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Pablo Picasso

1881-1973

Picasso was the leader of the École de Paris, son of José Ruiz Blasco, a drawing-master of Malaga, and Maria Picasso. Until 1898 Picasso always included his father's name, Ruiz, as well as his mother's when signing his pictures, but from c. 1900 he dropped the name Ruiz from his signature. Picasso's personality dominated the development of the visual arts during most of the first half of the 20th Century. His versatility, technical brilliance and imaginative depth has not been surpassed in this or probably in any other age, and he provided the incentive for most of the revolutionary changes during the first half of the twentieth century. His superb draughtsmanship, visual originality and power of construction have come to be universally admitted. While he was supreme master of the classical tradition, his most important influence during his lifetime was to strengthen the conception of art as an emotional medium and to swing the emphasis of taste towards dynamic power and vitality rather than formal or abstract perfection.

Picasso painted at Corunna (1891-5) and then mainly at Barcelona (1895-1904). He visited Paris first in 1900 and alternated between Paris and Barcelona until 1904. His precocious talent matured unusually early and some of his work done before the age of 14 reveals the qualities of a master (girl with Bare Feet, 1905). On his first introduction to the artistic milieu of Paris he was influenced by the drawings of Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (1859-1923) and Toulouse-Lautrec (Le Moulin de la Galette, Thannhauser coll., New York, 1900). But his work during 1901 to 1904, known as his Blue Period, in the main combined an interest in plastic representational form with emotional subject matter in the Spanish tradition and showed little concern for the atmospheric effects of Impressionism. His subjects were mainly drawn from poverty and the social outcasts and the predominant mood was one of slightly sentimentalized melancholy. His paintings were dominated by cold ethereal blue tones (Le Vie, Cleveland Mus. of Art, 1903' Child Holding a Dove, Courtauld coll., London). He also did a number of extraordinarily powerful engravings in a similar vein (Célestine, 1903; Le Vieux Guitariste, 1903; The Frugal Repast, 1904).

In 1904 Picasso took a studio in the Bateau-Lavoir and became the centre of an avant-garde circle which included Max Jacob, Guillaumne Apollinaire, André Salmon and Marie Laurencin. He had begun to attract the notice of connoisseurs such as the Russian Shchukin and Leo and Gertrude Stein; and c. 1907 he was taken up by the dealer D.-H. Kahnweiler. The two or three years from 1905 are known as his Rose Period. The predominant blue tones of his early work gave way to pinks and greys and the mood became less austere. His favourite subjects were acrobats and dancers, particularly the figure of the harlequin. During these years he produced his first sculptures and some of his painted nudes took on a sculptural solidity which foreshadowed the majestic nudes of the early 1920s. In 1906 he met Matisse, but though he seems to have admired the work being done by the Fauves, he did not himself follow their method in the decorative and expressive use of colour. During the years 1907 to 1909, called his Negro Period, he pursued an independent path, concentrating on the analysis and simplification of form and taking his direction from his studies of Cézanne and Negro Sculpture. The researches of these years culminated in the painting later named by André Salmon Les Demoiselles D'Avignon (The Mus. of Modern Art, New York, 1906-7), which in its treatment of form was as violent a revolt against traditional Impressionism as the paintings of the Fauves were in the realm of colour. At the time the picture was incomprehensible to artists, including Matisse and Derain, and it was not publicly exhibited until 1937. It is now seen by art critics not only as a crucial achievement in Picasso's personal development but as the most important single landmark in the development of contemporary painting and as the herald of Cubism.

During the years 1910 to 1916 Picasso worked in close association with Braque and later with Juan Gris for the development of Cubism, first Analytical cubism and from c. 1912 Synthetic Cubism, introducing incidentally such techniques as Collage, Papier Collé, and the incorporation of real elements into the structure of a picture. Cubism represents the most rigorous exploration of a conceptual art at the opposite pole both from Romantic emotionalism and from Impressionist techniques aiming at an exact reproduction of the visual image. Although the austerity of the restrictions imposed during the first formative years was not maintained, Picasso himself never ceased to explore further the discoveries which were made and Cubism has been rightly regarded as the most widely influential aesthetic movement of the 20th Century. One of its most important results was to establish firmly the idea that the work of art exists as an object in its own right and not merely as an image or a reflection of a reality outside itself.

