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Who, or What is Pablo Picasso?

By Edited Apr 11, 2014 2 0

Pablo Picasso, Cubist Period

Pablo Picasso(129137)

Are we examining the art or the artist?

"It’s not what the artist does that counts, but what he is.  Cézanne would never have interested me a bit if he had lived and thought like Jaques-Émile Blanche, even if the apples he had painted had been ten times as beautiful.  What forces our interest is Cézanne’s anxiety, that’s Cézanne’s lesson; the torments of Van Gogh – that is the actual drama of the man.  The rest is a sham."

                                -Pablo Picasso

          This quote by Picasso is from Picasso:  Fifty Years of His Art, by Alfred H. Barr (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1946).  In it Picasso summed up what, in his mind, the act of creation is really about:  the changing state of the artist himself.  While judging the wide-ranging stylistic diversity of Picasso’s body of work it is easy to see how one may say that Picasso seemed to live out that philosophy in his own creative endeavors, but where does that leave a student, art fan, or critic when trying to understand who Picasso was or what his work really meant?  Should his entire body of work be construed as one long, hard to interpret existential statement sent from one isolated individual to all others?  What does this say to us about his incredible commercial success and willingness to sell his work at need?  Are small parts of his life being sold away with each new auction or transaction?  If all work is a view of the current state of an artist, in context of the changing state of the artist, why would Picasso create art that depicted actual events such as Guernica in 1937 or Massacre in Korea in 1953?  Why create communication at all?  Understanding art as the artist’s personal statement has stood out as Picasso’s contribution and legacy to art in the twentieth century.  Rightly or wrongly, Picasso forced everyone to view things as he personally could best understand or relate to them.  This interpretation of his life and work has left a lasting impact on the art world as it developed throughout the twentieth century.

Ma Jolie

Ma Jolie
Credit: Pablo Picasso 1911-1912

Deconstructing Reality, In Order to Realize It

Any serious study of art in the twentieth century must deal with Picasso, and any serious study of Picasso must deal with Cubism.  Cubism may have been Picasso’s greatest contribution to art as a dynamic progression of ideas and styles.  Many attempts have been made by both artists and art writers to discuss the true nature of Cubism.  Some Cubist artists, such as Jean Metzinger in 1910, felt it was merely a divergent form of other larger movements.  He claimed through Cubism’s “clever mixing of the successive and the simultaneous…Picasso confesses himself a realist.”  Alongside this interpretation Cubism is seen as an attempt to get at the true objective nature of an object; true realism through scientific analysis.  (Steinberg, 65)  Yet, it is well known that Picasso was incapable of using a system of mathematical analysis to create and interpret his art.  (Penrose, 153)  He also detested doing studies of his subjects leading up to the creation of a work. 

If Cubism was neither scientific nor analytical, than what was the goal of the movement?  If not to display an object in its entirety from all possible points of view, “simultaneity of point of view,” than perhaps “to absorb [the subject’s] dismembered parts in the field.” (Steinberg, 66) Perhaps to show the viewer of the painting that “the rest is a sham.”  What you see before you is not in and of itself important, but what you, or another human being, make of it inside your own head becomes the true substance of the object for you.  Picasso and Braque were not creating representations of objects to divorce them from their surroundings when they worked together during their Cubist collaboration period; rather they were changing “the nature of the relationships between the painted image and reality.”  (Berger, 51)  Acting in a spirit of modernism, Picasso was giving to the painter what seemed a birthright of man under the false confidence bred by powerful scientific discoveries:  the ability to alter his world to suit his purposes.  The optimism read into Cubism’s bold restructuring of the natural world was shattered, as were many other things, by World War I.

Man With a Pipe

Man With A Pipe
Credit: Pablo Picasso 1915

Picasso strove to escape the bother of the invasion of France in 1914 by focusing on his art; “he painted Cubist pictures that were almost defiantly exuberant” for a time.  (Wertenbaker, 73)  Ultimately, “he began to draw naturalistically,” as if admitting that Cubism was in all reality unable to reshape Picasso’s world for him. (Wertenbaker, 74) The geometry of Cubism may have protected Picasso “from too complete a revelation” and allowed “him to work closer to his image.”  (Wight, 133) It is suggested Picasso’s art was a means for him to avoid confronting reality, hence the separation from ‘reality’ inherent in Cubism.  Although the entire episode may seem as if it runs counter to Picasso’s statement about the nature of art, was not Cubism so divergent and influential because of the art itself and not the man inside it?  It seems that the transition from Cubism to more natural work and the development of Surrealism in Parade actually show that Cubism can be seen as a phase in Picasso’s life that is consistent with his feelings about the nature of art.

