This Is Europe’s Unsung Cultural Capital—and Picasso’s Birthplace

Inspired by his genius, the Spanish port city Málaga transformed itself into a cultural hub.

In a painting from 1889, a bullfighter on horseback enters the ring under the watchful eyes of spectators, ready to face his opponent. The canvas is a study of silent drama with the protagonist dressed in gold and those in the crowd oversized yet refined. Displaying emotional control, the artist subtlety melds warm tones with just a pop of red, alluding to the inevitable event to come. The painter was only eight years old, and would later become one of the 20th century’s most famous creative geniuses. Pablo Picasso’s earliest surviving painting was more than just a promise of future creations, but serves as a reminder of the significance his Andalusian roots played throughout his life.

Growing up in the southern Spanish port city Málaga, he learned about bullfights and painting from his father José Ruiz Blasco, a talented fine art professor in the city. “As the painter’s artistic mentor, he influenced Picasso’s understanding of art as both a profession and a personal challenge,” explains the Artistic Director of the Museo Picasso Málaga, José Lebrero Stals. The student’s talent surpassed that of the teacher from an early age, and young Pablo often put the final touches on his father’s paintings of birds and other natural scenes.

Visit the Picasso Foundation in the house where the artist was born. PHOTOGRAPH BY NAVIA, AGENCE VU/REDUX

Members of the Picasso family donated almost three hundred artworks to Museo Picasso Málaga. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF MUSEO PICASSO MA´LAGA

Soon after that first painting, the Picasso family moved away from Málaga when Pablo was 10. He spent his formative years in Barcelona and lived the rest of his life in France–yet he never forgot his birthplace. “Although the artist was uprooted from his city of birth at a young age, now and again we can make out certain formal solutions and symbolic resources in his work that link it to the cultural and natural landscape of his native land: from subjects typical of Catholic rhetoric to the presence of water and the Mediterranean Sea,” says Stals.

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Imagery from the bullfights he watched with his father appeared in artwork, like Guernica, throughout Picasso’s entire career. Spanish poet Rafael Alberti writes that for Picasso, the bull becomes “the symbol of the bravery of the Spanish people, of their creative power." Andalusia is the home of bullfighting, with more than seventy bullrings in the region.

Spain’s Costa del Sol always offered tourists an affordable beachside retreat near one of the oldest cities in the world. During its 2,800-year history, Málaga was occupied by the Phoenicians, Romans, and the Arabs, all of whom left behind their own distinctive architecture and other influences.

The Centre Pompidou's first satellite outside of France opened in the revitalized port area of the city. PHOTOGRAPH BY KAREN DESJARDIN, GETTY

The city fully embraced its most famous export when members of the Picasso family donated almost three hundred artworks in 2003. “The city has experienced a huge transformation since the opening of Picasso museum in Málaga. This was the starting point of the cultural and artistic evolution of the city. All the streets around the museum were renewed and the list of museums has grown to 36,” says spokesperson Carmen Gualda Romero from the tourism board.

Málaga spent millions of euros to reinvent itself as a cultural hub. In 2015, the Parisian contemporary art museum Centre Pompidou opened its only foray outside France, housed in a playful glass cube that catches the sun near the revitalized port. A collection of Russian art opened in a former tobacco factory the same year, which was also the first venture outside of Russia for the State Russian Museum. Then there’s the Malaga Museum in Aduana Palace, a satellite of Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, the Centre for Contemporary Art, and many galleries cropping up in the city’s less-than-originally named Soho district.

More than a century after the Picassos left, the city built an identity around its most famous resident. Although Pablo never returned to Málaga after childhood, he left an enduring mark on the city, and indeed the trajectory of art itself.

LEAD IMAGE: Towering over the city, Málaga's cathedral hosted the baptism of Pablo Picasso in 1881. PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANK FELL, ROBERT HARDING PICTURE LIBRARY/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

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