Though synonymous with Cubism, Picasso's genius lies in his mastery over various artistic styles
One of the most extensive repositories of Picasso's works, the Picasso Museum in Paris, is undergoing restoration, and more than 150 masterpieces from its massive collection will be on show until October 9 at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.
If you were to ask most people who they regard as the greatest artist of the 20th century, chances are they will say "Pablo Picasso". The Spanish artist had a long and illustrious career and turned the art world on its head more than once. He changed the way we perceive art and moved effortlessly from one style to the next throughout the 80 years that he was active.
This breathtaking special exhibition comprises drawings, paintings, ceramics and sculptures from every phase of Picasso's career and includes masterpieces from his youth, his Blue, Rose, Cubist, Neo-Classical and Surrealist periods, along with some exceptionally large canvases painted in the last years of his life.
"All these works present eloquent testimony to his role as a protean figure who not only contributed to new art movements but also changed the very definition of art itself," explains John Buchanan, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
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Picasso was born in Malaga, Spain, in 1881 and by the age of 7 was wielding a paintbrush. Inspired by stories of Paris and its avant-garde artists, he moved there at the age of 19. It was due to his love of the French capital that he bequeathed his private art collection, comprising both his own works and those of other painters, to the French state upon his death in 1973. Today more than 2,500 pieces form the basis of the Picasso Museum, which officially opened its doors in 1985 in the Salé Palace in central Paris. It will reopen mid-2013 after a massive renovation.
What is on show at the De Young Museum in San Francisco is the crème de la crème from the museum. What unites these works, and was the reason for Picasso to keep them, is their unique quality and the sentimental value they represented for him. Picasso felt the need to stay in contact with his own work and frequently "vegetated", as he described it, in the forest of sculptures and paintings that filled his studio in the villa Notre-Dame de Vie in southern France. He prized, above all, his Cubist works, which he guarded jealously and refused to sell.
Making of a legend
In the San Francisco exhibition the works are arranged in chronological order, which also allows them to be grouped by art movements. His earliest paintings provide an insight into his training in Barcelona in the fine arts and the academic tradition. It was in the French capital, however, that he came in contact with many other young artists who were carving the way to make the 20th century a period in which art would break free from the restraints of the past and become a true expression of contemporary creativity — and this is where Picasso began to develop his own style and spread his wings.
His sombre Blue Period, inspired by paintings from the Spanish Renaissance master El Greco, includes women, beggars and impoverished women with their children. One of the highlights of this section is Celestina, painted in 1904. Three quarters of the portrait of this matchmaker woman uses dark blue and black as its palette, helping to create a mystical atmosphere.
In sharp contrast, works from the Rose Period, which started in 1906, uses a palette of pink and ochre. It was inspired in part by a summer holiday in the northern Spanish town of Gösol. The subjects here include circus and street performers, acrobats and harlequins. What these people have in common is that they live on the fringes of society. Of special interest is the painting Two Brothers from 1906. They are shown next to a large drum used in street performances, with a bowl on top of it for collecting tips.
In the autumn of 1906 Picasso threw himself into a new project which would end in the masterpiece Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Working towards this huge canvas he created more than 1,000 preliminary sketches. The following year Picasso discovered primitive African art at the Ethnographic Museum in Paris. Inspired by the carvings and masks, he repainted two of the women's faces to look like African masks, something which caused a stir in art circles at the time. Primitive art became an important inspiration for Picasso and its influence appears many times. In Three Figures Under a Tree, painted in 1908, he incorporated faceted planes that are suggestive of carved wooden sculptures.
There is no doubt that Picasso is synonymous with the Cubist art movement. He worked from 1909 to 1918 investigating how three-dimensional objects could be shown on the two-dimensional canvas. "I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them," he once said. The subjects in the paintings were reduced to their basic elements and quite often more than one perspective was depicted at the same time. In Head of a Woman, painted in 1909, the multifaceted surface, which appears in motion, reminds viewers that our perceptions of the visual world are the result of many experiences over time. Some of Picasso's works painted during this period, such as the seemingly disjointed Man With a Guitar, painted in 1911, must have seemed incomprehensible to audiences then.
Collage and assemblage were important parts of Cubist art and Picasso reinvented the use of newspaper cuttings and three-dimensional objects in paintings such as Guitar and a Brass Bottle, painted in 1913. The outbreak of the First World War saw Picasso abandon this glorious period of experimentation, which had revolutionised the depiction of space and time in art, to move on to a vastly different style. His renewed interest in classical art and the pure aesthetics of ancient times drew criticism from some of his fellow artists, who saw it as a step backward. But for Picasso it was another example of how he would never be tied down to one style and how he would evolve as an artist throughout his life.
One of his most impressive paintings from this period is Two Women Running on the Beach, created in 1922. His interest in classical art and architecture was reinforced when he travelled to Rome in 1917 to design the sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes. It was there that Picasso met and married his first wife, the ballerina Olga Khoklova, who would become one of his preferred models and the subject of many paintings. Married life for Picasso was full of turmoil and his anxieties were expressed in his work, which took on some of the Surrealist ideals — that the subconscious and the imagination should be liberated from cultural restraints. His paintings from 1925 to 1935 were full of distorted forms and hidden meanings.
The Spanish Civil War and its atrocities, which continued throughout most of the 1930s, were the inspiration for one of Picasso's greatest works, the giant canvas of Guernica, which has now found a home at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid.
Brief period of happiness
By the late 1940s, Picasso was withdrawing from the pressures of Paris and spending more and more time in the South of France, enjoying a brief period of family life with his young mistress, Francoise Gilot. In 1947 they had a son, Claude, and in 1949, a daughter, Paloma. During this happy time Picasso began to work at Madoura, the pottery factory of Georges and Suzanne Ramie in Vallauris, near Antibes. These three-dimensional pieces reduce Picasso's genius to its most basic, accessible components and present his favourite subjects in a medium that fuses painting, sculpture and drawing in a single, fluid process. It reveals another side of his easy familiarity with different artistic periods and styles.
The final period of Picasso's life was one of his most productive. After marrying his last great love, Jacqueline Roque, in 1961, he almost became obsessed with creating new works and quite often completed one canvas every day. He was inspired by the Old Masters such as Raphael and Rembrandt, and said, "When I paint I feel that all the artists of the past are behind me." He also introduced characters such as musketeers and matadors into the paintings, which allowed him to engage in role-playing and costume. In his 1970 painting The Matador, a younger Picasso wields a sword in one hand and a cigar in the other. These works, many of which are on very large canvases, are celebrated for their Expressionistic vitality and artistic fearlessness. Picasso continued drawing until a few months before his death in 1973. His last self-portrait shows a face which is full of uncertainty but with almost a century of life's experiences behind it.
Picasso reinvented art and took the public through a kaleidoscope of experiences and artistic styles. "My mother once said to me: ‘If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope.' Instead, I was a painter, and I became Picasso," he once said. The exhibition at the De Young Museum in San Francisco is an excellent opportunity to delve into the mind of this unique artist.