Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Spanish painter, who is widely acknowledged to be the most important artist of the 20th century. A long-lived and highly prolific artist, he experimented with a wide range of styles and themes throughout his career. Among Picasso’s many contributions to the history of art, his most important include pioneering the modern art movement called cubism, inventing collage as an artistic technique, and developing assemblage (constructions of various materials) in sculpture.
Picasso was born Pablo Ruiz in Málaga, Spain. He later adopted his mother’s more distinguished maiden name—Picasso—as his own. Though Spanish by birth, Picasso lived most of his life in France.
|II||FORMATIVE WORK (1893-1900)|
Picasso’s father, who was an art teacher, quickly recognized that his child Pablo was a prodigy. Picasso studied art first privately with his father and then at the Academy of Fine Arts in La Coruña, Spain, where his father taught. Picasso’s early drawings, such as Study of a Torso, After a Plaster Cast (1894-1895, Musée Picasso, Paris, France), demonstrate the high level of technical proficiency he had achieved by 14 years of age. In 1895 his family moved to Barcelona, Spain, after his father obtained a teaching post at that city’s Academy of Fine Arts. Picasso was admitted to advanced classes at the academy after he completed in a single day the entrance examination that applicants traditionally were given a month to finish. In 1897 Picasso left Barcelona to study at the Madrid Academy in the Spanish capital. Dissatisfied with the training, he quit and returned to Barcelona.
After Picasso visited Paris in October 1900, he moved back and forth between France and Spain until 1904, when he settled in the French capital. In Paris he encountered, and experimented with, a number of modern artistic styles. Picasso’s painting Le Moulin de la Galette (1900, Guggenheim Museum, New York City) revealed his interest in the subject matter of Parisian nightlife and in the style of French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a style that verged on caricature. In addition to café scenes, Picasso painted landscapes, still lifes, and portraits of friends and performers.
|III||BLUE PERIOD (1901-1903)|
From 1901 to 1903 Picasso initiated his first truly original style, which is known as the blue period. Restricting his color scheme to blue, Picasso depicted emaciated and forlorn figures whose body language and clothing bespeak the lowliness of their social status. In The Old Guitarist (1903, Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois), Picasso emphasized the guitarist’s poverty and position as a social outcast, which he reinforced by surrounding the figure with a black outline, as if to cut him off from his environment. The guitarist is compressed within the canvas (no room is left in the painting for the guitarist to raise his lowered head), suggesting his helplessness: The guitarist is trapped within the frame just as he is trapped by his poverty. Although Picasso underscored the squalor of his figures during this period, neither their clothing nor their environment conveys a specific time or place. This lack of specificity suggests that Picasso intended to make a general statement about human alienation rather than a particular statement about the lower class in Paris.
Why blue dominated Picasso’s paintings during this period remains unexplained. Possible influences include photographs with a bluish tinge popular at the time, poetry that stressed the color blue in its imagery, or the paintings of French artists such as Eugène Carrière or Claude Monet, who based many of their works around this time on variations on a single color. Another explanation is that Picasso found blue particularly appropriate for his subject matter because it is a color associated with melancholy.
|IV||ROSE PERIOD (1904-1905)|
In 1904 Picasso’s style shifted, inaugurating the rose period, sometimes referred to as the circus period. Although Picasso still focused on social outcasts—especially circus performers—his color scheme lightened, featuring warmer, reddish hues, and the thick outlines of the blue period disappeared. Picasso maintained his interest in the theme of alienation, however. In Two Acrobats and a Dog (1905, Museum of Modern Art, New York City), he represented two young acrobats before an undefined, barren landscape. Although the acrobats are physically close, they gaze in different directions and do not interact, and the reason for their presence is not made clear. Differences in the acrobats’ height also exaggerate their disconnection from each other and from the empty landscape. The dog was a frequent presence in Picasso’s work and may have been a reference to death as dogs appear at the feet of figures in many Spanish funerary monuments.
