Picasso: The Genius of Modern Times
The originality of Pablo Picasso continues to inspire today
No other artist is more associated with modern art than Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). Arguably the most prolific artist of all time, he expressed himself through different mediums—painting, sculpture, drawing and ceramics—in order to achieve a unique goal: finding new ways of expression.
Pablo Picasso’s capacity for drawing was recognized at an early age long before his father, also an artist and art professor, taught him the art of picture making. Picasso drew and painted constantly and the works he produced soon showed the artist’s fantastic spontaneity and virtuosity. As he put it: “When I was twelve, I was drawing like Raphael.”
A young genius, he entered the renowned Academy of Fine Arts in Barcelona at the age of fourteen and was allowed to skip the fist two classes.
The first paintings he produced while sojourning in France were inspired by the Parisian style of Edgar Degas or Toulouse Lautrec. His art perfectly illustrated the bohemian life he had embraced with his friend Carlos Casagemas. In that period, Picasso produced numerous sketches depicting the two of them in cafés or simply walking in the streets of the French capital.
Deeply affected by his friend’s suicide, Picasso abandoned the fauvist style he had just begun to work on and evolved toward what is called his Blue Period (1901-1903). His favorite subjects then became miserable people, blind men, alcoholics and prostitutes. The blue tones strengthen the melancholic feeling and pictures like Carnaval au bistrot are no longer reminiscent of the light pleasures of bohemian life.
1907 was a turning point in the artist’s life. Inspired by Cézanne’s works, Picasso questioned traditional perspective by examining a three-dimensional object as it was flattened into a two-dimensional plane. This first phase of cubism, visible in the work L’amitié and known as “analytic cubism”, is strongly characterized by the use of blackish-brown tones.
Constantly analyzing the details of his models’ faces, Picasso explored the multiple possibilities offered by the features undergoing metamorphosis. Françoise’s portrait, though traditionally representational, bears the marks of a process toward abstraction with the vertical lines of her nose and arm and her round face standing in the middle of a square delineated by her hair.
Picasso would go further by totally reducing her to a geometrical structure emptied from its psychological content. The face will soon disappear behind a mask recalling the simplicity of Iberian and African art that he so admired.
And actually, the motif of the body and its sensual and sexual dimensions are central to the artist’s creative process. Women are fundamental in Picasso’s life, as each new relationship he had precipitated a new wave of creativity. A new model often implied a new vision. While some portraits could reveal round and harmonious body shapes, others could surprise, utilizing the violence of harsh lines that symbolized either the painter’s suffering and despair or his desire for mutilation.
Picasso could work simultaneously in a wide variety of pictorial idioms. While many paintings share the cubist lines and distorted shapes that he and George Braque pioneered, other works reflect simultaneously the master’s first steps toward surrealism and the tensions created by his wartime experience.
What is striking about Picasso is his enormous versatility and his incredible originality.
After World War One, his works actually show a return to figurative art as it is visible in the sketches drawn in preparation for the painting called Trois femmes à la fontaine. At the end of his life, a great number of paintings were based on the reinterpretation of works by great masters of the past such as Velasquez, Courbet, Delacroix or Manet.
What made Picasso so unique was his refusal to believe in only one artistic truth. As an artist he was constantly open to exploration and, above all, his life was like his art: passionate.
Image: Portrait of Françoise, Pablo Picasso. 1946. Graphite, charcoal and color crayon. Image courtesy Musée National Picasso.