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



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






The Camera and the Classicist



The work Picasso did from 1916 to 1924 was among the most baffling in his entire output. The public, his critics, and fellow artists were now familiar with him as the founder of Cubism and indeed of modern art, the painter who was most radical and consistent in casting aside the conventional laws of art and putting new rules in their stead. Mimetic copying of the given world could be seen as superseded. But now the great iconoclast bewildered the experts and general public alike by returning to a representational art of a monumental, statuesque kind.

Once again, Picasso's pictures were figural. Wholly in the classical tradition, and in accord with European forms of classicism, they were built on the line as the definition of form, offering generously - fashioned outlines large in conception and volume. But this alone could not have accounted for the confusion of Picasso's contemporaries. His return to tradition could have been dismissed as a relapse. It was not so simple: one and the same artist was painting classicist nudes, portraits, scenes, and works in the spirit of Synthetic Cubism - at first sight quite incompatible - all in the same period. Thus the years from 1916 to 1924 are marked by the coexistence of polar opposites. And yet Picasso's work matched the mood of the age, and pursued his own intentions as an artist.

In August 1914 the First World War began. Braque and Derain, Picasso's closest artist friends, were called up. His dealer Kahnweiler, now an abominated German alien, remained in Switzerland for the duration of the war, and did not return to Paris from his exile until 1920. Apollinaire applied for and was granted French citizenship, so that he could volunteer; both he and Braque were wounded at the front. The poet was allowed back to Paris in 1916 because of his wound; he died in the 1918 'flu epidemic. Meanwhile, Picasso's companion Eva died in 1915. Picasso himself, an established artist, moved in theatre and ballet circles, and thus, from 1916, had an entree into high society. He knew the aristocracy and did frescoes for the Chilean millionaire Eugenia Errazuriz. He spent bathing holidays at society resorts such as Biarritz and Antibes. He travelled widely throughout Europe. His bohemian days in Montmartre were at an end, for good. And in summer 1918 he married. The previous year, working on a theatre project, he had met the Russian ballerina Olga Koklova.


Picasso followed her and the Ballets Russes to Rome, then to Madrid and Barcelona, and finally, in 1919, to London. These lengthy stays - eight weeks in Rome, three months in London -provided him with the chance to see more of Europe's heritage. He saw Naples and Pompeii; he saw the originals of the most important works of classical art; and in London he saw the Parthenon frieze, already familiar to him from plaster-cast copying exercises. He relished the masterpieces of the Renaissance in Rome, and took an interest in representations of Italian everyday life and lore which he bought in antique and junk shops.

Changes in the art world accompanied those in his personal life, the current chauvinism influencing views of art too. Before the outbreak of war, in March 1914, Picasso's Rose Period masterpiece, "The Acrobats", had fetched a record price at a Paris auction. The buyer was Munich's Thannhauser gallery, and the press spread the notion that the Germans were trying to use the absurd art of a few crazy foreigners to unsettle the art market. Since then, sections of French public opinion had considered Cubism un-French, even an expression of things Teutonic and thus detested.




When the ballet "Parade" was first performed in Paris in 1917, with costumes and set design by Picasso, the audience called the performers "dirty boches". During the war, political cartoons at times portrayed the German Kaiser and German militants as Cubists! This may well strike us as bizarre, since Kaiser Wilhelm II was hardly known for his avant-garde tastes, and none of the Cubist artists was German. But there was a tradition of detesting all things "boche", a tradition rooted in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. It peaked in the First World War's victory over the German empire. It was connected with a French sense of classical tradition and an often crude rejection of the modern. France saw itself as the direct descendant of antiquity, the guardian of human values against the barbaric German enemy. Many factors and interests were interwoven with this image, among them campaigns for a restoration of the French monarchy. Not all of these factors were of real significance for the arts, but their effects were felt even among the cosmopolitan, internationalist Parisian avant-garde.


