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Pablo Picasso
1881-1973

 


Famous as no artist ever had been, he was a pioneer, a master and a protean monster, with a hand in every art movement of the century
By ROBERT HUGHES for Time Magazine
 

 

To say that Pablo Picasso dominated Western art in the 20th century is, by now, the merest commonplace. Before his 50th birthday, the little Spaniard from Malaga had become the very prototype of the modern artist as public figure. No painter before him had had a mass audience in his own lifetime. The total public for Titian in the 16th century or Velazquez in the 17th was probably no more than a few thousand people — though that included most of the crowned heads, nobility and intelligentsia of Europe. Picasso's audience — meaning people who had heard of him and seen his work, at least in reproduction — was in the tens, possibly hundreds, of millions. He and his work were the subjects of unending analysis, gossip, dislike, adoration and rumour.

He was a superstitious, sarcastic man, sometimes rotten to his children, often beastly to his women. He had contempt for women artists. His famous remark about women being "goddesses or doormats" has rendered him odious to feminists, but women tended to walk into both roles open-eyed and eagerly, for his charm was legendary. Whole cultural industries derived from his much mythologized virility. He was the Minotaur in a canvas-and-paper labyrinth of his own construction.

He was also politically lucky. Though to Nazis his work was the epitome of "degenerate art," his fame protected him during the German occupation of Paris, where he lived; and after the war, when artists and writers were thought disgraced by the slightest affiliation with Nazism or fascism, Picasso gave enthusiastic endorsement to Joseph Stalin, a mass murderer on a scale far beyond Hitler's, and scarcely received a word of criticism for it, even in cold war America.

No painter or sculptor, not even Michelangelo, had been as famous as this in his own lifetime. And it is quite possible that none ever will be again, now that the mandate to set forth social meaning, to articulate myth and generate widely memorable images has been so largely transferred from painting and sculpture to other media: photography, movies, television. Though Marcel Duchamp, that cunning old fox of conceptual irony, has certainly had more influence on nominally vanguard art over the past 30 years than Picasso, the Spaniard was the last great beneficiary of the belief that the language of painting and sculpture really mattered to people other than their devotees. And he was the first artist to enjoy the obsessive attention of mass media. He stood at the intersection of these two worlds. If that had not been so, his restless changes of style, his constant pushing of the envelope, would not have created such controversy — and thus such celebrity.

In today's art world, a place without living culture heroes, you can't even imagine such a protean monster arising. His output was vast. This is not a virtue in itself — only a few paintings by Vermeer survive, and fewer still by the brothers Van Eyck, but they are as firmly lodged in history as Picasso ever was or will be. Still, Picasso's oeuvre filled the world, and he left permanent marks on every discipline he entered. His work expanded fractally, one image breeding new clusters of others, right up to his death.

Moreover, he was the artist with whom virtually every other artist had to reckon, and there was scarcely a 20th century movement that he didn't inspire, contribute to or — in the case of Cubism, which, in one of art history's great collaborations, he co-invented with Georges Braque — beget. The exception, since Picasso never painted an abstract picture in his life, was abstract art; but even there his handprints lay everywhere — one obvious example being his effect on the early work of American Abstract Expressionist painters, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, among others.

Much of the story of modern sculpture is bound up with welding and assembling images from sheet metal, rather than modelling in clay, casting in bronze or carving in wood; and this tradition of the open constructed form rather than solid mass arose from one small guitar that Picasso snipped and joined out of tin in 1912. If collage — the gluing of previously unrelated things and images on a flat surface — became a basic mode of modern art, that too was due to Picasso's Cubist collaboration with Braque. He was never a member of the Surrealist group, but in the 1920s and '30s he produced some of the scariest distortions of the human body and the most violently irrational, erotic images of Eros and Thanatos ever committed to canvas. He was not a realist painter/reporter, still less anyone's official muralist, and yet Guernica remains the most powerful political image in modern art, rivalled only by some of the Mexican work of Diego Rivera.

