Pablo Picasso: "The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?"
Throughout his 92 years of life, Pablo Ruiz Picasso helped shape the progression of modern art through the 20th century, perhaps more than any other artist.
Throughout his 92 years of life, Pablo Ruiz Picasso helped shape the progression of modern art through the 20th century, perhaps more than any other artist. He was a master painter but also experimented with sculpture, ceramics, collage, and etchings. His innovative work and startling mix of styles have had an unparalleled impact on modern and contemporary art.
Born in 1881, in Malaga in Southern Spain, he was raised around art. Pablo’s father was an artist, art teacher, and museum curator, and he began teaching his son to draw and paint when he was just seven years old. At 13, he attended Barcelona’s School of Fine Arts, and in 1897, he began studying at Spain’s top art academy, the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. Rather than focus on his formal studies, the young Pablo preferred to spend his time exploring the paintings of Rembrandt, El Greco, Goya, and Valasquez at the Prado Museum, all of whom influenced his later work.
He began painting portraits and natural landscapes, and slowly, his landscapes began to show signs of his early interpretations of modernism and elements of symbolism. Picasso’s work was constantly evolving, along with his mental states, environment, relationships, and life experiences. Visiting one of the many museums around the world dedicated to Picasso’s lifetime of work is to walk through time and witness the evolution of his work and his life.
In 1900, Pablo first moved to Paris for a year. Paris was the epicenter of the Avant-Garde European art world, but life wasn’t so glitzy for the struggling young artist. He lived with the poet and journalist, Max Jacob, and the pair lived on very little, sometimes burning his paintings for warmth.
He soon returned to Madrid and worked with his friend, Francisco Asis Solar, on a magazine called Young Art, with articles and cartoons sympathetic to the poor. This marked the beginning of his Blue Period when his work was awash with dark blues and greys. The Blind Man’s Meal is typical of this period, depicting a dismal scene in dark blues of a blind man clutching a crust of bread and reaching for a jug of water against an unadorned background. He painted The Old Guitarist soon after a close friend’s suicide. This was a melancholy time in which poverty and illness were recurring themes in his work. Art historians believe it was a sign of Pablo’s depression and financial hardship.
From 1904 to 1906, Picasso’s paintings took on a warmer feel with shades of rose, orange, and pinks. This became known as his Rose Period. He was back in France and living in the bohemian artists’ quarters of Paris. His subjects reflected this more jovial environment, with harlequins and clowns appearing in his work.
Around 1907, Picasso began experimenting with primitivism and the angular lines of African art. He was particularly inspired by an African mask he had seen. ‘A head,’ he said, ‘is a matter of eyes, nose, mouth, which can be distributed in any way you like.’ Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is considered the first Cubist painting, with angular lines and a distortion of reality. Picasso worked with George Braque, the only artist to ever have collaborated closely with Picasso. Together they revolutionized modern European art and allowed for infinite possibilities in art. When they began experimenting with collage, adding newsprint or cloth to create texture, they developed the second period of Cubism, Synthetic Cubism.
Picasso’s style shifted significantly between 1919 and 1929. After the end of World War I, he first visited Italy, and the great Italian classic painters must have had an impact. His art became more orderly and these neoclassical pieces, such as Peasants Sleeping, are in stark contrast to his Cubist work.
The 1930s brought the Spanish Civil War. Although Picasso remained in Paris, his famous Guernica is the most political of Picasso’s works. It expresses the dark violence of the time. It was in response to the German bombing of the Basque town, Guernica, and a foreshadowing of the horrors to come in the Second World War. Picasso spent the war in German-occupied Paris and continued to paint as well as write poetry and plays, despite being regularly bothered by German soldiers.
Picasso moved between lovers as he moved through artistic styles. He declared that “love is the greatest refreshment in life,” and he certainly had a taste for younger women who indeed kept him feeling young and ‘refreshed’ and they all influenced his work in some way.
