In this era of toxic masculinity, if Pablo Picasso were alive, he would most likely be sought after and reviled in equal measures.
His entire life is a sonata of machismo, from early fights with his admittedly accommodating father to his cavalier treatment of women. Even his children were not spared his disdain, especially Paloma and Claude. All of that is surface-level Picasso.
Beneath the arrogance and posturing was a sensitive soul easily hurt. Picasso was dealt devastating emotional blows, starting with the loss of his sister, Conchita, around the time he was 14 years old.
You might say that Pablo Picasso was an art factory. He produced works in different styles with an avid eye towards their marketing.
He alternately led and contributed to different art movements and worked in different media, sometimes producing up to three complete artworks a day.
In spite of the women and the travelling and unabashedly marketing himself, Picasso somehow had time to formulate political views, which he liberally expressed through his art.
Picasso is the type of artist that you either ‘get’ or don’t. His work either speaks to you or it doesn’t – he certainly wasn’t going to tell you what to see in this painting or that sculpture.
Regardless of any feelings you may have for the man or his work (or both), he represents an important step in the development and, indeed, the marketing of art.
If only for that, Pablo Picasso now takes centre stage.
A Short Biography
While his full baptismal name included those of several saints and relatives – bringing the total to 14, as is the custom in Spain, he was officially known by both his father’s and mother’s surname.
Pablo Ruiz Picasso entered this world in Malaga, Andalusia on the 25th of October 1881, the first-born son of a middle-class family.
His father was a painter who excelled at depicting birds and other wild animals. He did not earn his living from painting; he taught art at the local School of Crafts. He was also a curator at the city’s museum.
Young Pablo showed a propensity toward art early on – according to his mother, his first words were ‘Pencil! Pencil!’.
His father, possibly keen for his son to follow in his own artistic aspirations, started teaching the boy to paint at the tender age of seven, instructing him on figurative interpretation and the use of oil paint. Legend has it that young Pablo’s efforts soon surpassed anything painted by his father.
It is uncertain why his family moved so often while he was growing up. Whatever the reason, by the time Pablo was 13 years old, the family had relocated again; this time to Barcelona.
His father once more landed a teaching position, this time at the Academy of Fine Arts, where he convinced the admissions board to permit his son to take the advanced entrance exam. Applicants are generally permitted a month to prepare for their ordeal; young Pablo was ready in one week.
In many ways, Barcelona was a turning point for Picasso. Not quite disciplined enough to take instruction, he nevertheless made many friends who would impact him throughout his life.
Most prominent among them was Carles Casagemas, with whom Picasso would travel around Spain and eventually to Paris. It is widely believed that Casagema’s suicide inspired the legendary artist’s Blue Period.
Vincent Van Gogh could have related to Casagemas; he too suffered from crippling depression...
Periods: Picasso’s Varying Styles
At the start of his career, Picasso was pretty conventional. His first significant oil painting was a tame depiction of his sister’s First Communion. Though it wasn't quite the Creation of Adam, it was painted in the style of Italian Renaissance art.
It was an academically satisfying work incorporating all of the expected elements: a dramatic moment in a girl’s life, complete with proper religiosity and colouring.
In the same year, when he was just 14, he would paint Portrait of Aunt Pepa, a remarkable study of contrasts: all you can see is his aunt’s face, set against a shadowed, black background. She was reportedly not happy with being the subject of portraiture; that idea is underscored by her pained, slightly angry expression.
By the time he was 16 years old, Picasso was living on his own in Barcelona. At that age, some of his best paintings were shown in a one-man exhibit at a popular artists’ hangout. One of them was selected for exhibition in Paris; so it came to be that he and Casagemas made their way north.
By no means was he shy and retiring in the City of Light; he always believed he was destined for greatness; now, destiny would begin!
As he gained exposure to more varied painters, his highly realistic painting style evolved. El Greco had a particular influence on his later work, as did Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin – both of whom he met on the Parisian art scene.
By far the biggest influence on him at the turn of the century was his friend’s suicide, which art history speculates ushered in his Blue Period.
Discover also the story behind the world's most famous religious artwork, the Last Supper, painted by Leonardo da Vinci...
