As one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century, we take a look at the life and works of Spanish painter Pablo Picasso.
There’s few people in the western world who have never heard of Pablo Picasso. He’s one of the best-known artists of all time, and one of the most famous Spanish people ever to have lived.
His early life
Born with the exceptional name Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso in Malaga in 1881, and known simply as Pablo Picasso throughout his life, Picasso showed a talent for art from an early age.
Recognising this, his father, José Ruiz y Blasco, who was also a painter, formally trained Picasso from the age of around seven. At the age of nine, Picasso’s family moved to A Coruña so that his father could take up a job as professor at the School of Fine Arts.
Four years later, after the death of Pablo’s little sister Conchita from diphtheria, the family moved to Barcelona where young Pablo thrived. He came to regard the city as his true home, spending much of his formative years there.
So great was his talent that at the age of just 13 he entered an advanced class at the academy. This is the age at which his career is said to have begun as the juvenile nature of his drawings dropped away.
At the age of 16 Pablo left for Madrid to enrol in the country’s foremost art school but he was ill-disciplined and stopped attending lessons shortly after arriving, instead choosing to immerse himself in the art of the Prado museum some of which influenced his later works. In 1900, at the age of 18, Picasso made his first trip to Paris, then the centre of European art.
Picasso’s career is generally divided into separate periods, in which distinctly familiar elements or themes can be seen throughout his works.
The ‘blue period’ – 1901-1904
This period was marked by Picasso’s use of blue and blue-green to create sombre paintings, often of gaunt women with children, old musicians, prostitutes and beggars. During this period he divided his time between Barcelona and Paris.
One of his best known paintings from this period is La Vie, which was a posthumous portrait of his friend Carlos Casagemas, whose suicide in 1901 affected Picasso greatly and likely inspired this period.
The ‘rose period’ – 1904-1906
In 1904, Picasso met the bohemian artist Fernande Olivier who became his mistress and muse. Many of the paintings from this period include Olivier. The paintings from this period are much lighter and signal a return to the style of his pre-Blue works.
The colours involve much more use of orange and pink tones to give more joyful appearances. It’s also in the Rose period that we first see Picasso’s inclusion of harlequins, which would be a frequent symbol used throughout his career.
In 1905 he met the American art collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein who became avid patrons of his work. Through them he met Henri Matisse, with whom he would share a lifelong friendship and rivalry.
African art and primitivism – 1907-1909
This period was kicked off in style with Le Demoiselles d’Avignon, a pink and blue painting of 5 prostitutes in a style similar to Iberian sculpture. The two figures on the right had their faces replaced in a style that was inspired by African ethnography.
The bad reaction of friends and colleagues led to Picasso not exhibiting this painting for a number of years. The painting is, however, considered the first formative example of what would shortly become Picasso’s main style – cubism.
Cubism – 1909-1919
Cubism is one of the styles for which Picasso is best known. Initially as paintings, he experimented with collage, cutting up newspapers and magazines and using the angular pieces to create other figures. This was the first example of collage as fine art.
The style of cubism employed came to be known as Synthetic or Crystal Cubism. As the war broke out in 1914, so many of his contemporaries went off to fight. As a Spaniard living in France Picasso had no compulsion to do so and continued painting. His works from this period grow more sombre as the war progresses.
Neoclassicism and surrealism – 1919-1929
After the Great War, Picasso, like many other European artists, painted in the neoclassical style. This was influenced in part by his first visit to Italy in 1917 and his work from this period is influenced by painters such as Raphael.
During this time, Picasso also started experimenting with surrealism, though informed by his cubist past. The reignited his interest in primitivism and erotism.
A Civil War memory
Arguably Picasso’s best known work, Guernica is a portrayal of the German bombing of the town of Guernica in Northern Spain during the Spanish Civil War. It was first exhibited at the Paris Expo in 1937 and then, following Franco’s victory, was sent to New York to be entrusted to the care of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
This, and the resulting Picasso exhibition at MoMA, brought a greater array of his work to the attention of the American public and yet the critics seemed unimpressed. One found his mixture of styles disturbing while another considered his work malicious.
The Second World War and beyond – 1939-49
At the outbreak of the Second World War, the 53 year-old Picasso was living in Paris. He was unable to exhibit as his work did not fit the Nazi ideal of art though he continued to work when he could, despite harassment from the Gestapo.
During this time he also wrote a lot of poetry as an alternative creative outlet.
His later works – 1949-73
In his later years, Picasso continued to work tirelessly. He exhibited paintings and sculptures and continued to play around with various styles, later being considered to have prefigured Neo-Expressionism – the style employed by painters such as David Hockney.
The legacy of Pablo Picasso
Picasso died in 1973 at the age of 91. He left behind thousands of art works and has the accolade of being the world’s most bought painter, as well as its most-stolen! There are exhibitions and museums dedicated to or containing his work throughout the world.
His enduring legacy is such that he has been the subject of numerous documentaries and movies, including Surviving Picasso where he was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. Picasso is currently being portrayed by Antonio Banderas in the National Geographic series Genius: Picasso.