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Picasso, 50 years on: Colossal genius

Picasso, 50 years on: Colossal genius

Every act of creation is first an act of destruction. — PABLO PICASSO (October 25, 1881- April 8, 1973)

Rajnish Wattas

With Pablo Picasso’s 50th death anniversary falling on April 8, the world over museums and art galleries have planned major events to mark the legend’s colossal impact on 20th century art.

Picasso, whose name is synonymous with the art movement Cubism (which he created in collaboration with Georges Braque), not only changed our perception of reality and its representation through art but continued to reinvent using different mediums. His humungous corpus includes paintings, sculptures, printmaking, ceramics and stage-designing, making him not only one of the greatest but also the most prodigious artists of the 20th century.

Woman Ironing (1901)

Picasso’s influence can be seen in some of Chandigarh’s iconic buildings, too, as its star architect Le Corbusier was quite impressed by the great artist. In 1917, the Swiss-born Corbusier, who initially trained as an artist, was establishing his architectural practice in Paris. As a radical thinker, he expounded a break from the decadent style of neo-classicism to crusade for modernism in architecture. He made friends with a Cubist painter, Amedee Ozenfant, and the two in collaboration felt that Cubism had fallen into a clichéd pattern of unnecessary complicating adornments. The following year, they brought out a manifesto, Après le Cubisme (After Cubism), a critique. They then evolved their own art movement called ‘Purism’. It intended to “represent objects as pure, simple forms stripped of detail, to provide a timeless quality to industrial subject matter”. But Purism lasted only a limited span of time and Corbusier himself diversified into more sinuous, organic lines and brighter colours of abstract forms in painting.

Gertrude Stein (1905–06)

Though initially both Corbusier and Picasso had a genial relationship, but with the former’s critique of Cubism, they drifted apart. However, all that was forgotten when in September 1952, Corbusier heard that Picasso wanted to visit his 1945 path-breaking project, the Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles. He was overjoyed at this recognition and organised an entourage comprising site engineers and his wife Yvonne to take Picasso on a conducted tour. Though the entire project was built in beton brut (raw concrete), there were splashes of colour everywhere and numerous bas-reliefs that he proudly pointed out. Picasso was visibly impressed with the “work in progress, the brush strokes of architecture, as they gathered for refreshments after the tour... This was high endorsement for Corbusier”, describes Anthony Flint, author of ‘Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow’. I first came across a Picasso work while browsing through a small bookstore. The only affordable art books as a young student then were the marvellous paperback series by Dolphin Art Books.

Bust of a woman (1944)

Having been a great admirer of the Impressionists, the works of modern and post-modern painters initially appeared both baffling and enigmatic. While Impressionism sought to capture the beauty of the immediate impression of a particular moment, Cubist paintings in contrast looked fragmented, incorporating multiple planes of views of a subject. But, with a wider understanding, one appreciated their path-breaking vision.

How did Cubism originate? In 1908, art critic Louis Vauxcelles saw some landscape paintings by Georges Braque in an exhibition in Paris and described them as cubist oddities. And the term ‘Cubism’ was coined. Early Cubist paintings were often misunderstood by viewers because they were thought to be merely geometric art.

The Three Dancers (1925)

Since Renaissance in the 15th century, the aim of the artists was to paint the illusion of three-dimensional space in their work to mimic the experience of looking through a window onto a real landscape, person, or object. Artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael learnt to depict three-dimensional art in the two-dimensional medium by employing techniques like perspective and tonal gradation. But, by the 19th century, with the advent of photography, capturing reality through art became redundant. It had to be now more interpretive, reflective and questioning.

Picasso’s struggle & success

Pablo Picasso was born in 1881 in Málaga, Spain, the son of José Ruiz Blasco, an artist, and Maria Picasso López. His prodigious talent for drawing manifested early and in 1895, he entered the Barcelona art academy and later studied at the prestigious Royal Academy of San Fernando, Madrid. Finding the teaching there uninspiring, he would instead wander around, recording life in the cafés, on the streets, in the brothels or in the Prado art museum, where works by famous artists inspired him deeply.

