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 Blue Period


Self-Portrait "Yo"

Picasso's works in the period from 1898 to 1901 were most diverse in character; it was plainly a time when he was getting his bearings, as is confirmed by the fact that he was forever examining the creative principles of contemporary progressive art. His examination was a deliberate and selective process; one of Picasso's great abilities was his discernment of the strengths and weaknesses of new artistic movements, his gift for borrowing what he could use. As a pupil he had early on perceived the shortcomings of academic art and realised that it was irreconcilable with his own convictions; now, similarly, he saw the dead ends of the avant-garde, the tendency of art nouveau to use superficial ornamentation and stiff linearity, the vapid esotericism of symbolism. In the year 1901 Picasso was already in a position to make a response and create something new of his own - the long series of works known as his Blue Period.

The term places in the foreground the monochrome tendency of the work. It is striking, certainly; but merely to identify the colouring is to say little. Nowadays the pictures are valued for their accessible formal repertoire, which has a unified, homogeneous quality to it; but the fact is that they are by no means simple, but rather products of complex, multi-layered artifice. They constitute no less than a resume of European artistic progress since the mid-19th century - though Picasso did forgo the newly-discovered potential of colour. In this respect he was diametrically at odds with Fauvism, which flourished at the same time. So his contemporaries had initial difficulties making out the intention and value of Picasso's work. Picasso could of course have gone about things an easier way: a lesser talent would have been satisfied with what had been achieved so far and would have continued turning out art that spelled success with the public.





Though the fundamentals of the Blue Period were evolved in Paris, Barcelona remained the centre of Picasso's actual labours till he finally moved to the French capital in April 1904. In fact his work in Catalonia was interrupted only by a brief (and commercially dismal) stay in Paris from October 1902 to January 1903. His pictures, not merely melancholy but profoundly depressed and cheerless, inspired no affection in the public or in buyers. Picasso had broken with Manach, and his financial position was very bad indeed. The report that Picasso even burnt a large number of his drawings for heating that winter may be mere legend, but in terms of the art market he was certainly in the cold. And this isolation continued till 1905, when collectors began to take an interest in his work of the Blue and Rose Periods. It was not poverty that led him to paint the impoverished outsiders of society, but rather the fact that he painted them made him poor himself. But he was neither lonely nor in critical straits. He was still an important figure in the Catalan scene. And he had his foothold in the Parisian Spanish community, and met new friends who consolidated his position, such as the writer Max Jacob.

To understand Picasso's circumstances at that time helps us not only to grasp his life but also to grasp his subject matter. The beggars, street girls, alcoholics, old and sick people, despairing lovers, and mothers and children, all fit the despondent mood of the Blue Period so perfectly that it is as if Picasso had invented them. But of course all he invented was his treatment; otherwise he was squarely in the avant-garde line of development since the mid-!9th century. The relinquishment of academic ideals and of the traditional valuations placed on supposedly higher or lower kinds of art, and the new stress that was placed on autonomy of form, had by no means implied indifference to content. It was just that content had changed. The subjects now considered fit to paint were different ones.



Angel Fernandez de Soto with a Woman



Picasso's early work often included erotic or downright pornographic scenes. In old age he returned to these themes, though not till then. It is not so much a reflection of Picasso's own life in a promiscuous milieu (though it is that too) as an extension of basically political convictions. Taboos set up by mindless social convention are breached by the freedom of art.



Angel Fernandez de Soto at  a Cafe


Two Figures and a Cat



The Mackerel



Gustave Courbet's realism located subjects in everyday village life. Courbet liked to give plain physical work the full monumental treatment, knowing the subject had hitherto not been taken seriously. In Honore Daumier's drawings, society's weaknesses were lampooned, but Daumier also took the lives of smiths, butchers or washerwomen seriously in paintings and graphic art that owed no slavish debt to any classical norm. And Impressionism, of course, would be radically misunderstood if we saw it purely as formal virtuosity, games played with colour, and atmospherics. Impressionism has all this to offer, but more too: the Impressionists did not only paint sunny landscapes, or scenes recorded in the moods of different seasons or times of day, they also discovered the modern city as a source of subjects. If they recognised no hierarchy of formal values, they also knew no precedence of subjects. There were no taboos in their approach to the new reality, no refusal to face subjects that were beneath their dignity. Smoke-filled railway stations and cathedrals, boulevard life in Paris and night clubs and the gloom of drinkers and whores, all appeared in their work. The revolution in form was accompanied by a revolution in subject matter. Their position as artistic outsiders prompted them to examine social realities.



