Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Born in Spain, Picasso was a child prodigy who was recognized as such by his art-teacher father, who ably led him along. The small Museo de Picasso in Barcelona is devoted primarily to his early works, which include strikingly realistic renderings of casts of ancient sculpture.
He was a rebel from the start and, as a teenager, began to frequent the Barcelona cafes where intellectuals gathered. He soon went to Paris, the capital of art, and soaked up the works of Manet, Gustave Courbet, and Toulouse-Lautrec, whose sketchy style impressed him greatly. Then it was back to Spain, a return to France, and again back to Spain – all in the years 1899 to 1904.
Before he struck upon Cubism, Picasso went through a prodigious number of styles – realism, caricature, the Blue Period, and the Rose Period. The Blue Period dates from 1901 to 1904 and is characterized by a predominantly blue palette and subjects focusing on outcasts, beggars, and prostitutes. This was when he also produced his first sculptures. The most poignant work of the style is in Cleveland’s Museum of Art, La Vie (1903), which was created in memory of a great childhood friend, the Spanish poet Casagemas, who had committed suicide. The painting started as a self-portrait, but Picasso’s features became those of his lost friend. The composition is stilted, the space compressed, the gestures stiff, and the tones predominantly blue. Another outstanding Blue Period work, of 1903, is in the Metropolitan, The Blind Man’s Meal. Yet another example, perhaps the most lyrical and mysterious ever, is in the Toledo Museum of Art, the haunting Woman with a Crow (1903).
The Rose Period began around 1904 when Picasso’s palette brightened, the paintings dominated by pinks and beiges, light blues, and roses. His subjects are saltimbanques (circus people), harlequins, and clowns, all of whom seem to be mute and strangely inactive. One of the premier works of this period is in Washington, D.C., the National Gallery’s large and extremely beautiful Family of Saltimbanques dating to 1905, which portrays a group of circus workers who appear alienated and incapable of communicating with each other, set in a one-dimensional space.
In 1905, Picasso went briefly to Holland, and on his return to Paris, his works took on a classical aura with large male and fernale figures seen frontally or in distinct profile, almost like early Greek art. One of the best of these of 1906 is in the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, NY, La Toilette. Several pieces in this new style were purchased by Gertrude (the art patron and writer) and her brother, Leo Stein. The other major artist promoted by the Steins during this period was Henri Matisse, who had made a sensation in an exhibition of 1905 for works of a most shocking new style, employing garish and dissonant colors. These pieces would be derided by the critics as “Fauvism,” a French word for “wild beasts.” Picasso was profoundly influenced by Matisse. He was also captivated by the almost cartoon-like works of the self-taught “primitive” French painter Henri “Le Douanier” Rousseau, whom he affectionately called “the last ancient Egyptian painter” because his works have a passing similarity to the flat ancient Egyptian paintings.
A masterpiece by Rousseau is in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, his world-famous Sleeping Gypsy, with an incredible tiger gazing at the dormant figure with laser-like eyes.
Picasso discovered ancient Iberian sculpture from Spain, African art (for he haunted the African collections in the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris), and Gauguin’s sculptures. Slowly, he incorporated the simplified forms he found in these sources into a striking portrait of Gertrude Stein, finished in 1906 and given by her in her will to the Metropolitan Museum. She has a severe masklike face made up of emphatically hewn forms compressed inside a restricted space. (Stein is supposed to have complained, “I don’t look at all like that,” with Picasso replying, “You will, Gertrude, you will.”) This unique portrait comes as a crucial shift from what Picasso saw to what he was thinking and paves the way to Cubism.
Then came the awesome Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of 1907, the shaker of the art world (Museum of Modern Art, New York). Picasso was a little afraid of the painting and didn’t show it except to a small circle of friends until 1916, long after he had completed his early Cubist pictures. Cubism is essentially the fragmenting of three-dimensional forms into flat areas of pattern and color, overlapping and intertwining so that shapes and parts of the human anatomy are seen from the front and back at the same time. The style was created by Picasso in tandem with his great friend Georges Braque, and at times, the works were so alike it was hard for each artist quickly to identify their own. The two were so close for several years that Picasso took to calling Braque, “ma femme” or “my wife,” described the relationship as one of two mountaineers roped together, and in some correspondence they refer to each other as “Orville and Wilbur” for they knew how profound their invention of Cubism was.
Every progressive painter, whether French, German, Belgian, or American, soon took up Cubism, and the style became the dominant one of at least the first half of the 20th century. In 1913, in New York, the new style was introduced at an exhibition at the midtown armory – the famous Armory Show – which caused a sensation. Picasso would create a host of Cubist styles throughout his long career. After painting still-lifes that employed lettering, trompe l’oeil effects, color, and textured paint surfaces, in 1912 Picasso produced Still-Life with Chair-Caning, in the Picasso Museum in Paris, which is an oval picture that is, in effect, a cafe table in perspective surrounded by a rope frame – the first collage, or a work of art that incorporates preexisting materials or objects as part of the ensemble. Elements glued to the surface contrasting with painted versions of the same material provided a sort of sophisticated double take on the part of the observer. A good example of this, dubbed Synthetic Cubism, is in the Picasso Museum, Paris, the witty Geometric Composition: The Guitar (1913). The most accomplished pictures of the fully developed Synthetic Cubist style are two complex and highly colorful works representing musicians (in Philadelphia and the Museum of Modern Art, New York). He produced fascinating theatrical sets and costumes for the Ballet Russe from 1914 on, turned, in the 1920s, to a rich classical style, creating some breathtaking line drawings, dabbled with Surrealism between 1925 and 1935, and returned to Classicism.
At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Picasso was appointed the director of the Prado. In January, 1937, the Republican government asked him to paint a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the world exposition in Paris. Spurred on by a war atrocity, the total destruction by bombs of the town of Guernica in the Basque country, he painted the renowned oil Guernica in monochrome (now in Madrid’s Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.) Something of an enigma in details, there’s no doubt that the giant picture (which until the death of Franco was in New York’s Museum of Modern Art) expresses a Goyaesque revulsion over the horrors man can wreak upon fellow man. The center is dominated by a grieving woman and a wounded, screaming horse illuminated, like Goya’s Third of May, 1808 by a harsh light.
Picasso lived in Paris through the war, producing gloomy paintings in semi-abstract styles, many depicting skulls or flayed animals or a horrifying charnel house. He joined the Communist party after the war and painted two large paintings condemning the United States for its involvement in the Korean War (two frightfully bad paintings about events that never happened – like American participation in germ warfare). [In fact, research has determined that the event depicted by Picasso in “Massacre in Korea” did occur. See this newspaper article written in 1999, after Hoving wrote this piece…although the claim of germ warfare is still unsubstantiated. – ed.]. He turned enthusiastically to sculpture, pottery, and print-making, and, in his later years, preoccupied himself with a series of mistresses and girlfriends, changing his style to express his love for each one, and, finally, making superb evocations of the works of old masters like Diego Velazquez. Whatever Picasso had a hand in turned out to have an unquenchable spark of utter genius.