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posted on 08.14.09

Pablo Ruiz Picasso was an adventurous and profoundly creative artist whose manipulations of subject, form, color and line, in a wide diversity of mediums and techniques resulted in provocative and evocative artwork that challenged the conventional norms of 'aesthetics' and 'beauty' and enthralled even the most critical or uninterested of art audiences in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Picasso's life spanned two centuries.  During his lifetime and even after death, he continues to inspire and awe our modern world with a breathtaking vista of visual perspectives.  This particular writing only sweeps the surface of the artist up to the beginning of a politically conscious phase in his artistic career, which ended in 1973 with his death. 

Picasso lived a long 91 years. It would be a mistake to view Picasso's oeuvre of work and not take into consideration his upbringing, how and where he lived, with whom he was influenced and vice versa, what his beliefs were, the impact of changes in social, political and world economies and so on.  Many milestones of modern history occurred during his lifetime, from the Spanish American War in 1898 to the first email message sent in 1971.  It is an intriguing thought that should Picasso still be alive today, he would surely be utilizing the digital age, experimenting yet again with the 'new.

From an early age Picasso demonstrated strong creative drawing abilities.  His father, Don Jose Ruiz Blasco, an academically trained artist who specialized in domestic animal scenes and genre paintings, was an art teacher by profession.  He influenced his son's abilities by teaching Picasso personally, from the time he could pick up a pencil until entrance into formal art education.  Don Blasco began his son's formal education in the arts at the age of 11 by enrolling him in the School of Fine Arts in La Coruna in 1892.

During the early years as a developing artist, Picasso's style emulated the Old Masters, practicing from plaster casts, portrait sittings and local landscapes.  His first painting, First Communion, went on exhibition in Barcelona in 1896.  While traveling to Madrid with his family in 1895, Picasso saw paintings by Spanish artists Diego de Silva y Velazquez (1590-1660), Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664) and Francisco Goya (1746-1828).  The First Communion painting has elements of Spanish Baroque, typical of these artists in that the subject matter is highly religious in nature and realistically depicting the solemnity of the occasion.  The First Communion painting also has elements of chiaroscuro, a technique favored by Caravaggio and Rembrandt in the 17th century.  The male figure standing next to the young bride reciting from her book of prayers was modeled by Picasso's father.  Picasso's second academic painting Science and Charity, also has elements of Spanish Baroque.  This painting was given a gold medal in Malaga.  For the next three years, Picasso continued to render his artwork in the academic style.

By the time he was 17, Picasso was already seeking artistic independence from contemporary art teachings.  Not surprisingly he left the Academy in Barcelona in the winter of 1897, but contracted scarlet fever only to return home to recover.  Afterwards, for nearly 8 months, he and fellow artist, Pallares, paint mountains, local forests and landscapes while living part of the time in caves.  In 1899, Picasso returned to Barcelona to begin an independent bohemian life.  War between the USA and Spain broke out and everywhere in the western world, industrial developments were fast becoming the norm of life, providing further impetus to often passionate, intellectual discourses amongst anarchist, radicals and ordinary citizens on the dynamic issues in the political, social and economic scenes.  Although some of Picasso's associates were highly articulate and active on the issues of the day, Picasso himself would not incorporate political messages in his artwork until the late 1930s.

Picasso, already known to local contemporary Catalan artists through his earlier achievements, found similar companionship at the artists' cafe, Els Quartre Gats (The Four Cats) where he designed the menu and made the acquaintance of other artists who frequented the cafe, some of whom would become roommates and or lifelong friends.  The value of this early networking manifested future opportunities for Picasso in Barcelona and Paris. For example, painter Ramon Casas was influential in introducing Picasso to Theophile Alexandre Steinlen (1859-1923) and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901).  It was no accident that satirical, anarchist, leftist, bohemian elements from these two artists and the other collective modernists and post-modernists artist and poets who frequented Els Quartre Gats would influence Picasso's future artwork.  His rendering of the lithographic menu for the cafe, Menu of Els Quarte Gats, 1899 is reminiscent of Steinlen's lithograph of A la Bodiniere, a style rendered in Art Nouveau.

