Pablo Picasso and the new language of Cubism
Pablo Picasso was a Spanish painter and sculptor. One of the most recognised figures in twentieth century art, he is best known as the co-founder, along with Georges Braque, of cubism.
While Picasso's influence on twentieth century art is unquestionable, the lasting significance of the deconstruction of form and meaning implicit in his art remains in question. Representational art, dating to humankind's prehistory, suggests continuity and the legitimate and coherent place of human beings within the sphere of nature. Critics have remarked that the discontinuity represented by Picasso's art reflected not only the anomie of modern life, but also the artist's own degraded moral sensibility. The breakdown of human solidarity and detachment to past and future expressed in both the artist's life and work may mirror the uncertainties of the age, yet it is questionable whether they point toward an enduring aesthetic in the visual arts.
Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga, Spain, the first child of José Ruiz y Blasco and María Picasso y López. Picasso's father was a painter whose specialty was the naturalistic depiction of birds, and who for most of his life was also a professor of art at the School of Crafts and a curator of a local museum. The young Picasso showed a passion and a skill for drawing from an early age; according to his mother, his first word was "piz," a shortening of lapiz, the Spanish word for pencil. It was from his father that Picasso had his first formal academic art training, such as figure drawing and painting in oil. Although Picasso attended carpenter schools throughout his childhood, often those where his father taught, he never finished his college-level course of study at the Academy of Arts (Academia de San Fernando) in Madrid, leaving after less than a year.
In the early years of the twentieth century, Picasso, still a struggling youth, divided his time between Barcelona and Paris, where in 1904, he began a long-term relationship with Fernande Olivier. It is she who appears in many of the Rose period paintings. After acquiring fame and some fortune, Picasso left Olivier for Marcelle Humbert, whom Picasso called Eva. Picasso included declarations of his love for Eva in many Cubist works.
In Paris, Picasso entertained a distinguished coterie of friends in the Montmartre and Montparnasse quarters, including André Breton, poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and writer Gertrude Stein. Apollinaire was arrested on suspicion of stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911. Apollonaire pointed to his friend Picasso, who was also brought in for questioning, but both were later exonerated.
Picasso maintained a number of mistresses in addition to his wife or primary partner. Picasso was married twice and had four children by three women. In 1918, Picasso married Olga Khokhlova, a ballerina with Sergei Diaghilev's troupe, for whom Picasso was designing a ballet, Parade, in Rome. Khokhlova introduced Picasso to high society, formal dinner parties, and all the social niceties attendant on the life of the rich in 1920s Paris. The two had a son, Paulo, who would grow up to be a dissolute motorcycle racer and chauffeur to his father. Khokhlova's insistence on social propriety clashed with Picasso's bohemian tendencies and the two lived in a state of constant conflict.
The photographer and painter Dora Maar was also a constant companion and lover of Picasso. The two were closest in the late 1930s and early 1940s and it was Maar who documented the painting of Guernica.
During the Second World War, Picasso remained in Paris while the Germans occupied the city. Picasso's artistic style did not fit the Nazi views of art, so he was not able to show his works during this time. Retreating to his studio, he continued to paint all the while. Although the Germans outlawed bronze casting in Paris, Picasso continued regardless, using bronze smuggled to him by the French Resistance.
After the liberation of Paris in 1944, Picasso began to keep company with a young art student, Françoise Gilot. The two eventually became lovers, and had two children together, Claude and Paloma. Unique among Picasso's women, Gilot left Picasso in 1953, allegedly because of abusive treatment and infidelities. This came as a severe blow to Picasso.
He went through a difficult period after Gilot's departure, coming to terms with his advancing age and his perception that, now in his seventies, he was no longer attractive, but rather grotesque to young women. A number of ink drawings from this period explore this theme of the hideous old dwarf as buffoonish counterpoint to the beautiful young girl, including several from a six-week affair with Geneviève Laporte, who in June 2005 auctioned off the drawings Picasso made of her.
Picasso was not long in finding another lover, Jacqueline Roque. Roque worked at the Madoura Pottery, where Picasso made and painted ceramics. The two remained together for the rest of Picasso's life, marrying in 1961. Their marriage was also the means of one last act of revenge against Gilot. Gilot had been seeking a legal means to legitimize her children with Picasso, Claude and Paloma. With Picasso's encouragement, she had arranged to divorce her then husband, Luc Simon, and marry Picasso to secure her children's rights. Picasso then secretly married Roque after Gilot had filed for divorce in order to exact his revenge for her leaving him.
As a Spanish citizen living in France, Picasso was under no compulsion to fight against the invading Germans in either world war. In the Spanish Civil War, service for Spaniards living abroad was optional and would have involved a voluntary return to the country to join either side. While Picasso expressed anger and condemnation of Franco and the Fascists through his art, he did not take up arms against them.
He also remained aloof from the Catalan independence movement during his youth despite expressing general support for the movement and was friendly toward its activists. No political movement seemed to compel his support to any great degree, though he did become a member of the Communist Party.
After the Second World War, Picasso rejoined the French Communist Party, and even attended an international peace conference in Poland. But party criticism of him toward a portrait of Stalin judged as insufficiently realistic cooled Picasso's interest in Communist politics, though he remained a loyal member of the Communist Party until his death. His beliefs tended towards anarcho-communism.
April 8 marked the 46th death anniversary of Pablo Picasso.
The writer is a freelance contributor.