My rating: 4 of 5 stars
We all know that Art is not truth.
In the Mediterranean city of Málaga, situated on Spain’s golden coast, on October 25, 1881, a little boy was born who would transform the course of art history.
The name written on the boy’s baptism certificate was Pablo Diego Jośe Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Crispiniano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. This last name, Picasso, is not Spanish at all. The boy got it from his mother, who inherited it from her Italian grandfather. And it was this name, among a wealth of possibilities, that young Pablo chose as his signature.
To name Picasso as the most influential painter of the previous century is, by now, to merely state the obvious. He may also have been the most versatile. His young training in the academic style culminated in his realist Science and Charity, a painting worthy of a mature master which Picasso finished at the age of 15. After this classicist apotheosis Picasso moved to Paris, fell in with the Bohemian crowd, and then began his stylistic experiments.
His first major phase was the so-called Blue Period, associated with a melancholic period in Picasso’s own life, in which he used different shades of blue to portray poverty, suffering, and death. The influence of El Greco is, I think, particularly marked during this period, as seen in the elongated forms of his figures. This is easily observable in La Vie, an allegorical work that depicts his friend Carlos Casagemas, who had shot himself a few years before because of his unrequited love for Germaine Pichot. (This tragedy, however, did not stop Picasso from going out with her after that.)
Picasso’s mood seems to have lightened the following year, which led to his Rose Period, a similarly monochromatic exploration of pinkish tones. The subject matter changes here, too, as he paints actors in lieu of beggars, acrobats in lieu of dead poets, and harlequins in lieu of prostitutes. Of these, Young Acrobat on a Ball is one of my favorites, a playful scene that also showcases Picasso’s ability to create solidity, as seen in the statuesque seated man.
Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein—an important early supporter and patron—is also classified among the Rose Period, though her angular visage shows clear signs of his African Period. Like many young artists of the time, Picasso was enthralled by the forms of African masks that France’s colonial conquests were bringing into Paris. Picasso’s use of these forms may seem, nowadays, to be yet another example of the colonial gaze, appropriating traditional art for its connotations of primitivism; but it is worth asking whether his use, however uninformed, of these forms was preferable to the high-handed disdain of the traditional art world.
In any case, the abstract and elongated shapes of the masks proved compatible with the jagged, geometrical landscapes of Cézanne, a combination that led down the road to cubism. Picasso pushed formal simplification far past where Cézanne had left it, however, a process which most famously brought him to paint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
This work—his greatest after Guernica, I think—retains all its raw energy over 100 years after the paint dried. I once had a memorable disagreement with a friend about what it means. She thought that the stony gazes of the women was meant to empower them, depicting their battered humanity. At the time I was inclined to take the opposite view: I interpreted Picasso’s attitude towards the women to be one of fear and suspicion, and the geometrical treatment intentionally dehumanizing. Nowadays I think that both of these views miss the mark. Like all great works of art, >Les Demoiselles d’Avignon resists final analysis. The women are simultaneously dangerous and in danger, wounded and wounding, a victim of society and the victimizers of their clients. (It is speculated that Picasso has a venereal disease when he painted this.)
At first glance the poses of these figures—so stripped of all sensuality, warmth, and appeal—can be interpreted as an ironic comment, a satire of sex; and indeed Matisse thought the painting little more than a lewd joke. But the emotional impact of the work goes far deeper than parody. Picasso has turned the women into weapons, their curves sharpened into knife-edges; their dead stares neither accuse nor invite. The main feeling, for me, is a kind of horrified fear at sex—at what sex does to both men and to women—and at everything sex entails: animal passion, power and subjugation, and the mystery of life and death.
All questions of social commentary and deeper meaning aside, on a purely formal level the painting is remarkable—and proved to be a herald of things to come. The three women on the left, inspired by Iberian sculpture, have the same stony stares as Gertrude Stein; while the two on the left show the clear influence of the African masks. These methods of abstraction, combined with the fractured spacial planes and juxtaposed perspectives, would shortly be transformed into high analytic cubism.
Picasso developed analytic cubism side-by-side with his friend Georges Braque. Indeed, the paintings they produced during this time are virtually indistinguishable; they proceeded like “mountaineers roped together,” as Braque said. These works are typically in a monochromatic brown or gray, and are ruthlessly abstract. In the beginning the painting’s subject was clearly discernible, as in Girl with Mandolin; but eventually the subject is entirely lost in a jumble of broken lines, as in Countryside of Ceret.
I admit that I do not much enjoy these paintings. Their uniformly drab color and lifeless geometricality combine to produce a sensation of overwrought dullness.The formulaic nature of the technique seems to turn painting into a dry intellectual game. This is not always the case, of course. My favorite work of analytic cubism, in fact, is neither Picasso’s nor Braque’s, but Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase—a fascinating depiction of motion through time and space (though this work was, at first, rejected by the cubists as too futurist).
But the value of analytic cubism is arguably not dependent on the aesthetic pleasure to be extracted from its paintings. For this period of intense, systematic exploration created a new pictorial language. Picasso and Braque were busy creating cubism’s lexicon and its grammar, so to speak; but cubism’s expressive power, its poetry, was still to come.