Couple in Cafe



Picasso's Blue Period portrayals of beggars and prostitutes, workers and drinkers in bars, took up this line. His absinthe drinkers had antecedents in Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec." And the Pier-reuse staring dreamily into nowhere was of course a street girl. Many similar compositions followed from 1901 to 1904. Often they had thematic links to Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, and links in terms of monumental treatment to Courbet, who - influenced by the revolutionary thinking of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon - had dared as early as 1856 to make two prostitutes by the Seine the subject of a large-scale painting. Picasso's arresting "Woman Ironing" was also a product of a recent tradition, with affinities to works by Daumier and Degas.

Of course it was not only the visual arts that were in flux. Political, philosophical and cultural thinking were expressed in literary form. Along with the work of Proudhon, there were the novels of the Naturalist Emile Zola. "Nana" in particular, the story of a prostitute, was well known, indeed notorious. Just as Edouard Manet painted a "Nana" himself (Hamburg, Kunsthalle), so too Baudelaire and Zola responded to the new art in writing.

We should also remember that the Paris milieu was not the sole influence on Picasso's Blue Period. Spanish culture played a considerable part too. After the 1868 revolution, which had led to a short-lived democratic republic, social injustice became a concern of Spanish art and writing too. Of the various ideas that were imported into the country, anarchism was particularly influential; the Barcelona literary and artistic circles Picasso moved in were very interested in the tenets of anarchism, albeit in conjunction with other ideas too. A self-portrait Picasso painted in the winter of 1901/1902 captures the mood. It is as if Dostoyevsky's novels, Nietzsche's ideas and the theories of Mikhail Bakunin had stood godfather to the painting.



Self-Portrait with Cloak



The "Modernista" painters and the post-modernists, foremost among them Nonell, used their work to explore social conditions following the collapse of the Spanish colonial empire and the consequent deterioration of the country's economic situation. Santiago Rusifiol used a subtle symbolism to describe Spain's ailing condition, painting dead and withered gardens time after time. Casas and Nonell, on the other hand, painted work that responded directly to political events and the miseries of the lower classes. Thus in 1894 Casas painted the public execution of anarchist bomber Santiago Salvador, while Nonell did numerous studies and paintings of slum life, men crippled in war, and social outcasts. Together with Soler, Picasso had pursued radical ideas in "Arte Joven"; he attached especial importance to the writer Pio Baroja, whose tales lamented the lot of casual labourers and the unemployed. The influence of anarchist literature and of Nonell's socio-critical art is apparent in many of Picasso's works of 1899 and 1900. But his new style of the Blue Period neither simply continued this line nor conformed with his sources. His formal approach was different for a start. Whereas Nonell (and Picasso himself in his "Arte Joven" days) had done compositions involving several figures and having a narrative character, the Blue Period works established just a handful of emphatic motifs. In Nonell's panoramic works, human misery was seen as a slice of real life in its real environment and implied comment on larger societal conditions. But in Picasso's case fate was an individual thing, endured in isolation.


"The Absinthe Drinker", an emotionally arresting painting, draws its power from this. Everything seems stony: the glass, the bottle, the woman herself. A sense of volume is conveyed by juxtaposing variant tones of the same colour within purely linear spaces. Spatial values are produced less by perspective than by the overlapping of forms. It is a meticulous, clear, balanced composition, with lighter and darker echoes of the skin tonalities unifying the effect. The tonal differences are so slight that the impression borders on the monochrome, serving solely to intensify the atmospheric charge. The draughtsman's forms make a more powerful impact than the painter's colouring. The long, talon-like hands gripping the angular face and upper arm, with the overall elongation of proportions, serve to emphasize the isolation and introspectiveness of the sitter.



The Absinthe Drinker



"Crouching Beggar" shows Picasso developing his new stylistic resources. The crouching woman, cloaked in a blanket, her form contoured with flowing, forceful lines, is seen in some indeterminate location established by the mere indication of spatial levels. Blues of various kinds predominate. Even the ochre-brown blanket and the sallow face are shadowed with blue. The brushwork still juxtaposes thick and even, abrupt and smooth, as in the previous Paris paintings.

