Art of the 20th Century




A Revolution in the Arts




 





Art Styles in 20th century Art Map



 


 

 

 

 
 

 
 


Pablo Picasso



The Image of the Artist  1881-1973
The Making of a Genius  1890-1898
The Art of Youth  1898-1901
The Blue Period  1901- 1904
The Rose Period  1904-1906
In the Laboratory of Art  1906-1907
Analytical Cubism  1907- 1912
Synthetic Cubism  1912-1915
The Camera and the Classicist  1916-1924
A Juggler with Form  1925-1936
War, Art and "Guernica"  1937
The Picasso Style  1937-1943
Politics and Art  1943-1953
The Presence of the Past  1954- 1963
The Case of "Las Meninas"  1957
The Old Savage  1963-1973
The Legend of the Artist


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appendix:

Pablo Picasso - Erotic Drawings 1968-1972
Pablo Picasso and his Women
 

 
 

 

 

 



In the Laboratory of Art
1906-1907



 


Nude
1906

 

From the winter of 1905 on, Picasso did nothing but experimenttill he made the breakthrough and created modern art's first truly new idiom. Characteristically, though, he developed by moving backwards, via a well-considered and multi-layered engagement with tradition.

From 1905 on, Picasso strikingly gave central attention to nudes - the basic academic test of an artist's skill. He also cut back his deployment of colour once again. Now he was using it only to reinforce forms that had been simplified to a concentrated essential.

1905 was the year when the Fauves provoked a scandal at the autumn Salon. (In 1906, through Gertrude Stein, Picasso met the most important of them, Henri Matisse and Andre Derain.) He also renewed his interest in Ingres, Gauguin and Cezanne. As well as the Fauves with their revolutionary use of autonomous colour, that autumn Salon had also had an Ingres retrospective and a small show of ten Cezannes. The latter's way of rendering form and colour in accordance with the laws of painting rather than those of Nature was very much in line with Picasso's new principles. The academic classicism of Ingres, on the other hand, offered the perfection of draughtsmanlike form.

Furthermore, Picasso was significantly influenced by ancient sculpture, particularly from ancient Iberia. In the Louvre there was a section devoted to Iberian art, including artefacts that had been discovered in 1903 in excavations at Osuna. Archaeological research at the time went hand in hand with a widespread interest in primitive art, which was held to articulate the primal force of human expression. Picasso was more interested in what the sculptures could tell him about form. Another kind of rudimentary simplicity did enter his life in summer 1906, though, when he spent a lengthy period in the Spanish province of Gosol amongst the peasants.

 

 


Two Nudes
1906

 


Two Nude Women Arm in Arm
1906

 


Two Nudes
1906

 

 


Woman Combing Her Hair
1906

 


Two Nude Women
1906

 


Bust of Woman with Inclined Head
1906

 


Nude Women
1906

 

 


Seated Nude with Crossed Legs
1906

 

 

Increasingly Picasso was seeing the human form in terms of its plastic volume. He simplified it, stripped it down to essentials, to a very few blocks, stylizing it into something that was less and less naturalistic. Any infringement of natural proportion he accepted with a shrug, even accentuating it in order to highlight the independence of art. This process peaked in a sense in two portraits: the autumn 1906 "Self-portrait with a Palette" and the "Portrait of Gertrude Stein", for which the writer sat repeatedly in 1905 and 1906 and which Picasso finally completed in the autumn of the latter year. Principles that later matured can be seen at work in the two works. In the picture of Stein, the solid mass of the subject affords an excuse to play with form: Picasso blithely ignores perspective, the relations of body parts to each other, and the logic of natural appearance. The head is an irregular block with eyes and a nose that look as if they have a life of their own. The style, though, is still suited to the sitter, and even expresses her all the better for being slightly distorted. The self-portrait goes further. Picasso deliberately abandons professional technique, and places his outlines and areas of colour rawly and inchoately before us, making no attempt to flesh out an appearance of a living person. There are no illusions in these lines and this paint. They are simply there on the canvas to do the job of establishing a form.