Picasso was regarded as a boy genius, but if he had died before 1906, his 25th year, his mark on 20th century art would have been slight. The so-called Blue and Rose periods, with their wistful etiolated figures of beggars and circus folk, are not, despite their great popularity, much more than pendants to late 19th century Symbolism. It was the experience of modernity that created his modernism, and that happened in Paris. There, mass production and reproduction had come to the forefront of ordinary life: newspapers, printed labels, the overlay of posters on walls — the dizzily intense public life of signs, simultaneous, high-speed and layered. This was the cityscape of Cubism.

Picasso was not a philosopher or a mathematician (there is no "geometry" in Cubism), but the work he and Braque did between 1911 and 1918 was intuitively bound to the perceptions of thinkers like Einstein and Alfred North Whitehead: that reality is not figure and void, it is all relationships, a twinkling field of interdependent events. Long before any Pop artists were born, Picasso latched on to the magnetism of mass culture and how high art could refresh itself through common vernaculars. Cubism was hard to read, willfully ambiguous, and yet demotic too. It remains the most influential art dialect of the early 20th century. As if to distance himself from his imitators, Picasso then went to the opposite extreme of embracing the classical past, with his paintings of huge dropsical women dreaming Mediterranean dreams in homage to Corot and Ingres.

His "classical" mode, which he would revert to for decades to come, can also be seen as a gesture of independence. After his collaboration with Braque ended with his comment that "Braque is my wife" — words that were as disparaging to women as to Braque — Picasso remained a loner for the rest of his career. But a loner with a court and maitresses en titre. He didn't even form a friendship with Matisse until both artists were old. His close relationships tended to be with poets and writers.

Though the public saw him as the archetypal modernist, he was disconnected from much modern art. Some of the greatest modern painters — Kandinsky, for instance, or Mondrian — saw their work as an instrument of evolution and human development. But Picasso had no more of a Utopian streak than did his Spanish idol, Goya. The idea that art evolved, or had any kind of historical mission, struck him as ridiculous. "All I have ever made," he once said, "was made for the present and in the hope that it will always remain in the present. When I have found something to express, I have done it without thinking of the past or the future." Interestingly, he also stood against the Expressionist belief that the work of art gains value by disclosing the truth, the inner being, of its author. "How can anyone enter into my dreams, my instincts, my desires, my thoughts ... and above all grasp from them what I have been about — perhaps against my own will?" he exclaimed.

To make art was to achieve a tyrannous freedom from self-explanation. The artist's work was mediumistic ("Painting is stronger than me, it makes me do what it wants"), solipsistic even. To Picasso, the idea that painting did itself through him meant that it wasn't subject to cultural etiquette. None of the other fathers of Modernism felt it so strongly — not Matisse, not Mondrian, certainly not Braque.

In his work, everything is staked on sensation and desire. His aim was not to argue coherence but to go for the strongest level of feeling. He conveyed it with tremendous plastic force, making you feel the weight of forms and the tension of their relationships mainly by drawing and tonal structure. He was never a great colorist, like Matisse or Pierre Bonnard. But through metaphor, he crammed layers of meaning together to produce flashes of revelation. In the process, he reversed one of the currents of modern art. Modernism had rejected storytelling: what mattered was formal relationships. But Picasso brought it back in a disguised form, as a psychic narrative, told through metaphors, puns and equivalences.

The most powerful element in the story — at least after Cubism — was sex. The female nude was his obsessive subject. Everything in his pictorial universe, especially after 1920, seemed related to the naked bodies of women. Picasso imposed on them a load of feeling, ranging from dreamy eroticism (as in some of his paintings of his mistress Marie-Therese Walter in the '30s) to a sardonic but frenzied hostility, that no Western artist had made them carry before. He did this through metamorphosis, recomposing the body as the shape of his fantasies of possession and of his sexual terrors. Now the hidden and comparatively decorous puns of Cubism (the sound holes of a mandolin, for instance, becoming the mask of Pierrot) came out of their closet. "To displace," as Picasso described the process, "to put eyes between the legs, or sex organs on the face. To contradict. Nature does many things the way I do, but she hides them! My painting is a series of cock-and-bull stories."