Picasso may have felt an especially deep sympathy for circus performers. Like artists, they were paid to entertain society, but their itinerant lifestyle and status as outsiders prevented them from becoming an integral part of the social fabric. It was this situation that made the sad clown an important figure in the popular imagination: Paid to make people laugh, he must keep hidden his real existence and true feelings. Living a life of financial insecurity himself, Picasso no doubt empathized with these performers. During this period Picasso met Fernande Olivier, the first of several women who shared his life and provided inspiration for his art. Olivier’s features appear in many of the female figures in his paintings over the next several years.
|V||CLASSICAL PERIOD (1905) AND IBERIAN PERIOD (1906)|
Experimentation and rapid style changes mark the years from late 1905 on. Picasso’s paintings from late 1905 are more emotionally detached than those of the blue or rose periods. The color scheme lightens—beiges and light browns predominate—and melancholy and alienation give way to a more reasoned approach. Picasso’s increasing interest in form is apparent in his references to classical sculpture. The figure of a seated boy in Two Youths (1905, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.), for example, recalls an ancient Greek sculpture of a boy removing a thorn from his foot.
By 1906 Picasso had become interested in sculptures from the Iberian peninsula dating from about the 6th to the 3rd century bc. Picasso must have found them of particular interest both because they are native to Spain and because they display remarkable simplification of form. The Iberian influence is immediately visible in Self-Portrait (1906, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania), in which Picasso reduced the image of his head to an oval and his eyes to almond shapes, thus revealing his increasing fascination with geometric simplification of form.
|VI||AFRICAN PERIOD (1907)|
Picasso’s predilection for experimentation and for drawing inspiration from outside the accepted artistic sources led to his most radical and revolutionary painting yet in 1907: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907, Museum of Modern Art). The painting’s theme—the female nude—could not be more traditional, but Picasso’s treatment of it is revolutionary. Picasso took even greater liberties here with human anatomy than in his 1906 Self-Portrait . The figures on the left in the painting look flat, as if they have no skeletal or muscular structure. Faces seen from the front have noses in profile. The eyes are asymmetrical and radically simplified. Contour lines are incomplete. Color juxtapositions—between blue and orange, for instance—are intentionally strident and unharmonious. The representation of space is fragmented and discontinuous.
While the left side of the canvas is largely Iberian-influenced, the right side is inspired by African masks, especially in its striped patterns and oval forms. Such borrowings, which led to great simplification, distortion, and visual incongruities, were considered extremely daring in 1907. The head of the figure at the bottom right, for example, turns in an anatomically impossible way. These discrepancies proved so shocking that even Picasso’s fellow painters reacted negatively to Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. French painter Henri Matisse allegedly told Picasso that he was trying to ridicule the modern movement.
For many scholars, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon—with its fragmented planes, flattened figures, and borrowings from African masks—marks the beginning of the new visual language, known as cubism. Other scholars believe that French painter Paul Cézanne provided the primary catalyst for this change in style. Cézanne’s work of the 1890s and early 1900s was noted both for its simplification and flattening of form and for the introduction of what art historians call passage, the interpenetration of one physical object by another. For example, in Mont Sainte-Victoire (1902-1906, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City), Cézanne left the outer edge of the mountain open, allowing the blue area of the sky and the gray area of the mountain to merge. This innovation—air and rock interpenetrating—was a crucial precedent for Picasso’s invention of cubism. First, it defied the laws of our physical experience, and second, it indicated that artists were viewing paintings as having a logic of their own that functioned independently of, or even contrary to, the logic of everyday experience.