Despite his early disparagement of the contemporary avant-garde, 1899 would mark the beginning of changes in Picasso's art style.  In the fall of 1900, 19 year old Picasso moved to Paris with fellow artist and poet, 20 year old Carlos Casagemas.  There through the Catalan community, Picasso met Pedro Manach, an art dealer who gave Picasso a two-year painting commission in exchange for 150 francs a month, his first official paid commission.  In Paris, Picasso saw the works of avant-garde artists, Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Paul Signac (1863-1935), Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940).  Picasso painted his first French life painting entitled Le Moulin de la Galette, a popular venue that has been immortalized by Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and Toulouse-Lautrec, to name just a few well known artists.  The style of this particular painting is inspired by the Impressionists, although it was Toulouse-Lautrec's version of Renoir's 1876 painting of the famous Moulin in 1889 that ultimately inspired Picasso's version of Moulin life.

It was around this time that Picasso's friend Casagemas became deeply involved in an unsatisfactory and ultimately fatal relationship with the model Germaine (Laure Gargallo) who rejects him.  According to various but similar historical accounts, Casagemas attempted to kill Germaine by shooting her but she recovered.  Casagemas shot himself, fatally.  Picasso was in Madrid at the time of the tragedy.  The resulting psychological effects of Casagemas' death manifests in the form of several paintings of Casagemas in death.  These were painted in 1901 and years after, in Picasso's artwork during the Blue Period, in particular, La Vie, which depicts Casagemas as a main subject (in the final rendering).

The term Blue Period refers to the time between 1901 and 1904 when Picasso used a predominately monochromatic blue green palette.  His subjects during this period are widely proletariat.  He was also known to frequent the circus often and later would paint harlequins as major subjects, a period sometimes referred to as the Rose Period or the Harlequin Period.  The painting of La Vie marked the milestone of the Blue Period.  This painting and a few others such as The Old Guitarist and The Blindman's Meal, also incorporate elements of Mannerist works reminiscent of El Greco.

Around the time of the Blue Period and further into the future, Picasso created a series of caricatures that had sexual and brothel themes, of which some of the images portray his friends and roommates in sexual acts.   Caricature art was the tool of literary critics that became popular in illustrated magazines and such.  His earlier pornographic drawings interested another bohemian, Guillaume Apollinaire.   Apollinaire was an articulate and important member of the Parisian literary circle who would be partly instrumental in bringing Picasso's other work to the attention of the Paris art scene.  Their friendship played an important role in Picasso's exposure to the French literary avant-garde, including meeting art dealers and collections. He and Apollinaire were frequent patrons of the "Closerie des Lilas", in Montparnasse where local artists mingled.

Picasso made many important acquaintances throughout his career particularly during the early years.  Two of the most influential would be Leo and Gertrude Stein, art collectors who ran a salon for aspiring and established artists to meet and exchange ideas.  The Steins purchased several of Picasso's paintings and later introduced him to the older and more established, Henri Matisse (1869-1954), a follower of Fauvism.  The friendship and rivalry between Matisse and Picasso spanned both their lives and to this day, is a relationship that is intellectualized, debated and romanticized.  Picasso also met Andre Derain (1880-1954), another well known Impressionist artist who experimented and painted in the Fauvist style.

In 1905, Picasso traveled to Holland for a month at the invitation of young writer Tom Schilperoort. There he painted Three Dutch Girls and Dutch Girl (La Belle Hollandaise).  Picasso's style during this trip is truly different, drawing on the classical.  Picasso's subjects in his subsequent paintings upon return to Paris, have an air of detachment such as, Portrait of Madame Canals, Boy with a Pipe, Woman with a Fan and Young Girl with a Basket of Flowers.  Upon examination of these paintings, one feels a certain calculated seriousness, almost an aloofness of feelings, similar to the two paintings he rendered while in Holland, and more stylized and simplified.

