Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Pablo Picasso – Painter and Twentieth Century Art Genius, or Was He a Smart Alec?

It may interest you to know that a lot of cubism and indeed modern art has been attributed to the contributions of one man – a genius of the twentieth century, and an artist whose legacy and life of art in the recent centuries have remained almost unmatched. Pablo Picasso was born in Spain in 1881, he was an infant genius who was recognised and helped early in life by his father who was also his teacher. The small Museo de Picasso is situated in Barcelona; it is a place that is strictly devoted to housing especially some of Picasso’s early works which also includes even a range of very realistic casts of ancient sculptures. 

Pablo Picasso (photo by Herbert List)

As a youngster Picasso was a non conformist of some sort, and he began frequenting the Barcelona cafes where intellectuals often gathered. Very soon he went to Paris which is regarded as the capital of art and familiarised himself thoroughly with the works of masters like Gustave Courbet, Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec. Their sketchy styles of work inspired him a great deal; later he was off, and returned to Spain, then to France, then again to Spain all in the period 1899 – 1904.

Before Pablo Picasso discovered cubism he had experimented with, and gone through fascinating different styles such as realism, caricature, the Blue Period and the Rose Period. His blue period for instance ran from 1901-1904, and featured predominantly a blue palette, and his works then focussed mainly on depicting the lives of outcasts, prostitutes and beggars. At this period of his career, he produced some of his first works of sculpture in this style including a painting piece he did depicting his childhood friend - the Spanish poet Casagemas, who had committed suicide. And this work is a permanent collection of Cleveland's Museum of Art, La Vie.

'Guernica', painting by Pablo Picasso

The painting started off as a self portrait but ended up being that of his late bosom friend. Another popular work of Picasso’s of this period is the 1903 piece in the Metropolitan which he called ‘The Blind Man's Meal’. Another example is the very lyrical and mysterious piece housed in the Toledo Museum of Art titled ‘the haunting Woman with a Crow’ (1903). 

Around 1904 Picasso’s palette became brighter and it reflected the pinks and beiges, light blues, and roses; this was his Rose Period. He depicted mainly circus players, clowns, and harlequins – all looking so mute and somewhat inactive. In 1905 Picasso went for a short while to Holland, and when he came back to Paris his work took a new classical turn as he featured looming figures of women and men in frontal positions and fascinating unique profiles akin to early Greek art. And so, he was also highly influenced by Henri Matisse, and the cartoon-like works of self-taught "primitive" French painter Henri “Le Douanier” Rousseau. His works had close resemblance to the flat paintings of ancient Egypt.

Picasso was also influenced seriously by what he found in ancient Iberian sculptures from Spain, African art and especially sculptures he encountered in the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris, and even from the sculptures of Gauguin. Later in 1907, the year the cubist style was actually birthed in France, the artist came up with that awesome piece titled ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’ or The Chicks of Avignon, which is seen at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. And after he had completed his early cubist pictures in 1916 he then decided to show this work which had earlier aroused so much public anxiety.

After this period, cubism, a style characterised by surfaces of geometrical planes, became a popular trend as it soon became the latest and captivating art movement around the world. And so, almost every painter of note in Europe and America was at home with this latest style that dominated the first half of the 20th century. Cubism as a style was later to be introduced in New York, America in 1913 in a sensational exhibition at the midtown armoury.

And now, Guernica; I think assuredly the most famous work of Pablo Picasso; the life and works of this artist cannot be complete without the mention of this mural-sized oil painting on canvas. Guernica is certainly the most powerful political statement by Picasso; it was indeed a direct reaction to the Nazi’s devastating casual bombing practice in the Basque town of Guernica which took place during the Spanish Civil War. This painting was completed in June, 1937.

Chicks from Avignon, by Pablo Picasso

In Picasso’s very active, prosperous and long career, he exploited various mediums and experimented with what I might refer to as mixed media techniques including trompe l’oeil effects - creating the illusion of seeing reality; collage, etc. The versatile artist later worked with the theatre and produced for the Ballet Russe very interesting sets of costumes as from 1914 towards 1920s when he veered into his opulent classical renditions with consummate line drawings.  He also made a foray briefly into surrealism between 1925 and 1935, and later returned to Classicism. Pablo Pcasso was an influential and prolific Spanish artist who lived most of his life in France. He died in the year 1973.

I have heard some people actually say Pablo Picasso was just a smart alec and not really a genius, but what do you yourself say? Do kindly make your candid opinion known in the comment box below.

By Morgan Nwanguma


  1. I believe Picasso was the founder of Modern European art. However, he was a great absorber and re-worker of ideas. At this pivotal time in art history, Picasso is documented as visiting the Musee d’Ethnogaphie at the Trocadero in 1907, where he encountered traditional African art for the first time. He describes his visit thus, "A smell of mould and neglect caught me by the throat. I was so depressed that I would have chosen to leave immediately, but I forced myself to stay, to examine these masks, all these objects that people had created with a sacred, magical purpose, to serve as intermediaries between them and the unknown, hostile forces surrounding them, attempting in that way to overcome their fears by giving them colour and form. And then I understood what painting really meant. It's not an aesthetic process; it's a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires. The day I understood that, I had found my path. “Later he also said, “The great law that dominates the new aesthetic is the following: conception overrides perception.” So you see, it was his intellectual engagement with a wide range of ideas which allowed him to create a new language - a fusion between the drive towards "reality" created by the West and the "expression" he was so inspired by in African art. I love your blogs, by the way.

    1. Very true, Picasso was a genius of some sort - a very smart guy who was able to read the times and placed himself at a vantage position by share curiosity, and so he became a pace setter. I guess Picasso has opened up our eyes to hitherto invisible realms of art. Thanks for your ever didactic and enriching perspectives.


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