Pablo Picasso

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: The most prolific and famous artist of his time, Picasso was crucial to the development of modern art. He was an inventor of cubism and one of the prime practitioners of academic realism, Postimpressionism, art nouveau, expressionism, Fauvism, abstract expressionism, Surrealism, and Futurism. A skilled craftsman, he was the master of many mediums.

Early Life

Pablo Ruiz Picasso first learned how to draw from his father, José Ruiz Blasco, an art teacher and curator of the local museum. Don José was also a skilled painter, and he recognized early that his son possessed considerable artistic talent, potentially vaster than his own. As an old school pedagogue, he saw to it that Pablo became well grounded in the classical style of art, insisting that he copy the works of the masters with meticulous fidelity and pay close attention to the traditional laws of proportion and harmony of color. So formidable a draftsman did Pablo become that Don José abandoned his own painting and gave his son all of his materials. Pablo was then only thirteen years old.

In 1895, the family moved to Barcelona, where Pablo’s father was to teach at the local School of Fine Arts and where he had his son enrolled to perfect his skills. Pablo stayed at his father’s school for two years and was then sent to continue his studies in the more prestigious Royal Academy of San Fernando at Madrid. Yet Pablo’s developing personal style and growing professional confidence put him increasingly at odds with the strictures of art currently taught by his hidebound professors. Taking advantage of a brief illness, he quit the Madrid academy to return to Barcelona.

The art scene in Barcelona was then in the throes of a modernist revolution, just the sort of atmosphere to stimulate experimentation and independence. Despite such positive reinforcement, Pablo still felt constrained. He wanted to leave, to go to London, and he persuaded his father to come up with the money. On the journey to Great Britain, however, he stopped off in Paris. The city so impressed him that he decided to go no farther. Although he returned to Spain from time to time, the French capital henceforth became his home and continued to be so during the most creative periods of his life. At this time, he definitively adopted his mother’s maiden name as his own, Picasso being less common than Ruiz. The change also dramatically symbolized the artistic break that he was making with the academic and, for him, stultifying artistic values of his father.

This initial association with Paris, and with it a deeper exposure to the works of Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, led Picasso to modify his artistic style. He eliminated the bright colors from his palette and began painting in monochromatic blue. At the same time, he exchanged his carefully modeled figures for flatter, more solid surfaces. The Blue Period—prompted by the suicide of a friend—is appropriately one of deep melancholy in which Picasso showed his compassion for the Paris poor, its downcast and destitute. To emphasize this sense of desolation, Picasso elongated the bodies of his subjects, making them bony and angular in the style of El Greco, thereby accentuating their condition of hopelessness.

Picasso, however, could not remain faithful to any one style for long. By 1904, his mood had changed; he had fallen in love for the first time in his life, and, abandoning his cold colors, he now used warmer, more romantic tones. His subject matter also became more joyful, as revealed in a series of paintings of circus performers. These works are painted with great skill and sensitivity and with more dimensionality than those of his previous period. Yet soon this Rose Period also disappeared. During a visit to Spain, he used more earth colors. His figures became more classically ponderous, perhaps more naïve, in their reflection of prehistoric art. These paintings exude a strong, sensual vitality. The twenty-four-year-old Picasso seemingly had established himself in a style that he might exploit for years to come. He was on the verge, however, of a sudden change in direction that would lay the foundations of modern art.

Life’s Work

During the last half of the nineteenth century, French artists had discovered new ways of expression, either by depicting light through color or by distorting perspective to transform shape and form. Picasso had been influenced by these new directions but until 1906 had yet to go beyond them. In that year, however, he began working on a canvas that would end any associations with the traditional spatial organization of the past. In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (the young ladies of Avignon), painted on a canvas nearly eight feet square, he showed the distorted anatomy of five nude women in a jarring assemblage of disorderly facets, triangular and rectangular wedges, and other confusing geometric shapes. Two of the figures are wearing hideous African-like masks. The other three have eyes on different levels and noses jutting out like pieces of architecture. The painting has no rational focus of attention, the viewer being forced to look everywhere as if at pieces of broken glass. Yet Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is now recognized as the first true painting of the twentieth century. When Picasso showed the painting to his friends, however—none of whom was exactly a rustic when it came to accepting new ideas—the reaction was almost universally negative. As a result, Picasso rolled up the canvas and refused to exhibit it publicly, thereby removing its direct influence on the course of the modern movement. Nevertheless, it had firmly established Picasso’s new artistic direction,...

(The entire section is 2358 words.)