 

 


Self-Portrait with a Palette
1906

 

 


Self-Portrait
1906

 

 


Self-Portrait
1906

 

 


Portrait of Gertrude Stein
1906

 

 

Picasso pursued this path in a lengthy series of studies. In summer 1907 they culminated (at least for the time being) in the famous "Demoiselles d'Avignon". It has long been recognised as a key work in modern art. Yet for years, indeed decades, relatively little was known about how the work came to be painted - and so vague opinions, misconceived judgements and legends inevitably filled the gap. For instance, it is widely supposed that Picasso, under the influence of African art, was establishing a new vocabulary of de-formation which not only opened up new expressive opportunities for the visual arts but also represented a personal conquest of traumatic feelings. The artist's putative fear of venereal disease, the great mystery of sexual energy, and his private attitude to women, were all thought to have been exorcized by a ferocious effort of labour that left Picasso liberated. His possessed state was also adduced as the reason why the "Demoiselles" was never completed, merely abandoned at a critical point.
 

 


Woman in Yellow
1907

 

 

Since it has been possible to view the preliminary studies in the Picasso estate, and to trace the path that led to "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon", this has all changed.

Speculation has yielded to fact. It is interesting to see how long it took Picasso to achieve the picture we now have.

He began it in autumn 1906 after his return from Spain, doing sketches all that winter. In March 1907 he had a first composition ready, the study now in Basel which shows seven people in a brothel. Picasso subsequently altered the form and content significantly. The new compositional design (now in Philadelphia) cut the number of figures to five, and it was this version that the painter then transferred to canvas. He did not stop sketching further ideas, though; and it was not till July 1907 that he painted the final work we now have.

It took him a full three-quarters of a year. And the intensity of labour can be proven by statistics: no fewer than 809 preliminary studies! Not only scrawls in sketchbooks but also large-scale drawings and even one or two paintings. This is unparalleled in the history of art. His sheer application shows that Picasso cannot have been working in a possessed, spontaneous frame of mind. On the contrary, he worked in rational and impressively consistent fashion, unswervingly.

 

 


Study for "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"
1907

 

 

The sketches and studies are difficult to date or define, though, and a detailed account of the painting's evolution is therefore problematic. "Normal" representative pictures appear alongside de-formed ones with no date to suggest a line for us to follow. For example, in a sketchbook he was using in March 1907 Picasso drew a sailor's torso and a masked face on the two sides of one and the same sheet. They were done one after the other, possibly even on the same day. The purest of position studies appear alongside sketches for the overall composition, again with no clear guidelines for dating. And there are even studies that have nothing at all to do with a brothel, and sketches that were not used for the painting in any way at all.

This plural copiousness is instructive in itself. For one thing, it proves that Picasso was not influenced by "Negro" sculpture at all (as is still assumed in many quarters). Picasso himself always denied it - and rightly so. The assumption rests on the fact that in summer 1907 he went to the Trocadero Museum in Paris and was deeply impressed, indeed shocked, by a room of African sculpture, because the figures were made in much the same way as the deformed figures in his own work. But those sculptures cannot have influenced him - because he had already arrived at the form he was after. Back in March 1907 he had done a head study that proves as much, and he used it for the masked faces in the "Demoiselles". His shock in the museum was not caused by the sight of something new but by the recognition that what he thought he had invented already existed.

We can follow Picasso's method clearly enough. There were two strands of evolution, one formal, one thematic. In Picasso's mind they were distinct, as we can see from the fact that most of the sketches only ever tackle one formal or one thematic problem. Picasso drew in any sketch-book as the ideas came to him, so that the most different of materials can be found together. But it was a useful working method in that it organically achieved the juxtapositions and synthesis Picasso was ultimately after. At irregular intervals he would therefore sketch combinations of distinct lines of development; some of these document the deconstruction of spatial and figural values and changes of content too. They are jottings; they record solutions to problems; and they establish a repertoire of images for the artist to use whenever he chooses. The yokings become ever more radical till at last the goal is in sight. The final stage involves work at the canvas itself.
 

