Picasso was a Spanish painter, draughtsman, and sculptor. He is one of the most recognized figures in 20th-century art. He is best known
for co-founding the Cubist movement and for the wide variety of styles
embodied in his work. Among his most famous works are the proto-Cubist
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) and Guernica (1937), his portrayal of
the German bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.
Picasso demonstrated uncanny artistic talent
in his early years, painting in a realistic manner through his
childhood and adolescence; during the first decade of the twentieth
century his style changed as he experimented with different theories,
techniques, and ideas. Picasso creativity manifested itself in numerous
mediums, including oil paintings,
sculpture, drawing, and architecture. His revolutionary artistic
accomplishments brought him universal renown and immense fortunes
throughout his life, making him the best-known figure in twentieth
To say that Pablo Picasso dominated Western art
in the 20th century is, by now, the merest commonplace. Before his 50th
birthday, the little Spaniard from Malaga had become the very prototype
of the modern artist as public figure. No painter before him had had a
mass audience in his own lifetime. The total public for Titian in the
16th century or Velazquez in the 17th was probably no more than a few
thousand people--though that included most of the crowned heads,
nobility and intelligentsia of Europe. Picasso's audience--meaning
people who had heard of him and seen his work, at least in
reproduction--was in the tens, possibly hundreds, of millions. He and
his work were the subjects of unending analysis, gossip, dislike,
adoration and rumor.
He was a superstitious, sarcastic man, sometimes
rotten to his children, often beastly to his women. He had contempt for
women artists. His famous remark about women being "goddesses or
doormats" has rendered him odious to feminists, but women tended to walk
into both roles open-eyed and eagerly, for his charm was legendary.
Whole cultural industries derived from his much mythologized virility.
He was the Minotaur in a canvas-and-paper labyrinth of his own
He was also politically lucky. Though to Nazis
his work was the epitome of "degenerate art," his fame protected him
during the German occupation of Paris, where he lived; and after the
war, when artists and writers were thought disgraced by the slightest
affiliation with Nazism or fascism, Picasso gave enthusiastic
endorsement to Joseph Stalin, a mass murderer on a scale far beyond
Hitler's, and scarcely received a word of criticism for it, even in cold
No painter or sculptor, not even Michelangelo,
had been as famous as this in his own lifetime. And it is quite possible
that none ever will be again, now that the mandate to set forth social
meaning, to articulate myth and generate widely memorable images has
been so largely transferred from oil paintings and sculpture to other
media: photography, movies, television. Though Marcel Duchamp, that
cunning old fox of conceptual irony, has certainly had more influence on
nominally vanguard art over the past 30 years than Picasso, the
Spaniard was the last great beneficiary of the belief that the language
of oil paintings and sculpture really mattered to people other than
their devotees. And he was the first artist to enjoy the obsessive
attention of mass media. He stood at the intersection of these two
worlds. If that had not been so, his restless changes of style, his
constant pushing of the envelope, would not have created such
controversy--and thus such celebrity.
In today's art world, a place without living
culture heroes, you can't even imagine such a protean monster arising.
His output was vast. This is not a virtue in itself--only a few oil
paintings by Vermeer survive, and fewer still by the brothers Van Eyck,
but they are as firmly lodged in history as Picasso ever was or will be.
Still, Picasso's oeuvre filled the world, and he left permanent marks
on every discipline he entered. His work expanded fractally, one image
breeding new clusters of others, right up to his death.
Moreover, he was the artist with whom virtually
every other artist had to reckon, and there was scarcely a 20th century
movement that he didn't inspire, contribute to or--in the case of
Cubism, which, in one of art history's great collaborations, he
co-invented with Georges Braque
- beget. The exception, since Picasso never painted an abstract picture
in his life, was abstract art; but even there his handprints lay
everywhere--one obvious example being his effect on the early work of
American Abstract Expressionist painters, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, among others.
Much of the story of modern sculpture is bound
up with welding and assembling images from sheet metal, rather than
modeling in clay, casting in bronze or carving in wood; and this
tradition of the open constructed form rather than solid mass arose from
one small guitar that Picasso snipped and joined out of tin in 1912. If
collage--the gluing of previously unrelated things and images on a flat
surface--became a basic mode of modern art, that too was due to
Picasso's Cubist collaboration with Braque. He was never a member of the
Surrealist group, but in the 1920s and '30s he produced some of the
scariest distortions of the human body and the most violently
irrational, erotic images of Eros and Thanatos ever committed to canvas.
He was not a realist painter/reporter, still less anyone's official
muralist, and yet Guernica remains the most powerful political image in
modern art, rivaled only by some of the Mexican work of Diego Rivera.
Picasso was regarded as a boy genius, but if he
had died before 1906, his 25th year, his mark on 20th century art would
have been slight. The so-called Blue and Rose periods, with their
wistful etiolated figures of beggars and circus folk, are not, despite
their great popularity, much more than pendants to late 19th century
Symbolism. It was the experience of modernity that created his
modernism, and that happened in Paris. There, mass production and
reproduction had come to the forefront of ordinary life: newspapers,
printed labels, the overlay of posters on walls--the dizzily intense
public life of signs, simultaneous, high-speed and layered. This was the
cityscape of Cubism.
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