Guernica by Pablo Picasso reveals the effects of war and his restless desire for effective ways to articulate his thought. Image: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
The opening of Making Masters at the Museum of Fine Art, Boston has presented an opportunity to reexamine the life of Pablo Picasso, one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century art. At the core of his success was the restless desire to always find new ways to express his emotions and ideas. In this three part series, we examine his contribution to modern art, his relationship with women and some of his most important quotes. Here is the second part of our series.
Pablo Picasso was one of the most celebrated and influential artists of the 20th century. Born in Málaga, Spain, in 1881, Picasso was a versatile artist who expressed himself in every area of art. He was a painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist and stage designer. A radical and restless artist, Pablo Picasso explored every media to express his artistic thoughts.
Picasso’s love for art began at a very young age. He drew on every surface he could find. His father, Don José Ruiz Blasco, was quick to notice his son’s prodigious talent. A painter, curator and art teacher, Don José began teaching him how to draw and paint at a very young age. The young Picasso also helped his father add minor elements to his canvases.
By the age of 13, Picasso had become an exceptional craftsman, and was always in search of new challenges. Uninspired, he soon became bored and lost interest in schoolwork. All he wanted to do was sketch in his note book. That got him into a lot trouble. Once, he was sent to calaboose for being a bad student. The detention was a bare cell with whitewashed walls and a bench to sit on. Unlike many other kids of his age, Picasso saw the punishment as a reward. For him, it was an opportunity to draw and sketch his ideas.
In 1895, Picasso moved with his family to Barcelona, Spain, where his father had just become a professor at the Escuela de Bellas Artes de Barcelona. There, Picasso quickly applied to the prestigious School of Fine Arts. He completed the entrance exam in record time and in flying colors. Impressed by his dexterity, the art professors advanced him to the school’s upper-level program. He was only 14 years old.
It did not take long before Picasso lost interest in academic work at the Escuela de Bellas Artes de Barcelona. Unimpressed by the teaching at the school, Pablo Picasso moved to Madrid to attend the Royal Academy of San Fernando in 1897. Again, he completed the entrance exam in record time and with flying colors. He was 16 years old.
At the Royal Academy of San Fernando, Pablo Picasso was unmoved and frustrated with everything going on around him. A restless soul that he was, it did not take long for Picasso to be upset with his school’s singular focus on classical subjects and techniques. Disenchanted, he expressed his feelings in a letter to a friend: “They just go on and on about the same old stuff: Velázquez for painting, Michelangelo for sculpture,” he wrote.
A restive soul in search of exciting new creative adventures, Picasso started skipping class. In his quest for new forms of artistic expressions, he wandered the streets of Madrid, observing nature and painting things he saw. Dominating his themes were gypsies, beggars, prostitutes and many others. Tired of wandering the streets and the teaching at the Royal Academy of San Fernando, Picasso eventually left the school and Madrid. In 1899, Picasso retraced his steps and went back to Barcelona.
Barcelona presented a new sense of adventure and self evaluation for Picasso. There, he mingled with a crowd of artists and intellectuals who converged at the café El Quatre Gats (“The Four Cats”). The people Picasso met there inspired him to forge a new creative path for himself. In addition to making a drastic break from the classic method he was trained in, he also embraced a lifelong process of experimentation and innovation.
Picasso’s restless craving for new ideas led to Cubism which he co-created with Georges Braque. The journey towards Cubism was fraught with multiple attempts, failures and tribulations. Just at the turn of the century, Picasso moved to Paris, France, where he opened a studio in an old, crumbling building inhabited by artists and poets. Although Picasso’s quest in Paris, the cultural center of European art, was to explore and understand avant-garde’s technique and subjects, his art flourished.
At his studio located at 13 Rue Ravignan, a building dubbed the Bateau-Lavoir (or laundry barge) by poet-in residence, Max Jacoub, Picasso engaged with artists and poet who inspired and influenced him. In Paris, he met painter Henri Matisse, American novelist, poet, playwright and art collector, Gertrude Stein and his brother Leo, who were major patrons of modern art.