Costume from Parade

Parade Costume
Credit: Pablo Picasso 1917

"The Cubists created a system by which they could reveal visually the interlocking of phenomena.  And thus they created in art the possibility of revealing processes instead of static states of being.  Cubism is an art entirely concerned with interaction:  the interaction between different aspects:  the interaction between structure and movement:  the interaction between solids and the space around them:  the interaction between the unambiguous signs made on the surface of the picture and the changing reality which they stand in for."  (Berger, 69)

 If Cubism is really an art that reveals processes instead of static existence as Berger says, than it could very easily fit into Picasso’s belief that he is merely showing the changing states of himself.  Thus, since everything of Picasso’s after Cubism builds upon or denies it, it is possible to recognize the dynamic nature of himself and his art walking hand in hand.  Picasso never entirely got away from Cubism indefinitely, but when he changed his mode of painting, it undoubtedly coincided with a change in his state of mind.  He began to realize the fullness of Cubism when he began to use “many different approaches to express his ideas and feelings...in 1917.” (Jaffé, 31)


Credit: Pablo Picasso 1937

Something Larger than Picasso

Why Guernica?  If Cubism has stood as the tangible development of the artist as the dynamic factor in art as process, why do a work that comments outside the artist?  How could a piece with the focus of a tragic national event remain consistent with Picasso’s belief “it’s not what the artist does that counts, but who he is.”  With Guernica Picasso is breaking new ground; “he requires us, by virtue of his captioning, to consider the mural not only as an abstraction but as an excursion into social protest as well.”  (Clark, 97)  If Guernica ventures from abstraction into a more tangible realm, how can it represent the artist as Picasso sees him without compromising the artist upon the grounds that the work is concerned with what is outside of the artist?

         The very simple reason is Guernica "is a profoundly subjective work – and it is from this that its power derives.  Picasso did not try to imagine the actual event.  There is no town, no aeroplanes, no explosion, no reference to the time of day, the year, the century or part of Spain where it happened.  There are no enemies to accuse.  There is no heroism.  And yet the work is a protest – and one would know this even if one knew nothing of its history.  Where is the protest then?"  (Berger, 169)

 The subjectivity of Guernica lay in the fact that Picasso did not paint what happened or what was there, as Berger noted, but Picasso painted what he imagined to himself that it must have felt like.  Just as the pain and disfigurement of the Crying Woman etching from the same year is actually Picasso’s rendition of what he has projected her pain to be, Guernica “in being painted is the imaginative equivalent of what happened to them in sensation in the flesh.”  (Berger, 169)  It can only be Picasso’s imaginative equivalent though and no one else’s that he paints, once again reaffirming his belief in the individual presence of the artist in his work rather than the importance of the work as a stand-alone statement.  Guernica demonstrates that Picasso is concerned with himself.  He is a Spaniard.  Why Guernica when he does nothing for or about France, where he had spent a great deal of his time, during World War I.  It is all about Picasso, and the personal identity he is furthering through Guernica.  The people suffering are only important because they too are Spaniards, and therefore, have something in common with Picasso.  He may deal with them in his work because of the connection, or is it possible the motivation is even more selfish than that.

"The delusion of the mutilation or displacement of the essential organs and members of the body is a well-defined characteristic of certain types of mental illness, as Dr. Paul Schilder has pointed out in his book, The Image and Appearance of the Human Body…the sufferer experiences horrible sensation of inadequacy and helplessness…these delusions arise from the inner instability of the victim and do not refer to any objective reality…it is in such terms that Picasso has drawn his picture of the Spanish people…it would seem that what Picasso mourns is not so much the ruin of a Basque town as the destruction of his own studio…the passing of that complex, introspective world where the sovereignty of the artist has found during the last half century so convincing a semblance of reality."  (Clark, 102)

          Is it possible that rather than trying to raise consciousness about the plight of those suffering, Picasso is actually continuing to rebel against the fact that he can not control reality as easily as he felt he could within Cubism.  Much like he defiantly painted pieces to escape interaction with World War I, is Picasso trying to separate himself from tragedy by displaying things in Guernica as he imagines they may be?  Even in agreeing to do Guernica Picasso had refused to bow personal preference to the cause he claimed to be supporting.  He would not do the work until there had been found “a studio which would give him sufficient scope.” (Penrose, 268)   Picasso was striving to maintain control, bucking the feelings of contemporaries to whom “the defense of democratic liberty was a matter of life and death.” (Penrose, 266)  Within Picasso’s world though, the pain of his countrymen, which undoubtedly touched him, was still to be held to rigorous, personal artistic standards, which demanded the realization of the individual within the art be held in higher esteem than the subject matter of the work.  Hence Guernica, an aptly disfigured approximation of the terror of war that holds within itself part of Picasso rather than merely the horror itself.  Once again, Picasso can never be divorced from his work, because it is truly about him and nothing else in the end.

