right Head of a man, from the sanctuary of Cerro de los Santos (Albacete). 4th century BC, limestone. Size: 20.5 x 11 x 19cm

Picasso: echoes of Iberia

From myths of the Minotaur to Cycladic sculpture, the influence of the ancient world on Picasso is well known. But a less familiar part of the artist’s relationship with the distant past is his fruitful engagement with the art of ancient Iberia, as Cécile Godefroy and Hélène Le Meaux explain.


Dotted around the eastern part of the Iberian Peninsula are the fascinating ancient sites of the Iberian civilisation. Since the late 19th century, excavations at these sites have uncovered votive figurines from sanctuaries, architectural reliefs featuring warriors and acrobats, and stone statuary of mighty bulls and aristocratic women, carved in a distinctive style. One modern artist who is known to have drawn inspiration from older works was Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), but the relationship between the work of the Spanish artist and these ancient artworks of his native country has long been underestimated, even eclipsed by his other creative dialogues, especially with what was seen in early 20th-century France as the ‘primitive’ arts of cultures from Africa and Oceania.

This overlooked relationship is the focus of Picasso ibero, a new exhibition of over 200 artworks at Centro Botín in Santander, northern Spain. The exhibition examines the evidence for this fertile dialogue for the very first time, covering the so-called ‘Iberian’ period, which took Picasso from the Rose Period to the 1907 work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (from the collection of MoMA, New York), as well as many works from the Spanish painter’s other creative periods that echo, either formally or conceptually, the great themes of Iberian art, its characteristics, and its practices.

right Head of a man, from the sanctuary of Cerro de los Santos (Albacete). 4th century BC, limestone. Size: 20.5 x 11 x 19cm
Head of a man, from the sanctuary of Cerro de los Santos (Albacete). 4th century BC, limestone. Size: 20.5 x 11 x 19cm. IMAGE: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)/Daniel Arnaude.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Iberian archaeology was an emerging field, based on stylistic studies and making use of recent archaeological discoveries in the south of Spain and in the Levant, particularly from the excavations of French archaeologists Arthur Engel and Pierre Paris. The surge in research at the time allowed Iberian art to cautiously find its place among ancient Mediterranean civilisations. Nonetheless, knowledge of the Iberian world remained relatively obscure; early scholars were far from being able to offer the kind of clear and confident definition of this civilisation and its material culture that we can attempt today.

The term ibero (‘Iberian’) – the etymology of which has been widely debated – covers a wide geographical area, encompassing the eastern part of the Iberian Peninsula, and a chronological framework that extends from the 6th to the 2nd century BC. The Iberians are characterised by a language and form of writing (which has yet to be deciphered) and a clear hierarchical society, and in particular by their artistic productions, which combine influences from various sources. Because of its wealth of resources, including metals, the Iberian Peninsula had from the beginning of the 1st millennium BC initially attracted Phoenicians, and then Greeks and Carthaginians. The exchanges established with these Mediterranean neighbours gave rise to some distinctive creations in the region. The reception and interpretation of iconographic themes but also of techniques are particularly visible from the 6th century onwards in the form of monumental stone statuary. From the 4th century onwards, it seems that Iberian sculptors gave way to potters and painters, and painted vases became a new mode of expression for this deeply religious society.

right Pablo Picasso, Self-portrait. Paris, autumn 1906, oil on canvas. Size: 65 x 54cm
Pablo Picasso, Self-portrait. Paris, autumn 1906, oil on canvas. Size: 65 x 54cm. IMAGE: Musée national Picasso-Paris.

If the art of the Iberians found its place among the arts of the ancient Mediterranean, it also made a place for itself in museums. In France, thanks to the expertise of curator Léon Heuzey and his close ties with archaeologist Pierre Paris, the famous bust of the Dama de Elche (the Lady of Elche) entered the collection of the Department of Oriental Antiquities of the Louvre in October 1897, just two months after its discovery. The work became an emblem of Spain, even featuring on a poster for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. It returned to Spain in the early 1940s, when Franco added it to the list of works the country requested back from France, most of which had been looted by the Napoleonic armies in the early 19th century. Now it is normally on display at the centre of the Iberian collections of the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid. The remarkable bust is a funerary urn carved out of limestone local to the area around La Alcudia, Alicante, where it was found. Dating to the 5th-4th century BC and originally painted, the Dama wears intricately carved jewellery and clothing, suggesting a high position in the hierarchal society of the time.