A return to the classical tradition and a revival of classicism resuited, not only in France: the return to the values of the ancient world was common in all the Mediterranean countries. French Cubists such as Braque and Leger, but also the Italian Futurist Gino Severini, and Giorgio de Chirico, the foremost artist of "pittura metafisica", returned to the repertoire of classical styles and subjects. Barcelona had its classicism too, "Noucentisme", as Picasso found when he went to Spain in 1917: "The Barcelona Harlequin", in the Museu Picasso, suggests as much. Interestingly, Apollinaire's 1917 defence of Cubism in the "Mercure de France" is also of a classical bent, stressing the "Latin" side of Cubist art. It is certain that these years of Modernism were by no means of a piece. Leger, for instance, was trying to combine the achievements of Cubism with classical forms, in order to place art at the service of political aims and take the side of the workers in the debates of the day. He was not alone in this. It was one of the main international currents in art in the 1920s: we need only recall George Grosz in Germany or Diego Rivera in Mexico, or even the Utopias of radically abstract art. And then there was a further, strong move towards rendering the formal features of avant-garde art purely decorative and thus combining it with a continuation of art nouveau. This particular line of evolution peaked in the great Paris arts and crafts exhibition of 1925, the abbreviated title of which gave this form its name - "Art deco".



The Barcelona Harlequin



Remarkably enough, Picasso was very interested in the applied arts at that time, primarily in art design for the theatre. From 1916 to 1924 he was involved in no fewer than eight ballet or drama productions. The first of these - designs for the curtain, set and costumes of the ballet "Parade" - was also the most important. In 1915 he had met the writer Jean Cocteau, who had an idea for a new ballet and had interested Sergei Diaghilev, the head of the Ballets Russes, in it. The avant-garde composer Erik Satie was engaged to write the music, and Picasso to design the ballet.

Though he had abandoned figural work in his Cubist phase, Picasso accepted the challenge. What decided him was Cocteau's concept, blending theatre, variety show and circus with technological features of modern city life. A travelling circus was to appear as a play within the play, accompanied by wailing sirens, clattering typewriters and public address voices. This idea derived from Futurist theatre but also from the tradition of circus images established since Toulouse-Lautrec, Seurat, and the Rose Period of Picasso. He worked together with Cocteau, Satie and choreographer Leonide Massine, evolving an overall concept that adapted Cocteau's original idea somewhat. It was a chance for Picasso to marry Cubist style and figural representation in a novel way.

The curtain, an immense tableau, was such a marriage. It shows a group of seven people in front of a theatre set; an eighth, a girl acrobat, is balancing on a white mare at left. The wings of the mythic Pegasus have been strapped onto the horse, who, licking her foal, seems unimpressed. The harlequin, torero, lovers, sailor and equilibrist are all familiar from Picasso's earlier work. They are presented two-dimensionally, with an emphasis on outline and in a manner plainly influenced by Picasso's collage work. Yet there is enough shadow and light in the scene to give an audience seated at some distance a distinctly evocative sense of spatial depth, combined with the Cubist effect of two-dimensionally flattened illusionist means of representation.


Design for the Curtain of "Parade"


Curtain of "Parade"


Dying Horse



Plurality of styles remains a feature of Picasso's designs throughout. The costumes echo conventional clothing, as in the American girl's pleated skirt and sailor jacket. They use additive combinations of decorative items conceived in a two-dimensional spirit, but they also employ the means of Synthetic Cubism. This is particularly striking in the figures of the French and American managers. Both figures are about three metres high, formed from various surfaces of painted papier mache, wood, cloth and even metal, slotted and notched into each other. The motifs -skyscrapers, Parisian boulevard trees - suggest the countries the managers come from, and underpin the Futurist principle of simultaneity. The managers are the formal idiom of Cubism in motion as they stomp their robotic way across the stage, personifying the mechanization and inhumanity of modern life.


"Parade": Costume of French Manager; Costume of the American Manager
(photo dated 1917)



Picasso's designs for "Parade" were very complex. The classicist curtain can be read as a statement of the newly-awakened avant-garde interest in classical Latinate culture. But the Cubist shapes, then widely detested, courted controversy. In the eyes of fellow artists, Picasso's "Parade" provided exemplary solutions to questions that were then interesting many artists throughout Europe, questions of how to create a new unity out of performance, choreography, music, set design and costumes. Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Marcel Duchamp, and Oskar Schlemmer did comparable work.

