Perhaps the Most Influential Artist since Michelangelo
It is fitting that an artist working in so many different media – paint, pencil, costume design, theatre and film sets, sculpture and ceramics – should have as many names as he had talents. No surprise, then, that in 1881, the year of his birth in northern Spain, the man we know today as Picasso was given the name Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. His father was an artist himself and taught his son from the tender age of seven to copy the great masters. He was able to persuade the academy where he worked to admit Pablo at only thirteen to advanced classes and then to finance his further studies in Madrid (although the young man preferred to wander around galleries rather than to attend classes.
When he was just nineteen, Picasso ventured to Paris where he shared a room with a journalist friend, Max Jacob, one using the bed at night and the other in the daytime. Their poverty was so extreme that they were often hungry and, sometimes, had to burn Pablo’s paintings to keep warm. But it was in this tiny room that the young artist started to produce some of the work we recognize today as among his greatest. Blue and green dominated his paintings for three years, perhaps suggesting his unhappiness, a theory that is lent weight by the suicide of his friend, Charles Casagemas, a Catalan poet and painter at the age of only twenty, and his choice of so many tragic subjects for his themes.
In 1904, this style gave way to his Rose Period, which featured warmer pinks, reds and yellows and often included clowns and circus performers. One of the works he produced at the time, ‘Boy with a Pipe’, sold for more than $100,000,000 in 2004. It was also around this time that Picasso met Gertrude Stein, the American novelist, critic and art collector living in Paris, who seemed to know everyone from Ernest Hemingway to the young Spaniard. In fact, he painted her too, although a friend complained that she did not look like the portrait. Picasso replied: “She will!”
Stein was useful in securing Pablo commissions and introducing him to buyers, dealers and other painters, as well as purchasing some of his work for herself. This was important to a budding artist as Stein had a well-publicised reputation of recognizing genius, which could only benefit the many young writers and painters she patronized. It was also at Gertrude Stein’s home, where he met Henri Matisse, the French painter and sculptor, who became a lifelong friend and rival of Picasso’s.
The Rose Period gave way to one influenced by African themes and, in 1909, to Cubism, perhaps the style for which the artist is best-known. He claimed to have developed this approach (with the French artist, Georges Braque) by observing the shapes of composite parts of a whole being or object. Many of the artist’s paintings from this period were very similar to Braque’s and used the same range of somber – even boring – colours, like greys, browns and the like. A few years later, Picasso again veered off and began to add scraps of wallpaper or fabric to his work, the first time this had ever been done in serious painting.
Picasso’s reputation as a pioneer of different genres solidified in the first few decades of the twentieth century. This was not only due to his genius though. Young French and German artists were being conscripted into their respective countries’ armies and, perhaps, they were not as focused on art as they had been in their studios in Paris and Berlin. As Picasso was Spanish and, therefore, a non-combatant as a citizen of a neutral country, he had the field largely to himself.
His cubist works during the years leading up to and during the First World War gave way to a more classical phase, where figures were reminiscent of earlier masters but, in the 1930s, greatly affected by the Depression which had swept through the States and Europe and increasingly extreme nationalist ideologies, his style changed again. Picasso’s work at this time included perhaps his greatest painting, Guernica, which used symbolism to portray the German bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War. For many admirers, the picture evokes the inhumanity and despair of war more feelingly than any other painting before or since. When asked to comment on his use of symbols and their meanings, the artist said: “It isn't up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words! The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them.”
When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Picasso found that he was no longer in favour. He was unable to exhibit his work (which the Nazi regime thought ‘decadent’ and ‘immoral’) but, on the other hand, he was still a citizen of a neutral county and so not likely to be arrested. (Ironically, Picasso had, in fact, applied for French nationality a few years earlier but had been refused because of Communist sympathies.) Still, he was now a very wealthy man and not in need of money. He was therefore able to paint, write poetry and sculpt, but not to show his work.
There is an amusing anecdote concerning his great work, ‘Guernica’, which originated during the German occupation. A Nazi officer had arrived at Picasso’s study to search it and, seeing the painting of the bombing of the city, asked: “Did you do that?” Picasso replied, apparently without any attempt at humour, “No, you did!”
In the post-war years, Picasso continued to paint, make sculptures and, increasingly, to work with ceramics. He was honoured by many academies and countries, including the Soviet Union. (The artist was a member of the Communist Party.) He once defended his affiliation by saying: “I have joined a family and, like all families, it’s full of shit.” He also remarked that his Communism was not necessarily evident in each and every painting that he made: “I am a Communist and my painting is Communist painting. ... But if I were a shoemaker … or anything else, I would not necessarily hammer my shoes in a special way to show my politics.”
Picasso died in 1973. He had had many reincarnations as an artist but it’s worth remembering that he often returned to a style he’d used years before for a particular painting. In a life that was marked by much derision of his work, he towers above almost any other artist for the richness and variety of what he left as a legacy. Maybe, an educated observer might look at a painting and claim that he could create something like that and earn a fortune in the process. But he did not. Picasso did… again and again and again, constantly giving birth to new art forms and ways of looking at and explaining the world around him.