The Image of the Artist
Picasso was that rare thing in history, an artist of cultic
presence, a secular manifestation of the spirit, a genuinely
commanding phenomenon. Picasso's name and work are synonymous with
20th-century art. They are the very definition of our era's artistic
endeavour. This was already the case in his own lifetime; and by now
he has long since become a myth, a legend for the age of mass media.
Because this is so, Picasso's image as artist is one of infinite
diversity. Many were those who played a part in his life, and many
were those who left records. The abundance of documents relating to
his life and work, and above all Picasso's own statements, permit us
access to his art.' And yet the vast quantity of biographical material
is a mere drop compared with the ocean of analyses, critiques, studies
and theses concerning his work that has been pouring steadily out for
decades. As in the case of other artists, commentaries and exhibition
notes accompanied his work from the outset. But as awareness of
Picasso's distinctive importance grew, so too did the tidal wave of
published statements on his work.
Nowadays it is no longer unusual for an entire museum to be devoted
to the work of a major artist. But three are devoted to Picasso's: in
Antibes, in Barcelona, and in Paris. And the first two of these were
created during the artist's lifetime. Picasso was not only significant
and famous, he was also popular in the extreme -because his work
seemed the very epitome of what people thought was modern in the
visual arts. On the one hand, he turned his back on tradition and
deconstructed images of natural form. On the other hand, he
deliberately and randomly shifted the goalposts of visual creation. In
a word, the bizarrely denatured forms that are characteristic of
modern art are fully present in Picasso's work.
This has come to mean that Picasso's creations are not merely part
of the sum total of 20th-century art, but rather are seen as its
icons. "Guernica", for instance, is unquestionably the
most famous modern painting, worldwide, matched as an art classic only
by works such as Leonardo's "Mona Lisa" or Rembrandt's "Night Watch".
The bombing of Guernica, thanks to Picasso, came to define the horror
of modern war, the inhumanity of man to his fellow man. And, uniquely
in modern art, "Guernica" has exerted a quite remarkable influence on younger artists such as
the American pop artist Peter Saul or the political artists of the
Spanish group "Equipo Cronica" Their new versions and reworkings show
how a single work can provide the matrix in which a sense of the
"Zeitgeist" is popularly expressed. Thus in the early 1950s the
portraits Picasso painted of a young girl, Sylvette David, transformed
the innocent pony-tail, the teenage girl's hair-style of the day, into
the very emblem of an epoch.
Not till Andy Warhol did his serigraphs of the famous (Marilyn
Monroe, J. F. Kennedy, or Elvis Presley) were artworks again to make
such an impact. No other 20th-century artist achieved Picasso's
astounding omnipresence, not merely through his art but in his own
right. The early painting "Child Holding a Dove" is a
two-dimensional, stylized childish pose; but once the image was
reproduced in millions it came to stand for naive grace and innocence.
Indeed, it became so familiar that it (and its creator) entered the colourful world of comics.
And when the French film director Frangois Truffaut made his classic
"Jules et Jim" in 1961, it was Picasso's pictures he chose as aptest
to signal the cultural habitat of the European intellectual before the
Second World War. Significant sequences in the film show Picasso
reproductions behind the protagonists.
If Picasso's work acquired this kind of emblematic function, so too
did the artist himself, as far as his contemporaries were concerned.
It was only to be expected, then, that just a few years after his
death he would be made the titular hero of a satirical film about
artistic and political trends in the 20th century, "The Adventures of
Picasso." Precisely because Picasso was equated with modern art per
se, all the extremes of public responses were unloaded upon him, at
every stage in his career. When the National Gallery in London
organized the first major post-war Picasso show in England, one
newspaper described him as a great artist, a poet, a genius whose
creations were inspired by the profoundest of dreams, while another
damned his art as the work of the devil, dismissed piggy-nosed
portraits as the imaginings of a schizophrenic, and declared that such
work should not be publicly exhibited in England.
Both extremes are the product of cliches and widely shared
preconceptions. Inevitably the dismissal reminds us of the abuse the
Nazis heaped on art they considered "degenerate". Equally, though, the
praise is nothing but petty phrase-mongering, and tells us nothing of
Picasso's success in realizing his intentions, or of his sheer skill.
