March 29 (Bloomberg) -- It is ironic that Pablo Picasso’s 1903 “Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto” is predicted to fetch as much as 40 million pounds ($60 million) at a Christie’s International auction in London on June 23.
Both artist and sitter were penniless at the time it was painted, and the underlying theme of the picture is that bohemian existence that Francis Bacon later described as a “gilded-gutter life.”
Pablo Picasso led one of those too in his early days, and it is from that time that this portrait originates, as does “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) -- the most revolutionary painting in modern art and, of course, a picture of a brothel.
He and De Soto spent a lot of time in the red-light district of Barcelona in the years following their meeting in 1899. “We used to raise hell together,” Picasso recalled, according to his biographer John Richardson. De Soto -- described by the Catalan writer Josep Palau i Fabre as “slender and elegant” and “almost always surrounded by women” -- was an especially keen hell-raiser.
In 1906 he wrote to Picasso, who was by then living in Paris, saying he suspected the painter of falling in love with his mistress of the time, Fernande Olivier. For his part, De Soto preferred “putas” (prostitutes). In one sexually explicit drawing, Picasso portrayed his friend with a naked prostitute on his knee. De Soto -- fully dressed in white-tie and tails -- retains his dandyish cool, smoking his pipe.
Shared hell-raising was one reason for the improbable friendship between the hyper-ambitious Picasso and this foppish idler. Another was perhaps the attraction of opposites. According to Richardson, Picasso described De Soto as an “amusing wastrel.”
They first met in a cabaret in the medieval quarter of Barcelona. Picasso was then 18, and just escaping from the respectability of his family home. De Soto was even younger. Angel and his brother Mateu, a sculptor, immediately joined Picasso’s circle of male friends.
During intervals when Picasso returned to Barcelona from Paris in 1902 and 1903, he and Angel shared studios. They had fun with little money. Fernande Olivier recalled they possessed only one pair of gloves between them, so each would wear one and keep the ungloved hand in his pocket.
De Soto claimed to be a painter, but in reality he earned a meager wage from a day-job at a spice merchant’s. With this he generously paid the bills; yet he liked to throw a party in the studio on his return, prompting Picasso to find a new place to work.
In the portrait, in front of De Soto is a glass of absinthe: the drink of raffish fin-de-siecle intellectuals. It had a sinister reputation -- hallucinogenic, addictive -- that led to a ban in most European countries and the U.S.
While the properties of absinthe were probably greatly exaggerated, it was believed to be dangerous -- and inspiring to the imagination. Van Gogh has a pale green glass of it in front of him in Toulouse-Lautrec’s pastel portrait of 1887.
Richardson connects Picasso’s picture of Angel de Soto with Vincent. “Among his (Picasso’s) immediate predecessors, only Van Gogh had this ability to galvanize a portrait with his own psychic energy.”
Certainly, Picasso’s portrait of his charming, hopeless pal is a compelling image of turn-of-the-century bohemia. Out of that penniless, marginal world came a great deal of art --by Van Gogh, Picasso, Gauguin and others -- that is now hugely valued and valuable.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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