In the largely unconscious struggle taking place at this time over regional symbols, artists, including Picasso and others at the Four Cats Café, played their part. The avant-garde artists of Barcelona viewed themselves as liberals in that they were open to a range of ideas and images and opposed most orthodoxies. Among the regular participants in activities at the Four Cats were four artists—Isidre Nonell, Ricard Canals, Joaquim Mir, and Ramón Pitxot—whose work at the turn of the century focused on the industrial suburb of Saint Martin of Provence. One of the poor neighborhoods ringing Barcelona, filled with laborers employed in the metallurgical and textile plants, Saint Martin offered a militant population that the painters might have chosen to represent. But the group known as the Circle of Saint Martin depicted only poverty and oppression, not activism. During a period when newspapers were publicizing the talents working people displayed in their decorated apartment blocks and their floats for the Virgin of Mercy festival, these socially conscious artists portrayed only victims.
Nonell had outraged the religious middle classes of Barcelona in 1892 with his anticlerical drawing Annunciation in the Slums . By setting an angel sarcastically proclaiming "Glory to God in the Highest" amid the desolate factories and the downtrodden people of Saint Martin of Provence, Nonell lashed out at the church for ignoring poverty. Yet he himself overlooked the area's dyers, printers, spinners, weavers, and metalworkers in favor of beggars and gypsies. Even though the workers created the wealth of Catalunya and their actions at the workplace and in their neighborhoods had begun to create an alternative community in Barcelona, marking it as a militant red city, they were evidently not attractive artistic subjects.
Picasso, like his friends in the Circle of Saint Martin, frequently documented poverty but cast it in purely romanticized terms. With his
home located near the railroad station to France, where so much fighting had gone on during the general strike, and his studio located at 10 New Street of the Rambla, where a large barricade had been erected, Picasso must have noticed that working people were capable of acting in their own defense. Yet when he did his cover for the October 5, 1902, issue of the Liberal , he portrayed only the victimization of the poor, not their courage (figure 7).
In that drawing, gegants and the Hannibal float, complete with elephants, provide a festive background to the celebration of the Virgin of Mercy; in the middle ground, well-dressed middle-class people take part in the festivities. The foreground, however, is occupied by a poor woman and child of the kind Picasso often portrayed in his blue period (1900–1904). Two such figures appear in a painting called The Soup (sometimes dated to 1902), in which a child and a Madonna-like woman stoop over a bowl from which steam rises like a halo (plate 4). The child, whose posture is echoed in the Liberal drawing, reaches up, lifting her right leg to emphasize how she must stretch to take the soup. From this period also date various depictions of crumpled women hovering in doorsteps and oppressed mothers and children walking along desolate beaches.
Except to say that she is a poor woman, it would be impossible to classify the central figure in Picasso's drawing for the Liberal . She certainly has no particular political role to play. Yet she is an important marker, an indicator that all is not entirely well in Barcelona. Since Picasso could draw what he wanted for the cover of the newspaper owned by his friend Carles Junyer-Vidal, his drawing indicates that his natural response to the city's troubles was relatively apolitical.
His symbolizing the laboring woman as a poor mother weighed down by her responsibilities is particularly ironic because the most visible labor leader of Spain at the time was the hale and hearty Teresa Claramunt, who had so recently been arrested in Cádiz. Although memoirs of the period frequently refer to her as a strong and attractive woman, a heroine who could transform a crowd into a revolutionary army, she was seldom if ever caricatured, let alone painted. She could never have been the model for the mother in Picasso's drawing.
In contrast, the sentimental personification of the laboring classes as a poor woman unconsciously neutralized the power of the much more menacing anarcho-syndicalist movement in Barcelona. Picasso's woman, like so many portrayed by Nonell, Mir, Pitxot, and Canals, was not at all threatening. She could pull on the heart strings, assuage the
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guilt of socially conscious artists and their audience, and yet not demand that they openly take sides.
Among all the avant-garde artists in Barcelona, Ramón Casas, Santiago Russinyol's close friend, best evoked images of struggle between authorities and the working population. Known for his portraits of local celebrities, Casas also painted pictures that served as the social and political conscience of the liberal middle class. In his 1899 painting The Charge , he showed an unequal battle between well-armed Civil Guards and brave but defenseless workers (plate 5). The central figure, a member of the mounted Civil Guard, rides forward, sword held over his right shoulder as he attacks. His mustache repeats the lines of his Napoleonic-style two-cornered hat; his high collar forms an ominous red mask over his lips and chin. As his horse rears to our left, ready to trample a fallen worker, the man grasps at the ground with his elongated fingers. His left leg, flung upward before the hooves of the horse, emphasizes his vulnerability. Behind the two central figures are three more mounted civil guards. The two on the right appear to be breaking up a group of workers. A shadowy guardsman in the left rear has his sword drawn as he and his horse gallop through a tightly packed group of workers.
Only the red collars of the Civil Guard and the white jodhpurs on the central figure, his horse's spats, and the white horse of the guardsman on the right stand out in the largely gray and black painting. Emblematic of the frequent cavalry attacks on workers' demonstrations in Barcelona, Casas's painting conveys a sense of the 1902 general strike, with its undertones of class war. Although The Charge was painted in 1899, it was redated 1902—a fact that only accentuates its symbolic importance.