“My whole life as an artist has been nothing other than a continual struggle against the forces of reaction and the death of art.” PICASSO

( Levy, L.1990:95)

Pablo Picasso was one of the pre-eminent artists of the twentieth century. He and his work were the subject of unending analysis, gossip, dislike, adoration and rumour. Due to the advent of global mass media, no other painter or sculptor had been as famous as this through their own lifetime (Hughes, R., www.time.com). His work expanded continually through experimentation and innovation right up to his death at the age of ninety-two. The public saw him as the ‘archetypal modernist’ (Hughes, R. www.time.com) but unlike Modernists such as Kandinsky or Mondrian, his work is full of sensation, desire and metaphor conveyed with a tremendous plastic force. Because of the prodigiousness of his output and his many explorations into different media, this essay will concentrate primarily on the changes that he was able to make to his paintings through continual experimentation, a capacious attitude and unwillingness to be restrained by disapprobation.

Born as Pablo Ruiz in the coastal town of Malaga, Spainon October 25th 1881, Picasso, who was his family’s only son, showed an exceptional talent for drawing as a child.  He was facilitated in this ability by his father, an academic realist, drawing master and curator of the museum in Malaga. Given an academic art education in Barcelona and Madrid, at fifteen he completed his first large canvas The First Communion (1896) which satisfied the academy’s demands for emotionalism and realism. It was shown together with paintings by the Spanish painters Santiago Rusinal and Isidro Nonell at an important exhibition in Barcelona. However, Picasso soon disassociated himself from restrictive academic practice and immersed himself in the café life of Barcelona where he met artists being influenced by French Art Nouveau and English Pre-Raphaelites. He decided that Paris was where he would find his new direction and there he was attracted to the works of the Post Impressionists Toulouse Lautrec, Paul Cezanne, Edgar Degas and Pierre Bonnard. However, even though while in Paris he was able to secure a contract with a young art dealer, he had to return to Spain because of financial troubles.

In Spain he became alienated from his parents and their ambitions for him to make a name for himself as an academic realist, therefore he returned to Paris in 1901 with a friend, Carlos Casamegas. Unfortunately he still could not survive from his art, so returning to Spain he left his friend in Paris. When Picasso heard about Casamegas’ suicide in a Paris café, his distress motivated him to begin the monumental allegorical painting La Vie (1903). Influenced by El Greco in his elongation of form and streaky colour, Picasso had been painting with a monochromatic blue palette which typified the work of the period. He would have encountered in Paris and Barcelona the works of socialist writers such as Pierre- Joseph Proudhon and Emile Zola which were influencing the political, philosophical and cultural thinking of the period (Walther, 1992:86). Therefore, La Vie is a melancholy existential piece of symbolism of Picasso’s life during that period which was filled with the subject matter of beggars, sick children and prostitutes.

Picasso made his final move to France in 1904 where he established a studio with his companion Fernande Oliver in Montmartre. He exhibited at Berthe Weill’s gallery and in 1905 showed a new group of works featuring travelling entertainers. He came to the attention of the American collector Leo Stein and his sister, the Modernist writer Gertrude Stein. They bought 800 francs worth of his work and, shortly after, the art dealer Ambrose Vollard also bought 2000 francs worth. Picasso’s financial situation improved and, along with his relationship with Fernande, this allowed a stability to form that would last for several years. At this happier time in his life, his work featured acrobats and actors from the Medrano circus which he attended with other writers and artists. He also became interested in radical literary aesthetics through his friendship with the writer and poet Max Jacob. Friendships developed with the writer Andre Salmon and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire who, also being an art critic, drew the public’s attention to Picasso’s work. Moving in leftwing literary and artistic circles, Picasso’s individualism was expressed in the role of outsider. In France especially, the Harlequin was seen as the ‘rootless proletarian, the People in person’ (Walther, 1992:129) and would serve as Picasso’s alter ego for a number of decades. The major work of this period is Family of Saltambiques (1905) which embodies a feeling of collective alienation. As did La Vie, it had numerous sketches and over-paintings, but the final picture depicts a family of circus performers standing in an empty expanse of dunes all gathered together but unable to interact. Elongation of the figures has disappeared, warm red is the underlying colour and a classical beauty imbues the work. The amount of overworking that Picasso did on each of these major works shows a ‘restless and complex period of experimentation, struggle and discovery’ (www.nga.gov).

