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 construction.
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 war America.
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 painting 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 painting 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 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.