"Mario, the Russian Museum has to be filled." That was the message sent by José María Luna, director of the agency that manages the municipal museums, when the departure of the St Petersburg Collection was confirmed. And Mario Virigilio Montañez took him at his word. More than 500 pieces now fill the void left by the works of the Russian masters in the Tabacalera, 352 of them bearing the signature of Pablo Picasso.
This is the largest exhibition ever held of works that form part of the collection of the Casa Natal (Picasso's birth house). Never in its thirty years has it had so many square metres to display the immense legacy of the genius (stored in up to three different warehouses) together with its own catalogue of contemporary art with works by Francis Bacon, Miró and Tapiès, among many others.
Picasso comes to the rescue of the Russian Museum with three exhibitions that allows the cultural centre, a collateral victim of Putin's invasion of Ukraine, to reopen to the public. It will keep its name for the time being, even though the only thing that remains of Russia is the translation into the Cyrillic alphabet of the signs and posters scattered about the building. Whether this will be maintained will depend "on the duration of the cruel, brutal, ill-advised and inhumane invasion that Putin has ordered", in the words of the city's mayor Francisco de la Torre.
There is no decision on the matter because the situation, he said, is "unpredictable" and this "impasse" could last "months, even years".
"This was not something we had ever planned," acknowledged local councillor for Culture, Noelia Losada. A "happy" day for the return of visitors, but with a touch of sadness: "We miss our partners in St Petersburg and their works; they are neither guilty nor responsible for what is happening," added Luna.
After the works were returned to Russia on 9 May, when the fee for the renewal of the agreement with the Russian government was not paid, the public agency has faced a real "tour de force" to offer, in only a few weeks, a worthy alternative in one of the great cultural locations of the city. So much so that hours before the official inauguration in the afternoon, the posters and signage with explanations in each room had yet to be put up.
The Casa Natal, with the support of Fundación la Caixa, has used the crisis as an opportunity to display its full glory. Incesante Picasso: Libertad y Vida (Incessant Picasso: Freedom and Life) shows more than 350 Picassos from the almost 800 in the collection, including photos by his great friend, Juan Gyenes. A challenge only comparable to the 226 works by the genius that travelled all the way to Seoul in 2013.
There are prints, ceramics, books, photographs and aquatints created from his youth to his old age, from 24 to 90 years old, grouped into themed sections. Hence its title, Incessant: "because he is the artist who was always there, who was always creating and never stopped", explained its curator, Mario Virgilio Montañez.
With a subtitle that brings optimism in times when it makes sense to highlight the "two universal values that make us human: the love of freedom and the love of life".
After the powerful photos of Picasso on paper comes a gallery of portraits of his wives; the faces of Jacqueline and Françoise gaze at the viewer in different styles that show the versatility of the artist.
Women, a constant in his work, dominate the first part of the exhibition, with the interesting series Two Naked Women (1945-1946), 18 lithographs in which Picasso investigates different ways of representing the same scene, from the most figurative to cubist and surrealist.
The Russian Museum shows an immeasurable and inexhaustible Picasso. There is his vision of animals (with the striking print of a toad) and his well-known passion for bulls (which he captures in ink in a very schematic but expressive way). His creative freedom is once again evident in his reinterpretation of Góngora's poems, the myth of Carmen and the great classics of art. A panel is dedicated to the artist as seen through Gyenes' lens, and the Arias family legacy, the one kept by his great friend Eugenio, is also on display.
This is a show that, in any part of the world, would be considered 'the exhibition of the year'.
"Here we have become accustomed to the extraordinary," explained Losada, who insisted that the Russian Museum "has always been, and will always be, the property of the city council and the people of Malaga".
There is more. "People think we only have Picasso, but that's not so," Montañez pointed out.
Different acquisitions throughout the three decades of its life have created a rich and varied collection representative of the art scene from the mid-twentieth century to the present. It includes works by Francis Bacon, Joan Miró, Antoni Tàpies, Max Ernst, Eduardo Chillida; as well as by other great artists such as Eugenio Chicano, Dámaso Ruano, Francisco Peinado, Chema Lumbreras, Robert Harvey and Cristina Martín Lara. In total there are up to a hundred pieces of which 85% have never been exhibited before.
Picasso's takeover of the Russian Museum is completed with his book illustrations from the library of the Casa Natal and facsimile editions of his sketchbooks.
The three temporary exhibitions will occupy the Tabacalera until October. What will come after that is still up in the air. In the presentation it was hinted that pieces from the Lafuente Archive and works linked in some way to Russia might be an option, to preserve the original philosophy of the space. Whatever it is, "it will always be of quality," promised De la Torre.