Picasso, Pablo (1881–1973)

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PICASSO, PABLO (1881–1973)


Spanish artist.

Pablo Ruiz y Picasso was born in Málaga, Spain, and died in Mougins, France. Regarded as the most influential twentieth-century artist in Western Europe and North America, he worked with a broad range of media and was central to two radical manifestations of modern art: cubism and surrealism. Cubism, which established a shift in paradigms of visual representation (including the introduction of collage), was the product of a subcultural bohemian community indebted to Charles Baudelaire's mid-nineteenth-century concepts of modernity and the "painter of modern life." Surrealism, which aimed to combine the ideas of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud to overthrow bourgeois values and social structures, was the product of a diverse community united in admiration of Picasso's work. This was still the case after a major political division in surrealism in 1929, represented by AndréBreton's Second Manifesto of Surrealism on one side and Georges Bataille's journal Documents on the other. The third issue of Documents (1930) was titled "Hommage à Picasso" and the first issue of Minotaure (1933), supported by Breton, had a cover designed by Picasso. It also included an article by Breton on "Picasso in His Element" with sixty photographs by Brassaï (Jules Halasz) of Picasso's recent sculpture and studio.

Cubism and surrealism were developed in Paris, which was Picasso's base for most of his working life. His commitment to the city as a cultural and political symbol was a reason to remain as an act of resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II. Steeped in the leftist debates of the 1930s, Picasso supported the Republican cause against General Francisco Franco's fascists throughout the Spanish civil war, most publicly represented by Guernica, commissioned for the Spanish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World's Fair, and his satirical etchings Dream and Lie of Franco I and II (1937). He was familiar with the ideological split, at the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, between his close friend Paul Éluard and Breton. Éluard could no longer adhere to Breton's disapproval of poems linked to specific events. For him, the pressing realities of fascism and the Popular Front's struggle for workers' rights meant that Breton's insistence on the purity of surrealism's ideals of Trotskyism was unsustainable. Picasso's sympathy with Éluard's position is evidenced by Guernica; his active support of the French Communist Party (PCF) in the years after the liberation of Paris in 1944; and his Massacre in Korea, which Picasso dated 18 January 1951. The latter was perceived in France and the United States as critical of U.S. military intervention (under the banner of the United Nations) to support anticommunists in the Korean War. The PCF attacked both President Harry S. Truman's decision in 1950 to send U.S. troops to Korea and the contemporary French war in Indochina as colonialist aggression.

Picasso's politics so troubled U.S. authorities that he appears in FBI files from the 1940s onward. In 1990 Herbert Mitgang ("When Picasso Spooked the F.B.I.," New York Times, 11 November) revealed some of these Cold War additions to the politics of representation. For example, Picasso's written contract in 1912 with the entrepreneurial art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (and those of Georges Braque, André Derain, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, and Maurice de Vlaminck between 1912 and 1913) was a landmark in the paradoxical history of avantgarde artists receiving regular payment for artworks that were critical of capitalist values of productive labor. A second example is his PCF membership card after 1944. Picasso, Léger, and other artists joined the PCF even though they were critical of the party's adherence to socialist realism with the beginning of the Cominform (Communist Information Bureau) in September 1947. Such sources have been the bases for diverse interpretations of Picasso's work and actions.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century Picasso and Braque saw themselves in a joint artistic project that led them to draw pioneering analogies with Orville and Wilbur Wright. Although there were other cubist groups with a variety of cultural and political agendas, the works of Picasso and Braque became focal points for critics and collectors. For example, Picasso's Les demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) achieved mythic status despite being rarely exhibited until purchased in 1939 by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Alfred H. Barr Jr., who was appointed MoMA's first director of painting and sculpture in 1929, enshrined the painting as a key moment in the museum's hegemonic convention of white-walled formalist display based on a particular narrative of artistic development in modern art. The painting also became central to Barr's paradigmatic accounts of modern art published as catalogs to MoMA's exhibitions such as Cubism and Abstract Art (1936) and Picasso: Forty Years of His Art (1939). Characteristics of Les demoiselles d'Avignon, however, are resistant to such limits. The painting was first described as "the philosophical brothel" by Picasso's intimate friends (probably by Guillaume Apollinaire), indicating sources in the erotic and sexual trade of prostitution (related to the red-light district of Barcelona, where Picasso lived between 1895 and 1900) and the transformation of ideas in the early years of the twentieth century, from theories of relativity and the fourth dimension to concepts of experience, duration, and identity. The painting therefore has been interpreted in terms of a range of discourses and concepts, including colonialism and "primitivism"; gender, sexuality, and venereal disease; male gaze and the objectified body; "Oriental" stereotypes in high art and popular culture; and history painting and academic representations of Vénus Anadyomène.

Similarly, Picasso's shift from so-called analytic to synthetic cubism has been interpreted in different ways. Many of his paintings and collages from 1909 to 1913 are central to accounts of, on the one hand, the development of abstract art and, on the other, avant-garde explorations of visual representations as sign systems. The former connects the writings of Barr at MoMA and Clement Greenberg, the most influential U.S. art critic in the immediate post-1945 period. The latter is rooted in contemporary parallels such as the radical poetry, including experimental typography, of Stéphane Mallarmé and Apollonaire and the shift in the approach to language and linguistics in theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson. Both Jakobson and Picasso's dealer Kahnweiler discussed cubism as an art practice exploring the relationships among sign, signifier, and signified.

