Pablo Picasso ~ Biography 1881 - 1973

Header Painting: Pablo Picasso, The Tragedy, 1903, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
© Succession Picasso

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Pablo Picasso ~ Biography 1881 - 1973

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Best Book on Early Years: Picasso--The Early Years, 1892-1906

Known as: Most famous 20th-century painter
Born: 25 October 1881, Málaga, Andalucía, Spain
Birthname: Pablo Ruiz Picasso
Height: 5' 4"
Died: 8 April 1973, Mougins, Alpes Maritimes, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, France

Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga, the son of an art teacher. The boy showed exceptional talent at an early age, and the artistic current flowing into Barcelona (where the family had settled) from France and Northern Europe stimulated him into trying out the personal languages of Munch, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, and other northerners.

In 1900 he visited Paris for a short time, and he returned in 1901 to join the cohort of young Bohemians attracted to the capital by the stumulating and exciting atmospher then prevailing in the arts. Lautec, Gauguin, van Gogh, Steinlen, late Impressionism flit across his canvasses in a bewildering medley and leave behind a passion for blue, which became the dominant colour for his portrayal of the squalid tragedy of the Paris streets - the beggar, the harlot, the sick child, the hungry.

Through this welter of contemporary influences the steady current of the things he had grown up with: the elongated forms of Catalan Gothic sculpture and Italian Mannerism, the simplified colour and straightforward approach of Velazquez, Zurbaran and Goya. These also inform his pictures of actors, mountebanks and harlequins, where tender fawns and pinks replace the earlier drab and sad colours.

Until then nothing unusual had transpired: even his interest in Iberian sculpture in 1906, and the radical simplification of form and colour it led to, gave little hint of the position when the Fauve outbreak was at its height. Picasso took no part in this. He was questioning the whole basis of painting and was therefore unable to follow still further the road from Impressionism to the dissolution of form and its translation into colour and imaginative feeling. Picasso's reply to Matisse's 'Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the various elements at the painter's disposal for the expression of his feelings' was to turn to Cezanne, whose petite sensation never had any truck with pure decoration and whose composition was based on the rigorous discipline of the relations of form and space on a two-dimensional surface.

Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon (New York, M of MA) of 1907 was begun in the vein of his harlequin series, but ended as a semi-abstract composition, in which the forms of the nudes and their accessories are broken up into planes compressed into a shallow space. The influence of Negro sculptures, which first appears in the Demoiselles, also fitted in with his quest for the expression of form and helped, by the bizarre nature of their forms, to release him from the tyranny of the representional tradition in art.

Pablo Picasso
Self Portrait with Cloak (1901)
© Succession Picasso

In 1907 he met Braque, who had drifted into the Fauve circle and out of it again, and by 1909 they found that they faced the same problems and were striving to solve them in the same way. Both rejected decorative arabesques and bright, sensuous colour and were striving to devise a pictorial language which would define volumes and their relationships without destroying the flat surface of the picture, and without descending to the imitation of accidental and supeficial appearances. Together they evolved what is now alled Analytical Cubism. By 1912, colour had begun to creep back among the greys, olive greens and drab browns, and actual objects - a piece of cane seating, a newspaper heading - were imported so as to stress by their complaisant acquiescence in becoming an element in a design the modest role of Nature in the Ideal, and also to serve as an example of the way in which nature may be re-created. Collage was a natural extension of this. Objects could be literally reconstituted with bits of wood, wire, paper and string, their forms distorted by the artist into a flat composition whose inherent third dimension is alluded to at the same time as it is suppressed - although Picasso, having started this hare, did not course it, any more that he did that of Surrealism, born from the juxtaposition of recognizable objects and reconstituted forms.

At the moment when the war broke out in 1914, Braque and Picasso were seperated by a quarrel (the breach was never healed) and both had consistently held aloof from the host of minor artists who had by now realized that Cubism was the coming thing and had climbed aboard the bandwagon - Gleizes, Metzinger, Delaunay, Marcoussis, Duchamp-Villon, Picabia, La Fresnaye and Derain. From 1915 he had shown his interest in Ingres's drawings by precise and restrainedly stylized pencil drawings, and his connection with the Diaghilev Russian Ballet in Rome in 1917 led to works showing a return to traditional vision, with parallel works in a glitteringly sophisticated Cubist idiom. Finally, contact with the Antique and with Roman classicism ushers in a series of paintings and drawings of monumental female nudes, at first almost motionless and then, by 1923, galvanized into terrifying movement which distorts them into frightening caricatures before dissolving them, via calligraphic curves and lines, into the convulsive and repellant distortions of the Three Dancers of 1925 (London, Tate). For the next ten years Picasso developed these distorted and disquieting figures through what is generally called the Metamorphic phase, in which he was perhaps somewhat influenced by Miro and Tanguy.

Pablo Picasso
Three Dancers (1925)
© Succession Picasso

By the early 1930s he was rather taking the wind out Matisse's sails with a series of nudes - odalisques almost - which combine brilliance of colour with flat pattern of a violent intensity; soon afterwards, he began the series of bull-fighting subjects which culminated in the imagery present in Guernica (1937: Madrid, Prado). This huge composition, inspired by the Spanish Civil War, expresses in complicated iconography and personal symbolical language, comprehensible after careful study, the artist's abhorrence of the violence and beastliness of war. This dark mood persisted in the dislocated forms and frightening imagery of his work during World War II. He remained in Paris during the occupation and gradually acquired by his aloofness the stature of a symbol of resistance, but from 1946 to his death he lived mainly in the South of France. During these years he experimented with ceramics and also painted a large mural for UNESCO in Paris.

No man has changed more radically the nature of art. Like Giotto, Michelangelo and Bernini he stands at the beginning of a new epoch. Most museums of modern art throughout the world have examples of his paintings, prints, sculpture or ceramics. His own large private collecton, of his own work and that of his friends, has been given to the French State as the Musee Picasso in Paris (Hotel Sale). The collection documents his protean changes of style throughout his life, and his very varied use of materials, ranging from the traditional oil-paint on canvas, graphic work, sculptures, collages, constructions, to his amusing pieces of 'sculpture' made from bits of bicycles and children's toys, or assemblages of metal oddments, some of which have been deprived of all spontaneity by being magniloquently cast in bronze. One quality which this lifetime hoard displays is the tendency to horror vacui, and also, in the very late work, a self-indulgent repetitiveness as well as a less than attractive surface.

Source: The Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists (Penguin Reference Books)

Further Reading: Biography I
Further Reading: Life of Picasso

The ultimate Picasso book - spoil yourself!: Picasso's Masterpieces: The Musée Picasso Paris Collection


Pablo Picasso Texts: Biography | Life Of Picasso | Biog. II

Pablo Picasso Links: Picasso & Cocteau | Le Testament d'Orphee

Pablo Picasso Gallery: Paintings In Date Order >> (1893 - 1902) >> (1903 - 20) >> (1921 - 40) >> (1941 -73) >> 50 Most Representative Paintings

Pablo Picasso Wares: Books | Cards | Prints | Advertise | Picasso Prints, Books and Dvds available @

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