There seems little doubt that the greatest of Picasso's work came in the 30 years between Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) and Guernica (1937). But of course he didn't decline into triviality. Consistently through the war years and the '50s, and even now and then in the '60s and '70s, he would produce paintings and prints of considerable power. Sometimes they would be folded into series of variations on the old masters and 19th century painters he needed to measure himself against, such as Velazquez and Goya, or Poussin, Delacroix, Manet and Courbet. In his last years particularly, his production took on a manic and obsessive quality, as though the creative act (however repetitious) could forestall death. Which it could not. His death left the public with a nostalgia for genius that no talent today, in the field of painting, can satisfy.

 


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The Spanish painter, sculptor, and graphic artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was one of the most prodigious and revolutionarys artists in the history of Western painting. As the central figure in developing cubism, he established the basis for abstract art.

Pablo Picasso was born Pablo Blasco on Oct. 25, 1881, in Malaga, Spain, where his father, José Ruiz Blasco, was a professor in the School of Arts and Crafts. Pablo's mother was Maria Picasso and the artist used her surname from about 1901 on. In 1891 the family moved to La Coruńa, where, at the age of 14, Picasso began studying at the School of Fine Art. Under the academic instruction of his father, he developed his artistic talent at an extraordinary rate.

When the family moved to Barcelona in 1896, Picasso easily gained entrance to the School of Fine Arts. A year later he was admitted as an advanced student at the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid; he demonstrated his remarkable ability by completing in one day an entrance examination for which an entire month was permitted.

But Picasso found the atmosphere at the academy stifling, and he soon returned to Barcelona, where he began to study historical and contemporary art on his own. At that time Barcelona was the most vital cultural centre in Spain, and Picasso quickly joined the group of poets, painters, and writers who gathered at the famous café Quatre Gats.

In 1900 Picasso made his first visit to Paris, staying for three months. In 1901 he made a second trip to Paris, and Ambroise Vollard gave him his first one-man exhibition. Although the show was not financially successful, it did arouse the interest of the writer Max Jacob, who subsequently became one of Picasso's closest friends and supporters. For the next three years Picasso stayed alternately in Paris and Barcelona.


First Works

At the turn of the century Paris was the center of the international art world. In painting it had spawned such masters as Georges Seurat, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Each of these artists practiced advanced, radical styles. In spite of obvious stylistic differences, their common denominator lay in testing the limits of traditional representation. While their works retained certain links with the visible world, they exhibited a decided tendency toward flatness and abstraction. In effect, they implied that painting need not be predicated upon the values of Renaissance illusionism.

Picasso emerged within this complicated and uncertain artistic situation in 1904 when he set up a permanent studio in an old building called the Bateau Lavoir. There he produced some of his most revolutionary works, and the studio soon became a gathering place for the city's vanguard artists, writers, and patrons. This group included the painter Juan Gris, the writer Guillaume Apollinaire, and the American collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein.

Picasso's early work reveals a creative pattern which persisted throughout his long career. Between 1900 and 1906 he worked through nearly every major style of contemporary painting, from impressionism to Art Nouveau. In doing so, his own work changed with unprecedented quickness, revealing a spectrum of feelings that would seem to lie beyond the limits of one human being. In itself this accomplishment was a mark of Picasso's genius.

The Moulin de la Galette (1900), the first painting Picasso executed in Paris, presents a scene of urban café society. With its acrid colours and sharp, angular figures, the work exudes a sinister, discomforting aura. The rawness of its sensibility, although not its superficial style, is characteristic of many of his earliest works.


Blue and Pink Periods

The years between 1901 and 1904 were known as Picasso's Blue Period, during which nearly all of his works were executed in somber shades of blue and contained lean, dejected, and introspective figures. The pervasive tone of the pictures is one of depression; their colour is symbolic of the artist's personal hardship during the first years of the century - years when he occasionally burned his own drawings to keep warm - and also of the suffering which he witnessed in his society. Two outstanding examples of this period are the Old Guitarist (1903) and Life (1903).

In the second half of 1904 Picasso's style exhibited a new direction. For about a year he worked on a series of pictures featuring harlequins, acrobats, and other circus performers. The most celebrated example is the Family of Saltimbanques (1905). Feeling, as well as subject matter, has shifted here. The brooding depression of the Blue Period has given way to a quiet and unoppressive melancholy, and the colour has become more natural, delicate, and tender in its range, with a prevalence of reddish and pink tones. Thus this period was called his Pink Period.