As the archaeological excavations in Spain progressed, the Louvre expanded its Iberian collection with other impressive artefacts, and in September 1904, when Picasso had been living in Paris for a few months, the ‘Iberian Cabinet’ was inaugurated. Edmond Pottier, a curator at the Louvre, wrote of the room that it is ‘the smallest of our Oriental rooms, but this Cabinet houses many promises for the future. Spain is a province recently annexed to archaeological science and no other museum has a series as complete as that of the Louvre.’

On display in this new space within the museum were sculptures from the provinces of Seville in Andalucía (where the sites of Osuna and Estepa are found) and Albacete in Castilla-La Mancha (with the sites of Cerro de los Santos and El Salobral), as well as Alicante in Valencia (home to Elche, and also Agost). Among the finds on display were male heads distinguished by their large ears and female heads with their intricate hairstyles from Cerro de los Santos. These were perhaps votive offerings laid directly on to shelves or ledges at the sanctuary between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century BC/AD, and they bear witness to the Iberians’ religious nature, while the reliefs unearthed in Osuna, with their dynamic depictions of figures including warriors, constitute a fascinating ensemble of architectural decorations.

below Dama de Elche (Lady of Elche). Alcudia (Alicante), 5th-4th century BC, limestone. Size: 49 x 56.6 x 39cm
Dama de Elche (Lady of Elche). Alcudia (Alicante), 5th-4th century BC, limestone. Size: 49 x 56.6 x 39cm. IMAGE: Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid/photo: Ángel Martínez Levas.

Drawing on the artist’s own accounts, art historians Christian Zervos and James Johnson Sweeney were the first to point out the importance of Iberian art in the process that led Picasso from his Rose Period of 1904-1906, distinguished by its warm tones of pink and orange, to the birth of Cubism. The spring of 1906 is generally accepted as the consolidating moment or ‘crystallisation’ of his discovery of Iberian art. It was then that Picasso, on one of his many visits to the Louvre in Paris, encountered the Iberian Cabinet filled with recent archaeological finds from Spain. Picasso incorporated the lessons he drew from Iberian sculpture into his work, combining these elements with other, contemporary sources, namely Cézanne, Rodin, and Gauguin.

Iberian art had a particular personal resonance for Picasso and exerted an even stronger influence on his imagination than others as it connected him to his Spanish and Andalucian origins. His hometown of Málaga, on the southern coast of Andalucía, was once a Phoenician settlement in the territory of the Bastetani, one of the peoples of ancient Spain now counted among the Iberians. Moreover, descriptions of Iberian art by early specialists, including Pottier, as ‘barbarous’ more than likely pleased Picasso. Many of these scholars considered Iberian art to be a degradation of the Greek style. Picasso, in contrast, is known to have spurned of any form of classicism, preferring the ‘primitive’ and archaic arts, which he saw as endowed with a certain ‘magical’ power.

Connections between Picasso’s output in 1906 and the heads of Cerro de los Santos and the Osuna reliefs have previously been pointed out by art historians John Golding and William Rubin. Picasso’s ‘Iberianism’ is now accepted as a crucial stage in the journey that led the artist from a psychological and sentimental representation of the figure to an objective and ‘conceptual’ representation.

The influence of this archaic source on Picasso exerted itself most strongly when the artist was staying in Gósol, a village in the Pyrenees in north-eastern Spain, during the spring and summer of 1906. During this time, another, more local influence made itself felt – that of Catalan medieval sculpture. The artist’s Gósol studies blend archaism and Romanesque art from the 12th century, and open a path towards one of his best-known works: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

The impact of this discovery of Spain’s earlier art can be seen in the process of the transformation of bodies and faces that began over the course of that same year. For example, in his 1906 Portrait of Gertrude Stein (from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), the sitter’s face assimilates the schematic style of the 2nd-century BC sculpture Lion with Human Head between its Claws (one of the Osuna finds in the Museo Arqueológico Nacional) and, while faithful to the writer’s visage, makes use of the heavily lidded eyes, elongated nose, and pinched mouth also found in Iberian art. In the autumn after this stay in Gósol, Picasso painted a self-portrait, which again shows the clear influence of Iberian works.

above Bull from the cave sanctuaries of Sierra Morena (Jaén). 4th-2nd century BC, bronze. Size: 4cm high
Bull from the cave sanctuaries of Sierra Morena (Jaén). 4th-2nd century BC, bronze. Size: 4cm high. IMAGE: Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid/photo: Alberto Rivas Rodríguez.
right Pablo Picasso, Bull. Vallauris, 1957, bronze. Size: 7 x 11 x 6.3cm
Pablo Picasso, Bull. Vallauris, 1957, bronze. Size: 7 x 11 x 6.3cm. IMAGE: Museo Picasso Málaga.