1905 was the year the Paris Autumn Salon featured the exhibition of the “Fauves”. Henri Matisse was the leader of this group that experimented so wildly with colour and in 1906 Gertrude Stein introduced him to Picasso. Through Matisse, Picasso was introduced to primitivism and the sculptures of the Ivory Coast. It was these, Cezanne’s Bathers and the ancient Iberian masks being exhibited at the Louvre that influenced Picasso to increasingly strip his form down to essentials. By 1907 he had completed the first sketch for a piece of work that is now seen as one of the cornerstones of modern art. He kept sketching and experimenting with further ideas until Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon (1907) was completed in July of that year. Picasso was investigating the process of artistic mimesis. A mimetic image is an image identified because it resembles one’s own image of the object. The lines drawn are used to convey meaning and character without content. The twin poles of mimesis are the ‘ideal coincidence of object and representation, while having a complete absence of any representational value’ (Walther, 1992:150). Picasso’s investigations led him to link the mimetic image as a compound of elements that do not belong together. The new form contained enough representation to make it comprehensible while having as much non-referential material as possible without being completely abstract. It was this synthesis that brought together the results of Picasso’s experiments to the final oil version of Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon (Walther, 1992:151).

The bewilderment felt by Picasso’s contemporaries at this new work led them to believe that he had gone mad. It must be remembered that the small amount of people who saw the work were members of the avant-garde, however the paintings approach was so utterly new that they found it hard to accept. Picasso had evolved a new form through his use of what he had learnt from the explorations of Cezanne and Matisse, where form became the content of the painting. It was the painter Georges Braque who, along with ideas derived from Cezanne, felt the most impact from the painting. During 1908 he deconstructed his own representational and special values while painting the landscape near L’Estaque. Picasso and Braque began to travel together and in 1911 worked side by side in Ceret in the south of France. Both artists began to develop the style known as Cubism together. The Poet (1911) epitomizes the development of Analytical Cubism, when abstraction was so extreme as to make the object unrecognizable. The human form is ‘reconstructed as an architecture of rectilinear and curvilinear elements’ painted in monochromatic colours (Flint, L. www.guggenheimcollection.org).

From the almost total fragmentation of representational form, Picasso and Braque reintroduced a more legible form of imagery derived from the studio or café environment. This new stage was classified as Synthetic Cubism in which the compositions were broader, flatter and more chromatically varied. In 1912 Braque made the first paper collage in which paper was glued to a support as a compositional element. Picasso also began to use this method and in Pipe, Glass and Bottle of Vieux Marc (1914) he used the Futurist magazine Lacerba as an integrated part of the pictorial space. The use of the collaged papers multiplied meaning and the further drawn surfaces and cut out planes became both opaque and transparent making the composition contradictory (Flint, L., http://www.guggenheimcollection.org). 

After many of his colleagues such as Braque and Apollinaire has joined the armed forces at the beginning of the First World War, Picasso continued Synthetic Cubism in an increasingly stark manifestation. He had left Fernande in 1912 and had begun a relationship with Marcelle Humbert, who was rarely to feature directly in Picasso’s work other than as the words ‘Ma Jolie’ written upon some of the collages. Eva, as Picasso called her, died of consumption in 1915 and the Harlequin painting reflects his desolation at her death. It shows a bare undecorated form which is almost pure geometric configuration. It is an imposing structure linked only to the natural world by terse signs. Picasso, as well as Malevich in Russia and Mondrian in Holland were becoming increasingly influenced by the widespread popularity of pictorial geometry. It was Picasso’s most abstract phase and yet, almost immediately, he abandoned it to rediscover classicism within his work (Haftmann, 1965:79). Through returning to classicism, Picasso’s biographer Ingo Walther says, Picasso chose not to continue his Cubist exploration to complete abstraction as did other artists of the time such as Mondrian and Juan Gris. He became interested in the applied arts through his work with the director Sergie Diaghilev and his Ballet Russes.