This tenacious use of every possible stylistic option did not recur in Picasso's later stage designs. In 1919 he designed "Le Tricorne", a ballet set in 18th-century Spain. The curtain showed bullfight spectators, the stage set a stylized, two-dimensional landscape. The costumes drew upon traditional Spanish costumes; though the combined frontal and upward angles of vision owe something to Cubism, the dominant note is superficial, decorative. The same applies to "Pulcinella", a ballet with music by Stravinsky and choreography by Massine, produced in 1920. Picasso, in obedience to his commission, drew mainly on the Commedia dell'arte for his ideas. His stage set offered a view through the auditorium of a baroque theatre onto Naples by night. In 1921 he used rejected "Pulcinella" designs for the ballet "Cuadro Flamenco".


Costume Designs for the Ballet "Le Tricorne"



During the work on "Pulcinella" disputes broke out between the artist and the theatre, and in 1922 they almost severed relations when Picasso came up with a near-abstract set design for "L'Apresmidi d'une faune" . This replaced designs by Leon Bakst which had been lost; Diaghilev turned it down. Not until 1924 did they work together again, when Picasso designed the curtain for another ballet, "Le Train bleu". This in a sense marked the nadir of Picasso's involvement with the theatre, in that the design was merely an enlargement of "Women Running on the Beach", a watercolour he had done in summer 1922. The same year, however, he successfully married choreography and plot in his designs for a production of "Mercure". Like "Parade", this production again used the talents of Satie and Massine - though its success was doubtless due also to the ballet itself, which viewed antiquity through the caricaturist style of Dadaist farce and afforded ample leeway for formal experimentation.


Women Running on the Beach
(Curtain for the ballet "Le train bleu", 1924




Picasso's curtain showed a harlequin playing a guitar and a pier-rot with a violin. The lines and colour areas were sharply at variance; the colour zones did not coincide with the outlines of the figures. For the stage action, Picasso devised similar constructions which were called "practicables". They consisted of various panels cut to size, with figures of a geometrical/constructivist or simply playfully representational nature attached to them with wire. These "practicables" were moved by actors who remained unseen, so that three-dimensional poses could be struck outside the parameters of conventional choreography.

Picasso had already created the visual form of these line-and-surface figures in 1918 or 1919. His work on "Mercure" was as closely related to independent painting and drawing as his designs for "Parade". Evidently Picasso's theatre designs were aimed at establishing new directions in the art. But the limits that were set by functional necessity and prescription were more than he would gladly put up with. Only twice were his ideas even remotely successfully adopted in practice, and in the early 1920s his interest in theatrical collaboration faded. His contribution to Cocteau's 1922 adaptation of "Antigone" consisted solely of a pared-back set design: three sketchy Doric columns on white wooden panelling. This was in line with Cocteau's call for classical simplicity, and indeed with the prevailing ideas of the time; but "Parade" and "Mercure" show just how much greater was the range covered by Picasso's own ideas.

It would be wrong to see his interest in the applied arts and the influence of a classicizing mood in the arts in France as the main cause of Picasso's own classicism. His concern for original classical artworks was in fact a return to models that had always been significant for him. And during his Cubist years, for instance, he had repeatedly painted variations on works by Ingres, the great classicist. There were many sides to Picasso's classicism.


The inadequacy of any one-sided view can be readily seen if we grasp the irreconcilability of his own works with the European classical ideal in art. Historically, classicism pledged explicit allegiance to the aesthetics of ancient Greece, implying a style of representation best described as idealized naturalism, a style that fundamentally took its bearings in mimetic fashion but aimed to beautify the image through symmetry and balanced proportions. The human form was always at the heart of classical art. This remark applies to Picasso's work from 1916 to 1924 as well, of course. The human image is central to his work, the tendency to monumentalize it unmistakable. But symmetry and balanced proportions, those determining features of an idealizing treatment of natural form, are conspicuous not merely by their absence but by Picasso's constant refutation of them. He paints scenes; he paints heavy, three-dimensionally modelled nudes; but in contrast to classical tradition his treatment ignores principles of balance and goes for monstrous and disproportioned physical mass. Classicist painters such as Ingres violated the natural physical proportions of the human body, it is true, but they were aiming at overall compositional harmony. That was quite manifestly not Picasso's goal.