Though these views appear irreconcilable, there is less of a polarity
than we might first think; in fact, they share a certain common
ground. If the foes of modern art condemn it as the work of lunatics
and would ban it if they had a say in the matter, its enthusiastic
advocates emphasize what seems inspired and supposedly irrational,
inaccessible to cool reason; and in both cases something beyond the
everyday experience of the senses is taken to be the final source of creativity. At a very early stage, Picasso
haters and lovers alike saw his talent as something demonic. One
American critic called him the "devil incarnate" in 1910; and the "New
York Times", generally a restrained and proper paper, gnashed that he
was the very devil and that his audacity was breathtaking, when his
first American exhibition was held in Alfred Stieglitz's Photo
Secession Gallery in New York in 1911. Not many years later, German
critics (and not even the worst) were busy perpetuating the usual
equation of visual deconstruction with insanity, viewing Picasso
himself as a neurotic and pithily announcing: "People are no longer
locked away in asylums. Nowadays they found Cubism."
This is how legends are made; and, to this day, Picasso seems more the
stuff of myth than a flesh-and-blood historical person. He himself, of
course, must share the blame.
Many who knew him in the early days in Paris were quick to detect the artistic energy,
creative depth and autonomous will of his art in the artist too.
Picasso was a striking person, a stocky, robust Spaniard who
invariably made an impression. He was all charisma and
self-confidence. With his hair tumbling across his forehead and his
intense gaze, his attitude became a pose. Everyone who photographed
Picasso stressed his demonic side,"' and in doing so, of course,
merely repeated what he had proclaimed to be the case: for it was a
demonic Picasso who appeared in a number of early self-portraits. From the outset, fellow-painters and
critics and collectors saw Picasso in ways he himself dictated.
Self-Portrait "Yo Picasso"
Self-Portrait with Cloak
Self-Portrait with a Palette
Self-Portrait at the Age of 36
This has remained the case to the present day. Picasso's personal
appearance, his style of life, his wilfulness, and his relations with
women (attesting his vitality in the eyes of many), have provided irresistible media bait. In 1955, Georges Clouzot made a lengthy
documentary of the artist at work, and the journalists had a field day
celebrating Picasso as a kind of superman: "Summer 1955, and the
cameras are rolling in the Victorine studios at Nice . . . Picasso, in
shorts and bare to the waist, his torso tanned, his feet in slippers,
strides into the bright daylight: a living bronze god come down off
his pedestal, mighty, majestic, he belongs to all ages, to primitive
cultures and to future times light years away. Depending on how the
light falls on his head, his powerful chest or his sturdy legs, he can
look like a witch doctor or a Roman emperor. The unintentional humour
of comparisons such as these nicely illustrates the image of Picasso
that was then widely taken for granted. At a time when most people
were glad if they could draw their pensions in peace and quiet, a
Picasso rampant wearing a sporty turtle-neck jumper or beach clothes
or in pugilist pose, stripped to the waist, was a conspicuous, dynamic
exception to the rule.
Child Holding a Dove
But none of this would have happened without his art, which to this
day resists easy access. The sheer size of his output is daunting.
There are over ten thousand paintings alone. Then there are great
numbers of sketches and drawings. There are printed graphics. There
are ceramics and sculptures." During his own lifetime, Picasso kept
for himself a number of his works that he considered important, and some of these now constitute the core of the Musee
Picasso's collection in Paris. Large quantities of work left at his
death have been examined and classified; although no one yet has a
full grasp of his entire ceuvre, some help is to hand. The 34-vol-ume
catalogue of Picasso's work, compiled by Christian Zervos and
published between 1942 and 1978, while far from complete reproduces
over 16,000 works. Other catalogues document over 600 sculptures and
200-plus ceramic works;
they too are incomplete. For decades, major shows throughout the
world have not only presented Picasso's work to an amazed public but
have also laid the foundation of an understanding of his art."
Born on 2.0 October 1881 in Malaga, the son of a painter and art
teacher, Picasso started to draw and paint at the age of nine. His
father guided him, and later he was professionally trained at Corunna,
Barcelona and Madrid. At the age of fifteen he was already
successfully taking part in exhibitions. In 1898, disappointed by
academic teachings, he gave up his studies and set about making a name
for himself in artistic circles in Barcelona, and then in Paris. By
1901 he had a Paris show in the Galerie Vollard almost to himself,
sharing it with another Basque; he sold 15 of his 65 paintings and
drawings before the exhibition had even opened.