In terms of space, Picasso's work between 1900 and 1905 was generally flat, emphasizing the two-dimensional character of the painting surface. Late in 1905, however, he became increasingly interested in pictorial volume. This interest seems to have been stimulated by the late paintings of Cézanne, ten of which were shown in the 1905 Salon d'Automne. In Picasso's Boy Leading a Horse (1905) and Woman with Loaves (1906) the figures are vigorously modeled, giving a strong impression of their weight and three-dimensionality. The same interest pervades the famous Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906), particularly in the massive body of the figure. But the face of the sitter reveals still another new interest: its mask-like abstraction was inspired by Iberian sculpture, an exhibition of which Picasso had seen at the Louvre in the spring of 1906. This influence reached its fullest expression a year later in one of the most revolutionary pictures of Picasso's entire career, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907).


Picasso and Cubism

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is generally regarded as the first cubist painting. Under the influence of Cézanne, Iberian sculpture, and African sculpture (which Picasso first saw in Paris in 1907) the artist launched a pictorial style more radical than anything he had produced up to that date. The human figures and their surrounding space are reduced to a series of broad, intersecting planes which align themselves with the picture surface and imply a multiple, dissected view of the visible world. The faces of the figures are seen simultaneously from frontal and profile positions, and their bodies are likewise forced to submit to Picasso's new and radically abstract pictorial language.

Paradoxically, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was not exhibited in public until 1937. Very possibly the picture was as problematic for Picasso as it was for his circle of friends and fellow artists, who were shocked when they viewed it in his Bateau Lavoir studio. Even Georges Braque, who by 1908 had become Picasso's closest colleague in the cubist enterprise, at first said that "to paint in such a way was as bad as drinking petrol in the hope of spitting fire." Nevertheless, Picasso relentlessly pursued the implications of his own revolutionary invention. Between 1907 and 1911 he continued to dissect the visible world into increasingly small facets of monochromatic planes of space. In doing so, his works became more and more abstract; that is, representation gradually vanished from the painting medium, which correspondingly became an end in itself - for the first time in the history of Western art.

The evolution of this process is evident in all of Picasso's work between 1907 and 1911. Some of the most outstanding pictorial examples of the development are Fruit Dish (1909), Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (1910), and Ma Jolie (also known as Woman with a Guitar, 1911-1912).


Cubist Collages

About 1911 Picasso and Braque began to introduce letters and scraps of newspapers into their cubist paintings, thus giving birth to an entirely new medium, the cubist collage. Picasso's first, and probably his most celebrated, collage is Still Life with Chair Caning (1911-1912). The oval composition combines a cubist analysis of a lemon and a wineglass, letters from the world of literature, and a piece of oilcloth that imitates a section of chair caning; finally, it is framed with a piece of actual rope. As Alfred Barr wrote (1946): "Here then, in one picture, Picasso juggles reality and abstraction in two media and at four different levels or ratios. If we stop to think which is the most 'real' we find ourselves moving from esthetic to metaphysical speculation. For here what seems most real is most false and what seems remote from everyday reality is perhaps the most real since it is least an imitation."


Synthetic Cubist Phase

After his experiments in the new medium of collage, Picasso returned more intensively to painting. His work between 1912 and 1921 is generally regarded as the synthetic phase of the cubist development. The masterpiece of this style is the Three Musicians (1921). In this painting Picasso used the flat planes of his earlier style in order to reconstruct an impression of the visible world. The planes themselves had become broader and more simplified, and they exploited colour to a far greater extent than did the work of 1907-1911. In its richness of feeling and balance of formal elements, the Three Musicians represents a classical expression of cubism.


Additional Achievements

The invention of cubism represents Picasso's most important achievement in the history of 20th-century art. Nevertheless, his activities as an artist were not limited to this alone. As early as the first decade of the century, he involved himself with both sculpture and printmaking, two media which he continued to practice throughout his long career and to which he made numerous important contributions. Moreover, he periodically worked in ceramics and in the environment of the theatre: in 1917 he designed sets for the Eric Satie and Jean Cocteau ballet Parade; in 1920 he sketched a theatre interior for Igor Stravinsky's Pulcinella; and in 1924 he designed a curtain for the performance of Le Train Bleu by Jean Cocteau and Darius Milhaud. In short, the range of his activities exceeded that of any artist who worked in the modern period.