According to Picasso's partner of 7 years, Francoise Gilot (who was also his muse for many of his works), Picasso was highly affected and inspired by African Art when he discovered them on a visit to the Trocadero Museum in Paris, during the spring of 1907.   From Francoise' account of that visit, Picasso's reaction was as follows:

"Men had made those masks and other objects for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces that surrounded them, in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it a form and an image.  At that moment, I realized that this was what painting was all about.  Painting isn't an aesthetic operation; it is a form of magic designed as mediation between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires.  When I came to that realization, I knew I had found my way."

In 1907, Picasso unveils perhaps the most provocative paintings of his oeuvre, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.  This very large oil painting kept him busy for most of the year, resulting in an astonishing 895 studies for the final piece.  The painting consists of 5 women, all posted alluringly or erotically and highly stylized with angular strong lines and blocky large forms, and slightly off centre, is a plate of fruit.  The faces of three of the women on the left are recognizably human, however, the faces on the women on the right appear to have primitive masks.  This painting is the milestone of Picasso's endeavor into the innovative use of integrating lines and forms of primitive objects with contemporary subjects (composition of women and fruit).  It is a monumental work that retains the 'magic' and 'power' usually attributed to primitivism.  Picasso's concept of integrating what was (the primitive), into what could be (stylized ideas of form), was both original and fascinating.

Picasso's work Analytical Cubism, 1910, a famous portrait of art dealer Ambroise Vollard, is a major departure from the style he adapted in creating, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.  Cubism was developed by Georges Braque at about the same time although some attribute its initial conception to Paul Cezanne.  But it was Matisse who commented during an exhibition of Braque's new work in the Paris Salon that the " consisted of lots of little cubes." Hence the term 'Cubism' was born.  Braque and Picasso worked collaboratively on this new style with the latter borrowing Braque's innovative use of letters and a technique called the 'comb' (to emulate wood grain).  Braque continued to experiment with other mediums such as sand, plaster and paper products to create or simulate three-dimensional surfaces.  Picasso borrowed these innovations to make his own using 'found' materials such as string, wood, metals, newspapers and so on.  Hence the age of modern three-dimensional work, the Assemblage was born. 

Between 1916 and to 1936, Picasso's oeuvre tends to the classical and surreal.  He is well established and affluent.  He marries his first wife, Olga, a ballerina, and shortly becomes involved in applied arts, successfully designing several theatre productions, such as the curtain design for Parade in 1919. During the 1930's Picasso's work became more abstract and surreal.  There is sense of violence in many of his paintings.  At that time, Spain and most of Europe was highly unstable yet Picasso never really got involved in the politics of the day.  However, this changed with the painting of Guernica.

In 1939, civil war broke out in Morocco and made its way to Spain. The war took the lives of over 1.5 million people.  Picasso was director of the Prado, Spain's most important art gallery.  In January 1937, he was commissioned by the government to paint a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the Paris World War.  When news of the bombing of the holy Basque town of Guernica hit the airwaves and newspapers, Picasso's original plans for the mural changed direction. For Picasso, the bombing of Guernica embodied the atrocities of the civil war. Thus the composition of the mural became an allegory to Guernica.  This embedded message of the consequences of war was the beginning of Picasso's more active role in world politics and world peace.

Today, our global communities continue its fascination with  Picasso.  We are fascinated that Picasso does not fit neatly into a particular genre, as he utilized a vast array of techniques and styles (from Spanish Baroque to Primitivism to Pop Art), combining them later in life to develop new methods of expression that resulted in provocative effects.  He is also perhaps the most well documented modern artist in the history of art with early works and documentation saved from his childhood and throughout his long and productive life.  Appreciation aside, a daunting task continues for art historians to 'read' into the tens of thousands of Picasso's creations in terms of their significance in modern art history, in the scheme of the artist's personal life, as well as for the artists he associated and rivaled with.

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Henri Matisse
Pablo Picasso
Paul Cezanne
Edgar Degas
Pierre Bonnard


Visual Arts