the relationship between the land and the processes of creation, and how as this is not an isolated phenomenon but the product of a number of synergies that foster and feed it.

Anna Guarro
Public Programmes

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