The fact that a foreign newcomer could make so rapid an impression speaks volumes about the turn-of-the-century art market.
But it also implies a great deal about the artist's energy and
self-assurance. In both his early periods, Picasso was influenced by
19th-century academic approaches, and characteristically reworked art
that was currently in vogue or had come back into fashion. In 1901/02,
three years after taking the plunge into the uncertain life of an
artist, Picasso established not so much a style of his own as a style
that was identifiably his and thus commercially useful. This marked
the outset of the Blue and Rose Periods, which lasted till 1906 and
have remained the public's favourites to this day. The year 1906 was
both a caesura and a transition. Once again Picasso was trying out new
forms; and, just as he was achieving recognition, he abandoned the
path he had first chosen to take.
In the Blue and Rose Periods, form and content had seemed to
harmonize. Now Picasso tackled form alone, at a radical level. In the
Blue and Rose Periods, stylized forms had been given symbolic values
fitting the portrayal of the old and lonely, of the poor and hungry,
of beggars. In putting the earlier monochrome approach aside, the
colourful world of circus artistes and harlequins in the Rose Period
betrayed nothing of Picasso's creative emotion at that date.
Melancholy lay draped over the unmerry masquerade like a veil.
Vase with Flowers
Composition with a Skull
Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass
The Open Book
Bowl of Fruit and Guitar
In 1906 warm reddish-brown tones continued to be emphasized, but
now spatial forms became Picasso's dominant concern. The new work centred upon heavy objects rendered geometrically, and
must be seen as a preliminary phase leading up to the great experiment
of 1907. Picasso made his breakthrough in "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon", achieving a new formal idiom and pointing the way for much
of Modernist art. Together with Georges Braque, a younger artist, he
established Cubism, the first radically new artistic style of the 20th
century. Initially they borrowed the convention of using simplified
geometrical forms (hence the name Cubism), arranging them loosely on
the surface of the composition without any attempt at unified spatial
depth. Around 1910 they moved on to analytical Cubism, in which the
spatial and line qualities of the subjects portrayed extend
autonomously in parallel and counterpoint across the composition.
Pictures thus created look like an agitated juxtaposition of
"Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"
In the third and final phase, post-1912, which was known as
synthetic Cubism, Picasso and Braque achived compacted and autonomous structures. Questions of a material or spatial nature
became the subjects of their works: using materials that often lay
ready to hand, such as newspaper, wood, sand and so forth, they
established a new concept of the visual image. Cubism made Picasso
internationally famous and lodged him in the history of art. Though he
had changed modern art, Picasso himself did not remain in a rut, much
to the admiration of his friends, patrons and advocates; and in 1916 he surprised everyone by returning to
conventional figural and spatial values, painting stylized,
monumental, proportionally random figures that made a classical
From about 1924 a lengthy period set in which can best be described
as a synthesis of the two formal extremes of his ceuvre to date. The
Cubist fracturing of the image was married to clearer, more
concentrated spatial zones and linear structures. This movement
culminated in his most famous work, "Guernica", painted in 1937 for
the rightful republican government in Spain, as a protest against
The formal idiom Picasso had now evolved was to remain at the core
of his work till his death. In his later phases he reworked important
works by earlier artists, to a greater or lesser extent. He further
developed his own methods of three-dimensional work, and branched out
into new areas, such as ceramics.
To review Picasso's evolution in this way is to present an
essentially familiar view of an unarguably major artist. After the
years spent learning the craft come the periods of experiment and of
gradually locating a personal style. Following an authoritative period
of mature mastery comes a late period which essentially plays
variations on familiar themes. But if we look more closely at
Picasso's case we begin to have our doubts. In his so-called classical
period, Picasso rendered the human image in monumental fashion; but at
the same time he was painting works that continued the line of
synthetic Cubism, with all its deconstruction and indeed destruction
of that selfsame human image. Surely this is an inconsistency?
These different works do still reveal an artist using his own
artistic methods with complete assurance. They have that in common. In
other cases, though, not even that common ground can be established.
