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How to change the course of modern art: The visual languages of Pablo Picasso

Posted on 29 Sep 2023

'Looking at Picasso' author Pepe Karmel charts Picasso's ever-evolving style, delving into some of the artist's most iconic paintings, including Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, The Three Dancers, and Guernica.

Pablo Picasso was the greatest artist of the 20th century. He had plenty of competition, but what distinguished Picasso from his peers was his refusal to settle on a signature style. He created a series of new visual languages, each changing the course of modern art.

At the beginning of his career, Blue Period pictures like The Old Guitarist (1903-1904) combined tragedy and spiritual intensity.  Tragedy yielded to tender melancholy in his Rose Period (1904-1906). In 1907, in a sudden swerve, Picasso conjured up the five confrontational women of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, their starkly geometric faces and bodies inspired by African and Egyptian art.  The Demoiselles shocked even Picasso’s fervent admirers, and the canvas disappeared from public view for three decades. Acquired in 1937 by The Museum of Modern Art, and placed on display in 1939, it was finally recognized as a modern masterpiece.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. 1907.

Instead of backing down after the fiasco of the Demoiselles, Picasso embarked on another confrontational composition, this time depicting Three Women, their bodies divided into hard-edged facets coloured orange and brown. A success with both collectors and artists, the 1908 canvas inspired a brief vogue for depiction of hulking “primitive” figures. Long-term, the facets had a more profound effect. Beginning an artistic dialogue with Georges Braque, Picasso imagined a world shattered into geometric planes, held in place by a lattice extending across the canvas.  A critic dubbed the new style “Cubism”.

With paintings like Girl with a Mandolin (1910), Picasso shifted into a calm, meditative mood. The sharp-edged planes were softened by shimmering strokes of translucent green, grey and brown, so that they seemed to glow from within. In the pictures that followed, planes broke loose from the bodies and objects they described, overlapping and advancing toward the viewer. In 1912-13, Picasso abandoned delicate brushwork in favour of flat colours, wood-graining, stencilled letters, and strips of newspaper. His pictures became surfaces littered with the detritus of the real world.  His sculptures were constructed from cardboard scraps or wooden slats.

Girl with a Mandolin. 1910.

Picasso’s Cubist period is often said to have ended with the outbreak of World War I. In fact, he continued making Cubist pictures well into the 1920s. The style achieved an apotheosis in his monumental 1924 Mandolin and Guitar, where the geometric planes dissolved into rounded shapes covered with clashing colours and patterns, floating in front of a window overlooking the sea.

This melted-down Cubism soon metamorphosed into Surrealism. In Picasso’s 1925 masterpiece The Three Dancers, the instruments and bottle of Mandolin and Guitar were replaced by distorted figures performing an ecstatic Bacchic rite. André Breton reproduced the new painting in his movement’s house journal, La Révolution Surréaliste, where it was accompanied by an essay paying homage to Picasso. Beginning in 1925, Picasso made Surrealist work in multiple styles: geometric “constellations”, constructions of iron rods, interlacing labyrinths concealing human figures, and biomorphic “monsters” whose limbs and facial features transformed unexpectedly into sexual organs. In Guernica (1937), the greatest antiwar painting of the twentieth century, Picasso repurposed his Surrealist figures to express horror and grief.

The Three Dancers. 1925.

Late Cubism and Surrealism were accompanied in Picasso’s work by a new “classical” style inspired by the gigantesque figures of Pompeiian wall painting, which he discovered during a 1919 sojourn in Italy. The Grecian profiles and white tunics of Picasso’s figures came from ancient art, but their slab-like torsos and swollen limbs were his own inventions, imbuing them with a gravitas that counteracts the hectic pace of modern life. First explored in paintings of the early 1920s, Picasso’s classical style reached its acme in engravings like his 1933 Model and Sculptor with his Sculpture, where the nude sculptor and the nude model (seen simultaneously from front and back) seem equal partners in the creation of a sculpture that is both classical and Surrealist.

Model and Sculptor with his Sculpture. From the Vollard Suite. 1933.

After World War II, younger artists like Jackson Pollock and Jean Dubuffet displaced Picasso as the ne plus ultra of avant-garde art. But his creativity continued, unchecked, in paintings like The Kitchen of 1948, a mural-scale canvas whose abstract sign language met the new generation on their own ground.

Today, fifty years after his death, Picasso’s work still speaks urgently to contemporary artists and audiences.  In an era of simulated emotion, The Old Guitarist evokes genuine heartbreak. Cubism anticipates the splintered world of image overload but promises that it can be put back together. The Three Dancers uses Surrealism to explore the private experience of sensual abandon; Guernica uses it to convey the public horror of war. Model and Sculptor, from the same decade, offers the wholeness of the classical figure as a balm for a wounded era. The Kitchen translates everyday life into abstract code, challenging us to decipher it. Recent critics have emphasized that Picasso was a flawed human being. But the man is not the art. The German critic Carl Einstein wrote in 1931 that Picasso’s work demonstrated how human beings reinvent the world each day, concluding that his art was “a symbol of how much freedom this age could possess.” It still is.

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