Picasso is probably the most important artist of the 20th century. He was born in Malaga in Spain in 1881 and grew up in Barcelona. He had a very long and successful career as an artist living until the age of 92. His father, an art teacher taught him to draw from a very early age; in fact, there are stories of his father shooting a pigeon and Picasso drawing it wonderfully at the age of five. Picasso’s first exhibition came at the age of 16, before he moved to Paris where he settled in 1904. Here he became friendly with the artist Georges Braque, with whom he later developed Cubism, and writers Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire.
Move to Paris
In Paris he developed numerous styles of painting one, known as the Blue Period, which dates from 1901 to 1904. It be recognised by the predominantly blue colour of the paintings. The subjects of the paintings are often outcasts, beggars, and prostitutes, a profound subject matter for someone so young. Picasso also created a lot of sculptures around this time.
The Blue Period came to an end in 1904 when Picasso fell in love with Fernande Olivier. As a result, the colours of his paintings brightened, with lots of pinks and beiges, light blues, and red in his work. The paintings produced during this time are collectively grouped under the term, The Rose Period. His subject matter was dominated by circus people, harlequins, and clowns, all of whom seem to be mute and strangely inactive. His paintings of this time show that he was much happier with himself and his work.
In 1907 Picasso discovered African art after seeing sculptures from Africa in an exhibition suggested to him by Matisse. Picasso noticed how simply they were carved and experimented with the same ideas in his paintings. He looked at objects in his paintings (figures, tables, vases, backgrounds) as just a collection of shapes that he could rearrange. He wanted to produce paintings from different viewpoints, just like we see when we walk around a sculpture. There strange paintings became known as Cubism. Perhaps the most famous was Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a group of naked women, which he painted in 1907.
Almost every famous painter of the time began to experiment with Cubism consequently, Picasso and his friend, the artist Georges Braque with who he often worked, became very famous. In New York in 1913 the Americans were introduced to this new style of painting in a famous exhibition called the Armory Show – it was a sensational success.
Picasso was always looking for new ways to paint and experiment with his art. In his still life paintings of 1912, he painted snippets of newspaper, cigarette packets and letters as well as other objects. He soon realised it would be much quicker and just as effective, if he stuck these objects to his paintings. As a result, he invented Collage.
From 1914 onwards, until well into the 1920’s he worked on stage sets and costumes for the Ballet Russe, a ballet company that had been based in Italy. During the 1920’s he abandoned his Cubist style of painting for a more realistic, classical style. His figures were no longer cut up into shapes, as they had been in his Cubist phase, they were painted large and rounded and looked as though they originated in Ancient Greece.
During the 1930’s he dabbled with Surrealism, where the ideas for paintings are inspired by dreams and nightmares. In January 1937, the Republican government of Spain asked Picasso to paint a mural for the Spanish pavilion at the world exposition in Paris. He painted ‘Guernica’, which is regarded as his greatest painting. The painting records the bombing and total destruction of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil war. It is a huge and very controversial picture that expresses the great revulsion of the horrors, man can wreak upon his fellow man. A grieving woman dominates the centre of the painting together with a wounded screaming horse. They are illuminated by a harsh light and painted in blacks, whites and greys. See my Picasso video for more details about ‘Guernica’.
Lovers and Old Masters
In Picasso’s later years he turned enthusiastically to creating sculpture, pottery, and print-making. He also preoccupied himself with a series of mistresses and girlfriends. Interestingly, a change in style in his work would often coincide with his expression his love for each new lover. Towards the end of his life, Picasso created his own versions of paintings by old masters like Diego Velazquez. Some of these paintings look quite childlike in execution, but don’t be fooled by this. Picasso was searching for that uninhibited approach and sheer imaginative creativity a young child brings to its own work.
“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child”.
Throughout his life, Picasso had the ability to add that “unquenchable spark of utter genius” to almost everything he produced. Without doubt, Picasso is one of the most influential, original and creative artists the world has seen.