Celestina the Procuress a constant, transforming figure in Picasso’s art and life

June 3, 2016
Caleb Snider, Congress 2016 student blogger

Professor Carol Salus (Kent State University) wrote a fascinating presentation for Congress entitled Picasso, prostitution, and his favourite procuress, but was unable to attend this year’s Congress. Fortunately, Professor Enrique Fernandez (University of Manitoba) stepped in on June 1to present Professor Salus’s paper on her behalf.

Professor Salus described how the figure of Celestina, the aged madam/bawd from the fifteenth century Spanish novel La Celestina by Fernando de Rojas, remained a constant figure in his art throughout his career. Picasso was not, of course, the first artist to feature Celestina in his paintings, drawings, and etchings: Celestina and other “procuresses” like her appear in pan-European visual art from the Early Modern period onward (as can be attested by the multimedia Celestina gallery that Professor Fernandez curated for Congress 2016 and within which Professor Salus’s paper was presented).

Professor Salus described Celestina as a constant touchstone throughout Picasso’s life and career. Picasso, she argued, was eminently aware of Rojas’s novel (in fact, he collected it in several different editions). Celestina herself first appeared in Picasso’s early sketches and paintings of the Barcelona prostitutes and brothels he visited as a young man, placing her in a contemporary context but still wearing her traditional Early Modern costume. During his Blue Period, Picasso painted an all-seeing, all-knowing one-eyed Celestina (a photograph of which happens to be the first image that Google provides when you search “Celestina”), whose appearance significantly diverges from her traditional portrayal (her milky left eye, her smooth-featured face, her more modern attire). This one-eyed Celestina is echoed in his seminal painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by the one-eyed prostitute in the painting’s far right corner. Eventually, a more wizened, traditional, hideous and caricaturish Celestina works her way into the etchings he made during his final years.

According to Professor Salus, Celestina remained a touchstone of Picasso’s Spanish identity throughout his life, and later came to represent his own impotence: like the Celestina in Rojas’s novel, Picasso was rendered merely a spectator to sex by age, a condition he presented in etches depicting Celestina and a wizened, naked Picasso together, juxtaposed with young, naked lovers.

Professor Salus’s presentation and the Celestina exhibit were hosted by the Canadian Association of Hispanists (CAH).