In 1917 Picasso went with Jean Cocteau to Rome to design costumes and scenery for the ballet Parade and during the next few years after his return to Paris he was painting further pictures in an obviously Cubist manner and also monumental classical nudes (Three Musicians, 1921; Seated Women, 1920, both in The Museum of Modern Art, New York). He was hailed by André Breton as one of the initiators of Surrealism (Le Surréalisme et La Peinture, 1928). His works were shown in Surrealist exhibitions, illustrated in the Surrealist periodical Minotaure, etc. But his predominant interest in the analysis and synthesis of forms and his conviction that painting should be conceptual rather than purely visual were at bottom opposed to the irrationalist elements of Surrealism, their exaltation of chance, and equally to the direct realistic reproduction of dream or subconscious material. From the latter part of the 1920s, however, Picasso's work became increasingly fraught with a new and mounting emotional tenseness, a mood of foreboding and an almost clinical preoccupation with anguish and despair. He was concerned with the mythological image of the Minotaur and the images of the Dying Horse and the Weeping Woman. It was a period which culminated in his second pivotal painting, Guernica (the first being Les Demoisells d'Avignon), produced for the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1937 to express universal horror and indignation at the destruction by bombing of the Basque capital Guernica. It was followed by a number of other great paintings, from Night Fishing at Antibes (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1939) to The Charnel House (Chrysler coll., 1945), expressing his horror at the cruelty and destructiveness of war. In treating such themes Picasso universalized the emotional content by an elaboration of the techniques of expression which had been developed through his researches into Cubism.

After the Second World War Picasso settled first at Antibes (1946) and then at Vallauris, where he added pottery to his many activities. In 1955 he moved to Cannes and in 1958 bought the Chateau de Vauvenargues. His painting remained vigorous, varied and continuously inventive of new modes for the solution of new problems. Particularly interesting were a series of 15 variations on Les Femmes d'Alger by Delacroix (1954-5) and 58 paintings done in 1957, of which 44 were variations on Las Meninas of Velazquez, which Picasso had seen at the age of 15, and the remainder views over the bay from the window of his studio. His enormous mural for the UNESCO building in Paris, painted at Vallauris, was hailed by Le Corbusier as a masterpiece but in the 20 years following its completion it has not been generally regarded as one of Picasso's successes. Notable among his early works at Vauvenargues were his illustrations for the book Toros y toreros, produced in collaboration with the bull-fighter Luis Miguel Dominguin. Among these drawings are the representations of bull-fights in which the figure of Christ appears.

During the 1960s Picasso took up flat and folded metal sculpture while continuing to work in ceramics and developed the technique of linocut. His most prestigious work in painting was the series of Déjeuners, whose ultimate source was Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Outstanding also were his series of Rapes reminiscent of Delacroix and later of Poussin's Massacre of the Innocents and David's Sabine Women. During 1963 he also began the series of paintings and drawings on the theme of the artist and model.

After an illness and operation for prostate in 1966, Picasso resumed painting in 1967. During these and the following years he devoted himself particularly to drawing and etching, including a famous series of 347 etchings many of which included erotic themes. In January 1969 he began to paint again and within the year he produced 165 extraordinary canvases. They were exuberant in colour, hasty in execution with a deliberate repudiation of technique, but with all the panache of a supremely creative mind. He died of heart failure during an attach of influenza of 8 April 1973, his mind full of plans for further work and exhibition.

Picasso's output has been more splendid than that of any contemporary artist and divisions into periods are to some extent arbitrary since he was at all times working on a wealth of themes and in a variety of styles. As few other artists, he had the power to concentrate the impress of his genius even in the smallest and slightest of his works.