Further proof of Picasso’s attachment to Iberian art may be seen in his dubious acquisition of two sculptures stolen from the Louvre in March 1907 by Géry Pieret, an ‘adventurer’ friend of the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The influence of these two objects from Cerro de los Santos is reflected in a large number of studies prior to Picasso’s grand tableau Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. These studies include ‘types’ of female figures, with corpulent frames and rough, schematic features. The elongated profile of the faces, the heavy-lidded eyes, long ears, protruding forehead, and prominent chin are features common to these Iberian sculptures. The eye and the ear, which offer privileged access to the gods, are often exaggerated in Iberian imagery. These are also features that Picasso had already observed in ancient Egyptian works at the Louvre and in sculptures by Gauguin that he had seen a few months earlier with painter and ceramist Gustave Fayet – before he encountered the ‘primitive’ arts in the homes of artists André Derain and Henri Matisse, and later at the Palais du Trocadéro. The artist’s early efforts at stylising figures therefore preceded the more radical transformation of the bodies seen in his Demoiselles d’Avignon, created without the use of a model in the summer of 1907.

The two stone votive sculptures stolen from the Louvre in 1907 were returned in 1911. The influence of art from the ancient Iberian Peninsula continued to permeate the entirety of the artist’s production. After 1908, Picasso entered a marked experimental phase. His interest in Iberian art merged into a mixture of influences comprising popular, classical, African, and Mediterranean sources, which he reinjected into various productions, both Cubist and Naturalist. He blended major themes from Iberian art – the sacred, the bull, the encounter – with archaic stylistic characteristics such as processions, the entanglement of bodies in a constrained frame, schematic figures, and simplified expressions, as well as certain creative processes, including the production of series, experimenting with variation, and the daring use of materials.

above The Kiss, from Osuna (Seville). 1st century BC, limestone. Size: 13.5 x 24 x 30cm opposite Pablo Picasso, Le Baiser (‘The Kiss’). Dinard, 25 August 1929, oil on canvas. Size: 22 x 14cm
The Kiss, from Osuna (Seville). 1st century BC, limestone. Size: 13.5 x 24 x 30cm IMAGE: Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid.

The Iberian ‘model’ never completely vanished from Picasso’s repertoire; instead, it reappeared episodically as part of both formal and conceptual dialogues. Its enduring appeal for the artist is further attested by his own personal collection, which included a series of Iberian votive figurines in bronze, among them bulls as well as humans. A photograph by René Burri, taken in California in 1957 at the latest, shows a small 4th-2nd century BC bronze bull from the Sierra Morena sanctuaries present in Picasso’s studio there. While we do not know when or how the artist acquired these 95 statuettes, it is tempting to place this moment in the interwar period. This was a time when many discoveries and excavations of Iberian sites led to a market for figurines, including fakes. Back in France, Picasso had created in 1957 his own small bronze bull (on display in the exhibition); it is easy to see the connection between the modern work and its ancient counterparts.

A study of Picasso’s works suggests that the artist once again turned to Iberian art in earnest in the early 1930s, particularly to the ‘votive and funerary stelae from the Roman period, friezes of warriors, processions of women, acrobats walking on their hands, and m[e]n attacked by wild animal[s]’, as described by Pottier. Indeed, Picasso’s Acrobat series (1929-1930) reveals remarkable affinities with the ancient reliefs of acrobats and warriors from Osuna in terms of the nudity and simplified forms of the bodies inscribed in a quadrangular space. One of the paintings in Picasso’s series even has the exact same dimensions as the relief of the Iberian warrior.

Following a different thematic thread, Picasso’s portrayals of Baisers (‘Kisses’) between 1929 and 1931 echo an astonishing stone sculpture from Osuna known as The Kiss. This ancient work was kept in the Louvre until 1941 (today it is in the collection of the Museo Archeológico Nacional) and must have also been known to the sculptor Brancusi, who created his own Kiss. Scenes of couples are very rare in Iberian iconography and otherwise unheard of in sculpture. This exceptional 1st century BC limestone carving is possibly a funerary farewell scene, a spontaneous expression of the sentiments of the two figures. For his part, in his 1929 oil-on-canvas in the Musée national Picasso-Paris, The Kiss, Picasso experimented with the principles of transformation and anatomical deconstruction, leaving us with an image of a passionate embrace featuring two slender profiles emerging from a single bust.

Pablo Picasso, Le Baiser (‘The Kiss’). Dinard, 25 August 1929, oil on canvas. Size: 22 x 14cm.

