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Pablo Picasso


Self Portrait, 1907


Museo Picasso Virtual

Pablo Ruiz y Picasso was the most influential and successful artist of the 20th century. Painting, sculpture, graphic art, and ceramics were all profoundly and irrevocably affected by his genius.

As the son of a professor of art, Picasso's talent for drawing was recognized at an early age. An advanced student at the Barcelona Academy of Fine Arts from the age of 14, he experimented in his youth with nearly all of the avant-garde styles current at the turn of the century, an early demonstration of his lifelong ability to assimilate aesthetic ideas and to work in a variety of styles. For Picasso, the meaning of art was to be derived from other works of art, and not directly from nature. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's work had a significant impact on his early paintings, as did the work of Paul CÚzanne. Their influence, among others', can be detected in the paintings of Picasso's "blue period" (1901-04), which was stimulated by his exposure to life and thought in Paris, where he made his home after 1904. In works such as The Old Guitarist (1903; Art Institute, Chicago) he created evocative portrayals of blind, impoverished, or despairing people in a predominantly blue palette. His use of blue as a motif was apparently derived from the symbolic importance of that color in the contemporary romantic writings of Maurice Maeterlinck and Oscar Wilde, whose work often derived its force from depictions of madness or illness. Although his palette and subject matter changed when he entered (1904) what is called his "rose period," during which he painted harlequins and circus performers in a lighter and warmer color scheme, an underlying mood of spiritual loneliness and lyrical melancholy that marked his "blue" paintings was retained. The paintings of this period, however, do display a classical calm that contrasts clearly with the nervous expressionism of the blue period.

The lyricism of Picasso's blue and rose periods vanished abruptly in the next phase of his career, during which he and Georges Braque independently laid the foundations for cubism. Struck by the compelling simplicity of pre-Christian Iberian bronzes and of African sculpture, he and Braque began to work in a consciously primitive and monumental style that Picasso explored in sculpture as well as in painting. By amalgamating the simplified iconic forms of Iberian and African art with CÚzanne's reduction of the underlying structure of nature to a few basic shapes, Picasso produced Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907; Museum of Modern Art, New York City), which prefigured cubism.

After 1908, Picasso joined with Braque and other like-minded artists to explore the representation of three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface by means of overlapping planes. This early phase of the cubist movement, often called analytical cubism, is exemplified in the painting Ambroise Vollard (1909-10; Pushkin Museum, Moscow) and the sculpture Woman's Head (1909; Museum of Modern Art, New York City). In the course of his visual analyses, Picasso found that those fragments of naturalistic pictorial space and forms that remained were becoming less and less apparent. By 1912, he, Braque, and Juan Gris were introducing real materials such as chair caning and wallpaper--either the actual materials or painted facsimiles--into their works in what came to be known as collage. This synthesis or reconstitution of reality, called synthetic cubism, proved to be of fundamental importance to the development of modern art.

Theoretical cubism soon became too formalized and dogmatic for Picasso. During the 1920s he alternated cubist-inspired works such as The Three Musicians (1921; Philadelphia Museum of Art) with depictions of monumental and classically modeled figures such as his Mother and Child (1921-22; Hillman Collection, New York City). Subsequently, through the 1930s, he added certain aspects of surrealism to his work, including the use of the double image to create a shifting frame of reference and the idea of one object being metamorphosed into another. The tenets of surrealism also suggested to Picasso the use of symbolic archetypes such as the minotaur, the horse, and the bull. All these qualities were fused in his famous Guernica (1937; Reina Sofia Museum , Madrid). Also during the 1930s, Picasso accomplished his most important work in sculpture; dating from this period are numerous influential works, including welded pieces composed of found objects, bronzes cast from plaster, and maquettes for monumental outdoor sculptures.

Yet another change in Picasso's style is evident in more somber and less fanciful still lifes, urban views, and portraits he executed while remaining in Paris during World War II. After the war he moved to the south of France, where he became interested in the classical cultural tradition of the Mediterranean. Mythological daydreams of nymphs, satyrs, fauns, and centaurs soon filled his works, as epitomized in La Joie de Vivre (1946; Musee Picasso, Antibes). The postwar years also marked a period of daring experimentation in lithography and ceramics. Although he had made prints throughout his career, he did not concentrate on that field until the late 1940s, when he embarked on a series of innovations that resulted in a reevaluation of printmaking as a means of expression. He gave a similar impetus to contemporary ceramics; his unconventional handling of the medium opened up possibilities that are still being explored.

Picasso's work of the 1950s and '60s consisted for the most part of a reiteration of the themes and styles he had developed previously, although he never stopped experimenting with new materials and forms of expression. At the time of his death, he was universally recognized as the foremost artist of his era.

1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Copyright 1996 Grolier Interactive, Inc.