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 Rose Period



The distance conferred by history places things in a new perspective and enables us to see a pattern in what strikes contemporaries as chaotic. Picasso is a good example of this.

For some years we have been in the habit of seeing his art of the years from 1901 to 1906 as a sequence of two periods, the Blue and the Rose. The terms are prompted by the dominant colours, and their use arouses certain expectations in us. But Picasso's contemporaries felt that what we see as two separate things in fact constituted a single unity. Though they clearly saw his overriding use of pinks, they did not consider that this justified the distinction of a new period, and spoke throughout of the Blue Period - as did the artist himself when looking back. From our point of view the differences are most striking; but, at the time, nobody felt there to be any notable departure from the pre-1904 work to that of 1904 to 1906. In reality there are new departures but there is also common ground, and this is true both of Picasso's subjects and of formal considerations.

After three years of portraying the poor and needy and lonely, though, Picasso struck out in new directions. "Woman with a Crow" shows him doing so. It is made entirely of polarities. The dynamic contour, the contrasting black and red and blue, the large and small, open and closed forms, the emphasis on the centre plus the lateral displacement, light juxtaposed with dark and the white paper gleaming through, the deep black of the crow's plumage against the woman's chalk-white face - all of these features are extraordinarily evocative. The figures seem almost engraved. The delicacy of the heads and the long, slender fingers of the woman emphasize the intimacy of gesture. It is a decorative picture, a work of arresting grace and beauty. Painted in 1904, it also records Picasso's new approach: in the period ahead, he chose subjects to match his newly aestheticized sense of form.

Connoisseurs and friends recognised as we do now that there was a unity to Picasso's new realm, and they gave his new phase the label "Harlequin Period" after a prominent character in the new work. True, artistes were not new in Picasso in 1905; but now they were likelier to make solo appearances. The seemingly bright and merry world of the circus and cabaret and street artistes was as melancholy as that of the Blue Period's beggars and prostitutes and old people. Melancholy remained the core emotional note; but the form and message had changed.



Woman with a Crow



It is true that the harlequins are outsiders too. But they have something to compensate for their low social rank - their artistry. Behind their gloom is great ability. They are downcast yet self-confident, presenting a dignified counter-image to the Blue Period's dejected figures passively awaiting their fates. And Picasso avails himself of their colourful costumes and graceful, decorative lines to create what can only be created by art: beauty.

It would doubtless be too simplistic to see Picasso's improved circumstances as the reason for his change from blue tristesse to rosy-tinted optimism. But they must have played some part. He had made his final move to France in April 1904, taking a Montmartre studio on the Place Ravignan in May. It was one of a number in a barrack-like wooden building nicknamed the "bateau la-voir" from its similarity to the washboats on the Seine. Like Montmartre as a whole, it no longer had any central importance in the art scene: the focus had long shifted to Montparnasse. But in Impressionist days the likes of a Renoir had worked there. Of course Picasso did not move solely among the artists of Montmartre and his old Spanish colony friends. He also knew the literary avant-garde in Paris.

And he was increasingly establishing rewarding contacts with art dealers and collectors. In 1904 he exhibited at Berthe Weill's gallery, and in early 1905 he showed his first new pictures of travelling entertainers at Galerie Serruriere on the Boulevard Haussmann. He then agreed on terms with Clovis Sagot, a former circus clown who had set up a gallery in the Rue Laffitte. At this stage Picasso came to the attention of the wealthy American Leo Stein, and he and his sister, the Modernist writer Gertrude Stein, bought 800 francs' worth of Picassos. Shortly after, the dealer Ambroise Vollard even bought 2000 francs' worth. Other collectors such as the Russian Sergei Shchukin also invested. Picasso's financial situation was improving noticeably. And his relationship with Fernande Olivier, which was to last for several years, introduced stability into his restless private life.