 


Study for "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"
1907

 

 

As we can now see, in most of the individual sketches Picasso was striving for clear insight into the nature of artistic mimesis. Generally speaking, a line is drawn in such a way as to imitate the contour of an object; and when we look at that line we can identify it as a mimetic image because it resembles our own image of the object. Three things are involved in this process: the imagined image, the line, and the hand. If the hand does not obey the draughtsman's will, be it because he lacks the skill or the concentration, the lines will be distorted or meaningless. But lines can be used to convey meaning and character; concepts such as fat or thin, beautiful or ugly, become visually communicable. A line in itself lacks content or meaning. As Gertrude Stein might have put it: a line is a line is a line. But for that very reason lines can be made into figural complexes that are not mimetic and yet convey a conceptual image.

This was a truism to Picasso as to any draughtsman. The value of seeing it so clearly lay in recognising the twin poles of mimesis: on the one hand the ideal co-incidence of object and representation, and on the other hand the complete absence of any representational value. Every mimetic drawing contains elements of both extremes.

Picasso's conclusion, like all things of genius, was in essence very simple, but it has been of revolutionary importance for 20th-century art: the mimetic image is a compound of elements that do not intrinsically belong together. Their yoking is dictated by chance.

 


Study for "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"
1907

 

 

So it must be possible to mix them quite differently and thus create forms that can still, it is true, be understood as representational in some sense, but which are pure art rather than a mimetic imitation of Nature.

The new formal language must contain as much of a representational nature as is necessary for it to be comprehensible, and at the same time must have as much non-referential visual material as possible without being entirely abstract. Picasso tried out his method on that most familiar of objects, the human body.

His studies of heads and faces are typical. The images we have of things already constitute an abstraction; so it takes little to draw a generalized representation of an object. In sketches done during winter 1906, the method Picasso used to draw a face was a simple, indeed conventional one. Two irregular lines indicated the breadth and shape of a nose, and parallel hatched lines on one side conveyed its size by means of shadow. The same procedure was then applied to other parts of the face. Now all that was required was to stylize all the principal and secondary lines, in a mechanistic fashion, and a far more artificial impression would be conveyed.

 

 


Woman
1907

 

 

In May and June of 1907 he resumed this quest, to see how relatively minor alterations could change a faithful copy of Nature into something remote from it. He drew the bridge of the nose in strictly parallel lines, which devolved the hatched areas into a graphic autonomy. Then he angled the elliptical eyes and constructed a head out of unnatural straight lines and arcs. In March he had already tested distortions of this kind and had created a mask face. It still remained a head, conceptually speaking; but the random changes made it a new, unfamiliar image.

Picasso also used this same method of free combination of formal fundamentals in his use of colour in his oil studies. He changed the mimetic function and meaning of colours - such as skin colour and the way in which a three-dimensional effect was established - by juxtaposing lighter and darker areas. In other studies he made his faces out of contrasts. Uniform prime colours remote from the reality of the subject were deployed in an anti-naturalist manner, the facial character heightened by a few complementary tonalities borrowed from colours in the background. In the process, Picasso travelled a great distance along the road of combining the colourist's and the draughtsman's evolutionary techniques.

 

 


Study for "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"
1907


Study for "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"
1907
 


Study for "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"
1907
 

 

The final oil version of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" brought together the results of Picasso's experimentation in such a way that we can trace the entire spectrum of his options from the central figures out to the sides. It is the programmatic statement of a new formal vocabulary, created from the systematic scrutiny of conventional representational approaches and the development of a new synthesis out of them. It has not the slightest in common with specific historical styles of art such as Iberian or African sculpture.

Everything in the picture is of fundamental importance, starting with the size of the canvas: the picture is often referred to as square, but is not, being in fact 243.9 x 233.7 cm in size. The marginal difference between the height and the breadth is significant because it leaves us irresolute: the picture is a rectangle but looks like a square. Everything in this picture teaches us of the inadequacy and randomness of customary concepts in visual representation.

