Pablo Picasso and Cubism

The evolution of Pablo Picasso’s artistic styles and forms over the course of his long and fulfilling career provides us with interesting insights into the psyche of the man himself.  In other words, Picasso had written his autobiography, not through the medium of words, but rather manifested through his paintings’ sense of the aesthetic.  Along with his contemporary Braque, Picasso is credited with the invention of the path-breaking class of visual art that is called Cubism.  But this invention is not pre-conceived.  Picasso or Braque did not set about radically altering norms of art; rather the circumstances of life of these gentlemen have had a significant effect on the way their minds conceived their paintings.  Furthermore, Picasso is famous for the number of self-portraits he did.  Hence, the biographical and the artistic are intricately linked (Shaw-Eagle, 1997).  The rest of the essay will expand on this theme capture the essence of Cubism through its inventor.

Picasso’s artistic career effectively started in the year 1900, when he first displayed his works in a Barcelona tavern named Els Quatre Gats.  The fact that a defining figure of twentieth century art should start his dialogue with the rest of the world at the turn of the century is very symbolic.  The beginning was a remarkable affair, for Picasso was still only nineteen and has proven his talent for drawing as a vehicle for ideas.  After this initial success, Picasso grew in confidence and questioned orthodox views of education and social conduct.  Adopting a radically different lifestyle, Picasso showed that behind his art was a profound caring for humanity and civil society.  For example,

 “He had rejected academic study and had joined a group of young Barcelona avant-garde artists who espoused social causes, among them the plight of the urban poor. The disenfranchised, such as syphilitic prostitutes, beggars, vagabonds, fellow artists and writers and circus performers, would be the subjects for his Blue and Rose periods, the high points of the National Gallery exhibit.” (Shaw-Eagle, 1997)

It is important to note that his art during the early period indicated signs of things to come.  His first cubist painting “The Young Ladies of Avignon” was painted in 1907.  Just the previous year, he had painted one of his self-portrait masterpieces “Self-Portrait with Palette”, which was done in his early style.  It would be inaccurate to infer that with Cubism, Picasso has made a decisive break from the past.  As a matter of fact, when The Young Ladies of Avignon was exhibited in 1907, it wasn’t referred to as Cubism.  The term Cubism was assigned retrospectively to an emerging new trend seen in the works of artists such as Picasso and Braque.  While Picasso is most famous for his Cubist works, he was also inspired by the works of such artists as Toulouse-Lautrec, Diego Velasquez and El Greco.  For instance, his early painting “Lady in Blue,” has elements that are unmistakably that of Velasquez, and is almost satiric impasto portraiture of a Spanish courtesan.  So, the range of styles and forms adopted by Picasso is very comprehensive and Cubism is just one chapter in the artist’s body of work (Danto, 1996).

Cubism can be concisely defined as an improvisation on realism, made by manipulating three dimensional objects into flat-sided geometric forms that revealed very little depth. Early pioneers of this form also held the view that showing only one perspective of an object didn’t completely explain it, and hence they showed painted objects from more than one perspective. Further,

 “Cubist artists were not trying to imitate appearances, however. Georges Braque explained that the goal of Cubist art was in the reality of the mind, not the senses. For these reasons, Cubist artists did not try to paint realistically.  The original Cubist artists were active until the start of World War I, when most artistic activity in Europe came to an end. At the beginning of the movement, Cubist painters used only dull, dark colors, but later they began to work with brighter colors”. (Danto, 1996)

It was noted earlier how the ‘notion of self’ was at the core of Picasso’s works.  This is seen in Picasso’s “lifelong preoccupation with portraiture, especially self-portraiture.  The portraits of himself mirror perfectly his restless search for a stylistic and psychic identity. Here, especially, we see how he projected a sense of self that was larger than life and how he saw his art as an extension of himself”. Even in such a painting as “The Family of Saltimbanques”, irrespective of the fact that the object being painted is the harlequin the artist is essentially looking at himself as if to say, “Who am I?” (Shaw-Eagle, 1997)

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