Scholars generally divide the cubist innovations of Picasso and French painter Georges Braque into two stages. In the first stage, analytical cubism, the artists fragmented three-dimensional shapes into multiple geometric planes. In the second stage, synthetic cubism, they reversed the process, putting abstract planes together to represent human figures, still lifes, and other recognizable shapes.
|A||Analytical Cubism (1908-1912)|
Profoundly influenced by Cézanne's later work, Picasso and Braque initiated a series of landscape paintings in 1908. These paintings approximated Cézanne’s both in their color scheme (dark greens and light browns) and in their drastic simplification of nature to geometric shapes. Upon seeing these paintings, French critic Louis Vauxelles coined the term cubism. In Picasso’s Houses on the Hill, Horta de Ebro (1909, Museum of Modern Art), he gave architectural structures a three-dimensional, cubic quality, but he abandoned conventional three-dimensional perspective: Instead of being depicted one behind the other, buildings appear one on top of the other. Moreover, he simplified every aspect of the painting according to a vocabulary of cubic shapes—not just the houses but the sky as well. By neutralizing differences between earth and sky, Picasso made the canvas appear more unified, but he also introduced ambiguity by not differentiating solid from void. In addition, Picasso often used inconsistent light sources. In some parts of a painting, light appears to come from the left; in other parts, it comes from the right, the top, or even the bottom. Spatial planes intersect in ways that leave the spectator guessing whether angles are concave or convex. Delight in confusing the viewer is a regular feature of cubism.
By 1910, it had become evident that cubism no longer had any cubes and that the illusion of three-dimensional space, or volume, was gone. Picasso seemed to have dismantled the very idea of solid form, not only by fragmenting the human figure and other shapes, but also by using Cézanne’s concept of passage to merge figure and environment, solid and void, background and foreground. In this way he created a visually consistent painting, yet the consistency does not conform to the physical consistency of the natural world as we experience it. Picasso’s decision to limit his color scheme to dark browns and grays also suggests that his paintings have initiated a radical departure from nature, rather than attempted to copy it.
The year 1912 marks another major development in the cubist language: the invention of collage. In Still Life with Chair Caning (1912, Musée Picasso), Picasso attached a piece of oilcloth (that depicts woven caning) to his work. With this action Picasso not only violated the integrity of the medium—oil painting on canvas—but also included a material that had no previous connection with high art. Art could now be created, Picasso seems to imply, with scissors and glue as well as with paint and canvas. By including pieces of cloth, newspaper, wallpaper, advertising, and other materials in his work, Picasso opened the door for any object or material, however ordinary, to be included in (or even replace) a work of art. This innovation had important consequences for later 20th-century art. Another innovation was including the letters JOU in the painting, possibly referring to the beginning of the word journal (French for “newspaper”) or to the French word jouer, meaning “to play,” as Picasso is playing with forms. These combinations reveal that cubism includes both visual and verbal references, and merges high art with popular culture.
|B||Synthetic Cubism (1912-1917)|
By inventing collage and by introducing elements from the real world in his canvases, Picasso avoided taking cubism to the level of complete abstraction and remained in the domain of tangible objects. Collage also initiated the synthetic phase of cubism. Whereas analytical cubism fragmented figures into geometric planes, synthetic cubism synthesized (combined) near-abstract shapes to create representational forms, such as a human figure or still life. Synthetic cubism also tended toward multiplicity. In Guitar, Sheet Music, and Wine Glass (1912, McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas), for instance, Picasso combined a drawing of a glass, several spots of color, sheet music, newspaper, a wallpaper pattern, and a cloth that has a wood–grain pattern. Synthetic cubism may also combine different textures, such as wood grain, sand, and printed matter. Sometimes Picasso applied these textures as collage, by gluing textured papers on the canvas. In other cases the artist painted an area to look like wood or wallpaper, fooling the spectator by means of visual puns.
|VIII||CONSTRUCTION AND AFTER (1912-1920)|
In 1912 Picasso instigated another important innovation: construction, or assemblage, in sculpture. Before this innovation, sculpture, at least in the West, was primarily created in one of two ways: by carving a block of stone or wood or by modeling—shaping a form in clay and casting that form in a more durable material, such as bronze. In Guitar (1912, Museum of Modern Art), Picasso used a new additive process. He cut various shapes out of sheet metal and wire, and then reassembled those materials into a cubist construction. In other constructions, Picasso used wood, cardboard, string, and other everyday objects, not only inventing a new technique for sculpture but also expanding the definition of art by blurring the distinction between artistic and nonartistic materials.
