50 Years After Picasso’s Death, I Retraced His Life in Europe. Here’s What I Found

Málaga, Barcelona, Paris, Antibes, Mougins—visiting all the places that shaped Picasso’s art and soul.

The Paul Smith-curated exhibition

Five cities in 10 days—Picasso’s legacy dots the entirety of Spain and France’s Mediterranean coastline.

Photo by Vinciane Lubrun/Voyez-Vous

I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, home to the McNay Art Museum, which was one of my favorite places to beat the heat during those Texas summers. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know its permanent collection well. Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Diego Rivera—their works in the museum are like old friends to me now. And then, there is Picasso.

The McNay has a large catalog of his works but there are two pieces that stood out to me, even when I was a child. Woman With a Plumed Hat (1901) and Crouching Woman (1958).

Woman With a Plumed Hat is from Picasso’s Blue Period. The painting is moody and swirling with blues and greens. A woman, with an outrageously large hat, gazes directly at the viewer with a knowing half-smile. Red blush tints her cheeks. She is powerful and confident, and even though there’s no background, it feels like Madrid’s nighttime cityscape sprawls out behind her. The painting is signed P.R. Picasso.

Then there is Crouching Woman. This painting was created when Picasso had gotten mainstream recognition for his work and he was free to paint as he liked. Unlike Woman With a Plumed Hat, Crouching Woman is monochromatic and decidedly gray. A woman is shown, in Picasso’s signature style vis-à-vis multiple perspectives, sitting cross-legged. She’s naked and her private regions are crudely exaggerated. This painting is signed simply “Picasso.”

Even then, it fascinated me that these two paintings came from the same artist. To me, Picasso was an alchemist, except, instead of gold, the thing that he transformed was himself—and that’s reflected in the famously multitudinous styles of painting that he pioneered and experimented with.

However, Picasso was a complicated man and a well-documented misogynist. He had two wives, four children by three different women, six known mistresses, and countless affairs. He was never, ever faithful. And he frequently “borrowed” from African artistic traditions, inspired by ceremonial masks and fertility statues. But when he was asked in 1920 to contribute a few lines to a magazine article on African art, he said, “African art? Never heard of it.”

This May, half a century after Picasso passed away in his 35-room hilltop villa in Mougins, France, I traveled to Europe to physically retrace the life of Picasso in the cities that were most important to him: In Spain, I visited Málaga and Barcelona and in France I saw Antibes, Paris, and Mougins. I hoped that by going to these places, I’d gain a deeper understanding of who he was and how the places he lived in influenced his art.

I started at the beginning, where he was born: Málaga.

The Cathedral of Malaga by sunset

Malaga’s city center is dominated by the Cathedral of the Incarnation, which was built between between 1528 and 1782.

Photo by Mazur Travel/Shutterstock


From 1881 to 1891
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Picasso was born in Málaga on October 25, 1881, and lived there until his family moved to Galicia when he was 10 years old. In Picasso’s day, Málaga was a quiet fishing village best known for anchovies. The economy was also fueled by the steel and manufacturing industries as well as local vineyards, known for their muscat grapes, destined to be turned into muscatel. Málaga is so famous for its anchovies, though, that people from Málaga are still called boquerones, the Spanish word for the tiny fish. In letters to his younger sister, Lola, Picasso would often refer to her as boquerona.

Today, Málaga is a popular cruise ship stop along the Mediterranean. The Sierra de Mijas range hugs the city, and flowering jacaranda trees dot its boulevards. Málaga is relatively quiet during the day but blooms into an entirely different city at night with bouncers, techno music, and hawkers shouting to entice you into nightclubs.

My hotel was in the city’s center, dominated by the Catedral de la Encarnación de Málaga, built in 1782. It’s not where Picasso was baptized—that would be Iglesia de Santiago Apóstol, the oldest church in town and built over the remains of a mosque. But it’s likely he would have at least visited and walked through it a few times. The Catedral de la Encarnación may be one of the most unique—and dramatic—cathedrals I’ve seen in Europe. Rather than the usual configuration of priest and altar at the front, the priest gives his sermon in the middle of the church, with rows of pews radiating out from its center.