But the Blue Period Picasso did not merely pursue one-sided variations of an expressive approach. He produced very varied work, monumental, smoothly-constructed pieces alternating with detailed work the brushwork of which is nervy and dabbed. It is not only an art of considerable artifice, it is also an art which portrays an artificial world. For Picasso, confrontation with social reality was only a motivation; it was not an end in itself. For him it was more important to experiment, to try and test new visual approaches.



Crouching Beggar



In "The Absinthe Drinker" the subject is not only the melancholy pub atmosphere and the dreariness of alcohol. The painting's meaning also lies in the autonomy of formal means. The erosion of defined spatiality, the abandoning of perspective construction, is only the most striking of several interesting features. It must be taken together with the accentuation of compositional fundamentals such as plenitude and emptiness, density and weight, emphasis and its lack. Picasso's composition uses three levels, the narrowest strip (contrary to usual practice) being the bottommost. It is also the brightest and thus, despite its weightless narrowness, nonetheless possesses force and presence.


Prostitutes in a Bar




The other main motifs are similarly treated. The woman is seated to the right, but turned to the left in such a way that her head and cupped hand establish a vertical axis that is not quite the centre line of the composition but nevertheless roughly corresponds to the traditional golden section. This axis is also at odds with the vertical of the picture edge. The woman is not in the geometrical centre, but the figure does link the upper and lower zones with a certain weight, creating a stable tension between them. The bottle and glass echo this function.

If "The Absinthe Drinker" is thus a textbook work of eccentric composition, in "Crouching Beggar" Picasso emphasizes compositional centrality to express the woman's self-absorbed state. She is crouching right on the central vertical axis, the turns of her body turning about it. Solid motifs, with spatially flat planes in the background, convey a sense of fullness and emptiness.

Ex-centricity and centralization were constants in this period. "The Blind Man's Meal" has a blind man up against the right of the composition, reaching across the table with unnaturally elongated arms, so that the rest of the picture seems somehow to be in his embrace or province. The radically monochromatic blue is married to a kind of formal crisscross procedure: the composition uses striking echo techniques, the pallor in the blind man's neck answered by parts of the table, the paler blue patches on his clothing corresponding to the pale blues on the rear wall.



The Blind Man's Meal



The Old Jew (Blind Old Man and Boy)



Though there is no clear line of evolution, certain Blue Period motifs and formal groupings do recur. In essence, Picasso was working within a limited range: men and women seated at tables, alone or in twos, meals being eaten, figures crouching or hugging themselves as they stand or sit, people with head in hand or arms crossed - this modest repertoire, in variations, accounts for the Blue Period work.

Of course, if there were no more to it, those with no prior interest would no longer have any particular reason to be interested in these pictures. In fact Picasso was a master of intensifying contrast and evocative effects. His mastery came from his assured grasp of certain formal and thematic antecedents, and of the various media (such as drawing, graphics or paint). One of his earliest etchings was "The Frugal Repast", done in 1904 and one of the masterpieces of 20th-century printed graphic art. In it, Picasso's approach to line etching resembles his handling of colour tones in the paintings.



The Frugal Repast



 Velvety black zones fade to grey and to bright clarity. As in "The Blind Man's Meal" Picasso plays with formal correspondences; but the cylindrical thinness of the arms, the elongated spread fingers, and the bony angularity of the figures with their dark and light areas, all recall El Greco. Not that the conspicuous influence of El Greco was the only presence in the Blue Period. It was not only the distortion of proportion that gave expressive force to these monochrome works, but also the grand, decorative linearity, a legacy of art nouveau and dialectically related to the subjects of the works. Monumentally conceived, solitary, emotionally intense figures, of course, were also standard fare in Symbolist art.

It is surely true that Picasso absorbed the influence of major artists such as Edvard Munch. But another important influence was the minor French painter Eugene Carriere, who was well-known in Barcelona. A friend of Picasso's, Sebastian Junyent, was a pupil of Carriere, and Casas had earlier attended a Paris art school where Carriere taught. His monochrome pictures using only a very few figures plainly influenced Picasso's numerous mother-and-child works. Other artists also influenced Picasso's monochrome style.