Nonetheless, the Rose Period pictures are not merely records of a pleasant time in the artist's life. True, he often met other artists at Pere Frede's jokily named bar, the "Lapin agile", where the previous generation of artists had already been in the habit of gathering. And fashion required that one go to Medrano's circus on Montmartre. But this is the small change of life, and Picasso's pictures speak plainly of his true concerns. "Woman with a Crow" was a portrait of Frede's daughter Margot, who really did keep a pet crow. In "At the "Lapin Agile" the scene is Picasso's favourite bar.



At the "Lapin agile"



Frede himself appears as a musician in the back-ground, and the harlequin is a self-portrait of Picasso. Neither picture, however, is a straight representation of everyday reality. The woman with the crow is not so much a portrait as a type study, stylized beyond individuality. And in the bar scene Picasso is varying an approach he had used in his Blue Period for works such as "The Absinthe Drinker". In the new painting too, the people are gazing listlessly into vacancy, their bearing expressive of wearied lack of contact. The harlequin costume suggests that it is all a masquerade set up by an intellectual process: the creative artist poses as a performing artiste and in so doing takes artistry as his subject. The harlequins, street entertainers and other artistes of the Rose Period all enact the process of grasping the role of the artist. They were the product of complex reflection inspired not least by Picasso's relations with the literary world in Paris.
In later life, Picasso liked to present himself as essentially anti-intellectual and purely interested in visual form. But at that early time in his career he was certainly interested in radical literary aesthetics, as his first encounter with writer Andre Salmon indicates. Picasso gave him a book of anarchic poetry by Fagus, the art critic. The poems were typical, in form and content, of what was then usual amongst the most progressive of the literati. Picasso's acquaintance with Max Jacob had introduced him to this taste in 1901, and a few years later he was regularly at the "Closerie des Lilas", a Montparnasse cafe where the Parisian literary bohemia liked to meet. Under poet Paul Fort they met on Tuesdays for discussions, which were of particular interest to up - and - coming artists.



Mother and Child



Picasso's friend Guillaume Apollinaire was a prominent member of this group. The poet had recently published a play, "Les Mamelles de Tiresias" (The Breasts of Tiresias, 1903), which was subsequently to be of some significance for the Surrealists. Apollinaire also wrote endless magazine articles dealing with the new political and cultural departures in Europe, preaching anarcho-syndicalism, anti-colonialism and anti-militarism. In 1905 he also took to writing art criticism, and this was to be of importance to Picasso. His features appeared in "Vers et prose" and mainly in "La Plume", a periodical which also held soirees at which everyone who was anyone in Parisian arts life liked to be seen. Apollinaire's consistent aesthetic radicalism strengthened Picasso's position. The poet repeatedly drew the public's attention to the Spaniard's work and so played an important part in Picasso's early recognition.

One of Apollinaire's interests was directly related to Picasso's work. He liked to collect and edit erotica and pornographic literature, and established his own library of pornographic books, now in the Bibliotheque Nationale and still considered an authoritative collection. This breaching of a social taboo was partly inspired by contempt for bourgeois morality; Apollinaire created his own programme of immorality, even starting a short-lived magazine titled "La Revue Immoraliste".



Mother and Child and Four Studies of her Right Hand



Apollinaire and Picasso shared this taste to an extent. 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.

Salmon was also important to Picasso through his critical and theoretical work on new movements in the visual arts, in which he emphasized the significant role played by Picasso. Salmon too was radical in political matters, interested in anarchism, and a friend of many revolutionaries. Artistically he was most attached to Symbolism. He played an important part in the arts world, and as secretary of "Vers et prose" he organized Paul Fort's soirees at the "Closerie des Lilas". Like Salmon, Picasso's first literary acquaintance, Max Jacob, was a regular visitor to the Montmartre studio, and even took a room there to work in for a spell. His major writings, founding works of Surrealist poetry, came a few years later, but in those early days at the "bateau lavoir" he was already set firmly against senseless norms.
And another acquaintance was one of French literature's most dazzling personalities, Alfred Jarry. For him, as for many of his generation, the Dreyfus affair had shown up the weaknesses of French society and political life at the turn of the century. Public opinion had moved decidedly to the left. Jarry became a literary radical. In his own life he attempted to obey his maxims as an artist, and so became the very incarnation of the creative outsider. The three Ubu plays that began with the controversial satirical farce "Ubu Roi" in 1896 were his major achievement. Ubu is a personification of the philistine rampant who attains power and plunges the world into chaos through his reckless brutality. The safe, structured existential certainties of the middle classes are turned topsyturvy. The play later served as a model for the Dadaists and Surrealists and is seen as a precursor of absurd drama.