Cubism emerges from its analytic phase, at least in Picasso’s case, with the addition of color and the introduction of other media. Besides cubism, you see, Braque and Picasso were also the co-inventors of papier collé, a type of collage in which they would incorporate quotidian objects—newspapers, advertisements, and even chair seats—into their works. I particularly like the still lifes from this period (1913-16 or thereabouts), since they are like aesthetic time-capsules, capturing the private, intimate elegance of Parisian life.
But cubism’s potential can be seen more fully, I think, in a work like Three Musicians. This painting is from the period known as synthetic cubism, and shows the new language’s ability to reorganize reality along unfamiliar lines without dissolving it completely. Fully apparent is Picasso’s unique ability to reduce objects to their most basic form, and to rearrange that form into something striking and new while still preserving its identity. And though it is painted with oil on canvas, the sharp blocks of color—along with the wrapping-paper of the guitarist’s outfit and the musical notes of the accordionist—show the clear influence of his collage phase on his painting.
Shortly after the conclusion of the First World War, however (in which Picasso, being Spanish, was exempted from service), Picasso made a return to the classic style. This was part of a larger trend in the art world, in a phase known as the “return to order,” which followed Europe’s own return to peace. Stravinsky, too, underwent a similar transition during this time, writing neoclassicist serenades and concertos, while Picasso made paintings like his Harlequin with a Mirror—devoid of all cubes and abstraction. This is not to say that his paintings of this time were perfectly realistic; indeed, Picasso’s use of fantastic elements attracted the interest of the surrealists, who in turn exerted an influence on him.
In 1930 Picasso commenced on a series of etchings for an art dealer, Ambroise Vollard. Though sometimes dismissed as the lecherous scribblings of a narcissistic artist, these etchings have a playful vitality and a virtuosic ease that make them worth studying. Thematically, Picasso turns towards more “perennial” subjects: gods, wine, and the minotaur. Robert Hughes was inclined to view these etchings as the last gasp of that dionysian Mediterranean culture which animated the Greeks and the Romans. Without making any claim so grandiose we can, however, note the importance of this shift to mythological subjects in the years preceding Picasso’s greatest work.
This, of course, is Guernica. Few works of any kind can equal the raw power of this painting. I have seen it in person many times, and I can attest to this. Confronting Guernica is comparable to looking up at the Sistine Chapel. All of Picasso’s past, all his stylistic explorations, are at once summed up and perfected in this image.
The spark that set it off was the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by Germany’s and Italy’s airforces during the Spanish Civil War. This blatant act of terror outraged the entire international community, and led Picasso to create the most searingly memorable anti-war image in history.
Picasso, for all his avant-garde innovation, created a painting with deep historical resonance. The horse, innocent servant and victim of humanity’s violence; the minotaur, symbol of humanity’s animal nature; the fallen warrior, the weeping mother, the candle in the dark—it could almost have been taken from the cave paintings of Altamira. Confronting these eternals symbols is the light bulb, flashing down destruction and death. A more poignant image of the broken promises of modernity could not be conceived.
The slick and sterile language of cubism is finally shown as a complete idiom, with a flexibility and depth equal to any other in Western art. Everything in the style serves a deeper purpose, creating that total unity of form and substance towards which art always aspires. Once seen, it is unseeable; once felt, unshakeable.
This was Picasso’s apotheosis. Though he would live over thirty years after Guernica, he would never achieve anything half so gripping. This is not to say that his later work is uninteresting. I particularly like his variations on Velazquez’s Las meninas, a series of paintings that really reveals Picasso’s mind at work.
Picasso was a virtuoso of the highest order; and drawing any conclusions about somebody who had mastered so many styles is a difficult task. A comparison might help. And though it may seem ludicrous—since two more different painters could hardly be chosen—I find it profitable to compare Picasso with another Spanish painter, Joaquín Sorolla.
Sorolla shows a deep concern for what you might call “prettiness.” His paintings delight and charm the eye, creating an aesthetic pleasure that rolls over the senses. Picasso, on the other hand, rarely produced anything so effortlessly pretty. His paintings challenge, evade, taunt; and at their best they strike the viewer with a solid weight—but they do not wash over the eye. This is connected with another difference. Sorolla was fascinated by color; and his best paintings are vibrantly radiant. Picasso’s interest in color seems to have been relatively limited; indeed he often worked in monochrome. And though Picasso was capable of the finest draughtsmanship, many of his paintings, next to Sorolla’s, seem slapdash in their execution.
This is strange. How can Picasso, the iconic painter, be bested in prettiness, in color, and in draughtsmanship by a relatively minor artist? This is because Picasso’s strength, which served him in all his stylistic acrobatics, is not any of these. It is his absolute mastery of form.
In this he reminds me very much of Michelangelo. These two artists, so different in so many ways, are alike in being primarily interested in form and volume: the shapes of things. And whereas Michelangelo’s eternal theme was the emergence of perfect form from unformed chaos, Picasso’s is the interpenetration of the natural and the personal—of the shapes of the world and the forms of the mind. In this liminal space, where the world meets the eye, Picasso discovered freedom—the freedom to renegotiate the final product. And by producing so many counterintuitive but immensely powerful forms, Picasso’s work opened a window to possibility.
I am quite impressed with this book series. The photos are high-quality, the commentary tact and tasteful, and the coverage surprisingly full. Of course, no book this size could do justice to such a prolific and versatile artist, but it is a good place to start.