How Picasso Influenced Art
"I think it's fair to say there's art before Picasso, there is art after Picasso—and it's not the same. It's completely transformed" – Morris Shapiro
Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) is one of the most famous artists in the world. Regardless of whether you're an art historian, an amateur artist, or have no interest in art at all, you probably know Picasso's name. He is up there with Vincent Van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci, and Claude Monet. All these artists impacted the art world but none more so perhaps than Picasso.
Pablo Picasso, Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier), 1910
Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga, Spain to a Catholic family. His father, Don José Ruiz y Blasco, was an art teacher and curator at the local museum. He was an artist himself, specializing in paintings of birds. Unsurprisingly, young Picasso's love of art flourished in this household. By the time he was seven, Picasso was already demonstrating considerable talent in oil painting and drawing. At thirteen, Picasso enrolled in the school where his father taught, the School of Fine Arts in Barcelona, and in 1897 he joined Madrid's Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Spain's finest art academy at the time.
Thoroughly schooled in artistic technique, Picasso traveled to Paris for inspiration in 1900, and a year later, he opened his one-person exhibition in Paris's Galerie Vollard. His early was predominantly portraits and landscapes and can be split into two distinct periods: the Blue and the Rose. The Blue Period (1901 – 1904) is characterized by somber, muted tones of blue with the sporadic use of accented earth tones. Picasso's close friend and muse, Gertrude Stein, described this period as possessing a "hardness" and a distinctive "Spanish sadness and Spanish reality". The Rose Period (1904 – 1906), in contrast, is characterized by warm, pinkish rose colours. The subjects were predominantly circus folks such as clowns and harlequins. Within the Rose Period, we first see the influence of primitivism – Western artists who borrowed from non-Western or prehistoric people seen to be primitive – in works such as Boy Leading a Horse and The Two Brothers.
1907 changed everything. Inspired by primitivism, particularly an African mask owned by his contemporary Henry Matisse, Picasso unveiled one of his most famous works: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Depicting five nude figures from a two-dimensional perspective, the warm-toned painting sparked controversy for its boldness, resolute nudity, and its odd combination of provocative sensuality and unrealistic contortion. People were shocked by the angular, flat portrayal of the figures and found their static lack of movement disturbing. Picasso, however, believed it embodied a raw, primordial spirit. This marks the beginning of Cubism, Picasso's most influential contribution to the art world.
Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907
The origin of the term appears to come from Louis Vauxcelles; in 1908, he was appalled by the paintings of Georges Braque, claiming that his works lowered everything "to geometric outlines, to cubes". The style is characterized by its unique approach to representing reality, portraying it in abstract and fragmented ways. It was unlike anything the West had seen before. Picasso, Braque, and their cubist contemporaries opposed the academic idea that art should represent nature precisely the way it is and that the process of art was a distinguishable idea in itself. That is why they placed such an emphasis on the two-dimensionality of the canvas.
This unique and creatively liberating way of representing reality paved the way for Surrealist artists like Salvador Dali, Paul Klee, Leonora Carrington, and also the Dadaist movement, dominated by collages often nonsensical in response to how World War I had challenged understandings of traditional values. Cubism also arguably kickstarted the Expressionist movement in Europe, particularly in Germany. The influence of two-dimensionality on German cinema, especially in the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, is undeniable.
Cubism not only influenced artists, but architects, fashion designers, advertisers, and jewellery makers. In fact, much of what we associate with the style of the 1920s would not exist without Picasso; he was a direct influence on the Art Deco style of the period. Americans in particular, embracing the freedom of modernism after the horrors of World War I, were drawn to Picasso's style. Bold, bright colours were infused into fashion and advertisements, representing Picasso's idea of raw spirit instead of direct representations of reality.
Geometric abstract designs dominated jewellery, with new diamond cutting technologies enabling jewellers to embrace the audaciousness of symmetrical cluster rings. Architects embraced the angular, two-dimensional aspects of Cubism and incorporated them into their work: famous examples include the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building in New York and the Eastern Columbia Building in Los Angeles.
Picasso also influenced an often-forgotten art movement: futurism. Established in Italy around the same time as Cubism, futurist artists such as Giacomo Balla and Gino Severini embraced the abstract, two-dimensional style of Cubism and applied it to futuristic subjects like machines, technology, speed, and the restlessness of modern life. Subsequently, futurism and similar art movements thus inspired the avant-garde, particularly the art of Soviet Russia. Picasso's influence is everywhere.
Picasso's art had a political impact too. Saddened and disillusioned by the Spanish Civil War, the atrocities committed by the Nazis, and America's involvement in Vietnam and the Sinchon Massacre in Korea in 1951, Picasso channelled his feelings into his work. He produced numerous anti-war paintings over several decades. Works such as Guernica, Massacre in Korea, and War and Peace use abstraction to portray the needless brutality and unjustness of war. In his anti-Spanish Civil War art, the mythological figure of the minotaur became a dominant symbol. Picasso's work helped raise awareness of the impact of the war on innocent civilians when Guernica was exhibited at the World's Fair in Paris in 1938. It is considered by many as the most powerful anti-war statement in modern art.
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