The Genius of Pablo Picasso
Jane Allen and Derek Guthrie Chicago Tribune 15th April 1973, written overnight on the news of Picasso’s death.
In Picasso the 20th century has lost one of its most cherished symbols of freedom. He proved the exception to every rule, and we thought until a short week ago that he might even elude the law of human mortality. Secluded behind the high walls of his Mediterranean villa, La Californie, he seemed to lead a charmed existence in a universe of his own making.
In the villa time was suspended and old age cancelled. Married to a young wife and surrounded by animals and children, Picasso’s appetite for life seemed inexhaustible. Those peaks at the charades and games of La Californie which photographer David Douglas Duncan had given us in his pictorial essay, “The Private World of Pablo Picasso,” have an almost demonic quality, so youthful does the aging Picasso appear.
Money had no meaning in that world either, for like King Midas, the maestro turned everything he touched to gold. The modern world paid tribute to his genius in the only way it could – by transferring his signature into a universal currency. At his death Picasso was more wealthy and more famous than any artist who ever lived.
But the quality which made Picasso into such an appealing figure for our age was his gift for the unexpected, for the about-face, for the magical transformation of something into its opposite. The philosophies which dominate the 20th century – Marxism, Darwinism, Freudianism, social anthropology – stress the inexorable march of cause and effect on the feebleness of the individual against his own particular destiny.
Picasso, from the beginning of his career, never left anyone in doubt as to who was in charge of his destiny. Time and time again, just as it seemed that success or age would force him into a mould, he broke out and with a titanic energy turned his face toward the future. At the end of his life, he was almost more myth than man, for his career as a whole became more important than any single work, his life in its constant renewal is symbolic of the creative process itself.
What was the source of Picasso’s boundless confidence? For sheer facility with line and composition the world probably has never seen his equal. He could switch with ease from a contour drawing that rivaled Ingres for precision and grace to tumbling cross-hatched Goya-esque fantasies. No medium was beyond his range. He mastered clay, plaster, and metal as easily as paint on canvas.
The history of modern art abounds in talented artists, however, Picasso, the man, transcended his own talent where a lesser man would have been dominated by it. In spite of the adulation which came very early in his life, he was constantly dissatisfied with his work.
A strong element in Picasso’s character – his belief in instinct and the moment of truth – surely came from his native Spain. Like the bullfighter he believed the highest art comes from the fusion of violence and grace, and he was constantly testing his mettle to make sure he had not gone soft.
But his belief in art transcended nationality just as it transcended talent. Perhaps his confidence came from a clear and prophetic view of the artist role in modern society – not to make objects, but to be. He said: “It’s not what the artist does that counts but what he is… What forces our interest in Cezanne is Cezanne’s anxiety, that’s Cezanne’s lesson; the torments of Van Gogh – that is the actual drama of the man. The rest is a sham.”
Unlike our present-day process-oriented artists, Picasso became the quintessential model of the artistic genius and produced art in prodigious quantities.
Picasso straddled the 20th century like a colossus. His influence was and is, incalculable. But perhaps one should remember that by birth and upbringing he was a 19th-century man. He dominated our era but never belonged.
A worthy successor to his countrymen, Don Quixote, he pitted his independent spirit against the dehumanisation and anonymity of the 20th century and won. That is why, with his death, we feel our own freedom has, in some measure, diminished.
Landmarks in a Career Untouched by Time
In 1901, shortly after his 19th birthday, Pablo Picasso went to Paris for the first time – resolutely turning his back on a promising career as an academic painter. Already he had passed the highest examination of the Royal Spanish Academy and won a prize in a national competition, but staid middle-class subjects did not appeal to him. Restless and brooding himself, he identified with the outcasts of society and found his subjects among the street people of Barcelona and Paris. This painting, “Life,” was the most ambitious of his “blue period,” which lasted through 1904.
Like many of Picasso’s paintings it is an allegory, but its meaning is unclear. A central theme (one which was to occupy the thoughts of Picasso for the rest of his life) is the circular relationship with man to woman and woman to child. Some sources believe that the work‘s symbolism is based on the fear of unknown parenthood. Whatever the meaning, Picasso’s personal involvement with the content of the painting is suggested by a preparatory study in which the central male figure is a self-portrait.
“Les Demoiselles D’Avignon”, 1907
The passionate, black eyed young Spaniard soon became a magnetic figure in Bohemian Montmartre. By 1907 he had acquired a charismatic reputation among dealers and critics; a beautiful mistress, Fernande Olivier; and a host of friends – among them, poet Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire, Andre Salmon, and Gertrude Stein, and painters George Braque and Henri Matisse. But even tho he had already turned out as many canvases during his blue and rose periods as other painters in a lifetime, Picasso was not content.
In the spring of 1907 he astonished his friends with “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon”, a large canvas totally unlike his previous work. The shock to all was unforgettable. Braque compared the painting to a diet of tow and paraffin, and Matisse saw it as an affront to French art. With only one or two exceptions, poets, painters, patrons, and dealers publicly disapproved and privately mourned the “loss to French art.”
Picasso originally had planned the painting as a figurative composition concerning the visit of sailors to a brothel. But while he was working saw the collection of African masks in the Trocadero Museum, an experience which changed his whole concept of art. What finally emerged was a savagely direct painting of five women in an ambiguous jagged space, their faces progressively distorted into the semblance of masks. The inconsistencies and distortions of this painting became the basis of the Cubist movement, one of the most important and fundamental developments in art during this century.
