“My mother said to me, ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.’ Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.” - Pablo Picasso
Pablo Ruiz y Picasso, known as Pablo Picasso (25 October 1881 – 8 April 1973) was a Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, and stage designer who spent most of his adult life in France. As one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century, he is known for co-founding the Cubist movement, the invention of constructed sculpture, the co-invention of collage, and for the wide variety of styles that he helped develop and explore. Among his most famous works are the proto-Cubist “Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon” (1907), and “Guernica” (1937), a portrayal of the German bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.
Picasso, Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp are regarded as the three artists who most defined the revolutionary developments in the plastic arts in the opening decades of the 20th century, responsible for significant developments in painting, sculpture, printmaking and ceramics. Picasso demonstrated extraordinary artistic talent in his early years, painting in a realistic manner through his childhood and adolescence. During the first decade of the 20th century, his style changed as he experimented with different theories, techniques, and ideas. His revolutionary artistic accomplishments brought him universal renown and immense fortune, making him one of the best-known figures in 20th-century art.
Picasso was born in a poor family in southern Spain and after some early training with his father, a provincial drawing teacher, Picasso showed that he had thoroughly grasped naturalistic conventions at a very young age. After some incomplete sessions of art school in Barcelona and Madrid, Picasso spent his adolescence associating with the group of Catalan modernists who gathered at Els Quatre Gats in Barcelona. From there he moved to Paris, where he quickly found like-minded poets and painters. His work began to attract serious critical attention and praise by the time he was twenty.
His first mature work, dating from this time, around 1901, is classified as his Blue Period. He painted itinerant performers, vagrants, and prostitutes, all in tones of blue. Important early works include his “Self- Portrait” (1901) and “La Vie” (1903). As Picasso spent more time in Paris, his painting developed, and as he began to meet the right people, his mood lifted. His subject matter remained much the same, but his tones became warmer, or rosier, and the atmosphere of his paintings more optimistic. This is Picasso’s Rose Period, but really there was no marked technical change between this and the Blue Period; this phase of the development of his work is more like a cheerful coda to his Blue Period than a separate period.
In Paris, his life was punctuated by his association with several “mistress-muses”; women in his life who were his most consistent inspiration, as he reshaped their bodies in the boldest formal experiments. He always saw painting as a kind of sexual activity; he would trace back new styles in his painting to the inspiring appearance of a new mistress. Unfortunately, while his girlfriends were such a valuable impetus to his art, they seldom emerged from their association with him unscathed. Jacqueline Roque and Marie-Thérese Walter committed suicide, and Olga Koklova and Dora Maar became mentally unhinged. While Picasso’s relationships imbued life into his painting, they often destroyed the lives of the women involved.
Acquiring the valuable patronage of the American siblings Leo and Gertrude Stein, Picasso soaked in all the experimental energy of the Parisian art scene and, inspired by other French painters, especially Cézanne, and also the “primitive” art of Africa and the Pacific. Picasso began to create for himself a radically new style exemplified by his “Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon” (1907), which is perhaps the most revolutionary painting of the century. This prepared the ground for Cubism, a style Picasso developed in collaboration with another painter, Georges Braque.
Demolishing the traditional conception of pictorial space, Picasso and Braque painted objects as facets of an analysis, rather than as unified objects; they wanted to paint as they thought, not as they saw. This period of their work is called Analytical Cubism, and Picasso’s work in this style formed a kind of progression over the years.
The next innovation in cubism, a joint effort between Picasso and Braque, was Synthetic Cubism. Here, the defining characteristic was collage, a technique never before used in fine art; Picasso’s “Still Life with Chair Caning” (1912) is the first example. This new method allowed Picasso to play with the detritus of modern life, the handbills and the newspapers and other such cast-offs of the metropolis, which had never before been satisfactorily incorporated into the visual arts.
Picasso made valuable contributions to art throughout his entire life, but it was the invention of Cubism that secured his immortality. His later work, in a proliferation of styles, from Surrealist to neo-classical, shows that his artistic vitality transcends any one style. Remarkably prolific, no single technique or medium could contain the artist’s apparently boundless energy. He was one of the few artists who was remarkably successful during his long lifetime and he sphere of influence is still active today.
The detail from his “Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon” above shows off Picasso’s brilliant innovation to the maximum. The work portrays five nude female prostitutes from a brothel on Carrer d'Avinyó (Avinyó Street) in Barcelona. Each figure is depicted in a disconcerting confrontational manner and none are conventionally feminine. The women appear as slightly menacing and rendered with angular and disjointed body shapes. Elements of “primitive” art in the form of African masks, references to ancient Iberian statuary and bold colours with fluid line are synthesised into expanses of surface that begin to be broken up, fragmented into the cubist forms that will characterise the painter's style for several years hence.