The Blue Period, 1901-1904
Picasso’s work at this time was characterised by despair: sad, emaciated figures with hollowed-out eyes. Works from this period include:
- The Soup
- Melancholy Woman
- The Glass of Beer
- The Life (La Vie)
- Portrait of Suzanne Bloch
The works listed here are all oil on canvas; others, such as Motherhood were executed in pastels on paper.
In this early period, it is easy to see El Greco’s Spanish Renaissance influence on the emerging style of Picasso as well as the downturned mood of the artist himself. He soon lightens up though, leading to his next phase.
The Rose Period
From 1904 till 1906, he reaches for the other end of the colour spectrum, leaving the warm blues behind and reaching for the cooler reds.
Also during this time, there is substantially more nude flesh in his work, although the paintings are still pretty much in-line with the sensibilities of the day.
We’ll gloss over his African Period (1907-1909) and its shocking Demoiselles D’Avignon, a work that even his friend Henri Matisse considered in poor taste.
As much negative attention as the Demoiselles garnered, it led to a new artistic movement.
Pablo Picasso, Father of Cubism
Cubism: the taking apart of a subject to analyse its shape.
Picasso enjoyed a rivalry of sorts with fellow painter Charles Braques who, upon viewing Les Demoiselles, declared it disgusting. It was nevertheless the start of a bromance of sorts between the two artists.
Using a monochrome palette of neutral colours, the two painted remarkably similar works, as though they were in competition, for the next three years.
Starting in 1912, once Picasso was cleared of the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, he drove a further evolution of the Cubist movement by incorporating paper into his works; essentially, he was creating collages.
His longtime patron, Gertrude Stein, helped him distinguish these new efforts from previous cubist works. She called them Crystal Cubes, implying that the paper components were ‘little gems’.
Art critics accused him of defecting from the movement he created; he found it rather insulting that they were suggesting his return to expressionism. Incorporating ‘cubist paper’ was his way of thumbing his nose at their ideas.
This artistic phase lasted through the First World War. Europe was reeling from the devastation, needing to get back to familiar ideas. This craving brought on a return to classical painting techniques: clean lines and easy-to-recognise subjects.
Picasso contributed to this movement before moving on to surrealism, a movement that was gaining traction in the early 1920s. Expressing himself as a surrealist naturally called for him to abandon his signature element – the harlequin and incorporate that movement’s ‘symbol’, the minotaur.
The Surrealistic minotaur would feature prominently in Picasso’s most explosive work of art yet; a condemnation of the Bombing of Guernica.
“Did you do this?” “No, you did.” Picasso, implying the Nazis were responsible for the horrors of war.
During the Second World War, Picasso was more or less confined to his studio in Paris. The Germans did not approve of his work so he did not show anything at the time. However, they frequently intruded on him. On one such occasion, with Guernica in plain sight, the above exchange took place.
Picasso took every opportunity to thumb his nose at the establishment... unlike Claude Monet, the father of French Impressionism.
“What does it represent?” “About $200,000”
Pablo Picasso was many things but more than any one thing, he was a savvy marketer. Early in his artistic career, he latched onto wealthy patrons who helped him distribute his work in countries he had not yet been.
As his artistic reputation grew, virtually every collector and museum of art wanted an original oil painting from Picasso or, failing that, an abstract painting in pastel. Picasso, aware that restricting access to his work would increase demand (and value), would often keep finished paintings in his studio because he did not need to sell them.
A part of his appeal may well have been his disposition to half of the world's population:
“For me, there are only two kinds of women: goddesses and doormats.” Picasso, to his latest (and youngest) mistress.
Perhaps he was authentically chauvinistic. Maybe the revolving door of women in his life was all a part of the act; packaging himself into something so repulsive, so vile and so contrary that he continuously drew attention to himself - a tactic that is still used today.
No matter what one may think of the man, Picasso is one of the most famous painters of all time.
His work has been shown (or is still on display) all over the world: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in the US, as well as the Louvre museum, The Hermitage and, of course, in his home town of Malaga, in Spain. So prolific was he that you could pick just about any art showcase around the world and find a painting by Picasso.
Some of the world’s most famous paintings are by Picasso but he is not the only one who rendered famous paintings: discover other famous artists that made our world more beautiful...