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There is no artist of the 20th century equal in scope, innovation, mutability, egotism or passion to the great innovator Pablo Picasso. His output encompasses over 20,000 paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, ceramics, theater sets and costumes. His styles surpass realism, abstraction, Cubism, Neoclassicism, Surrealism, and Expressionism. His art was an instrument for intellectual, political, social, and carnal messages. There was only one Pablo Picasso, but he contained artistic multitudes.
Picasso was born on October 25, 1881 in Málaga, Spain. His mother proudly asserted that his first word was ‘piz’, a shortened version of the Spanish word ‘lapiz’, meaning ‘pencil’.
When seven years old - an age when most children would still be etching out crude crayon renderings of smiling suns and stick figures - Picasso was instructed in figure drawing and oil painting by his father, a naturalist painter by trade.
Enthralled by the arts alone, Picasso’s skills increased as his other studies suffered. Picasso’s father and uncle entered the 16-year-old into Madrid's Royal Academy of San Fernando, the premier art school in Spain, in 1897. The young artist disliked the school’s strict formal instruction and rarely attended class, choosing instead to spend his year in Madrid making art and visiting the work of Francisco Goya, Diego Velázquez, Francisco Zurbarán and El Greco at the Prado Museum. He left for Barcelona in 1899, where he kept company with a group of modernist artists and writers.
In 1900, Picasso moved between Barcelona and Paris with Carlos Casagemas, a friend and fellow art student from Barcelona. In the epicenter of the artistic universe for Americans and Europeans, teeming with aspiring writers, painters, actors and dancers, Picasso was poor and without recognition for his work. He was greatly affected by the 1901 suicide of Casagemas. The art he is created at this time and through 1904 is referred to as his Blue Period, characterized by gaunt and lonely figures realized in somber hues of blue and black, exemplified by The Blind Man’s Meal from 1903.
Beginning in 1905, Picasso abandoned blues for reds and beggars for performers and clowns, a style referred to as his Rose Period. He found champions in the American siblings Gertrude and Leo Stein, whose Saturday evening salon in their home at 27, rue des Fleurus was called the “School of Paris” for its role as an incubator for artistic and intellectual thought. His 1907 masterwork, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, evidences new artistic explorations in pre-Roman, African and Oceanic art and signals the coming of Cubism.
Cubism, a refracted vision of three-dimensional reality painted on a two-dimensional canvas was developed by Picasso and the French artist Georges Braque (1882–1963). It was not the only seismic shift in art making that occurred in Paris in the early years of the twentieth century; Henri Matisse and Marcel Duchamp, among others, were likewise expanding the definition of painting, sculpture, ceramics and printmaking, but it was the seminal revolution of early 20th century art.
Picasso worked in and played with this style through World War I. In the early 1920s, with the birth of his son Paulo, he began what is referred to as his Neoclassical Period, a variant on Italian classicism in which he painted images of motherhood and mythology. This morphed to the use of Surrealist imagery and techniques by 1929. By the early 1930s, he turned to bold, harmonious colors and sensuous, sinuous contours exemplified by his paintings of muse and mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter in works such as Girl Reading at a Table from 1934.
He was greatly afflicted by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. He reacted with a series of pictures that culminated in the enormous mural Guernica in 1937, a work (perhaps his most famous) that explodes with the horror of war and his loathing for the fascist coup led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
Picasso’s creative energy never waned and he continued to shape-shift throughout his long and storied life. Living in the south of France from the late 1940s through the ’60s, he painted, made ceramics, and experimented with printmaking. His international fame increased. Museums and private collectors in America, Europe, and Japan vied to acquire his works. He reaped the financial benefits of success. Even into his eighties and nineties, he produced an enormous number of superb works, culminating with the extraordinary self-portraits of age.
He died in 1973 leaving an artistic canon of unsurpassed breadth, depth and effect. Perhaps no other artist save Shakespeare has resonated as strongly with so many or engendered as much critical examination from generation to generation.