From World War I (1914-1918) onward, Picasso moved from style to style. In 1915, for instance, Picasso painted the highly abstract Harlequin (Museum of Modern Art) and drew the highly realistic portrait of Ambroise Vollard (Metropolitan Museum of Art). During and after the war he also worked on stage design and costume design for the Ballets Russes, a modern Russian ballet company launched by the impresario Sergey Diaghilev. Inspired by his direct experience of the theater, Picasso also produced representations of performers, such as French clowns called Pierrot and Harlequin, and scenes of ballerinas.
Picasso separated from Olivier in 1912, after meeting Eva Gouel. Gouel died in 1915, and in 1918 Picasso married Olga Koklova, one of the dancers in Diaghilev’s company. Picasso created a number of portraits of her, and their son, Paulo, appears in works such as Paulo as Harlequin (1924, Musée Picasso).
|IX||CLASSICAL PERIOD (1920-1925)|
After World War I, a strain of conservatism spread through a number of art forms. A motto popular among traditionalists was “the return to order.” For Picasso the years 1920 to 1925 were marked by close attention to three-dimensional form and to classical themes: bathers, centaurs (mythical creatures half-man and half horse), and women in classical drapery. He depicted many of these figures as massive, dense, and weighty, an effect intensified by strong contrasts of light and dark. But even as he moved toward greater realism, Picasso continued to play games with the viewer. In the classical and carefully composed The Pipes of Pan (1923, Musée Picasso), for example, he painted an area of the architectural framework in the foreground (which should be grayish) with the same color as the sea in the background, revealing again his pleasure in ambiguity.
|X||CUBISM AND SURREALISM (1925-1936)|
From 1925 to 1936 Picasso again worked in a number of styles. He composed some paintings of tightly structured geometric shapes, limiting his color scheme to primary colors (red, blue, yellow), as in The Studio (1928, Museum of Modern Art). In other paintings, such as Nude in an Armchair (1929, Musée Picasso), he depicted contorted female figures whose open mouths and menacing teeth reveal a more emotional, less reasoned attitude. Picasso’s marriage broke up during this time, and some of the menacing female figures in his art of this period may represent Koklova.
The same diversity is visible in Picasso’s sculpture during this period. Bather (Metamorphosis II) (1928, Musée Picasso) represents the human body as a massive spherical shape with protruding limbs, whereas Wire Construction (1928, Musée Picasso) depicts it as a rigid, geometric configuration of thin wires. Picasso also experimented with welding in sculpture of this period and explored a variety of themes, including the female head, the sleeping woman, and the Crucifixion. The model for many of his sleeping women was Marie Thérèse Walter, a new love who had entered his life. Their daughter, Maia, was born in 1935.
In the early 1930s Picasso had increasing contact with the members of the surrealist movement (see Surrealism) and became fascinated with the classical myth of the Minotaur. This creature, which has the head of a man and the body of a bull, appears in a study by Picasso for the cover of the surrealist journal Minotaure (1933, Museum of Modern Art). Here Picasso affixed a classical drawing of a Minotaur to a collage of abstracted forms and debris. The Minotaur has numerous incarnations in Picasso’s work, both as an aggressor and a victim, as a violent character and a friendly one. It may represent the artist himself and frequently appears in the context of a bullfight, a typically Spanish scene close to Picasso’s heart.
In 1937 the Spanish government commissioned Picasso to create a mural for Spain’s pavilion at an international exposition in Paris. Unsure about the subject, Picasso procrastinated. But he set to work almost immediately after hearing that the Spanish town of Guernica had been bombed by Nazi warplanes in support of Spanish general Francisco Franco’s plot to overthrow the Spanish republic. Guernica (1937, Prado, Madrid) was Picasso's response to, and condemnation of, that event. He executed the painting in black and white—in keeping with the seriousness of the subject—and transfigured the event according to his fascination with the bullfight theme.