In the next few years, between 1931 and 1934, when Picasso was residing in his home and studio in the 18th-century Château de Boisgeloup in Normandy, he modelled many sculptures in plaster, including the extraordinary Femme au vase (‘Woman with Vase’) (1933). These sculptures appear to make reference to another remarkable Iberian Dama, the 2nd century BC Gran Dama Oferente from the Cerro de los Santos sanctuary, as well as to the small bronze votive figures found at the cave sanctuaries of the Sierra Morena in the Jaén province. Thousands of these votive figurines have been discovered. Just as the limestone Gran Dama Oferente holds out a container in her two hands as if making an offering, the small bronze praying figures from the Sierra Morena have their own offerings, such as a vase, bread, or a bird. One of the two bronze proofs of Femme au vase stands over the artist’s grave at Vauvenargues in the south of France; the other – on Picasso and his wife Jacqueline’s insistence – was given to Spain and is held today by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. Both of these decisions are testament to the inextricable and enduring link between the works and the artist’s native country.

Votive figure of a worshipper in a short tunic. Spain, 4th-2nd century BC, bronze.
Size: 9 x 5.1 x 2.3cm. IMAGE: © FABA/photo: Hugard & Vanoverschelde.

There are many traces of the Iberian figurines in the artist’s oeuvre. With its elongated limbs, the Musée national Picasso-Paris’ Figure assise dans un fauteuil rouge (‘Woman sitting in a red armchair’) from 1932 recalls some of the schematic bronze worshippers Picasso collected. Similarly, the gestures of the sheet-metal Woman with Outstretched Arms (1961, Fundación Almine y Bernard Ruiz-Picasso para el Arte, Madrid) that also recur in his other cut-out sheet-metal figures can be said to be in close dialogue with these Iberian figures in prayer, several thousands of years old. Two imposing standing figures painted on wood panels from 1958 – intended as part of a mural in a UNESCO meeting hall, but replaced with a bather instead and now in the Musée national Picasso-Paris – evoke statues of worshippers from the Mediterranean world, through the stylised line that cuts out their schematic features and their gesture of prayer with arms outstretched. The female figures Picasso modelled in clay in both Paris and Vallauris on France’s southern coast between 1945 and 1947, also make use of postures with outstretched arms. Their small dimensions, too, underscore their similarity to the votive figurines of ancient Iberia and to the mother goddesses of past civilisations. Likewise, the heads Picasso cut out from sheet metal, painted, or incised in clay have predecessors in the painted Iberian ceramics that emphasise facial expression, such as the remarkable 1st century BC krater found at La Alcudia (Elche, Alicante). This small vessel has a striking frontal view of a face framed by wings, its cheeks boldly highlighted, as well as two faces in profile separated by snakes.

While critics during his lifetime rightly connected Picasso’s work to Greek, Cycladic, Cypriot, and Etruscan art, as well as ‘primitive’ art, none noted its lasting links to one of the most important artistic manifestations from his own country. Iberian art belongs to a world of Mediterranean forms. Outside inspirations and influences make themselves felt in Iberian artefacts, but at the same time highlight the singularity of this civilisation. It is not paradoxical, then, to note Greek and Iberian influences in the same sculpture by Picasso, nor to link his wood carvings made at Boisgeloup to both Etruscan and Iberian art.

left Pablo Picasso, Femme au vase (‘Woman with Vase’). Boisgeloup, 1933, bronze. Size: 220 x 122 x 110cm
Pablo Picasso, Femme au vase (‘Woman with Vase’). Boisgeloup, 1933, bronze. Size: 220 x 122 x 110cm. IMAGE: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.

Though Picasso was equally inspired by Iberian art as he was by other historic sources, his work never belongs to the past. Instead, it is an eternal continuation, permanently regenerating itself, sometimes through encounters with older works. The exhibition presented at Centro Botín shows how, through artistic events, meetings, archaeological discoveries, emotional revelations, stylistic appreciations, and critical responses, Iberian art itself offered a constantly evolving foundation that made an intrinsic and visceral impression on the artist. Even though he explored layer after layer of myriad formal and technical universes, Picasso still remained ibero.

Further information
Picasso ibero runs at Centro Botín, Santander, until 12 September 2021. Visit www.centrobotin.org for details.
For more on this topic, see the accompanying catalogue: Cécile Godefroy, Hélène Le Meaux, and Pierre Rouillard (eds), Picasso ibero, Centro Botín, Santander, published by La Fábrica, Madrid.