Spanish Icons: Pablo Picasso

Picasso hits Paris

When the Picasso family moved to Barcelona in 1895, their teenage maestro Pablo paddled happily in the creative fount of Catalan Modernisme. He was already an accomplished artist but the technically astute, representational paintings of his formative years did little to suggest that here was the progressive colossus of 20th century art.

However, his work evolved rapidly. By 1900, aged 19, he was in Paris soaking up the style of Van Gogh, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec, regurgitating bits of each in his Blue Period of beggars and prostitutes that also drew on the social sensitivities found in Isidro Nonell’s work. Having bounced between Paris and Barcelona for a few years, in 1904 Picasso settled more permanently in the French capital.

Still a poor, struggling artist, he entered his Rose Period, painting unsmiling circus folk, this time in pinkish hues. Again, his figurative work echoed the likes of Lautrec and Gauguin.

Picasso unveils Cubism

Then, in 1907, everything changed. Inspired by an unlikely cocktail of ancient Iberian art, ‘primitive’ African sculpture and the post-Impressionists, Picasso unveiled Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The influences of post-Impressionism, notably Cezanne, can be seen in the vision of a Barcelonan brothel, but here, for the first time, Picasso also connects to a new style, Cubism. The painting has duly been dubbed the first great work of modern art.

Working alongside Frenchman Georges Braque in Montmartre, Picasso rapidly developed the Cubist style. They began with Analytical Cubism, of which Picasso’s Femme aux poires (Fernande) (1909) is a fine, blocky example, and soon evolved Synthetic Cubism, introducing collage to their painting. Nature morte à la chaise cannée (1912) examples Picasso’s use of new materials in his work, containing as it does a scrap of old cane chair.

Picasso kept the Cubism up for the rest of his long life, but he was an artistic chameleon, rummaging restlessly through different genres to create some of the most memorable art of the 20th century.

In the early 1920s he entered a Neoclassical phase, painting sculptural, fleshy figures in a relatively traditional style. Yet these representational efforts were always slotted in alongside more radical Cubist work. Indeed, Les trois musiciens (1921) from this period is often considered the apotheosis of Cubism.

Later in the decade, pinheaded, large-breasted women and segmented figures announced Picasso’s foray into Surrealism. In 1937 he painted his most famous work: Guernica, with its clawing, screaming and broken figures, reveals Picasso’s horror at the bombing of a Basque town in the Spanish Civil War.

In his later years Picasso painted his own versions of established masterpieces by the likes of Velázquez, Manet and Rembrandt. Neither his variety nor his admirable work ethic slackened – he died, aged 91, in 1973, leaving thousands of works of art behind.

What was Picasso trying to achieve with Cubism?

The trouble with conventional painting was that, more or less, it copied what the artist could physically see. Picasso asked how an object appeared in the mind? How is it constructed? What bits do you see? How is it going to feel? Only by including these varied viewpoints, Picasso suggested, could you truly represent the subject on canvas. So he painted a face, a violin or a vase of flowers from the angles that his imagination conjured when he thought of those things. Using, in particular, the example of Cezanne, these images were constructed of the simplest shapes – cones, spheres and cylinders.

Picasso’s tough love

Picasso loved the ladies. He was married twice, had numerous affairs and fathered four children by three different women. The last of his children, Paloma, now a fashion designer, was born in 1949 when Pablo was pushing 70. He had a reputation as a heartless lover, emotionally and sometimes physically abusing a series of young muses that were rapidly discarded.

“Bad artists copy, good artists steal.”

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