Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
AKA: Pablo Ruiz y Picasso
Born: October 25, 1881; Malaga, Spain
Pablo Ruiz y Picasso was born in Malaga, the son of an art teacher. The boy showed exceptional talent at an early age, and the artistic current flowing into Barcelona (where the family had settled) from France and Northern Europe stimulated him into trying out the personal languages of Munch, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir and other northern lights.
In 1900, he visited Paris for a short time, and returned in 1901 to join the cohort of young Bohemians attracted to the capital by the stimulating and exciting atmosphere then prevailing in the arts. Lautrec, Gauguin, van Gogh, Steinlen, late Impressionism flit across his canvases in a bewildering medley and leave behind a passion for blue, which became the dominant color for his portrayal of the squalid tragedy of the Paris streets – the beggar, the harlot, the sick child, the hungry. Through this welter of contemporary influences ran the steady current of the things he had grown up with: the elongated forms of Catalan Gothic sculpture and Italian Mannerism, the simplified color and straightforward approach of Velazquez and Goya.
These also inform his pictures of actors, mountebanks, and harlequins, where tender fawns and pinks replace the earlier drab and sad colors. Until then nothing unusual had transpired: even his interest in Iberian sculpture in 1906, and the radical simplification of form and color it led to gave little hint of the position when the Fauve outbreak was at its height. Picasso took no part in this. He was questioning the whole basis of painting and was therefore unable to follow still further the road from Impressionism to the dissolution of form and its translation into color and imaginative feeling.
Picasso’s reply to Matisse’s composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the various elements at the painter’s disposal for the expression of his feelings’ was to turn to Cézanne, whose petite sensation never had any truck with pure decoration and whose composition was based on the rigorous discipline of the relations of form and space on a two-dimensional surface.
Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon (The Museum of Modern Art, New York) of 1907 was begun in the vein of his harlequin series, but ended as a semiabstract composition, in which the forms of the nudes and their accessories are broken up into planes compressed into a shallow space. The influence of Negro sculptures, which first appears in the Demoiselles, also fitted in with his quest for the expression of form and helped, by the bizarre nature of their forms, to release him from the tyranny of the representational tradition in art.
In 1907, he met Braque who had drifted into the Fauve circle and out of it again, and by 1909 they found that they faced the same problems and were striving to solve them in the same way. Both rejected decorative arabesques and bright, sensuous color and were striving to devise a pictorial language which would define volumes and their relationships without destroying the flat surface of the picture, and without descending to the imitation of accidental and superficial appearances. Together they evolved what is now called Analytical Cubism.
By 1912, color had begun to creep back among the grays, olive greens, and drab browns, and actual objects – a piece of cane seating, a newspaper heading – were imported so as to stress by their complaisant acquiescence in becoming an element in a design the modest role of nature in the ideal, and also to serve as an example of the way in which nature may be recreated.
Collage was a natural extension of this. Objects could be literally reconstituted with bits of wood, wire, paper, and string, their forms distorted by the artist into a flat composition whose inherent third dimension is alluded to at the same time as it is suppressed although Picasso, having started this hare, did not course it, any more than he did that of Surrealism, born from the juxtaposition of recognizable objects and reconstituted forms.
At the moment when the War broke out in 1914, Braque and Picasso were separated by a quarrel (the breach was never healed) and both had consistently held aloof from the host of minor artists who had by now realized that Cubism was the coming thing and had climbed aboard the bandwagon – Gleizes, Metzinger, Delaunay, Marcoussis, DuchampVillon, Picabia, La Fresnaye, and Derain. From 1915, he had shown his interest in Ingres’ drawings by precise and restrainedly stylized pencil drawings, and his connection with the Diaghileff Russian Ballet in Rome in 1917 led to works showing a return to traditional vision, with parallel works in a glitteringly sophisticated Cubist idiom. Finally, contact with the Antique and with Roman classicism ushers in a series of paintings and drawings of monumental female nudes, at first almost motiordess and then, by 1923, galvanized into terrifying movement which distorts them into frightening caricatures before dissolving them, via calligraphic curves and lines, into the convulsive and repellent distortions of the Three Dancers of 1925.
For the next ten years, Picasso developed these distorted and disquieting figures through what is generally called the Metamorphic phase, in which he was perhaps somewhat influenced by Miró and Tanguy. By the early 1930s, he was rather taking the wind out of Matisse’s sails with a series of nudes odalisques almost which combine brilliance of color with flat pattern of a violent intensity; soon afterwards, he began the series of bullfighting subjects which culminated in the imagery present inGuernica (1936: Madrid, Prado). This huge composition, inspired by the Spanish Civil War, expresses in complicated iconography and personal symbolical language, comprehensible after careful study, the artist’s abhorrence of the violence and beastliness of war. This dark mood persisted in the dislocated forms and frightening imagery of his work during the Second World War.
He remained in Paris during the Occupation and gradually acquired by his aloofness the stature of a symbol of resistance, but from 1946 to his death he lived mainly in the South of France. During these years he experimented with ceramics and also painted a large mural for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris.
No man has changed more radically the nature of art. Like Giotto, Michelangelo and Bernini, he stands at the beginning of a new epoch. Most museums of modern art throughout the world have examples. His private collection, of his own work and that of his friends, has been given to the French State as the Musée Picasso, Paris.