Jeanne (Female Nude)



 Indeed, it was a widely followed approach at the turn of the century, used by Symbolists, Impressionists and even Classicists. As well as Carriere's grey-brown paintings there were Pierre Puvis de Chavanne's allegorical works and James Abbott McNeill Whistler's tonal studies in blue and rose, seen in a large-scale Paris exhibition soon after the artist's death in 1903.

The colour blue was important in these experiments, and indeed, as we shall see, its meaning had a history. Its melancholy mood was often discussed in theoretical writings on art and in literature at the time. Painter-poet Rusinol, one of the leading Catalan "Modernistas", published a short Symbolist tale, "El patio azul" (The Blue Courtyard), in the 10 March 1901 issue of Soler and Picasso's magazine "Arte Joven". The main character is a painter engaged in trying to capture the melancholy atmosphere of a courtyard surrounded by houses. In the process he meets a consumptive girl, who dies when he finishes his painting. Shortly after, in his studio at Boulevard de Clichy 130 in Paris, Picasso painted "The Blue Room". He was joining the debate on the significance of the colour.

Blue not only denotes melancholy; it also carries erotic charges.


The Blue Room


The Blue Glass

And it has a long tradition in Christian symbolic iconography, in which it stands for the divine. German Romanticism gave blue the task of representing the transcendent ("The Blue Flower"), albeit in secular fashion. Ever since the first third of the 19th century there had been a regular mania for blue, as it were, which peaked in 1826 in the tourist discovery of the Blue Grotto on Capri. As early as 1810, Goethe had advocated the use of dominant colours to set moods: blue light could be used for mourning, and one could look at one's surroundings through tinted glass in order to marshal divergent colours in a single tonality. In 1887 the French Symbolist painter Louis Anquetin actually adopted this method.

Picasso's "The Visit" shows how consciously he was gathering these traditional values into a new synthesis. The attitudes and gestures of the figures are straight from Christian iconography. The visitation of Mary was portrayed in this way; and blue is the colour symbolically associated with the Virgin, the Queen of Heaven. But Picasso was also at work on personal material in the painting. The women's heads are covered, as they are in many of his paintings of that period - and as they were at the women's prison of St. Lazare in Paris, to which Picasso had access in 1901 through a doctor he knew. It was an old building, in essence a converted 17th-century convent, and nuns of the Order of St. Joseph did the work of warders. Solitary confinement was a favourite punishment, though mothers were allowed to be with their children. It was a dismal place, full of women whose fates were desolate; and it made a profound impression on the young Spanish artist. It was no coincidence that he chose the visitation, the meeting of Mary with the mother of John the Baptist, as a way of recording that impression. We have it from Picasso himself that "The Visit" shows an inmate and a nun, deliberately portrayed in equal fashion to emphasize their existential equality. Many of the mother-and-child pictures he painted at the time were affected by what he saw at St. Lazare too.


The Visit



The Blue Period peaked in "La Vie (Life)", a major composition which Picasso completed in May 1903. In many respects it is not only the major work of this phase but also the very sum of Picasso's art.

At first the structure seems straightforward, but in fact the history and message of the painting are complex. There are two groups of people, an almost naked couple and a mother with a sleeping babe, separated by half the picture's breadth. Between them we can see two pictures leaning against the wall, the lower showing a crouching person with head on knee, the upper - a kind of variant on the other - a man and woman crouching and holding each other. The top right corner of the upper picture has been cut off diagonally and slightly unevenly; it makes the impression of a study pinned up on the wall. The overall impression is of an artist's studio, so that we are tempted to see it as a representation of the life of the artist.



La Vie (Life)



But neither the subject nor the import of the work is easy to interpret. It is too fractured; nothing is what it seems, neither the place nor the people nor the action. Though the lovers at left seem intimate, their gestures are not. There is no trace of eye contact in the painting; all the characters are looking past one another into vacancy, with a melancholy air. They are not involved in a single action. And there are at least two different planes of reality.