         In all fairness, there is definitely one other thing that may never be divorced from Picasso’s work, or possibly any work of art:  subjectivity.  There are other ways to view Guernica than as a selfish, psychologically revealing piece born of tragic circumstances.  Guernica was an impassioned statement of monumental protest “to disillusion, to despair, to destruction.” (Read, 104)  Picasso, “the greatest artist of our time" was “driven to this conclusion…that the only logical monument would be a negative monument.”  (Read, 104) Picasso is the prophet of our times who sums up the greedy, alienating, disillusionment of Europe and the world.

"Frustrated in his creative affirmations, limited in scope and scale by the timidity and customs of this age, he can at best make a monument to the vast forces of evil which seek to control our lives:  a monument of protestation.  When those forces invade his native land,  and destroy with calculated brutality a shrine peculiarly invested with the sense of glory, then the impulse to protest takes on a monumental grandeur.  Picasso’s great fresco is a monument to destruction, a cry of outrage and horror amplified by the spirit of genius." (Read, 105) 

 If we continue to take Picasso at his word, who he is defines his art, than perhaps Picasso was a man like any other who had sentimental tendencies about his homeland.  Perhaps the events of the Spanish Civil War had brought something new from within Picasso.  He has a “universal” connection with the people, and his “great work of art, transcending all schools and categories, is born; and being born, lives immortally.” (Read, 105)  Picasso could be felt to affirm his humanity through this great work born of outrage against suffering and injustice upon the innocent.  These contradictory viewpoints and interpretations of Picasso the man and the artist were encouraged by his life.

Massacre in Korea

Massacre in Korea
Credit: Pablo Picasso 1951

Biting the Hand? Picasso the Communist

Picasso, that great patriot who painted for liberty and equality, became a supporter of the communist party, opponent of individual thought and advancement.  Picasso was “the symbol of contemporary bourgeois society,” and as such he was the ideological enemy of the communist party. (Raphael, 116) “Picasso’s art …from the sociological point of view” reveals:

"(1) An excessive multiplicity, a disturbing abundance of the most unlike aspects, both simultaneously and successively – inevitable in an artist whose personality if the symbol of the bourgeois ruling class, because he himself and his epoch are experiencing the most contradictory tensions.  (2) Even a talent as great as his cannot do without auxiliary, and ends up as a repertory of the history of art.  Today a great bourgeois artist is possible only as an eclectic genius.  (3) The artist whose debuts were so radical that he was generally held to be revolutionary, has proved, after thirty years of work, so far from being capable of solving the unsolved problem of the nineteenth century, i. e., of creating an art based upon materialist dialectics, that he has on the contrary gone to the other extreme:  the feudal limits of the bourgeois, in the modern form of reaction." (Raphael, 116)

             Picasso’s ever changing stylistic directions acted as the communication of the bourgeois because “time after time [he discovered] forms in which the bourgeois class could assert and understand itself.” (Raphael, 116) Despite, or perhaps because of, such stinging indictments of his lack of true Marxist principle, Picasso’s program from an exhibition in 1934 claimed he was on “the side of the working class against the capitalist class.” (Read, 128)  Although this claim seems largely fabricated since Picasso's earnings came from the capitalist class.

            Pablo Picasso stands as a giant of the twentieth century art world and the self-conscious, introspective discourse that has been so much a part of it.  We may never know how selfish or selfless Picasso’s works truly were when he created them.  All we know is that Pablo Picasso was an incredibly talented person with faults and triumphs the same as anyone, and he felt he was best represented by his art: an ever-changing, dynamic portrait of the artist for the present.  One of the brightest lights of 20th century art, Picasso is but one part of a giant discussion which has helped to shape the world we are living in now.



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  1. Max Raphael "Picasso in the Light of a Marxist Sociology of Art." Picasso in Perspective Ed. Gert Schiff. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976.
  2. Herbert Read "Picasso and the Marxists." Picasso in Perspective. Ed. Gert Schiff. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976.
  3. Herbert Read "Picasso's Guernica." Picasso in Perspective. Ed. Gert Schiff. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976.
  4. Leo Steinberg "What About Cubism." Picasso in Perspectvie. Ed. Gert Schiff. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976.
  5. Lael Wertenbaker The World of Picasso: 1881 -. New York, New York: Time-Life Books, 1963.
  6. Frederick Wight "Picasso and the Unconscious." Picasso in Perspective. Ed. Gert Schiff. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976.

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