Wilted and warped paintings of saints are scattered throughout the space—there was Saint Denis, who was beheaded for being a Christian and was said to still have had the strength to carry his own head to his burial place. And my favorite, Saint Lucy, another martyr, who plucked out her eyes in protest of being pressured into marriage. Dreary organ music droned on for the entire half hour that I wandered around the church.

The cathedral felt like something out of a Dario Argento film. I wondered how it all, the imagery, the music, and the generally spooky atmosphere, might have affected a young Picasso, whose family—and especially his mother—was deeply religious. Travelers can see his baptismal gown at the Picasso Birthplace Museum; located in the home that Picasso was born in, it houses artifacts of his life as well as early paintings and sketches. Picasso, of course, was famously atheist.

A building in Málaga's town square; an exhibition of Picasso's sculpture at Málaga's Picasso museum

Currently showing at the Museo Picasso Málaga, Picasso Sculptor: Matter and Body is the first exhibition devoted solely to Picasso’s sculptures in Spain.

Photos by Mae Hamilton

After being thoroughly unnerved by the gruesome deaths of ancient Christian martyrs, I hiked to the top of Castillo de Gibralfaro, a Moorish castle and fortress from the 14th century that overlooks the city and discovered the other structure that dominates Málaga’s skyline: the bullfighting ring. Known as the La Malagueta Bullring, the stadium can seat 14,000 people and has four corrals; it was built in 1874, seven years before Picasso was born.

Picasso and his father, who was also a painter, had a complicated relationship. Picasso painted his first piece, El Picador Amarillo (1889), when he was eight. His father, a painter all his life, recognized that his son was talented—and he was jealous. By the time Picasso was 13 years old, his father felt he had nothing else to teach him and stopped painting entirely, feeling that his son had far outstripped his skills.

But all the drama between them melted away at the bullfighting ring. There, they’d cheer on the matadors and the bulls. It was a formative experience and later in his life, Picasso would equate the sport to the Spanish identity. “The life of the Spanish consists of Mass in the morning, the bullfight in the afternoon, and the whorehouse at night. What element do they have in common? Sadness,” he once said to the French novelist André Malraux.

Bulls, matadors, the crowds—Picasso was obsessed. And these themes frequently crop up in his art. But rather than identifying with the matador, Picasso identified more with the bull and often incorporated bulls in his work to represent himself. Bulls, of course, are symbols of masculinity but they’re also tragic figures. Despite their strength and size, in bullfights, the bull almost always dies.

The Royal Square in Barcelona, Spain

Picasso’s time in Barcelona, with its medieval streets and redlight district, were some of the most formative years of his life.

Photo by Giorgio Rossi/Shutterstock


From 1895 to 1904
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Surrounded by the Catalan Pyrenees mountains, Barcelona sits next to the Mediterranean, is home to a bustling restaurant and night scene, and enjoys mild weather. The heart of the city is the Gothic Quarter, which feels unspeakably old and medieval, with its stone buildings, cobblestone streets, and narrow walkways. As I strolled along and occasionally tripped on a cobblestone or two, I could imagine someone emptying their chamber pot out a window.

I walked around the city, past dozens of souvenir shops and restaurants with their smell of fresh paella. I also passed through the city’s red-light district, where the discerning traveler can find a multitude of dispensaries and the brothel that inspired one of Picasso’s most famous pieces, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which focuses on five female, naked sex workers, two of whom have African-style masks for faces.

Paella in Barcelona; a woman standing outside of a shop

Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, an autonomous region of Spain.

Photos by Mae Hamilton

The health app on my phone let me know that I had covered more than six miles of the Gothic Quarter, so I headed over to the Els Quatre Gats, an art nouveau–style café that was once popular with Picasso and other modern artists, poets, and musicians. “El Quatre Gats” derives from a Catalan expression that means “just a few people”—but that is true no more, since the restaurant is now a popular tourist destination, and understandably so. It’s impossible to not fall in love with those Moorish arches, the fanciful woodwork, and that grand piano.

