The church of Sant Joan. / Miguel Raurich

Pablo Picasso's unofficial place of learning

Horta de Sant Joan. This village in the Terra Alta de l'Ebre area of Catalonia marked a turning point in the artist's career

GALO MARTÍN

From a distance one can see that Horta de Sant Joan stands on a hillside which appears to be missing a castle on the top. In the shade of that castle, of which not a trace remains, a walk through the medieval centre of the village with its stone houses, narrow streets and squares, gives the impression that there is a lot more uphill than downhill. It is about to be classified as a Village of National Interest and it is an idyllic spot, surrounded by land where local people grow their vines, cereal crops, almonds, peaches, cherries and olives.

The Natural Park of Els Ports appears as a type of natural frontier with its whimsical rock formations, and the Templar convent of San Salvador can be seen at the foot of the Santa Bárbara mountain.

A place to recover

The villagers doubted that Picasso would ever be able to make a living from his pictures

It was to this rural setting that young artist Pablo Ruiz Picasso, from Malaga, came on the advice of Manuel Pallarés, a classmate who came from Horta and recommended it to him as a place to recuperate when he was suffering from scarlet fever.

Toni Beltrán, who lives in Horta and founded the Identitat virgin olive oil company, says that Picasso, as well as recovering, also began to develop the style of painting with which he is always associated to this day.

The two friends alternated their stays between June 1898 and January 1899 in a 'masía' farmhouse and a place in the Natural Park where shepherds used to shelter. That shelter is known as the Picasso cave nowadays, and it can be reached after a walk of just over three kilometres which starts at La Franqueta recreation area, beside the Estrets river. It was in that cave that the young Pablo, as well as painting the village and its people, became convinced that his figurative drawings were nothing more than mediocre.

Cubism in Paris

That conviction led him to cubism, a style he developed and expanded in Paris, where he went after his six months of reflection in Horta. He went back to the village in 1909 after first stopping off in Barcelona to see his friend Manuel Pallarés, and by then he was the famous artist Picasso, who was known for his cubist style. On this occasion he didn't spend the nights outdoors, but at the Hostal del Trompet, which no longer exists but was very close to the renaissance Plaza de la Iglesia.

That was where the painter shared his bed with his girlfriend, Fernande Olivier, something which did not please the local women at all. They expressed their displeasure by throwing stones at the window of the sinners' room. This put the artist into a bad temper and he is said to have gone out onto the balcony armed with a pistol and fired shots into the air to dispel the crowd who had gathered outside.

With the male villagers, it was different and Fernande used to join them at whatever they were playing at the Café de Vives. It was usually cards or dominos, while Picasso painted portraits of her and some other women in Horta de Sant Joan, and made sketches for still life paintings.

Inspired by the landscapes around Horta, he painted several pictures while he was there. The people of Horta seriously doubted whether he would be able to earn a living with his type of painting, but they assured him that even if he couldn't sell his works they would make sure he never lacked food while he was in Horta. They liked him a great deal more than they trusted his talent as an artist.

That second visit was the last that Picasso made to Horta. Even though he did not return, the mayor went to seek him out in Cannes, where he was living at the time, and returned home with a promise from the artist to open a Picasso Museum in Horta de Sant Joan.

During discussions with the authorities about the matter Picasso, apparently quite emotional, went into great detail of scenes he remembered and people he knew from the time he spent in Horta, and promised that he would donate his works to the museum. However, despite the council, Manuel Pallarés and Picasso himself being sold on the idea, the answer was no. Those were different times.

Reproductions

In Horta de Sant Joan there is a before and an after in the life of this painter, whose death in 1973 will be commemorated all over Spain next year, 50 years on. People from the village still talk of his response when he received a delegation from Horta at his residence in Notre-Dame-de Vie in 1969: "If you are from Horta, then you are my friends," he told them.

Picasso arrived in that village as a budding artist and it was there that he returned years later to say thank you. In fact, it is said that all through his life Pablo Picasso used to tell people that: "Everything I know, I learned in Horta de Sant Joan".