Pablo Ruiz Picasso (1881-1973) was born in Spain to a father who was an art teacher and a painter. As a child, he was encouraged to draw and paint by his father. At the age 14, Picasso finished a painting that his father had started. After seeing it, his father abandoned his career as a painter to focus all in energies on training Picasso. At that time, this meant giving his son instruction in Greek and Roman art. The young Picasso was trained to paint people and objects exactly they are (Sateren, 2002).
Fig.1: Pablo Picasso, First Communion, 1896: Oil Canvas : Location: Museu Picasso, Barcelona, Spain : Dimensions: 166 x 118 cm
The Blue Period
When Picasso turned 18, he relocated to Paris because it was a place that had a reputation of being the right place for artists, musicians, and sculptors in Europe. For the first time, he saw in person the works of famous impressionists like Edgar Degas. After a brief period he returned to Spain, he returned to Paris to launch his career. His first exhibition was a failure even though it was organized by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who was a supporter of many of the best-known Parisian artists of the time. The event was a failure and nothing was sold. Most reviews were negative. In response, he changed his style to what is called by art historians his Blue Period. These paintings were made when Picasso was experiencing difficulties. His friend Casagemas had committed suicide and Picasso was living in poverty. Because of his great capacity to feel sympathy for the plight of others people, his paintings were almost entirely painted in different shades of blue and their subjects were the poor as well as social outcasts.
Fig.2: Pablo Picasso, Old Blind Guitarist, 1903: Oil Canvas: Location: Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, US: Dimensions: 121.3 x 82.5 cm
The Old Guitarist was painted, just after the suicide death of his close friend, Casagemas. Picasso seems to have projected his frustrations of being an artist who makes beautiful things but also is a person who struggles just like other poor people to feed, house and clothe himself. This is because the subject is depicted in the state of hunger and poverty while he holds close to him a large guitar which stands out because it isn't painted in blue.
His paintings became the expression of the daily struggles of the poor, the ill, and social outcasts. The color blue seemed to fit the people Pablo painted. He painted people suffering from loneliness and hunger. He often painted beggars and poor people. Pablo began to develop his own style during his Blue Period. He did not make people look real in his paintings. He painted them with extra long fingers, arms, and legs. He made their bodies thin and bony. Their faces often looked like masks.
The Red Period
Fig.3: Pablo Picasso Saltimbanques, 1905: Oil Canvas : Location: Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York City, NY, USA: Dimensions: 243.9 x 233.7 cm
Picasso transitioned into his Rose period (1904-1906) after he met and fell in love Fernande Oliver. He started using with red, pinks and orange palettes. Pablo became fascinated with circus performers and began to represent them his works. He often depicted them at rest, alone or with fellow performers. Art critics note that even though Pablo migrated away to the warm colors, his paintings still conveyed to the viewer a sense of hopelessness in the subject's blank stares. They also looked poor and hungry to reflect their low social status.
Pablo's Blue Period is aesthetically popular to the general public and collectors in recent times, however, it is his paintings during the Rose Period which have a far much more significant art-historical significance. During this period, he settled on the fundamental rule that would later underpin the Cubist method which is that it is not the subject and its content which matters but rather the painting itself. Pablo paints his subjects in an anonymous way. When examining his paintings, one can distinguish men from women or children, however, their true identities are hidden. This is because Pablo sought to characterize his subjects, not portray them in the way he was taught in his classical art education.
Although the painting Family of Acrobats with Monkey (1905) has classical stylistic features, it was the by-product of exploring how to combine the 20th-century expressionism art with classic perspectives on the artistic expression on canvass. The Rose Period marks the end of his flirtations with being a figurative painter. After his Rose Period, he would dabble in it occasionally but would never again define who he was as a painter.
Two years after painting Saltimbanques, Picasso was studying African masks when he developed the cubism method. His first painting Les Demoiselles d' Avignon, where he experimented with cubism was not well received (Cottington, 1998). This early negative reaction to Cubism may also have been that his Red Period created a buzz in the European art scene and Picasso 's newly acquired fans were astonished that he would abandon his Red Period expressionism in such a dramatic way.
Fig:4: Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d' Avignon,1907: Oil Canvas :Location: Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York City, NY, USA: Dimensions: 243.9 x 233.7 cm
Picasso spent most of 1907 working on, Les Demoiselles d' Avignon. The painting is the largest he ever painted. It shows a group of five nude women posed in front of a blue background. Four are standing, one crouches at the right. The woman at the extreme left holds back a reddish brown drape as if introducing the other figures. This painting drastically abandoned the way women were painted to focus the viewer's attention away from what he was depicting but on the style or technique of the depicting the subject. To achieve this aim, the bodies are flat and not rounded naturalistic curves like the way he would paint previously. The women are depicted in an angular way. The reason for how Picasso painted their faces the way he did was that he was examining African sculptures at the Trocadero Museum in Paris.
Picasso recognized in the simplification, abstraction, and distortion of form in African sculptures something like what he was trying to achieve. But Picasso was interested not only in the way these sculptures looked but also in the magical properties he saw in them. They seemed to have the power to speak directly to the imagination, especially to its darker side of horror and fright.
It is this darkly magical quality that Picasso seems to have been striving for in Les Demoiselles d' Avignon. With the two figures at the right especially, we realize that Picasso was conveying in stylistic ways powerful feelings of conflict. Les Demoiselles d' Avignon suggests the complex and contradictory emotions about women (Beardsley, 1991). With its combination of seductive and disfigured bodies, the painting suggests that women are both appealing and horrifying, something to be both desired and feared. Whatever the precise meaning of this painting, it was greeted with confusion even by some of Picasso's admirers.
If there was one word to describe Picasso's evolution into the co-founder of the Cubist movement, that word would be 'metamorphosis.' In the natural sciences, this term means the process of how a living organism transforms itself completely. Picasso was the master of metamorphosis because of his capacity to change. This is the single most important lesson one can take away from to studying his evolution into a father of Cubism. And it is also why it is important to have an exhibition of Picasso's works from his youth all the way up to the time he started the Cubist movement to teach this lesson to aspiring artists today.
Most people who want to learn how to express themselves artistically find a style or a technique they prefer, are good at and persist with it. Picasso was clearly not like most people. He was willing to change and learn from other forms of artistic expression before he came up with the Cubist method.
Because he worked in so many styles and materials and touched on so many themes in the course of his long life, he opened paths for other artists. Painters and sculptors are still developing ideas that Picasso first expressed. Perhaps the best known of these new paths is the style called cubism, which Picasso developed with his friend Georges Braque. Cubism was one of the most important turns taken on the road toward abstract art, which has dominated the art of our time. Although Picasso himself never painted a fully abstract picture, cubism asserted that painting did not need to show us the things we could already see but could be a window into another world.
Picasso knew that the metamorphoses in his life and his art might seem too many and too difficult to follow. He cautioned against worrying too much about understanding every subject, every symbol, every game or invention in his art. Picasso was right about this. What we still prize about his art, what will make it appealing always, is the way it combines the things we know and understand with the things that escape our comprehension the way it takes things of this world and transforms them into products of an artist's vision and imagination. The way, in short, that it materializes a dream.
Beardsley, J. (1991). First Impressions: Picasso. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Cottington, D. (1998). Cubism in the Shadow of War: the Avant-garde and Politics in Paris 1905-1914. Yale University Press.
Sateren, S.S.(2002) Artists and their Works: Picasso. Minnesota: Bridgestone Books
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