If we look at Picasso's early studies, done while he was being taught,
they are clearly the work of a talented pupil. At the age of twelve or thirteen his drawings of plaster-cast figures strikingly
had the contoured depth and volume that was required. But the fourth of his sketches done on 1 May 1937
betrays none of this facility. Scrawled outlines sketch an irregular
head, neck, rump and legs for the horse. There is little evidence for
any well-planned distinction between the essential and unnecessary.
All four legs and both eyes, though they would not be visible in a
perspective rendering of a side view, are there to be seen. In other
words, the drawing seems more a child's drawing than anything else.
Yet it would be wrong to draw overhasty conclusions.
Still Life on a Chest of Drawers
Picasso, then aged 56, was not entering a premature second
childhood: the sketch was one of many that served to prepare his great
work "Guernica", done when he was at the height of his powers.
This poses a problem. Usual ways of examining an artist's creative
characteristics do not allow for the fact that the urge to record a
fleeting inspiration may lead him to forget the rules he has long
since mastered and to relapse into a pre-training phase. In fact,
people generally assume that mastery (and certainly genius) implies
absolutely perfect technical command. In Picasso's case there is a
discontinuity; indeed, his work is full of discontinuities. For it is
far from simple to trace the meaning of his subjects, intentions, and
Bust of a Woman
Reclining Female Nude with Starry Sky
Picasso's Cubist paintings and sculptures, and the late series of variations on Old Master paintings, alike show him aiming at
absolute artistic autonomy of means. References to an objective world
outside that of the artwork are subsidiary or indeed entirely
immaterial. This, it would seem, is the very core of Picasso's art. It
is this that made him so famous - and so controversial.
This may be true, but equally it is at variance with the facts; for
Picasso's art was also, and to at least the same degree, an art of
traditional pictorial concerns, from start to finish. We might
instance his persistent, even stubborn adherence to the historical
painting, a form considered superseded in 20th-century art. If the
sixteen-year-old painted the allegorical "Science and Charity"in 1897, we need only recall prevailing ideas on art in Spain
at the time, and the training the young Picasso was receiving. And in
1903, in the most important painting of his Blue Period, "La Vie
(Life)", Picasso transformed the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas into an allegorical scene: this, if we choose, we can view
as a product of strong emotion, a late expression of his training. But
"Guernica" too, much later, treats a real event in the form of a
symbolic history painting. Similarly in "The Charnel House"
and "Massacre in Korea", specific wars in 1945 and 1951,
not war as an abstract universal, prompt attempts to deal with exact
historical subjects. And historical painting is by no means the only
area in which Picasso pursued verifiable subject matter. His interest
in formal games-playing was accompanied by an equally strong lifelong
interest in certain subjects: painter and model, circus artistes and
harlequins, lovers, mother and child, bullfights. His treatment of these subjects
persisted as late as the etchings from his final years.
Science and Charity
La Vie (Life)
The Charnel House
Massacre in Korea
But no single, unified, overall picture emerges. Does this imply
that Picasso's art was exclusively centred upon himself? That it had
no real concerns? This must be disputed. What is true is that
conventional methods of analysis cannot gain a purchase on his art.
This explains the widely held and oft repeated claim that Picasso was
basically a chameleon personality whose true distinguishing quality
was that he had no true distinguishing quality - apart from a perfect grasp of artistic means, a childlike lack of conscious
intent, an infinite curiosity and interest in experiment, together
with a mulish persistence and unusual energy. Picasso's style, in this
view, consists in his command of every available style.
This is too simple. In making Picasso both all and nothing, this
interpretation capitulates before any challenge, substitutes anecdotes
for analysis, and gives us statistics instead of evaluation. The
unusual lifelong devotion implied in Picasso's more-than-lifesize
artistic output demands to be taken seriously. This means looking with
a critical eye, seeing the weaknesses along with the strengths, and so
making Picasso's real greatness comprehensible. Many works of
criticism have been devoted to particular areas of Picasso's creative
work, and have extended our understanding in important ways. Every age
and every generation, however, will seek a new approach of its own to
Picasso's art, will want a Picasso of its own. This book has been
written for our own time. It is an attempt to trace a life lived in
the service of art, to identify what is universal in the sheer
copiousness of the unique.
Two Dressed Models and a Sculpture of a Head
Two Catalan Drinkers
Faun Unveiling a Woman