To better understand Pablo Picasso, it is pertinent to examine his art career through different periods. Each period reflects Picasso’s mood and his tribulations. The first is the Blue Period.
The Blue Period lasted from 1901 to 1904. This aspect of Picasso’s career was labeled Blue Period because the color dominated nearly all of his paintings of this period. The death of Carlos Casagemas, a friend Picasso loved dearly was partly responsible for this choice of color.
The story of Picasso and Carlos is absolutely intriguing. Picasso first met Carlos in Spain and the two, with another young Spanish painter moved to Paris. In Paris, Carlos met a beautiful girl named Germaine. They fell passionately love and were looking to the future as one. Being impotent, Carlos was unable to consummate the relationship. Picasso, according some accounts, stepped in and slept with Germaine. Carlos was shattered, and could understand how his closest friend could stab him in the back. Picasso’s action drove the heartbroken Carlos to shoot himself.
Carlos death tormented Picasso. His guilt was mountain high. Lonely and depressed, he painted exclusively in blue and green. The subjects of his paintings also reflected his melancholy. His paintings were dominated by scenes of poverty, isolation and anguish. Blue Nude 1902, La Vie 1903, and The Old Guitarist 1903-1904, are the most famous paintings of this period.
Love and prosperity got Picasso out of his depression, setting the path for the Rose Period. Madly in love with the beautiful model and artist, Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s creativity thrived as his mood brightened. Fernande’s striking red hair, gorgeous eyes and sensual figure gave Picasso all the inspiration his pious Spanish ladies and prostitute could not offer him. Fernande also found Picasso irresistible and soon moved in with him in the filthy little studio.
Besides Fernande’s charm, the generous patronage of art dealer Ambroise Vollard also gave Picasso something to smile about. The Red Rose period dating from about 1904-06 was characterized by warm colors: beiges, pinks and reds. Pablo Picasso’s most famous paintings from this era include Family at Saltimbanques 1905, Gertrude Stein 1905-06 and Two Nudes 1906.
As Picasso moved up in life, he became intensely possessive. Women became properties he could own and discard at willy-nilly. Unable to contain his domineering attitudes, Fernande left him for an Italian painter in 1912. As payback, Picasso started dating Marcelle Humbert, one of Fernande’s best friends. He also had affairs with other women, including Gaby, a woman he depicted in a series of intimate painting and sketches.
Year after year, Picasso’s creative instinct blossomed, manifesting in uniquely divergent ways. His restless quest for creative excellence was bearing fruit. In 1907, Picasso was into Cubism. In Cubism, objects are deconstructed into basic geometric shapes before been reconstructed to reflect multiple, simultaneous view points. The 3-D like effect of Cubism was a radical art manifestation of the period.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is perhaps the most famous of Picasso’s cubist era. It depicts five nude prostitute rendered with sharp geometric features. Created with dominantly pink hues with splotch of blues, greens and grays, the angular and disjointed shape of the women was not a tribute to their femininity. The painting was both revolutionary and controversial at the same time. George Braque, a colleague of Pablo Picasso, did not hide his astonishment when he saw the painting: “It made me feel as if someone was drinking gasoline and spitting fire,” he said. Braque soon became an apostle of Cubism.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was the precursor to Cubism. Art historians and critics categorized it as “Analytic Cubist”. Other works in this category include Three Women 1907, Bread and Fruit Dish on a Table 1909, and Girl with Mandolin 1910. Two years after Analytic Cubism, Picasso expanded his oeuvre to what is today known as “Synthetic Cubism”, a style that involved merging tiny individual fragments of an object to create vast collages. Artworks from this period include Still Life with Chair Caning 1912, Card Player 1913-14 and Three Musicians 1921.