For some art historians, such as Rosalind Krauss and Yves-Alain Bois, the meanings of this exploration are fixed and ahistorical (like the lexical meanings of words) because for them Picasso was concerned with a systematic exploration of the conditions of representability entailed by the sign solely within pictorial art. For others, such as Patricia Leighten and Christine Poggi, these meanings are variable and contingent on specific social and historical conditions. They analyze Picasso's use of ephemeral materials from everyday culture in his papiers collés (pasted papers), or collages: newspaper cuttings, labels, advertisements, and wallpaper. Words, letters, and typefaces in these works are also scrutinized for their literal and metaphorical meanings, including Picasso's fascination with punning possibilities. For example, his still life of collaged elements (newspaper cuttings, bottle label, wallpaper, colored papers with gouache and charcoal) titled La Suze (1912) can be decoded as a representation of "modern life," specifically, café debates on contemporary politics, accompanied by a glass and bottle of Suze apéritif à la gentiane. Envisaged viewers, firstly Picasso's immediate group, familiar with visual sign systems and the spatial-temporal flux of modern life, were expected to be active "readers" (both literally and metaphorically) of such works. Here Picasso glued contrasting newspaper clippings from Le Journal, dated 18 November 1912, to create a dialogue. He cut and pasted pieces from three front-page reports on the current Balkan War with some inverted, an anarchist strategy of representing the world of capitalism and imperialism as "upside down." These are in dialogue with another account (from page 2 of Le Journal)—which is pasted the right way up for reading and specifically identified by a charcoal-drawn "arrow" that doubles as the rim and side of an aperitif glass—on an antiwar demonstration by forty to fifty thousand pacifists, syndicalists, trade unionists and socialists, which took place on 17 November in a working-class community near Belleville, Paris. In the middle of the work Picasso placed, as part of his "sign" for bottle, a label from an actual bottle of Suze, which is based on the herb gentian, named after Gentius, a pre-Christian Illyrian king. Illyria was an area that, at the time of Picasso's collage, made up the Balkan League, which was at war with Turkey in 1912–1913.

Picasso did not explore the radical implications of collages for modernist art practice, which ranged from the development of photomontage (for example, Hannah Höch's critiques of the social construction of femininity in Weimar Germany and John Heartfield's critiques of Nazism) to innovative graphic and typographic imagery in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. He focused on painting, print-making, and sculpture and a broad range of subject matter from portraits of intimate friends and lovers to mythological themes with contemporary significance. These produced fresh areas for representation and interpretation, which made his work particularly important for surrealism's emphases on the unexpected and the uncanny.

Picasso's Guernica reveals both his cubist and surrealist allegiances in a representation of the bombing of the ancient Basque capital by the Condor Legion of Nazi Germany, which supported Franco's attack on the elected Republican government of Spain. The painting was both praised for its power of allusion and metaphor and attacked for its lack of realistic comprehensibility and effectiveness. Franco was so concerned by the international status of the painting and its antifascist message that he commissioned a Nationalist reply in 1943 on a claimed Republican atrocity of the Civil War: Los fusilamientos de Paracuellos by Mariano Izquierdo y Vivas (1893–1974). Guernica became a symbol of Spanish resistance during Franco's long dictatorship and had a major influence on U.S. artists such as Jackson Pollock. Picasso requested that the painting remain on display at MoMA until Spain returned to democracy. While at MoMA, Guernica had a further life as a symbol of Vietnam War protest. When news of the My Lai massacre of civilians by U.S. troops in Vietnam (March 1968) became public knowledge (November 1969), protesters used Guernica to signify that the United States was responsible for its own war crime: its Guernica at My Lai.

See alsoAvant-Garde; Breton, André; Cubism; Éluard, Paul; Guernica; Painting, Avant-Garde; Surrealism.


Antliff, Mark, and Patricia Leighten. Cubism and Culture. New York, 2001.

Baldassari, Anne. Picasso and Photography: The Dark Mirror. Translated by Deke Dusinberre. Paris and New York, 1997.

Chipp, Herschel, B. Picasso's Guernica: History, Transformations, Meanings. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1988.

Daix, Pierre. Picasso: Life and Art. Translated by Olivia Emmet. New York, 1993. Translation of Picasso Créateur.

Frascina, Francis. "Realism and Ideology: An Introduction to Semiotics and Cubism." In Charles Harrison, Francis Frascina, and Gill Perry, Primitivism, Cubism, Abstraction: The Early Twentieth Century, 86–183. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1993.

——. "Picasso, Surrealism and Politics in 1937." In Surrealism: Surrealist Visuality, edited by Silvano Levy, 125–147. New York, 1997.

Krauss, Rosalind E. The Picasso Papers. New York, 1998.

Leighten, Patricia. Re-ordering the Universe: Picasso and Anarchism, 1897–1914. Princeton, N.J., 1989.

Rubin, William, ed. Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective. New York, 1980.

Rubin, William, Hélène Seckel, and Judith Cousins. Les demoiselles d'Avignon. New York, 1994.

Utley, Gertje R. Picasso: The Communist Years. New Haven, Conn., 2000.

Francis Frascina