Picasso’s time in Barcelona was brief, but also served as the perfect setting to foster a transformational period of personal growth. It was around this period that he stopped signing his paintings as “P.R. Picasso” and “Ruiz Picasso” and completely dropped his father’s name. Now, he began signing his paintings simply “Picasso.” Well into his teenage years and early twenties, Barcelona is where he rebelled against his father, Catholicism, traditional artistic principles—and became something else entirely. Something uniquely himself.

In 1899, he met his best friend, Carles Casagemas, the man whose death would spark Picasso’s Blue Period. Casagemas’s death is romanticized quite a bit by Picasso historians. The usual story goes that he killed himself because he was rejected by a woman.

But according to police reports uncovered by Annie Cohen-Solal in her new book, Picasso the Foreigner: An Artist in France, 1900–1973, the truth is much uglier. On February 17, 1901, Casagemas and a 20-year-old woman named Florentin Gargallo Laure were eating separately at a restaurant in Paris on Boulevard de Clichy. At the end of his meal, Casagemas tried to give Florentin a packet of love letters that he had written, but Florentin refused to take them. Casagemas pulled out a pistol, shot at her, and thinking he’d killed her, shot himself in front of his model and actual girlfriend, Germaine.

Picasso devoted canvas after canvas to his friend: Casagemas Dead, The Burial of Casagemas, Casagemas in His Coffin. Poet Guillame Apollinaire said the paintings from this time were “wet and blue like the humid depths of the abyss.”

I saw a portrait of Casagemas at Barcelona’s Picasso Museum, which contains the majority of the roughly 4,200 works Picasso created during his time in the city. Casagemas looks out with intense, beady eyes. It’s an unsettling piece and the dark background around him seems like it’s about to swallow him. In the gallery, I could feel the air of angst and tragedy that seemed to follow Casagemas. But also, I wondered how much of his attitude toward women Picasso shared.

A Paul Smith-curated section of the Musée Picasso Paris

In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Picasso’s death, British designer Paul Smith curated the permanent collection of Paris’ Musée Picasso.

Photo by Vinciane Lebrun/Voyez-Vous


From 1904 to 1961
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Picasso left Spain permanently for France in 1904. He felt out of place in Barcelona’s art scene (which was quite traditional) and thought he’d be able to get more recognition—and money—in Paris. But Picasso’s rise to fame was far from instantaneous. He lived in squalor in a tiny studio apartment in Montmartre with his girlfriend at the time, Fernande Olivier. The space was flea-ridden and covered in peeling wallpaper.

During this time, Picasso was also being monitored by the French police under the suspicion of being an anarchist and communist—largely because he hung out with anarchists and communists. And in 1944, he registered to become a member of the French Communist Party. Picasso put in a request to become a naturalized citizen of France but was denied on May 7, 1940, due to a combination of xenophobic sentiments and his associations with the left. He didn’t try again.

But Paris, in time, was good to Picasso. It was here that he became friends with Henri Rousseau, Guillaume Apollinaire, Georges Braque, and American expats Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo. Here he fully pioneered cubism and had some of the best years of his artistic career—he created his most famous painting, Guernica, and showed it at the 1937 Paris Exposition. Through his friendship with poet and director Jean Cocteau, Picasso became acquainted with French high society and met his first wife, Russian ballet dancer, Olga Khokhlova.

The exterior of La Rotonde in Paris; a platter of escargot

Established in 1911, La Rotonde has been a popular hang out spot for Montparnasse’s Bohemian crowd ever since.

Photos by Mae Hamilton

One afternoon, I walked around Montparnasse, another neighborhood once popular with the bohemian crowd. I passed the famous café La Rotonde, which was a popular haunt of Picasso and Cocteau, as well as other artists and authors like Paul Gaugin, Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, and Vladimir Lenin. Only a month before, the café had been lit on fire by protestors who were demonstrating against France’s decision to raise the minimum age of retirement to 64. (La Rotonde is also a favorite spot of President Emanuel Macron.)

Today, you can see a 5,000-piece collection of Picasso’s works at the Musée Picasso in Paris, which covers the gamut of his artistic evolution from tame pieces like Still Life with Pitcher and Apples (1919) to more abstract paintings like The Kiss (1969). Musée Picasso is currently showing an exhibition curated by British fashion designer Paul Smith, who’s decorated the museum with colorful wallpaper and creatively arranged some of Picasso’s most recognizable works. The museum was founded in 1985, 12 years after Picasso’s death. Its permanent collection was donated by his heirs to help alleviate the tax burden of their inheritance. But walking through the museum, I wondered what it would have been like to see France devote an entire museum to his work after being rejected by the state—and monitored—for so many years.