In other words, Picasso was moving in left-wing literary and artistic circles. Anarchist ideas prompted the rejection of traditional social structures and put unbridled individualism in their place. This individualism was expressed in a stylized role as outsider and artist. At this point we can return to Picasso's work. The Blue and Rose Period pictures of beggars, isolated people, harlequins, artistes and actors were a way of keeping "official" artistic values at arm's length, both thematically and formally. The paintings of Bonnat, Forain, Laurens, Beraud, Gervex, Boldini and others of their ilk presented society scenes and portraits of salon ladies. The choice of an artistic milieu for the Rose Period works was a deliberate rejection of conventional subject matter. And that rejection went hand in hand with Picasso's quest for a new formal idiom. The subjects he painted came from a world he knew, and added up to a commentary of the role of the artist at that time; and the clowns and actors and artistes were widely viewed as symbols of the artistic life.

Traditionally, the fool or clown has a licence to utter unvarnished truth and so hold up a mirror to the mighty. During the Enlightenment the fool's fortunes were at their nadir; but, as the age of the middle class took a firm grip, the harlequin, pierrot or clown acquired a new, higher value. In France in particular he was seen as the epitome of the rootless proletarian, the People in person. After the 1848 revolutions, the new symbolic figure of the sad clown became familiar.
Baudelaire immortalized the figure in a prose poem. Edmond de Goncourt published a circus novel which dealt allegorically with the artistic life; his Brothers Zemganno are tightrope walkers and gymnasts, misunderstood by the public and often facing death, and acting throughout from an inner sense of vocation. Daumier portrayed entertainers as restless itinerants, at home nowhere. By the end of the century, the tragic joker had become a cult figure in Ruggero Leoncavallo's opera "Pagliacci". Street artistes and the circus were a favourite subject of progressive art, from Manet's 1860 "Street Musician" (New York, Metropolitan Museum) to the circus pictures of Toulouse-Lautrec and Georges Seurat.



Acrobat and Young Harlequin



In adopting this line, Picasso was not only succumbing to the powerful influence of the French cultural scene. His interest in the subject had Spanish roots too. The Symbolist "Modernista" Rusifiol had written a play titled "L'Allegria que passa" which made a strong impression on Picasso when he did illustrations for it in "Arte Joven". His painting of an actor in harlequin costume, done at the close of 1904, draws upon Rusinol's play. Picasso subsequently did studies and paintings of a melancholy harlequin, a sad jester, not in the limelight but withdrawn into a life devoted to art, lived on the periphery of society and at odds with it. Formally speaking, these works betray the influence of Daumier. He too concentrated on a very few, striking figures.

Just as in the Blue Period a number of sketches, studies and paintings culminated in a major work, "La Vie", so too the harlequin phase produced the huge canvas "The Acrobats". It was Picasso's definitive statement on the artistic life. And, tellingly, it was another artist, the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (who in 1916 spent some months in the home of the then owner of the painting), who found the aptest words to convey an impression of the work, in the fifth of his "Duino Elegies": "But tell me, who are they, these wanderers, even more / transient than we ourselves . . .



