The influence of Pablo Picasso on art can be measured via the enduring fame of the man; he remains, arguably, the most famous artist since Michelangelo, more celebrated than Duchamp, Monet or Cezanne. He was a legend during his own lifetime, the celebrated Salvador Dalí citing Picasso as, “his hero, and to be taken seriously by him [Picasso], a sort of right of passage.”
His posthumous reputation is built upon the solid foundation of innovative art coupled with a revolutionary expressionism that many commentators have seen as constituting the very genesis of modern art. For many, Picasso is none other than the artist who carried painting into the twentieth century, the personification of the advent of a new age in art felt in the same way as it was in industry, economy, and ideology.
His private life and professional life merged more than most famous artists. A bar for a small period towards the end of his life, Picasso was free from the scandal that accompanied the legends of Matisse, Van Gogh or Manet, for instance. Art was always his first mistress, although more than most other artists, Picasso drew from the experiences which touched him in his personal life to inspire his creative output.
Born in Spain Picasso was, from the outset, noticed as a child prodigy by his art teacher father. Indeed, the Museo de Picasso in Barcelona is dedicated almost exclusively to his very early paintings and sculptures. By the time he was a teenager Picasso began to frequent the most Bohemian outlets of Barcelona, where his inquisition acted like a sponge for the diversity of influences all around him. Inevitably, Picasso moved briefly to the capital of art, Paris, where he was further exposed to the rich variety of expressions prevalent at the fin‑de‑siecle. One can see these formative years as essential in the development of the discernibly different styles that Picasso adopted in his adult life.
First, he experimented with realism and caricature, heavily influenced by his time in Paris. Commentators have since labeled his next two phases as the “Blue Period” and the “Rose Period” respectively. During the “Blue Period” (1901‑1904), Picasso relied heavily on a blue palette for his paintings, where he focused excessively on the traditional outsiders of society to tell his story: beggars, prostitutes, and vagrants make up the bulk of the actors in this phase of his life. In contrast, the “Rose Period” (1904‑1905) used as its focal pointless wretched members of society, though he still accented the ridiculous: clowns, trapeze artists, and other circus personnel tended to constitute the majority of his work during this epoch. Apart from bequeathing such classics as the Blue Period’s La Vie (1903) and the Rose Period’s Family of Saltimbanques (1905), the work of Picasso during the very early years of the twentieth century also highlights the tendencies of an artist who is unwilling to be pigeon‑holed as an exponent of only one type of art. His greatness came from his ability to transcend certain artistic genres without ever losing any credibility or acumen.
Next Picasso traveled to Holland where he was greatly influenced by the classical paintings of Greek mythology. He returned to Paris where he was intrigued and challenged by the groundbreaking Fauvist work of Matisse, which used familiarly grotesque themes to Picasso’s “Blue Period”. The caricature‑like nature of Matisse’s work inspired Picasso to experiment with ancient, primitive art, especially that which so influenced the Iberian culture from where he hailed. With Spain being positioned so close to Africa, Picasso naturally, “appropriated African art in the development of modern styles,” and his primitive experimentation ought to be seen as the key development in his embracement of Cubism, the style for which he remains most noted internationally today. Picasso’s incorporation of African influences into his own sculptures constituted the first time when he consciously used his art as a vehicle to voice his concerns over the state of the modern world in which he lived. “It allowed him to confront his audience with their own assumptions about ‘Africa’ and the relation of Picasso’s work to that highly publicized discourse.”
Yet, as detailed, Cubism remains the artistic style most closely associated with Pablo Picasso. Essentially, Cubism played with the concept of the three-dimensional human figure, distorting the shapes, lines, and contours of the paint so that both the front and back of the body was visible at the same time. Together with Georges Braque, Picasso drove forward the movement of Cubism so that, by 1913, it was the chief progressive artistic ideology in both Europe and North America. The Guitar (1913) is often cited as Picasso’s own personal best with regards to Cubist expressionism, a noticeably Synthetic Cubist creation, although he was soon, unsurprisingly, moving away from Cubism to embrace yet another facet of modern art.
Towards the latter part of his creative life, Picasso moved into the realms of Surrealism, influenced again by classical art. By that time, however, the Spanish Civil War (1936‑1939) had broken out, igniting, once more, a politicization of Picasso’s work. “Picasso was deeply moved by the civil war raging in his native Spain, and applied himself to creating a monumental record of its barbarity.” Guernica (1937) is his most celebrated painting of the time – the carnage inflicted upon the Basque city designated within the title constituting his inspiration for painting, which, for the first time in history, documented the horrors of modern warfare, in particular, the devastation of air raids.
Thus, as Picasso was present to carry progressive art through to the twentieth century, so he was likewise the catalyst for the artistic expression of horror that post‑industrial man could inflict upon civilization that the Second World War would starkly reveal.
Moreover, his breath‑taking skill, throughout his career, at depicting all forms of artistic endeavor have led contemporary commentators such as Susan Sternau, to conclude that, “more than any other individual artist, Picasso shaped the course of twentieth-century art.”