 

 


Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
1907

 

 

The colour scheme is a synthesis of the monochromatic and the contrastive. The figures are painted in colours ranging from whitish yellow to brown, as are areas of the background; this contrasts with the blue that divides the right group from the left. The blue is agitated, disruptive, fractiously foregrounded; but on closer inspection we find that the contrast is less violent than it appears. Lighter or darker blues appear elsewhere, weakening the shock by establishing a sense of transition. And Picasso modifies the impact anyway, by placing the contrastive blue zone almost in the position of the classical golden section. In Renaissance art theory, to divide the space in proportions such as these was to express ideal harmony - which is the very opposite of what we first feel on seeing Picasso's painting.

Compositionally, the placing of the subjects breaches conventional ideas of clarity and order. Critics tend to see two unequal parts in this picture, the group of three women on the left and that of two on the right defining these parts. But once we register the figures' relations to the background we do better to identify three zones, increasing in size from left to right: first the woman at far left, then the two frontally positioned women against the whitish-grey background, and then, seemingly split off by a harsh colour contrast, the two at the right. But this irregular tripartite scheme is at odds with a more orderly spatial division marked by the still life at the foot of the canvas: the table, seen as a triangular shape pointing upwards, coincides precisely with the centre axis. Logically, that axis is occupied by the middle one of the five women. The angle at which her arms are held behind her head restates the axis by inverting the triangle. Seen like this, the composition proves to be divided exactly in two. And to classical ways of thinking, symmetrical composition was a token of ideal order, of an austere kind.

 

 


Study for "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"
1907

 

 

Three grouping principles at least are at work in this painting. The use of all three together puts each into a new, relativized perspective. It is the same with the spatial values. The classical ideal of perspective as a means of establishing meaning has been conspicuously thrown overboard - thus the received wisdom claims, but it is too one-sided a way of seeing the picture. True, there is no perspective spatial depth in the work. But the overlapping of the figures most certainly does create some sense of space. And Picasso as also fixed a set point of view for us - albeit ironically, since the lower half of the painting looks up to the subjects, while in the upper it is impossible to be definite about the angle. The line separating these two ways of seeing is almost exactly the horizontal mid-composition line, where the classical code of central perspective required the viewer's horizon to be.

We also need to register the different ways of presentation within individual figures and objects. The bodies are seen at once from the front and the side, in a way not naturally possible. Lines, hatchings and blocks of colour are used to make random changes and de-formations in parts of the women's bodies, and Picasso's over-layering makes for entire areas of abstraction. In overall terms this is also true of the relation of the figures to the background, which the artist has treated as one of despatializing formal analogy.

Still, Picasso has not completely abandoned mimetic representation. The lines and colours still plainly show naked women in various positions. It is because this is still apparent that the deviations from a conventional aesthetic shock us. And the shock was only heightened, for Picasso's contemporaries, by the ostentatious and provocative nakedness of the women. The mask-like, barely human faces highlight the relativity of our ideas of beauty: the two more recognisably human women in the centre begin to look lovely by comparison, though taken alone their cartoon faces and distorted bodies would be anything but beautiful. The face of the woman at left, also mask-like but less distorted than the two right-hand faces, is a halfway point between these extremes; just as the darker colouring he has used for her provides a compositional balance.

 

 


Bust of a Woman
1907

 

 

Picasso uses counterpoints and checks and balances of this kind throughout the painting, and this fact alone will suffice to demolish the widely-believed legend that the work is unfinished. A detailed analysis shows "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" to be a meticulously considered, scrupulously calculated visual experience without equal. The formal idiom and utterly new style were by no means a mere relinquishing of prevailing norms in the visual arts but rather a subtly elaborated marriage of relinquishing and preservation. The same is true of the subject matter.