On the other hand, the dichotomies within his work are less gaping than might appear on a cursory first inspection. Back in 1914, his late Synthetic Cubism pictures were conventionally composed, plainly focussed on the centre. In pictures such as "Man with a Pipe (The Smoker)", a mixed-media work using oil and pasted paper, Picasso produced a figural image despite the use of various materials and an abstractive style. While the 1915 "Harlequin" transferred the appearance of collage and papier colle to work in oil, Picasso also reverted in that painting to the formal norms and techniques of representational art. The harlequin of the title is the main (if transfigured) subject, and thus central to the composition. The other zones of colour define the figure in a perfectly traditional manner, against a clear background.


Picasso was exchanging the two poles of formal visual definition, the mimetic and the Cubist. This exchange was a return to first principles. A return seems logical since Cubism could go no further. To attempt to go on would have meant adopting total abstraction - a step that other artists did take at the time.

A new visual medium prompted Picasso's return: photography. Hitherto, this is a consideration that has been too little taken into account by Picasso's critics. Yet Picasso was an enthusiastic photographer as far back as Cubist days. He took a great many photographs of his studio, friends and fellow artists. Though photography initially served merely to establish a documentary record, as pictures of paintings in different stages of completion suggest, Picasso will inevitably have noticed the distinctive features of the photographic image. The "Portrait of Olga in an Armchair" painted in 1917, the 1923 "Paul, the Artist's Son, on a Donkey", his studies of dancers (Olga among them) and of Diaghilev and Alfred Seligsberg or Renoir, were all painted or drawn from photographs. Nor must we forget his many copies and variations of works of art seen in photographic reproduction, such as "Italian Peasants" or "Sisley and His Wife". Line studies predominate among these works, reduced to essentials and almost completely disregarding shades of colours or indications of volume.


Olga Picasso in the Studio
(Photogtrph, about 1917)

Portrait of Olga in an Armchair


Paul, the Artist's Son, on a Donkey


Paul, the Artist's Son, in a Round Hat


Seven Dancers
(after a photograph; Olga in the foreground)


Three Dancers


Seven Dancers
(after a photograph; Olga in the foreground)


Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev and Alfred Seligsberg


Portrait of Pierre-Auguste Renoir


Italian Peasants


Sisley and His Wife
(after Renoir)



Linear austerity, a predilection for a purely linear style, was a feature of late 18th-century classicist art. People therefore assumed a link between that period and Picasso. But the similarity is only superficial. Rather, Picasso was trying to apply the stylistic resources of photography to painting and drawing. Black and white photography translates natural colours into a tonal scale from white through grey to black, and renders subjects in varying degrees of clarity or unclarity according to the depth of field. An impression of documentary precision is conveyed; in reality, the recorded scene is defamiliarized. Photography either radically polarizes available contrasts or blurs them if the focus or light are not right. The distance from the photographed subject can reinforce or distort the sense of perspective. At all events, the picture that results has a character all its own. It may be more precise than hand-drawn likenesses, but it is not faithful. And it was these peculiar features of photography that attracted Picasso to the medium.

The nature of his concerns can readily be deduced from the study after a photo of ballet impresarios Diaghilev and Seligsberg, drawn in outline, with only occasional charcoal accentuation to suggest volume. Picasso has accentuated the very features a photograph highlights: eyes, nose, mouth, folds in clothing. The seated man seems rather too bulky below the waist compared with his build above it, an impression caused by the slightly distorted perspective of the angle from which the original picture was taken.