At the extreme left is a bull, which symbolizes brutality and darkness, according to Picasso. At the center, a horse wounded by a spear most likely represents the Spanish people. At the center on top, an exploding light bulb possibly refers to air warfare or to evil coming from above (and putting out the light of reason). Corpses and dying figures fill the foreground: a woman with a dead child at the left, a dead warrior with a broken sword (from which a flower sprouts) at the center, a weeping woman and a figure falling through a burning building at the right. The distortion of these figures expresses the inhumanity of the event. To suggest the screaming of the horse and of the mother with the dead child, Picasso transformed their tongues into daggers. In the upper center, a tormented female figure holds an oil lamp that sheds light upon the scene, possibly symbolizing the light of truth revealing the brutality of the event to the outside world. In 1936 Picasso met Dora Maar, an artist who photographed Guernica as he painted it. She soon became his companion and the subject of his paintings, although he remained involved with Walter.
|XII||WORLD WAR II (1939-1945)|
Picasso, unlike many artists, stayed in Paris during the German occupation of World War II. Some of his paintings from this time reveal the anxiety of the war years, as does the menacing Still Life with Steer's Skull (1942, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Germany). Other works, such as his sculpture Head of a Bull (1943, Musée Picasso), are more playful and whimsical. In this sculpture Picasso combined a bicycle seat and handlebars to represent the bull’s head. Upon receiving news of the Nazi death camps, Picasso also painted, although he did not finish, an homage to the victims of the Holocaust (mass murder of European Jews during the war). In this painting, called The Charnel House (1945, Museum of Modern Art), he restricted the color scheme to black and white (as in Guernica) and depicted an accumulation of distorted, mangled bodies. During the war Picasso joined the Communist Party, and after the war he attended several peace conferences.
|XIII||LATE WORK (1945-1973)|
Picasso remained a prolific artist until late in his life, although this later period has not received universal acclaim from historians or critics. He made variations on motifs that had fascinated him throughout his career, such as the bullfight and the painter and his model, the latter a theme that celebrated creativity. And he continued to paint portraits and landscapes. Picasso also experimented with ceramics, creating figurines, plates, and jugs, and he thereby blurred an existing distinction between fine art and craft.
Picasso’s emotional life became more complicated after he met French painter Françoise Gilot in the 1940s, while he was still involved with Maar. He and Gilot had a son, Claude, and a daughter, Paloma, and both appear in many of his late works. Picasso and Gilot parted in 1953. Jacqueline Roque, whom Picasso married in 1961, became his next companion. They spent most of their time in the south of France.
Another new direction in Picasso’s work came from variations on well-known works by older artists that he recast in his own style. Among these works are Women on the Banks of the Seine, after Courbet (1950, Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland) and Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe after Manet (1960, Musée Picasso). What makes these works particularly significant is that they run counter to a basic premise of modern art, Picasso’s included: namely, originality. Although many modern painters were influenced by earlier artists, they rarely made such direct and obvious references to each other’s work because they deemed such references unoriginal. In the postmodern period, which began in the 1970s, artists and critics began to question the modernist directive to be original. In acts of deliberate defiance, many postmodern artists have appropriated (taken for their own use) well-known images from their predecessors or contemporaries. Seen against this context, Picasso’s later variations on paintings by earlier masters hardly seem out of place; on the contrary, they anticipate a key aspect of art in the 1980s.
One of Picasso’s late works, Head of a Woman (1967), was a gift to the city of Chicago. This sculpture of welded steel, 15 m (50 ft) tall, stands in front of Chicago’s Civic Center. Although its semiabstract form proved controversial at first, the sculpture soon became a city landmark.
Because of his many innovations, Picasso is widely considered to be the most influential artist of the 20th century. The cubist movement, which he and Braque inspired, had a number of followers. Its innovations gave rise to a host of other 20th-century art movements, including futurism in Italy, suprematism and constructivism in Russia, de Stijl in the Netherlands, and vorticism in England. Cubism also influenced German expressionism, dada, and other movements as well as early work of the surrealists (see Surrealism) and abstract expressionists (see Abstract Expressionism). In addition, collage and construction became key aspects of 20th-century art.