Picasso was that rare thing in history, an artist of cultic presence, a secular manifestation of the spirit, a genuinely commanding phenomenon.
Pablo Picasso was a Spanish painter who is broadly acknowledged as being one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century. Throughout his career Picasso experimented with a diverse range of painting styles, most notably inspiring the Cubist movement.
The birth and death of Pablo Picasso
Pablo Ruiz was born on 25 October 1881 in the Andalucian city of Malaga. He later adopted his mother’s maiden name of Picasso. The son of an art teacher, Picasso showed an interest and skill in art at an early age and received formal art training from his father. In 1895 the family moved to Barcelona where Picasso was given a place at the Barcelona School of Fine Arts at just 13 years of age. In the early 1900s, Picasso moved between France and Spain before finally settling in Paris in 1904, the art capital of Europe. Unlike many artists living in France in the 20th century, Picasso remained in Paris during the German occupation, producing sculptures, ceramics, etchings and paintings on a colossal scale. On 8 April 1973, Pablo Picasso died of a heart attack at his home near Cannes.
Picasso’s ‘Blue’ and ‘Rose’ period
Picasso’s work is often categorised into periods. Between 1901 and 1904 the Spanish painter experimented with what has become known as his ‘Blue Period’. It was during this period he produced sombre and monochromatic impressions in shades of blue and green; austere colours accompanied by equally doleful subject matter, such as ‘The Tragedy’ (1903), depicting a bearded man, a woman, and a child, shoeless and in rags, huddled on a beach. Beggars, drunks and prostitutes were frequent subjects during the ‘Blue Period’, perhaps inspired by past experiences and time spent on a journey through Spain including the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas, another artist and early friend who liked to drink and was prone to depression. It was Casagemas who financed their first trip to Paris towards the end of 1900. Picasso is said to have said: “I started painting in blue when I learned of Casagemas’s death.”
By contrast, Picasso’s ‘Rose Period’ has been considered to have been influenced from the artist’s experiences of France. This short-lived ‘period’, which lasted from 1904 - 1906, saw Picasso painting with much more cheerful tones of orange and pink, with circus performers, clowns and harlequins dominating the subjects.
‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’
In 1907 Picasso painted ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, (The Young Ladies of Avignon), a large oil painting that portrays five nude female prostitutes, two of which wear African-style masks, in a brothel in Barcelona. This seminal piece of work, which was strikingly different to anything Picasso or his contemporaries had previously produced, split the Parisian art community, with some observing the painting as having the potential to change the nature of visual art, and others, including some of Picasso’s closest friends, viewing it as a crude travesty. Nonetheless this revolutionary and controversial painting is widely considered to being pivotal in the development of Cubism and modern art.
The arrival of Cubism
“The art of painting original arrangements composed of elements taken from conceived rather than perceived reality.” – Guillaume Apollinaire, ‘The Beginnings of Cubism’ (1912).
What was to become one of the most revolutionary and influential movements in art was attributed to just two men – Pablo Picasso and the French artist Georges Braque. In breaking up subjects and reassembling them in a more abstract way, both Picasso and Braque depicted their paintings from a host of viewpoints, representing the subjects in a greater context. The initial phase of this avant-garde movement, which lasted until 1912, is referred to as Analytical Cubism, whereby Picasso and Braque used subdued tones and concentrated on geometrical forms. The second phase is known as Synthetic Cubism, which consisted of much brighter colours, more decorative shapes and incorporated stencilling. It was during this time Picasso stated to use pieces of cut up newspaper in his paintings, marking the creation of another major innovation, the first use of collage in art.
Picasso’s involvement in the Surrealist Movement
In 1924 the Surrealist Movement was officially founded when the French writer and poet Andre Breton wrote ‘Le Manifest du Surrealisme’. In this manifesto Breton defined Surrealism as “Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express verbally, by written word, or by any other manner – the actual functioning of thought.”
What started life as a literary movement was later embraced and painted by the art world, with Pablo Picasso becoming a leading figure. Experimenting with painting and sculpture throughout the 1920s, Picasso’s involvement in the Surrealist Movement, drew on Surrealist imagery and techniques to paint images of morphed and distorted figures. One of Picasso’s most seminal paintings influenced by the Surrealist Movement, was the ‘Nude Standing by the Sea’ (1929) – a surreal painting of a nude woman stood in a classical pose with her arms raised, but her body swollen and monstrously rearranged.
Arguably Picasso’s most famous painting was created during the artist’s Surrealist period. The Guernica (1937) is Picasso’s representation of the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by German and Italian warplanes during the Spanish Civil War. In what has become a poignant anti-war symbol, the Guernica, with a woman grieving over a dead child in her arms, a horse falling in agony with a spear in its side, a dismembered soldier, a bull goring the horse from underneath and a human skull overlaying the horse’s body, depicts the intense suffering caused by the violence and chaos of war.
Picasso made no effort to keep his support of the Republican Government fighting General Franco a secret, and when the Spanish Civil War officially ended with Franco’s victory in 1939, the Spanish artist never returned to Spain.
With Picasso obstinately refusing to explain the imagery of Guernica, interpretations of the Guernica are widely varied. Given Picasso’s well publicised abhorrence to war and the brutality that engulfed Spain during the Civil War, one of the most popular readings of Guernica’s meaning is that the bull in and the horse represent the fight between the Nationalists and the Loyalists, Franco’s brutal dictatorship and the determined Spanish people.
Malaga keeps the legacy of Picasso alive
Picasso’s legacy remains very much alive in Spain and nowhere more so than in his birth town of Malaga. This southern coastal city regards the influential painter as being its ‘favourite son’ and consequently Malaga is home to a horde of Picasso-related attractions. From the Museo Casa Natal de Picasso – the artist’s birthplace and family home, which has been converted into an art museum, to the Picasso Museum, one of the most important museums in the world, Malaga is a trove of Picasso-adorning treasure. The Picasso Museum was opened in 2003 thanks to the Picasso’s oldest son’s widow Christine Ruiz-Picasso and his grandson Bernard who both donated hundreds of original Picasso works to the museum.
By injecting political themes into art, by using the symbolism of tribal and primitive art in ways that had never been used before, and in helping to create a new school of art known as ‘Cubism’, Pablo Picasso re-wrote the ‘rules’ on perspective. Given Picasso’s prolific and enduring impact on modern art it is of little surprise that Spain wants to cherish and celebrate the legacy of a man who was the single greatest influence on art in the twentieth century.