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2004-06-15 Picasso: The art of thinking about art

Hes a lovely painter, but hes no Picasso!. I often wondered why the name Picasso was used and not another giant from the world of art. When you consider 20th century achievement, names like Freud, Einstein and Picasso jump out, but I must admit that until recently I never fully appreciated Picassos genius. I found it difficult to stand in front of a Picasso work and see just what it is about.

 

This bad boy of art has always been surrounded by controversy and scepticism, and yet he managed to change the entire course of modern art. Pablo Ruiz y Picasso was the most prolific artist of all time, working right up until his death at Mougins in the South of France in 1973. Born in Málaga in 1881, the family relocated to Barcelona when Pablo was 14. Both Barcelona and Málaga claim him as their own. Both cities have museums dedicated to his memory and vast output of paintings, drawings, sculptures, ceramics and prints.

Recently I revisited both Picasso museums. The permanent collection in Málaga boasts around 200 exhibits and is housed in a stunning 16th century Andalusian building. The Barcelona museum, opened in 1963, was the worlds first Picasso museum, and is significantly superior, displaying more than 3000 exhibits from the works of his formative years through his many changing and reinventing styles until his death at the age of 91.

Wandering through the Barcelona exhibition, it was as though Picasso was saying Look, I am a real artist. I can paint in any style you like. However look at this new style which is all my own. I viewed breathtaking works in the style of Rembrandt, through impressionism and surrealism. It is his early, less famous works which impress me the most. Artists must create their own realities. I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them, he said. He saw God as an artist who had no real style. He created the giraffe, elephant and cat, and just goes on trying other things. Picasso spent time in Paris, in the citys wonderful galleries, establishing his own artistic language.

 

He made many friends during his Bohemian days in Paris, but sadly his flatmate committed suicide, and there followed a Blue Period from around 1901 for three years. His blue figures were stony-cold, impotent, bloodless and straight-jacketed, and the artists fear of blindness was soon evident in the works of this period.

Brighter colours and the use of the clown symbol followed in his Rose Period. Strong symbols, such as the dove, began reappearing in Picassos work. The bull seemed to symbolise his alter ego. Picassos turbulent love-life and his complicated ménage of women and love-children meant that women are central to his art.

His women are earthy and maternal, but also voluptuous at times, as in The Dream (sold in 1998 for $50 million). One of the prides of the Barcelona museum is the rather conventional portrait of his first wife Olga in a mantilla. At the time, paintings such as Young ladies of Avignon with its innate threat of sexuality was shockingly expressionistic. Picasso seemed to be trying to dominate women through his art, as the images of women we see are expressions of his appetites, anxieties and vivid imagination. Picassos friend Georges Braque said that art is meant to disturb, whereas science reassures. With Picassos Cubist period and his abandonment of perspective he was to change the face of art, literally, forever.

He saw the reality of life in the head, face and body, not the soul. He broke art down to its essential elements, meaningless in themselves, and only made meaningful by the artist. A painting is a flat object, and by collage technique his cubist works resemble overlapping cut-outs laid flat on a canvas. Also influenced by primitivism in African art, as well as the surreal and unconscious mind, Picasso claimed to paint strange things, as the world is a strange place.

He spent his lifetime learning how to paint like children again (I have always succeeded in that regard). However the depth of a work such as his famed 27ft anti-fascist mural Guernica depicts the horrors of war through distorted figures with screaming mouths and clenched gestures. His own life was a constant struggle against the death of art. Picassos own distinctive style may appear childlike to many, but it is undoubtedly the art of thinking about art.