The terrace of Antibes' Musee Picasso.

Antibes’ Musée Picasso is dedicated to the latter years of the artist’s life.

Photo by Jean Louis Andral

Antibes and Mougins

From 1961 to 1973
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The flight into Nice, the proverbial gateway to the south of France, is dramatic, with the tail end of the Alps hugging the coastline and its famously blue, blue waters below. The region’s charming provincial villages, made it easy to see why Picasso retired here in 1955 with his second wife, Jacqueline Roque—it looks a lot like Málaga. He’d previously spent time in the south of France, in Antibes, where he’d purchased a castle with Françoise Gilot in 1946. But Gilot, an artist in her own right, left Picasso in 1953, and he decided to stay for good.

Antibes is an adorable small town, now overrun with super yachts. It is largely dominated by Fort Carré, a star-shaped structure from the 16th century. After stocking up on pastries at Lillian Bonefoi, I headed over to the town’s Musée Picasso, which is devoted to his final years. During his sixties and seventies, Picasso experienced a sort of artistic regression. Not that he declined as an artist—but he began revisiting themes from his youth, like matadors, bulls, and harlequin clowns. He even began painting on cardboard again. This was also a time when Picasso, who was famously amorous, experienced impotence. Many of the pieces in this museum are rather phallic in nature.

Picasso met Roque here in the south of France in 1953, in the nearby town of Vallauris (less than five miles from Antibes), at Madoura Pottery, where he would take up ceramics. In the center of town near the Église Sainte-Anne chapel, visitors can find the first statue Picasso donated to be publicly displayed, Man With a Sheep (1943).

Ultimately, Picasso chose to live in Mougins, in a 35-room villa, because it was close to his doctor’s office in Cannes. Mougins is a beautiful, medieval town that spirals along a hillside, and offers jetliner views of the French countryside, including the nearby perfume-making town of Grasse. A large statue of Picasso’s head dominates the road that leads into town. There’s also the museum Musée d’Art Classique de Mougins, which is devoted to modernizing classical art; it mingles classical paintings and busts with contemporary pieces like those by Picasso.

A poster of Picasso; the streets of Mougins

Dogged by health issues, Picasso chose to live out the last years of his life in Mougins, since it was close to his doctor in Cannes.

Photos by Mae Hamilton

Picasso was never able to return to Spain. He refused to go home while Francisco Franco, the dictator of Spain, remained in power. Franco passed away two years after Picasso died on April 8, 1973.

As I walked through the cobblestone streets of Mougins nursing a bag of macrons, I thought about what it might feel like to be homesick for most of your life and to never be able to go home. Before Picasso died, he requested to be buried in a matador’s hat and cape—a callback to happier times at the bullfighting ring in Málaga. It was a detail that I hadn’t known before and I found myself tearing up a little.

I also thought about how accurately the different periods of his work reflected Picasso’s life: the art of his youth influenced by the wishes of his father, the poverty and punk rock–esque rebellion of his Blue Period in Barcelona and Paris, and the eccentricity of his cubist paintings in France. His works are like a geological record of a human experience.

During my last day, as I continued walking Mougins’s quiet streets, I thought about the last 10 days I’d spent in Spain and France trying to understand an artist who’d passed away more than half a century ago. What is it about Picasso’s art that resonates with people to this day?

To me, at least, it was his ability to unabashedly live his life out on canvas with no holds barred. I think back to the very first Picassos I saw at the McNay in San Antonio, Lady With a Plumed Hat and Crouching Woman. They’re like snapshots of his life: one made when he was 20 years old, full of life and rebellion. The other created when he was 77 pushing the limits of what people thought art could be. Despite their aesthetic differences, both paintings are honest, unique, and full of emotion—what good art should be.

Mae Hamilton is a former associate editor at AFAR. She covers all things related to arts, culture, and the beautiful things that make travel so special.
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