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Monday, October 28, 2013

Ramon Casas y Carbo

Artists in tandem, ca. 1890, Ramon Casas y Carbo--two of the four cats.

Self-portrait as a Flamenco Dancer,
1883, Ramon Casas y Carbo,
(seventeen at the time).
In writing about famous artists (and especially the not-so-famous), it's somewhat distressing to so often pen biographical details of how a talented young person is born in obscurity, struggles for parental approval, goes off to some big city to study and starve, striving stridently for stability and subsequent success. (I alliteratively love to do that.) This is not that kind of story. Ramon Casas y Carbo was born in 1866, near Barcelona, with the proverbial "silver spoon" in his mouth (later a cigar mounted vertically in a pipe). His father was rich, having made his fortune in Cuba some time earlier. His mother's family was simply "well-off," which, in Catalonia, could mean almost anything. At the ripe old age of elven, Ramon was allowed to jettison his conventional schooling in favor of art school. Still a teenager, and no doubt with his father's money, he co-founded a magazine, L'Avenç (the Advance). Then he was off to Paris to write and draw for the magazine and to study under Carolus Duran.

The Bullfight, 1884, Ramon Casas y Carbo
Cater to Headlights, Ramon Casas.
In the 1890s, driving the countryside
was high adventure. For a woman to
drive alone was scandalous.
Unlike the traditional story of the struggling starving art student, Ramon was an immediate success in Paris. His 1883 painting of himself as a Flamenco dancer (above, left) won him a place in the prestigious Paris the Salon des Champs Elysées and membership in the Societé d'artistes Françaises. His 1884 The Bullfight (above) was the first of many highly detailed crowd scenes--all before he turned twenty. Unfortunately, the promising young artist also came down with tuberculosis before he turned twenty. At that time, the disease was something of a lingering death sentence. But, possibly because of his youth, Ramon Casas recovered. During his recovery he met fellow artist, Santiago Rusinol. Together they set out on to explore Catalonia. They published a short book, Por Cataluña (desde mi carro) (Catalonia (by my car)), which Rusinol wrote and Casas illustrated. Casas and another artist friend, Pere Romeu, later repeated their explorations on a tandem bicycle. By the 1890s, Casas was showing his work in Berlin and Chicago. Both his style and content struck a chord with artist as well as the public. It looked modern yet had just enough Academic realism to not be disturbing. The paintings of Casas and his friends came to be known as Modernisme--kind of Art Nouveauish.

El Quatre Gats, ca. 1900--macho, yet arty.
Casas' El Quatre Gats poster has
somewhat the style of Toulouse-
Lautrec, whom Casas studied under.
In 1897, Casas, Romeu, Rusinol, and Parisian art critic/painter, Miquel Utrillo, got together to open a bar in beautiful, downtown Barcelona. They called it El Quatre Gats(the four cats), which may have been a slang reference to themselves. On its main wall, dominating all the art on the bar's other walls, Casas hung a giant painted image of himself and Romeu on their tandem bike (top). The bar was as much art gallery and artist hangout as it was a watering hole. Casas paid all the bills. It's unclear whether the place ever showed a profit, and in any case, it closed after just six years. The whole enterprise would be just a very minor footnote in the story of a fairly minor turn-of-the-century painter except for the presence of one of their best customers--fellow Catalan, Pablo Picasso.

Casas here paints Rusinol, and possibly Pere Romeu, painting one another around 1904.
Casas also drew a
Portrait of Picasso, 1900.
Picasso (left) was fifteen years younger than Casas and his friends, and, though prodigiously talented, not yet famous. He hung out at El Quatre Gats, drinking (of course) and drawing (of course). He drew their other arty patrons and, in fact, had his first one-man show on the premises in 1900, just before heading off to Paris to seek his fame and fortune. Picasso and Casas had a lot in common, despite their age difference. Both were child prodigies, both were Catalan, both came from relatively well-to-do families, and both abandoned Spain for Paris to study and make names for themselves. Both artists also came from an Academic background (Picasso's father, José Ruiz y Blasco, in fact, taught at a provincial art academy in Malaga). The difference was one of timing and personality. Casas was born and raised as something of an adventurous, rich playboy (and somewhat too soon, at that). Picasso was more the iconic struggling artist in those years (not that he didn't become a far richer playboy than Casas in his wildest dreams). Casas found traditional success early in life. Picasso didn't. He had to strive to be different, and that, insofar as art is concerned (in the words of Robert Frost) "...has made all the difference."

Female Nude, 1909, Ramon Casas y Carbo.
Casas' nudes are more often compositional exercises than erotic.

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