Picasso approached the unfinished portrait of his wife Olga in similar fashion. The figure is cropped at the knee and placed vertically in the right-hand two-thirds of the composition. In her left hand, resting lightly on her crossed left leg, she is holding a half-open fan. Her right arm, crooked at the elbow, is outstretched across the back of the armchair. Her wide-open eyes are gazing dreamily into nowhere, or within her own inner depths. The lustreless dark brown dress contrasts with her light flesh, the colour of which is also the colour of the canvas ground. The armchair is covered in a striking fabric of red and yellow flowers, purple grapes and green leaves - a floral pattern which makes the loudest visual impact but is somewhat muted by the patterning of the dress and fan. These agitated areas of the picture do not distract from the true subject, the portrait, but in fact lend emphasis to it. This highlighting is further assisted by Picasso's indifference to the textural, material qualities of the fabrics: Olga's face, by contrast, is painted with great sensitivity. And that was what Picasso was out to do in this painting. The canvas, however, was not yet filled.

Portrait of Olga



Picasso clearly intended to finish the picture. But doing so posed a problem: he would have had to complete the composition - and the photo afforded him no help in his quest for the right counterbalance in what remained to be painted. Everything in the photo was of roughly equal clarity, and thus of roughly equal status. A photograph is like a sampler of forms, all of equal value; it is only the response in the beholder's eye that introduces differentiation. A painting, however, unlike a photo, is built on a hierarchical sense of forms - otherwise it cannot easily be grasped. The camera is impartial towards its subjects and therefore able to open up surprising perspectives or even, in extreme cases, convey almost Cubist visual experiences using purely representational means. So Picasso abandoned work on the painting at this point. It is all the more attractive for being unfinished; the neutral canvas counteracts the tension between the woman's figure and the colourful, rather loud pattern of the armchair. Had he continued painting, Picasso would probably have become entangled in a formal jungle. Picasso viewed the photograph as a thoroughly artificial original, the formal principle of which resided in a curiously dialectical relationship of polarities to levelled-out uniformities. Every recognisable detail was distinct from every other; yet the sheer number of details defied the eye. Polarity and uniformity were inseparable. Thus, the formal constituents of the image - line, surface, depth modelling — were themselves distinct. And what was true of photographs in general was also true of reproductions of artworks, images constituting a twofold defamiliarization, as it were.



Mother and Child (Olga and Son)



When Picasso, working with photography, returned to the mimetic image, it was by no means a step back. His work from 1916 to 1924 was every bit as avant-garde as his Cubist work. He was altogether progressive in his approach. He was simply trying something different. At that time, a great deal of thought was going into the nature and potential of photography, and it had achieved recognition as an art from which other visual artists could in fact learn.

Painters and draughtsmen have always sought ways to make the purely technical problems of visual mimesis easier to solve. First aids such as the camera obscura were important forerunners of photography. When photography was invented in the late 1830s, artists such as Delacroix immediately used the new medium for their work. But it was merely an auxiliary aid. Its value lay in its unique documentary reliability. Even to Baudelaire, progressive though his aesthetic thinking was, photography was not an art. Ambitious photographers therefore set out to rival painting on its own territory, with the result that artistic photography till the beginning of the 20th century looked like a caricature of fine art.

Of course, open-minded artists had long been availing themselves of photography's particular representational strengths. Degas borrowed the photographic sense of a cropped section of seen reality to create completely innovative compositions. The photographic movement studies by Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Jules Marey in the last decades of the 19th century were an important source of Futurism, and ultimately of abstract art too. But not till the early 20th century did photographers strive for international recognition of their art on the basis of its distinctive features. Picasso was involved in these strivings almost from the outset. The American photographer Alfred Stieglitz was a major mover in the endeavour, founding the Photo Secession in New York in 1902, editing the journal "Camera Work" from 1903 on, and running the Little Galleries of the Photo Secession from 1905. In 1907, the year Picasso painted "Les Demoiselles", Stieglitz took the photo he considered his best, "The Steerage", and was very pleased to find Picasso thought highly of it too. In 1911 Stieglitz organized the first American exhibition of Picasso's work at his gallery.


Portrait of Olga


Portrait of Olga (Olga in pensive Mood)

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