Soon after moving to Paris, Pablo had an affair with a young woman, Madeleine. She was most likely the inspiration for his painting Girl in a Chemise, which marked the end of his Blue Period and began a series of more sensual, provocative pieces. Madeleine became pregnant, but Pablo pushed her to have an abortion. He seemed to express some regret over the decision when paintings of mother and child began to appear around the time the child would have been born.
He had a tempestuous romantic relationship with Fernande Olivier, whom he wooed while she was married. She was the inspiration for his sculpture, Head of a Woman, Fernande. Their seven-year relationship was shaky and ended in 1912 when he left her for another woman.
A Russian ballerina, Olga Khokhlova, became Picasso’s first wife, and they had a son together. Olga disliked Picasso’s cubist style and preferred to be painted in the neo-classical style that Picasso was dabbling in at the time. He was cheating on her with Marie-Therese Walter for many years, and Olga separated from him when she learned Marie was pregnant. However, he refused to divorce her so that she couldn’t access his wealth. Olga hounded her husband and his mistress for years, and he depicted her in paintings as a horse being gauged by a minotaur (believed to represent Picasso himself and the power he held over her).
Picasso met Marie-Therese Walter when he was 44, and she was only 17! When Picasso spotted her outside a Paris department store, he declared, “You have an interesting face. I would like to do a portrait of you. I feel we are going to do great things together.” She soon became his mistress and was the inspiration for some of his most sensual paintings and sculptures.
While still married to Olga and having an affair with Marie-Therese, Picasso began seeing Dora Maar. She was an artist and photographer herself and, although also young, more of an intellectual equal with Picasso. She was more politically active than him and perhaps helped motivate him to paint Guernica, which she photographed at different stages of its creation. She was also the inspiration for Weeping Woman, reflecting the grief they both felt over the horrors of Spanish fascism under Franco.
On one occasion, Dora and Marie crossed paths at Picasso’s studio. When they demanded he choose between them, he suggested they fight it out, and the women ended up wrestling on the floor. Picasso was a great admirer of women, and they inspired much of his art, but he also showed little respect for his long series of lovers.
Françoise Gilot became Picasso’s muse from 1944 to 1953 and the mother of two more of his children. He painted the playful Joi de Vivire during their time together, suggesting the fresh liveliness his relationship with the much younger Francoise brought him. Francoise became fed up with Picasso’s infidelities and eventually left him. Picasso depicts himself as a dark silhouette in The Shadow, perhaps portraying his grief over their separation.
At 79 years old, Picasso married 27-year-old Jaqueline Roque, who would stay with him until he died in 1973. She was one of his greatest muses, and he painted over 70 portraits of her. Jaqueline stayed by his side until the end, and even after his death, she fought to promote his work and helped create the Musée Picasso in Paris. She ended up killing herself a decade after his death, the same fate as Marie-Therese Walter, who hung herself four years after the artist died.
All of Picasso’s relationships were tainted by infidelity and emotional abuse. All also had a significant influence on the artists’ life and art. He played with women as he played with and experimented with various artistic styles, and the two are undoubtedly and inextricably linked
“When I was a child, my mother said to me, ‘If you become a soldier, you’ll be a general. If you become a monk, you’ll end up as the Pope.’ Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso.”
With over 20,000 artworks and a magnitude of diverse styles, it’s impossible to put Picasso’s work into a box, and the same could be said for the artist. Picasso, the man, is a legend of almost mythical proportions. Many criticize him for being a womanizer and a megalomaniac, obsessed with his own power. In fact, his alter-ego, the minotaur, a symbol of male dominance and violence, appears consistently in his paintings and sculptures. It is no doubt that he was an artistic genius, and his innovative, experimental art was undoubtedly a product of his self-confidence. Picasso seemed untethered to convention and had no fear of ostracism, which allowed him the space to produce work that would forever change the progression of modern art.