At a moment in his art career, Picasso returned to the classic period. This was after the outbreak of World War I. Like his Blue Period, Pablo Picasso was depressed and somber. The killing and disregard for human life forced him back to Realism. Between 1918 and 1927, Picasso shifted from experimentation and began depicting the reality of events around him. One of the emotive artworks from this period is Three Women at the Spring 1921. It depicts three women who are in a conversation. From their facial expressions and body language, it is clear these women are unhappy and restless. Other important artworks from this period include Two Women Running on the Beach/The Race 1922 and The Pipes of Pan 1923.
The surreal experience of war and the need to adequately express the traumatic episodes of that period gave Picasso the vigor to explore new forms of expressions. Starting from 1927, he began to embrace a new philosophical and cultural movement known as Surrealism. An offshoot Dadaism, Surrealism led by Andre Breton, brought together poets, writers and artists.
Surrealism was a concept that transcended reality in the journey to a dream-like state. Picasso embraced Surrealism soon after meeting Andre Breton. Unlike other Surrealists who allowed the subconscious to express itself through their works, however, Picasso saw Surrealism as means of expressing his deepest fears and reality. For him, it presented an opportunity to articulate his thoughts about the devastation and horrors of war.
In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Picasso completed Guernica, a surreal painting that is deemed the greatest painting of all time. He created the painting after bearing witness to the devastating aerial attack on the Basque town of Guernica on April 26, 1937. Carried out by German bombers supporting Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces, the attack killed many people and infuriated Picasso. The bombing and the inhumanity of war led to the painting of Guernica.
Painted in black, white and grays, Guernica exposes the horrors of war. This oil on canvas painting measuring 137.4 in × 305.5 is Picasso’s response to war in the 20th century. The callous destruction of life and property made him very restless. Guernica features a bull, a gored horse and several human-like figures in various states of anguish and terror. Eyes and mouths wide open, their cries of pain and horror can still be heard miles away as they strove to escape the agony of war.
Death is everywhere in Guernica. Fragmented, decapitated and dismembered bodies litter the painting. Although the subject was Spanish Civil war that lasted from 1936 to 1939, Guernica vividly captures the horrors of war. When it was exhibited at the Spanish Pavilion during the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, many people were left in awe. The expressiveness of Picasso’s depiction makes it one of the most moving and powerful anti-war paintings in history.
Picasso’s outstanding career brought him great fame. Even as he won accolades, his restless pursuit of artistic greatness continued. An international celebrity, Pablo Picasso was the darling of the media. In later years, however, Picasso became highly political. As a consequence of World War II, he openly expressed his political thoughts and joined the Communist Party. Twice he was honored by the Party with the International Lenin Peace Prize. He was first bestowed with the honor in 1950 and again in 1961.
Picasso’s popularity and political inclination took focus away from his art. Many people did not notice that the brilliance that epitomized his Cubism days had dwindled. His paintings became simple, and characterized by childlike imagery and crude technique. Bemused as some critics were, Picasso found a way to give credence and validity to his new approach to painting: “When I was as old as these children, I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them,” he said as he emerged from an exhibition of drawings by children.
Picasso continued to paint even in his old age. One of the most telling works of that period is Self Portrait Facing Death. Using pencil and crayon, he expressed a premonition of his own demise. With a green face and pink hair, this autobiographical portrait drawn with greater reference to the African mask, Picasso places himself on the threshold of life and spirituality. The large eyes reveal fear and the courage of a man in transition to a spiritual being.
On April 8, 1973, a year after creating the Self Portrait Facing Death, Picasso died in Mougins, France. He left behind 25,000 original works, more than any other artist in history. These works continue to generate discussions among art historians and art lovers. The works show influences of many artists that Picasso met and studied. They include Paul Cézanne, El Greco, Edgar Degas, Georges Seurat, Diego Velázquez, Eugène Delacroix, Francisco Goya among many other. As with his women, Picasso was also constantly changing his style based on immediate influences and situation. His works show influences of impressionism, expressionism, symbolism, African art, Rococo and many others. At the core of these changes, however, was artistic excellence and the constant need for self expression.