Paris was the place where all aspiring artists, writers, thinkers, musicians and theatre artists came to advance their careers and fortunes. Picasso, too, moved there in 1900. He lived through hardship and poverty, often burning his work to keep the room warm.

In Paris, besides prominent art dealers, there were also patrons like Gertrude Stein, a writer and rich heiress. Her salon was where all famous and aspiring talent met and networked. Writers like Earnest Hemingway and James Joyce and painters like Henri Matisse and Picasso were frequent visitors. Hemingway in his memoir, “A Moveable Feast”, where he vividly captures his struggling years in Paris, also writes about the goings-on at her salon. Picasso had made a painting of Stein which she didn’t quite like. “It doesn’t look like her,” someone remarked. “But she will,” quipped Picasso.

Initially, Picasso painted melancholy scenes of the destitute and impoverished society of Barcelona, such as ‘Woman Ironing’ (1901) that was labelled as his ‘Blue Period’. But soon, his work turned colourful with bright hues reflecting the vibrancy of Paris, called the ‘Rose Period’.

Picasso’s African-influenced period (1907–1909) began with his painting ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’. The three figures on the left were inspired by African tribal art and masks he saw in the Paris ethnographic museum, Palais du Trocadero. His violent treatment of the female body and mask-like painting of the faces made the work controversial, as the women were not conventional beauties but prostitutes.

My own favourite Cubist works of Picasso are the ‘L’Homme aux cartes’ (Card Player, 1913–14) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, and the ‘Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’ (1910) on display at the Art Institute, Chicago.

However, Picasso’s most famous work, ‘Guernica’, is his depiction of the German bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. This large, nearly 25X11 feet canvas, embodies for many the inhumanity, brutality and hopelessness of war. Asked to explain its symbolism, Picasso had said, “It isn’t up to the painter to define the symbols. The public who look at the picture must interpret the symbols as they understand them.”

In 1939-40, MoMA held a major retrospective of Picasso’s works, specially showcasing ‘Guernica’. This exhibition feted Picasso and brought him into limelight in America.

During World War II, Picasso remained in Paris while the Germans occupied the city. He was often harassed by the Gestapo. During a search of his apartment, an officer saw a photograph of ‘Guernica’. “Did you do that?” the German asked Picasso. “No,” he replied, “You did.”

Pablo Picasso was an artist who ceaselessly reinvented his art mediums. In painting, he moved from Cubism to Surrealism to Neo-classicism. He subsequently switched over to ceramics in Vallauris, South France.

Picasso died on April 8, 1973 in Mougins, France. He was interred at the Château of Vauvenargues near Aix-en-Provence. Maurice Duron, the Minister of Cultural Affairs, France, in a tribute said, “His legacy will live on, he filled his century with his colours, his forms, his seekings, his audacities and his vivacious personage.”

The Chicago Picasso

Photo by the writer

Pablo Picasso was also a prolific sculptor, and close to Chicago’s downtown is one of the greatest rarities of his works. The 50 feet high steel sculpture was built in 1967 at a cost of $351,959. Picasso was offered payment of $100,000 but refused, stating that he wanted to make his work a gift. Known simply as the ‘Chicago Picasso’, no one knows for sure what it stands for — everyone has his own interpretation, including that the face resembles Picasso’s Afghan hound named Kabul, or was inspired by a French woman who posed for Picasso.


Photo courtesy: CITCO

Concrete as a building material enabled plastic moulding of architectural forms to be more expressive. Le Corbusier’s Assembly building in Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex recalls ‘fragmentation’ of elements with Cubist overtones. The large enamel door, painted by Corbusier, depicts enigmatic cosmic and nature symbols, evoking Cubist abstractions. The tapestries inside the Assembly and the High Court have similar symbols. The vibrant colours on the concrete facades of the High Court (above) echo Cubist palettes.

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