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Pablo Picasso

Father of Cubism

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.

Pablo Picasso, in full Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno Crispín Crispiniano María Remedios de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz Picasso, was a Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, and stage designer, known today as one of the greatest and most influential artists of the 20th century as well as the founding father of Cubism. For nearly 80 of his 91 years, Picasso devoted himself to the arts and created a body of work that formed one of the most significant contributions to the development of modern art.  

Pablo Picasso, 1956 in Cannes, Photo by Arnold Newman/Getty Images

Picasso’s father, José Ruiz Blasco, was a drawing professor and a curator. Picasso’s remarkable talent already manifested itself when he was about 10 years old, at which point he became his father’s pupil. His extraordinary drive to experiment with what he learned and to develop new means of expression, however, quickly made him surpass his father’s abilities. At the mere age of 13, his father provided him with the necessary support for his first exhibition. The academic realism that dominated his early work is best represented in The First Communion (1896), a large composition that depicts his sister, Lola.

Self Portait, 1896
First Communion, 1896

In 1897, Picasso began his studies at Madrid's Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Spain's top art academy at the time. The young artist attended only briefly, preferring to roam the art exhibits at the Prado, studying paintings of Rembrandt, El Greco, Francisco Goya, and Diego Veláquez, or recording life around him, in the cafés, on the streets, and in the brothels instead. Around this time, the realism of his work began to show a distinct Symbolist influence and his exposure to the work of Rossetti, Steinlen, Toulouse-Lautrec and Edvard Munch, combined with his admiration for the old masters, resulted in Picasso’s very personal approach to modernism.

Science and Charity, 1897

Picasso fell ill in the spring of 1898 and spent most of the remaining year in the Catalan village of Horta de Ebro. When the painter returned to Barcelona in early 1899, he was a changed man: he had put on weight; he spoke Catalan; and, most importantly, he had made the decision to break with his art-school training and to reject his family’s plans for his future. He even began to show a preference for his mother’s surname, and now signed his works P.R. Picasso; by late 1901 he had dropped the Ruiz altogether.

After his painting Last Moments (later painted over) was accepted for the Spanish section of the Exposition Universelle in Paris, Picasso, eager to see his own work displayed, decided to visit the city together with his friend Carles Casagemas. Once in Paris, he shared his lodgings with Max Jacob, a poet and journalist who took the artist under his wing. The two lived in severe poverty and were sometimes forced to burn the artist's paintings to stay warm.

Picasso's illustration for Arte Joven

By 1901, Picasso had returned to Madrid, where he and his anarchist friend Francisco de Asís Soler founded the magazine Arte Joven (Young Art), which published five issues. Soler was responsible for the articles, while Picasso illustrated the journal, mostly with grim cartoons depicting the life of the poor.

The Death of Casagemas, 1901

Casagemas had in the meantime become despondent about a failed love affair. He returned to Paris where he attempted to shoot the woman he loved, then turned the gun on himself and died. This had a profound impact on Picasso and is said to have given him the material and impulse for the expressive works of his so-called Blue Period. The works made during this time of his life were characterized by somber shades of blue and blue-green and often showed gaunt mothers with children, prostitutes and beggars.

The old guitarist, 1903
Femme aux Bras Croisés, 1901-1902

Picasso finally settled in Paris in 1904, where he lived among bohemian poets and writers. Soon, he directed his attention toward more pleasant themes such as carnival performers and clowns. The harlequin, a comedic character usually depicted in checkered patterned clothing, became a personal symbol for the artist. Simultaneously, his works took on more vivid blush and earthy tones. During this time, Picasso met Fernande Olivier, an artist who became his mistress. Olivier appears in many of his Rose Period paintings, which are said to be influenced by his loving relationship with her as well as his increased exposure to French painting.

La toilette, 1906
Seated Harlequin, 1901

In Paris, Picasso had found dedicated patrons in American siblings Gertrude and Leo Stein, whose Saturday salons in their home were a breeding ground for modern artistic and intellectual thought. At these occasions, Picasso met other talented artists who lived and worked in the city, such as Henri Matisse, who would become his lifelong friend and rival.

Image via the Independent

It was around this time that Picasso developed a fascination with pre-Roman Iberian sculpture and African and Oceanic art. An interest that became clearly visible in his Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906), a painting in which he reworked his patron’s image into a masklike manifestation with many style references to primitivism.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906

Towards the end of 1906, Picasso began work on a large composition that came to be called Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), a painting that signalled the birth of Cubism. In many ways, the work showcased the artist’s renewed interest in El Greco, which contributed to the fracturing of the space and the limbs of the figures, while the overall composition owed much to Paul Cézanne’s Bathers as well as to J.-A.-D. Ingres’s harem scenes.

Les demoiselles D'Avignon, 1907

The Demoiselles, however - later named after Avignon Street in Barcelona, home to many popular brothels - was perceived as shocking: the women were not conventional images of beauty but prostitutes who challenged every tradition of femininity. When he displayed the painting to acquaintances in his studio, the universal reaction was shock and revulsion; Matisse even dismissed the work as a hoax. This led Picasso to keep the painting out of sight for several years; he would not exhibit Les Demoiselles publicly until 1916.

Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque ,1954, photographed by Lee Miller

Around 1910, Picasso and his new friend Georges Braque started to work closely together and developed a style later coined Analytic Cubism, which was characterized by fragmentation of three-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional picture plane, displaying several angles of an object at once. Picasso’s Bottle and Wine Glass on a Table (1912) is an early example of Synthetic Cubism, a collage in which he pasted newsprint and colored paper onto canvas. Picasso and Braque also included tactile components such as cloth in their Synthetic Cubist works, and sometimes used trompe-l’oeil effects to create the illusion of real objects and textures, such as the grain of wood.

Bottle of Suze, 1912
Bottle and Wine Glass on a Table, 1912

Once he had acquired some fame, Picasso left Olivier for Marcelle Humbert, whom he called Eva Gouel. Picasso included declarations of his love for Eva in many of his Cubist works and he was devastated by her premature death from illness at the age of 30 in 1915. Towards the end of World War I, Picasso became involved with Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Among his friends during this period were Jean Cocteau, Jean Hugo, Juan Gris, and others. In the summer of 1918, Picasso married Olga Khokhlova, a ballerina with Sergei Diaghilev's troupe, for whom Picasso was designing a ballet.

Picasso and Olga Khokhlova, circa 1918

At this time, Picasso had reverted to a more traditional style of painting. In the early 1920s, he developed a new kind of classicism with mythological creatures such as centaurs, nymphs, and fauns, inspired by classic Italian mythology. In this Neoclassical Period, he created various pictures dedicated to motherhood inspired by the birth of his son Paulo in 1921. In urgent need of money at this point, Picasso initiated an exclusive partnership with the French-Jewish art dealer Paul Rosenberg. This was the start of a dedicated friendship, that would last until the outbreak of World War II.

Two Women Running on The Beach, 1922

Khokhlova’s and Picasso’s lifestyles were never quite in synch; she was a part of high society, and he was more accustomed to a bohemian lifestyle. In 1927, Picasso met 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter and began an affair with her. His work soon started to display an overall biomorphic sensuality. He painted scenes of women with striking voluptuousness and a general renewed sense of optimism; he would use bold colors and gentle curves to portray youth and innocence, inspired by Marie-Thérèse.

Marie-Thérèse & Le Rêve,1932

His marriage to Khokhlova soon ended in separation rather than divorce, as French law required an even division of property, and Picasso did not want Khokhlova to have half his wealth. The two remained legally married until her death in 1955. Picasso had meanwhile fathered a daughter with Marie-Thérèse Walter, named Maya. Marie-Thérèse always hoped that Picasso would one day marry her and hanged herself four years after his death.

Minotaur And Young Woman

In the 1930s, Picasso established close connections with many prominent Surrealists, especially the writers. Much like them, Picasso often played with the idea of metamorphosis. Especially the image of the minotaur, the monster of Greek mythology, half bull and half human, that is traditionally seen as the embodiment of the struggle between the human and the bestial, became prevalent in Picasso’s work. In 1935, he began to write poetry, and for one year he practically gave up painting. Collections of his poems were published in Cahiers d’Art (1935) and in La Gaceta de Arte (1936).

Pablo Picasso drawing - ca.1960, Brassaï

In the following year he began a relationship with the French photographer Dora Maar. Although still living in France, Picasso was deeply distraught over the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. He reacted with a powerfully series of paintings that culminated in the enormous mural Guernica (1937). This painting, Picasso’s contribution to the Spanish Pavilion in the 1937 Exposition Universelle in Paris, is a complex work of astounding proportion with layers of anti-war symbolism, rendered in a grey color palette, protesting the fascist coup led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco. When asked to explain its symbolism, Picasso said:

It isn't up to the painter to define the symbols. Otherwise, it would be better if he wrote them out in so many words! The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them.

Guernica, 1937

From that moment on, the monochrome color palette and the expressive quality of the forms and gestures of Guernica found their way into Picasso’s other work. After the liberation of Paris, Picasso resumed to exhibit his work, but his canvases of the preceding five years were received as a shock. That, plus the fact that Picasso had just joined the Communist Party, led to aggressive demonstrations at his exhibitions.

Paulo, Claude, Françoise Gilot, Paloma, Pablo, and Maya on the Côte d’Azur, 1954, photographed by Edward Quinn

In 1943, Picasso met a young painter: Françoise Gilot. Within months, she became Picasso’s new mistress and in 1946 they moved to the Mediterranean where he would father her two children. During this time, Picasso’s creative energy never waned. He continued to paint, make ceramics, and experimented with printmaking. His international fame increased with large exhibitions in London, Venice, and Paris, as well as retrospectives in Tokyo, Lyon, Rome, Milan, and São Paulo. A retrospective in New York at the Museum of Modern Art in 1957 garnered a massive amount of attention, with over 100,000 visitors during the first month.

In 1953, Françoise Gilot with their two children left Picasso. In that same year he met Jacqueline Roque who became his second wife and his muse for practically all of his late work.

Vase with Two High Handles, The Queen, 1953
Duck Flower-Holder, 1951

Well into his eighties and nineties, Picasso continued to innovate and produced an enormous number of works, amassing a personal fortune and an impressive collection of over 50,000 pieces of his own art, as well as numerous works by other artists. He died in 1973, leaving an artistic legacy that had (and still has) an inescapable influence on artists of future generations. 

Pablo Picasso, 1956 in Cannes, Photo by Arnold Newman/Getty Images

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Sources: Wikipedia, Britannica, Met Museum