Through his collaboration with the ballet Picasso’s life changed and he became part of fashionable society, following the ballet to Rome where he was greatly influenced by Roman and Greek classicism and Etruscan art (Walther, I.:274). Walther also argues that moreover it was the new visual medium of photography that prompted a return to classicism for Picasso. His many portraits of that period were all painted and drawn from photographs, yet he was still progressive in his approach (Walther, I.:274). All of Picasso’s drawings in that period adopted the photographic contour of line, harshness in tonal contrast and modelled three-dimensionality. Massive figures with dark eye sockets are the results. The motion study and curtain for the ballet ‘Le train bleu’, Women Running On A Beach (1922) suggests Picasso’s joy of his newborn son to the ballerina Olga Kokhlova. These female giants are not hindered by their heavy limbs but seem to be dancing as lightly as ballerinas.

By the mid 1920s Picasso was becoming a victim of his own fame. Society blindly applauded him no matter what he painted and he was also beset by marital problems with his wife, Olga. Surrealism also offered him an escape from his own virtuosity. He was considered by the Surrealists as a precursor of their movement with the movement’s leader, writer Andre Breton, considering Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon as the birth of surrealism (Levy, L. 1990:84). Picasso’s new work La Danse (1925), with its frenzied rhythms, dislocated composition and violent colour featured on the cover of the first Surrealist magazine. It is a celebration of the jazz era and also an indicator of the breakdown of his marriage.  Later in life Breton was to express that Picasso was a Surrealist in spirit because so much of his work was based on the internal model and also that he ‘remained an innovator and a risk-taker for most of his artistic life (Besemer, J., www.jameswsebor.com).

From 1925 to 1936 Picasso created a copious amount of sculpture. It was his experiments with these three-dimensional forms that allowed him to juxtapose both forms of media to make an interplay of forms, restless shapes that open and close, become abstract in character yet reminiscent of human shape, rounded and fluid protruding in a transitional smoothness from an amorphous mass. His sketchbooks from 1927 show an endless variation on the subject of bathers. Picasso spent most of his summers at the beach and in that year he met a young woman, Marie Therese Walther, who became his secret lover and inspiration for much of his erotic work. Drawing on Surrealist imagery, he formalised his work into shapes that could be both mechanical and organic, dissecting structures and reconfiguring them (www.metmuseum.org). It culminated in the painting Bather with Beach Ball (1932) where the figure fills the canvas. The clumsiness of the body, the pattern of the bathing suit, the beach cabin and the sea are a humorous view of life at the seaside.

Book illustration was also a subject Picasso became interested in around 1930. He employed a variety of etching processes and in the series known as The Vollard Suite he begins to depict the creature the Minotaur. Half beast and half man, Picasso saw the Minotaur as the embodiment of duality and likened it, according to the photographer Brassai, to ‘the fighting toro of Spain, charged with obscure, potentially eruptive forces (Richet, M. 1988,: 283). It was also in the mural that he was commissioned to create for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris Exposition Internationale in 1937 that he used this symbol. Civil war had broken out in Spain and the fascist army officer General Franco was fighting against the Spanish Republican Government. On May 1 1937, at the instigation of Franco, Hitler’s Luftwaffe practiced bombing a small Spanish town of Guernica. The townspeople were massacred and it was the newspapers coverage of the event that enraged Picasso to create the huge 8 metre wide canvas Guernica (1937) in just one month. The symbolic elements of this painting were present in the very early studies, the Bull, the Horse and the Bearer of Light. The whole composition is imbued with violence and grief, with the monochromatic black and white evoking death. When Picasso exhibited his testament to the murdered civilians of Guernica, it was seen in the context of the rise of Fascism in Europe, with the eagle and swastika of the German Pavilion and the imitation Roman splendour of the Italians juxtaposed against the gigantic statue of the worker for the Soviet Union (Levy, L., 1990:99).