The Acrobats



Family of Saltimbanques


The Acrobats


X-ray examination has shown that the final picture was the fruit of long, painstaking labours, of frequent new starts and changes. It was begun at the start of the Rose Period in 1904. That composition, later painted over, was like a study now in Baltimore. This shows a number of artistes' wives and children seen against a sketchily indicated landscape. With them, only slightly off the centre axis of the composition, stands a youth in harlequin costume, hands on hips, watching a girl balancing on a ball. Plainly the idea interested Picasso; he did an etching at the same time in which it appears in almost identical form. A copy of the etching served him when he came to transpose the scene to the canvas: he superimposed a grid in order to get everything just right.

That first version shows that Picasso wanted to draw all his approaches to the entertainer motif together into one composition.


Circus Family (The Tumblers)




All of the characters, even specific gestures and poses, appear in other Rose Period pictures, most famously "Acrobat and Young Equilibrist". But he was dissatisfied with the result, turned the canvas round, and painted over it. This changed the format into a vertical, and instead of a whole family there were now only two young acrobats. This picture too has survived in a gouache study now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Again the landscape is merely hinted at. The two youngsters facing us frontally almost fill the picture. The taller is in harlequin costume, while the other, still a child, has a dog with him.

Presumably Picasso felt that these figures were not sufficient to convey the various aspects of travelling entertainers' lives, for they too were painted over. Before resuming work on canvas he embarked on a set of preliminary studies. To an extent he fell back on his first idea. The centre was now occupied by a burly, seated man whom Picasso dubbed "El Tio Pepe Don Jose". A number of sketches tried out this compositional approach and the details involved. At length the artist hit on a strategy that combined all three of the approaches he had been toying with, as we can see from a gouache now in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Four male acrobats, standing, now provide the focus - among them Tio Pepe and two variants on the youngsters of the second version. What remained of the first version was a heavily adapted child motif, the young girl. In the background is a horse race.



Acrobat and Young Equilibrist



Boy with a Dog



Two Acrobats with a Dog


Mother's Toilette

Picasso continued to sketch versions of the details till in summer 1905 he finally painted over the canvas for the third time. At first he adopted the figural arrangement of the Moscow study; only with the fourth painting did Picasso at long last arrive at the version we now have. He put the man on the left in harlequin costume, replaced the boy's dog with a flower basket for the girl, and dressed the boy in a blue and red suit rather than a leotard. At bottom right he added a young seated woman. She too, rather than being a spontaneous inspiration, derived from a previously used motif. In other words, much as "The Acrobats" may make a unified impression, as if it had been achieved in one go, it in fact constitutes a synthesis of the motifs Picasso liked to paint during his Rose Period.

There are now six people; the background is not exactly defined. There are two blocks: the left-hand group, accounting for some two-thirds of the picture's breadth, consists of five people, while at right the young woman is sitting on her own. The contrast is heightened by subtle compositional means. The positioning of three of the figures at left very close together conveys a sense of weight and unity, and the Mallorcan woman at right scarcely provides an effective counterbalance.





Picasso's palette consists basically of the three prime colours, plus shadings in black and white to enrich the detail. The reds and blues are graded in different degrees of brightness, but yellow only appears mixed with blues and browns, in unrestful presences that lack much formal definition. Thus various degrees of sandy yellow account for the unreal, spatially undefinable landscape. The other colours are caught up in similar spatial vagaries; depending on how bright or aggressive or foregrounded they are, they are coupled with darker, heavier shades that fade into the background. Only at first glance does this make an evenly balanced impression. As soon as we look more closely, things start to perplex us.

Take Tio Pepe, for instance, in whom Picasso's strategy of contrastive destabilization is most assertively seen. The massive red-clad man is conspicuous - and conspicuously lacks the lower half of his right leg! We can follow it only till just above the knee; and the buff background only makes his lack the more obvious. This cannot be a mere mistake, nor quite without importance. A defect in a figure of such thematic and formal importance serves to destabilize the entire compositional logic, and, once alerted, we see that it is unreal through and through. The picture lacks a single point of view: the figures are spatially placed in a curiously all-round way, as if each zone of the picture were subject to its own perspective. Picasso is in fact once again telling us that artistic viewpoints are relative.