The first complete compositional plan, done in March 1907 and now in Basel, shows an interior with seven people: five naked women and two clothed men. Studies of bearing, clothing and attributes tell us that the man on the left was envisaged as a student and the one in the middle as a sailor. This unambiguous scene, according to Picasso himself, showed a brothel in Barcelona's Carrer d'Avinyo: in other words, it had nothing in particular to do with the French town of Avignon. It was not till 1916 that Salmon put about the innocuous and simply wrong title by which the picture is now known; this title drew on in - jokes familiar among Picasso's circle of friends. The fact that it is a brothel scene has prompted people to feel that Picasso had indeed been coming to terms with sexual troubles in painting the picture, a feeling they have felt confirmed in by the fact that Picasso studied venereal (particularly syphilitic) patients in St. Lazare. Yet this view is not consistent. For one thing, Picasso painted prostitutes earlier, in pictures that alluded to works by Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. And for another, after he did the Basel drawing he changed the composition so utterly that everything was dropped that could unambiguously suggest a brothel interior. This implies that the subject in itself no longer had any significance. The figure of a sailor with a death's-head shows that Picasso was initially planning a historical allegory. But he departed from that as well, and in so doing put the conventional norms of the genre behind him.

Picasso's new idea for his subject was in fact a far more complex and inventive one. Just as he had examined traditional methods of representation and located a new solution, so too he examined the problem of iconography, of conveying content meaning through standard images, of re-using the idiom of existing visual ideas. There is a traditional model for the general theme of women showing off their bodily charms for a verdict. It shows three naked women standing in front of seated or standing males and goes by the name of the judgement of Paris. But Picasso had other antecedents in mind too.

 


Study for "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"
1907
 


Study for "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"
1907
 

 

Picasso's two frontal figures parody the conventional use of drapes and concealment to heighten the aesthetic impact of the naked female body. Here the drapes are used to emphasize the painter's departure from the norm. Since the Renaissance, the ancient sculptural ideal of the human form had provided a constant touchstone. In the 19th century and down to Picasso's time, one female figure of a deity had seemed the very epitome of ideal beauty: the Venus of Milo. Picasso's middle woman quite plainly is modelled on her, the one leg placed to the fore as in the sculpture. There is a Hellenistic version of the sculpture in the Louvre, the pose of which Picasso copied. In any case it was a position that he was perfectly familiar with, since it was regularly used in academic life classes.

The judgement of Paris, and Venus, were logical choices for Picasso: the first involved that ideal beauty which the second personified. And it was the problem of artistically presenting aesthetic norms that decided Picasso on a composition involving five different women. He had an ancient anecdote in mind. Zeuxis the painter, faced with the task of portraying the immortally beautiful Helen, took as his models the five loveliest virgins of the island of Kroton and combined their finest features in order to achieve a perfection of beauty that did not exist in Nature.

The still life in the "Demoiselles" adds a theoretical statement. Critics have routinely commented that this detail seems unmoti-vated in what is supposedly a brothel scene, and have also pointed out that the fruit is done in a fairly true-to-life style unlike that of the figures. Picasso is alluding to another anecdote about Zeuxis, who was said to have painted fruit - grapes in particular - so skilfully that birds were fooled and pecked at them. The Zeuxis tales are commonplaces of art history, but they also have an important place in that history, since Zeuxis is considered the forefather of illusionist art, the very kind of art and aesthetic rules that Picasso's non-normative painting "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" swept aside.

 

 


Study for "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"
1907
 

 

Impartial analysis shows the painting together with its preliminary studies to be radical in the true sense: Picasso re-conceived the entirety of the European art tradition from the roots up, and used its constituents to create a new visual language. It was not his intention to break with tradition. Rather, he was out to destroy convention - an altogether different undertaking. This painting, more than any other work of European Modernism, is a wholly achieved analysis of the art of painting and of the nature of beauty in art.

 

 


Self-Portrait
1907


 


Head of a Woman, Figure, Standing Nude, Nude, Standing Man
1907

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