And the location itself remains undefined, uncertain. The perspective angles are at odds with one another, the architectonic details ambiguous. It is an unreal and contradictory place, finally inaccessible to explanation, and the dominant blue even introduces a note of menace. Picasso has used Blue Period compositional techniques we can see in various pictures in one single, intense piece; and the same is true of his subjects. The embrace, seen here in a number of variations, was standard Picasso from 1900 to 1904, as was the mother and child, and the crouching posture. "La Vie" is a kind of pastiche of Picasso's Blue Period; yet it is no mere assemblage - rather, it is carefully planned, and its formal qualities and subject matter owed nothing to chance. Picasso did a number of instructive preliminary studies which show that a couple in a painter's studio were at the very heart of the composition from the start.


The other group, though, was only gradually fixed, and Picasso plainly first planned to position a bearded man at the right. Initially he gave the man standing with the woman his own features, as if the painting were of an autobiographical nature. Not till he was at work on the canvas did he make the decisive changes. But those changes themselves were directly related to matters in his own life. The man became his sometime friend Carlos Casagemas, who committed suicide in Paris in the year 1901 while Picasso was back in Spain. His unfulfilled passion for a young woman named Germaine, who was a model and lover for many in the Catalan artists' community, triggered his suicide. When Germaine spurned his affection, Carlos Casagemas tried first to kill her and then took his own life in the presence of a number of horrified friends.

When Picasso heard the news in Spain, he was deeply affected. That same year he started to paint works that dealt with the dead man and his own relations with him. They were fictive, heavily symbolic paintings showing the dead Casagemas laid out, or even allegorically representing his funeral, attended by whores and the promiscuous sinners of Montmartre. The fact that Picasso returned to Casagemas in the great 1903 composition means that the existential impact on him was profound. The biographical and non-personal strands in the work are in fact fully interwoven. During his first ever visits to Paris, Picasso led a bohemian life of drinking and sexual promiscuity with his Spanish friends. His life style was partly a protest against conventionality in art and in life. The end of his friend Casagemas brought home to Picasso what was wrong with that life-style.


The Death of Casagemas


The Death of Casagemas



Furthermore, Picasso's painting was in line with an artistic preoccupation of the times. The subjects of early death, despair of one's vocation, and suicide were frequently dealt with, and much discussed in Barcelona's artistic circles. Whether the allegorical dimension implied in the title by which we now know the painting was intended is doubtful, since the title was not given by Picasso. The treatment of the figures goes beyond the typical attitudes of metaphoric figures; yet manifestly they are close kin to Symbolic art. Casagemas stood for Picasso himself - who had originally portrayed himself in the picture and included the unambiguous motif of the easel. X-ray examination has revealed, furthermore, that Picasso used a canvas on which something had already been painted - and not just any canvas, but in fact his painting "Last Moments", seen at the Paris World Fair in 1900 and in other words a thematically and biographically extremely significant picture.



Evocation (The Burial of Casagemas)



It is idle to want to read an exact message into "La Vie". Yet Picasso's meaning is clear enough. All that mattered in biographical, artistic, creative and thematic terms in those years is present in this one picture. The melancholy and existential symbolism of that period in Picasso's life are richly expressed in this ambitious work.
Picasso's technique of veiling the painting's meaning is in fact one of its signal qualities. He has managed to sidestep the vapidness of one-sided allegory; we are involved in this painting, drawn into it and - meditatively - into ourselves. The process opens up entirely new dimensions to historical painting.

Looking back, we can see the Blue Period works as a progression towards this goal, even though they were not specific preliminary studies, of course. For the first time we see in Picasso's art something that will strike us repeatedly in the sequel, a notable tension between the autonomy of the single work and the endeavour to gather the fruits of a line of development into one sum. "La Vie" is the first of a number of Picassos that stand out from the oeuvre by virtue of unusual formal and thematic complexity and an extraordinary genesis. The painting was both an end and a beginning: it was a prelude to paintings even more strictly monochromatic in their use of atmospheric blue and even more concerned with existential depths. The smooth, vast surfaces of the backgrounds, the clear structure pared down to the essentials, and the unifying contour, are all apt to the isolation of the figures - in other words, are cued by considerations of subject; yet still, Picasso is increasingly interested in other matters. Linear contour acquires an almost decorative flavour. Picasso tries out ways of concentrating formal options. He is plainly about to embark on something new.


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