During the Second World War Picasso was forced by the Nazi occupation of France and the Spanish Civil War into an isolated situation. Because of the deep conservatism of the Nazi outlook, the arts in France became dominated by a summons to ‘traditional French values’. Modernism and independence in the arts were now viewed with deep suspicion. Maurice de Vlaminck, once an avant-garde artist, denounced Picasso as ‘the pre-eminent modern artist who must bear responsibility for the decline in the arts (Walther,I.,1992:434). He was viewed through this perspective as being unFrench and a foreigner who had a destructive influence on French culture. Therefore, keeping politically neutral, he recorded the occupation and the war indirectly. His work was mainly chromatically muted still-lifes and portraits of his companion, photographer Dora Maar, and his and Marie-Therese’s young daughter, Maya.

Due to the enormous amount of attention Picasso received at the end of the war, he moved in 1947 to the small town of Vallauris in southern France. Vallauris, known for its ceramic industry, was in decline however it was this medium that interested Picasso (Richet, M.,1988:126). He began working with the ceramicists Suzanne and Georges Ramie and after acquiring the necessary skills, used the medium to make painted three-dimensional objects. Enjoying the fact that the medium could be manipulated in such varied ways before firing, Picasso used the paint to reinforce and highlight his forms. His basis was the ancient Mediterranean tradition of pottery, such as the vase paintings of Ancient Crete (Walther, I.,1992:503).

A growing isolation from contemporary mainstream development in art caused a dominating self-referentialism in Picasso’s work during the 1950s. In both the USA and France total abstraction had become the prominent idiom of the art world, whereas in Picasso’s work, whether deconstructed or retained, the figure remained central (Walther, I. 1992:536). He moved from Vallauris and his life with Francois and their two children, to the Cote d’Azure with a new companion Jacqueline Roque. During this time he painted many portraits of Jacqueline but also many paraphrases of old masters. He felt he needed to measure himself against painters such as Velazquez, Goya, Poussin, Delacroix, Manet and Courbet (Hughes, R., www.time.com) . His paraphrase of Velazquez’s Las Meninas held interest for him because it dealt with one of his central themes, that of painter and model. The composition preserves the status of each character of the original. Picasso saw Velazquez to be the ‘true painter of reality’ and he wanted to restructure that reality (Walther, I., 1992:604). After many variations, his series finally came to nothing because in trying to subject the original to his will, as a colourist Picasso was no match for Velazquez. He was a prisoner to his own virtuosity as a draughtsman, with colour always being secondary (Walther,I., :611).

The female was Picasso’s obsessive subject. Much of his pictorial universe was related to the naked bodies of women. They ranged from dreamy eroticism to frenzied hostility (Hughes, R., www.time.com ). Yet in his last decade of life Picasso embarked on a series of the most erotic work he had ever painted. Subject to denunciations of pornography after his death, it was only in 2001 with the Picasso Erotique exhibition in Paris were they looked on with any seriousness (www.absolutearts.com). Picasso had always spurned convention for invention and these frenetic experimentations in both lithograph and painting were further investigations into the nude at a time of sexual liberation of the 1960s of which Picasso, even in his seclusion, would have been aware (Walther, I., 1992:650).

In Picasso’s paintings we see a rational, logical, consistent method. His classical art education made his approach fundamentally traditional in nature as seen in his many preparatory works. Unlike the forefather of the modern conceptual movement Marcel Duchamp, whose concepts precede and accompany his work, Picasso’s work is inherently comprehensible. Both a traditionalist and a revolutionary, his true greatness lies in his duality, vitality and commitment to constant innovation. Even his last series of portraits of himself and Jacqueline had no intention of resolving themselves. They were art for art’s sake, as a child draws with his crayons. Through his constant exploration and experimentation Picasso refused to observe the bounds of artistic genre. Even through fame, the progressive isolation that overcame him was fought against by his own presumption of pre-eminence as an artist. His last works precluded the Neo-Expressionists such as Frank Auerbach and Georg Baselitz and attest to the fact that he refused to let age diminish his powers. His was truly a struggle against artistic conservatism and death.

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