In painting, even the development of cubism fails to define Picasso's genius. About 1915, and again in the early 1920s, he turned away from abstraction and produced drawings and paintings in a realistic and serenely beautiful classical idiom. One of the most famous of these works is the Woman in White (1923). Painted just two years after the Three Musicians, the quiet and unobtrusive elegance of this masterpiece testifies to the ease with which Picasso could express himself in pictorial languages that seem at first glance to be mutually exclusive.

By the late 1920s and the early 1930s surrealism had in many ways eclipsed cubism as the vanguard style of European painting. Launched by André Breton in Paris in 1924, the movement was not one to which Picasso was ever an "official" contributor in terms of group exhibitions or the signing of manifestos. But his work during these years reveals many attitudes in sympathy with the surrealist sensibility. For instance, in his famous Girl before a Mirror (1932), he employed the colorful planes of synthetic cubism to explore the relationship between a young woman's image and self-image as she regards herself before a conventional looking glass. As the configurations shift between the figure and the mirror image, they reveal the complexity of emotional and psychological energies that prevail on the darker side of human experience.


Guernica

Another of Picasso's most celebrated paintings of the 1930s is Guernica (1937). Barr described the situation within which it was conceived: "On April 28, 1937, the Basque town of Guernica was reported destroyed by German bombing planes flying for General Franco. Picasso, already an active partisan of the Spanish Republic, went into action almost immediately. He had been commissioned in January to paint a mural for the Spanish Government Building at the Paris World's Fair; but he did not begin to work until May 1st, just two days after the news of the catastrophe." The artist's deep feelings about the work, and about the massacre which inspired it, are reflected in the fact that he completed the work, that is more than 25 feet wide and 11 feet high, within six or seven weeks.

Guernica is an extraordinary monument within the history of modern art. Executed entirely in black, white, and gray, it projects an image of pain, suffering, and brutality that has few parallels among advanced paintings of the 20th century. No artist except Picasso was able to apply convincingly the pictorial language of cubism to a subject that springs directly from social and political awareness. That he could so overtly challenge the abstractionist trend that he personally began is but another mark of his uniqueness.

After World War II Picasso was established as one of the Old Masters of modern art. But his work never paused. In the 1950s and 1960s he devoted his energies to other Old Masters, producing paintings based on the masterpieces of Nicolas Poussin and Diego Velázquez. To many critics and historians these recent works are not as ambitious as Picasso's earlier productions.


Picasso Politics

Picasso also came out publicly after the war as a communist. When he was asked why he was a communist in 1947, he stated that "When I was a boy in Spain, I was very poor and aware of how poor people had to live. I learned that the communists were for the poor people. That was enough to know. So I became for the communists."

Sometimes the communist cause was not as keen on Picasso as Picasso was about being a communist. A 1953 portrait he painted of Joseph Stalin, the then recently deceased Soviet leader, caused a clamor in the Party's leadership. The Soviet government banished his works from their nation after having them locked in the basement of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Picasso appeared amused at this and continued on unaffected.

Although Picasso had been in exile from his native Spain since the 1939 victory of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, he gave 800 to 900 of his earliest works to the city and people of Barcelona. For his part, Franco's feelings about Picasso were reciprocated. In 1963, Picasso's friend Jaime Sabartés had given 400 of his Picasso works to Barcelona. To display these works, the Palacio Aguilar was renamed the Picasso Museum and the works were moved inside. But because of Franco's dislike for Picasso, Picasso's name never appeared on the museum.

Picasso was married twice, first to dancer Olga Khoklova and then to Jacqueline Roque. He had four children, one from his marriage to Khoklova and three by mistresses. Picasso kept busy all of his life and was planning an exhibit of 201 of his works at the Avignon Arts Festival in France when he died.

Picasso died at his 35-room hilltop villa of Notre Dame de Vie in Mougins, France on April 8, 1973. He was remembered as an artist that, throughout his life, shifted unpredictably from one pictorial mode to another. He exhibited a remarkable genius for sculpture, graphics, and ceramics, as well as painting. The sheer range of his achievement, not to mention its quality and influence, made him one of the most celebrated artists of the modern period.


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 15 December, 2008