“Violin Hanging on the Wall,” 1913
Picasso and Braque join forces in the exploration of the possibilities in Picasso’s revolutionary painting. Foremost among these was a new way to paint not so much what we see, but what we know about objects and people around us. They fragmented portraits and still lifes by taking different views and superimposing one on top of another.
A later aspect of Cubism was the introduction of elements other than paint into the picture, such as the use of sand in this 1913 collage.
“Mother and Child,” 1921
World War I brought many changes into Picasso’s life. His close collaboration with Braque came to an end with the French painter’s induction into the army and his entire circle was more or less permanently dispersed. Picasso’s loneliness was further increased in 1915 with the death of a new love, Eva.
But in 1916 he found both diversion and solace in the ballet theatre. A move to Rome to design scenery and costumes for John Cocteau’s new ballet, “parade”, brought Picasso into contact with the elite circle of musicians, artists, and dancers who worked with the Russian ballet of Serge Diaghileff. Among them was a slim elegant dancer, Olga Koklova, with whom Picasso fell in love and whom you married a year later.
Marriage and the birth of a son, Paolo, brought a new mood of serenity and fulfilment to Picasso. Besides continuing his Cubist painting, he embarked on a series of paintings in a monumental neoclassical style. Among the best loved of these is his art institute painting, “Mother and Child”, which invokes the ancient associations of the ocean and maternity.
“The Three Dancers,” 1925
Peace and tranquillity never lasted long in Picasso’s household. The young couple took a large apartment on the Rue la Boetie in Paris and began moving in the most select and fashionable Parisian circles. By 1925, however, Picasso had become impatient both with elegant parties and entertainments and with the social ambitions and domestic preoccupations of his wife. He also tired of the ballet. A violent painting, “The Three Dancers” bears witness to his disillusionment. This painting in which the central dancer appears to be almost crucified, announces a period when violence and the disruption of the human form were to be the expression of the impending disaster of another world war.
The year 1936 brought the tragedy the Spanish Civil War, which was to cast a shadow over Picasso for the rest of his life. Unable to accept the rule of Franco’s Falangists, he was never again to visit his native country. The painter’s emotions were roused to fever pitch when the Basque capital of Guernica was bombed by German planes on market day. Picasso’s reaction was to paint, in a white heat, this great mural for the Spanish Republican pavilion in the Paris International exhibition of 1937. Many have called it the greatest painting of the 20th century.
Painted in stark black, gray, and white, it uses a readily understandable symbolism to maximum effect. The anguished scream of the woman, the dead child, the dying still defiant horse, the woman reaching from the window to shed light on the horror are welded together into a powerful criticism of the insanity and terror of war.
(poster for World Peace Congress), 1949
During World War II, Picasso remained in Paris, maintaining a passive but uncompromising attitude which brought the wrath of the collaborators down upon him. By the time of the liberation, he was greatly esteemed by the French left wing resistance. Altho previously he had not taken an active part in politics, in August 1944 he declared his adherence to the Communist Party.
The communists did indeed open their arms to Picasso but greeted his art with mixed feelings. In Moscow his name was used for propaganda, but his paintings were never shown. One work, however, became a familiar and hopeful symbol to socialists around the world – his dove of peace, which was used on the poster for the World Peace Congress sponsored by the Communist Party.
“Baboon and Young,” 1951
Picasso had surrounded himself with animals. Monkeys, goats, dogs, owls, dogs, parrots, mice, and cats had been his intimate companions. Many of them served as models for his paintings and sculpture. In this bronze baboon, however, Picasso demonstrates his unique ability to transform an object into something quite different. If you look closely, you will see that the monkey head is a toy motorcar.
“In the Studio,” 1954
Sex was, for Picasso, a fundamental and overruling law of both art and nature. In a series of etchings from the 1930s for example, the “Minotauromachy”, he fuses the myth of the bull–man and the artist into one powerful symbol of potency. But with approaching old age, he became more and more aware of the discrepancy between his physical deterioration and his undiminished sexual appetite. In a bitter and sad series of drawings from 1954, when he was in his 70s, he portrays the artist alternately as an obscene old man holding up a mask of youth and as a pet monkey. Thruout the drawings the woman remains the same – beautiful, youthful, serene – perhaps a reflection of the series of beautiful young women who became Picasso’s companions after his separation from his wife in the 1930s.
Volume 32 no 6 July/August 2018 pp 18-22
5 thoughts on “The Genius of Pablo Picasso”
Written 45 years ago, what a well written and very readable review of Picasso’s work in such a short space. Thank you for the re-print from the Chicago Tribune.
Just wondering, will the New Art Examiner review the ongoing exhibition of Picasso at the Tate?
“In spite of the adulation which came very early in his life, he was constantly dissatisfied with his work.” This is the essential aspect of Picasso’s success, being dissatisfied with his work. Many artists, musicians and writers have high expectations with an unreachable criteria for success. It is what pushes them on and on to improving their work – that is, if they don’t lose it first due to total frustration.
What would be Derek Guthrie’s critical analysis of Picasso now, 45 years after he and Jane Allen first wrote this article for the Chicago Tribune? Has anything changed since then?
Reading up on the history of the New Art Examiner and also on Jane Allen and Derek Guthrie’s past as art critics with the Chicago Tribune made me curious to know who the current art critics were there now. However, it’s impossible to access the Chicago Tribune website from Europe. Does anyone know who they are? Chicago once was an interesting art scene.