It took four hours by train and seven hours by covered wagon to reach Cadaqués from Barcelona. The group of travelers—including a 28-year-old Pablo Picasso and his then lover, Fernande Olivier—arrived in the small Spanish beach town after nightfall on July 1, 1910.Picasso would produce just a handful of works that summer, 10 of which are extant today. For the famously prolific artist, whose total output is estimated at 50,000 works, this was an aberration. Just the summer before, in the Spanish village of Horta de San Joan, Picasso produced what biographer John Richardson calls an “avalanche of paintings.”“It’s always interesting to note when he actually slows down,” said Yve-Alain Bois, a professor of art history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In this case, he noted, “I think Picasso knew that his work had pushed him into a corner.”The preceding years had been wildly productive for Picasso. In 1907, together with French painter Georges Braque, he began to lay the foundation for Cubism. The pair collaborated more intensively in 1909, a back-and-forth that led to the development of “Analytic Cubism”—characterized by fragmented, overlapping planes and a monochromatic palette.
In his beach-side studio in Cadaqués, Picasso continued to pare down his mark-making. Eventually, he settled on a structure of gridded perpendicular lines that would serve as the basis for each new work. He also began to shade each plane of the fragmented picture separately, rather than maintaining a single light source—an approach that created a sense of depth without the illusion of a solid form.
These developments were driving him closer and closer towards pure abstraction. Even Picasso, Richardson notes, had a difficult time identifying the original subject matter for the Cadaqués paintings. Beyond their titles, Femme à la mandoline (Woman with a mandolin) (1910) and Glass and Lemon (1910) are difficult to parse as anything other than a series of interlocking geometric planes in shades of brown and gray. “These works seem abstract in all but name,” wrote Museum of Modern Art curator Leah Dickerman in a catalogue essay for the museum’s 2012–13 exhibition “Inventing Abstraction.”
And if Picasso had embraced this direction in his art, his would have been among the first Western paintings to be truly abstract. While this accolade is, and likely will always be, contested, Wassily Kandinsky—often hailed as the “father of abstract painting”—didn’t display his first non-representational painting until December 1911.
But pure abstraction remained, as Richardson puts it, “a Rubicon [Picasso] would never cross.” When the Spanish painter returned to Paris in late August, he changed course. “It’s true that whatever Picasso felt about those works, he decided to stop this vein, to amend it shortly afterwards,” Bois explained.