The Artist PABLO PICASSO

Famous as no artist ever had been, he was a pioneer, a master and a protean monster, with a hand in every art movement of the century

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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.

Picasso was not a philosopher or a mathematician (there is no "geometry" in Cubism), but the work he and Braque did between 1911 and 1918 was intuitively bound to the perceptions of thinkers like Einstein and Alfred North Whitehead: that reality is not figure and void, it is all relationships, a twinkling field of interdependent events. Long before any Pop artists were born, Picasso latched on to the magnetism of mass culture and how high art could refresh itself through common vernaculars. Cubism was hard to read, willfully ambiguous, and yet demotic too. It remains the most influential art dialect of the early 20th century. As if to distance himself from his imitators, Picasso then went to the opposite extreme of embracing the classical past, with his paintings of huge dropsical women dreaming Mediterranean dreams in homage to Corot and Ingres.

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