The Harlequin's Family



And he is doing it in a narrative mode that would well suit a historical picture. His de-clarified world is precisely the one these melancholy, uncommunicative characters would inhabit. And Picasso's departure from the laws of Nature is apt since it matches the manner in which acrobats earn their living by defying the law of gravity. The harlequin theme offered not only a visual means of approaching the life of the artist but also a pretext to review formal fundamentals. Almost all the paintings of this period suggest that this was the case, perhaps above all the Moscow picture of the equilibrist, a balancing act in a compositional as well as thematic sense.

In that picture, the visual mainspring is not only the usual fundamentals of top and bottom, left and right, big and small, but also light and heavy, foreground and background. These conceptual qualities are the product of technical tricks; they can be manipulated to the very limits of possibility, and indeed toying with those limits can be visually most attractive. Picasso has positioned one extremely large figure at the right, the seated acrobat, and by way of contrast on the left a petite, delicate young artiste. If the man were to stand up he would be taller than the picture. His muscularity emphasizes the impression of power. But it is passive power, resting, and so far to the right that we might almost expect the picture to list to that side. The girl seems feather-light and dainty by comparison, higher up and further into the midfield. It is this placing that establishes a balance with the man. We should note in passing that Picasso is playing with his motifs, teasing our sense of the differing mass of sphere and cube. The tendency to experiment formally grew upon Picasso throughout the Rose Period.

In summer 1905, at the invitation of writer Tom Schilperoort, he made a journey. The writer had inherited some money, and asked Picasso to join him on the homeward trip to Holland. It happened that Picasso saw little of the Netherlands; they changed trains in Haarlem and Alkmaar, but otherwise the small town of Schoorl was all he saw. Still, it was an encounter with an entirely new landscape and way of life. The few drawings and paintings he did on the trip were markedly different from the acrobat pictures. They drew on classical sources and ancient forms. From Picasso's spontaneous decision to accompany the Dutchman we can probably infer that his interest in the harlequins and artistes was at an end and that he was looking for new inspiration.

"Three Dutch Girls" was the most important fruit of his journey. It readily betrays its model: even if the young women are wearing Dutch national costume, they are still grouped as the Three Graces traditionally were. Since the Renaissance, the classical group motif had been a much-imitated, much-adapted staple of European art. Picasso was well acquainted with one version by the Flemish baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens, in the Prado in Madrid. It was a picture that apparently enjoyed unusual popularity in Spanish artistic circles in Picasso's day. The creative involvement with the motifs of antiquity plainly sprang from inner necessity. After his visit to Holland, Picasso's work was noticeably informed by the wish to create dense forms of statue-like balance and poise.



Three Dutch Girls



Dutch Girl



It was a wish that he articulated in numerous new studies and paintings in which the colourful palette of the acrobat pictures was replaced by a monochrome red. Most of the sketches, as their subjects suggest, must have been preliminaries for a large composition Picasso never painted, showing a horses' watering place. "Boy Leading a Horse"  was modelled on archaic figures of youths in the Louvre. Not only this boy but also male nudes in other paintings and even portraits done at the time make a three-dimensional impression, abstracted and simplified, like sculptures transferred to canvas. At this time Pablo Picasso began to give greater attention to other media such as printed graphics or sculpture.



Boy Leading a Horse



He had made an early attempt at sculpture in 1902, and "The Frugal Repast" in 1904 had shown him a master etcher at a date when he had only recently been taught the technique by the Spanish painter Canals. Just as printed graphics had helped the pictures of acrobats on their way, so too three-dimensional work in wax or clay  informed the formal vocabulary of the pictures that concluded the Rose Period. Picasso was developing in a new direction again.


Head of a Woman

The Jester

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