Pablo Picasso: Life and legacy

To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Picasso, John Boyce looks back at the  extraordinary life and career of a twentieth century icon.

Born in Malaga in 1881, Picasso´s extraordinary talent began to reveal itself from a very young age. His father, José Ruiz Blasco, a gifted artist in his own right, subordinated his ambitions to those of his son when Picasso began to surpass him. His dedication to nurturing Picasso´s talent enabled the precocious teen to stage his first exhibition at the tender age of 13. (Several years later Picasso would repay his father´s devotion by taking his mother´s maiden name!).

In the autumn of 1895, the family moved to Barcelona and Pablo entered the local academy where his father had secured his what would be his final teaching post.

Two years later Picasso had his first taste of critical acclaim when he was awarded an honourable mention at the Madrid Fine Arts Exhibition for his work Science and Charity, prompting him to move to the city later the same year.

Enrolled in the Royal Academy of San Fernando, he found the teaching uninspiring, and spent most of his time recording life around him, in cafés, in brothels, and in the Prado museum, where he discovered the Spanish masters.

He had a particular affinity for Goya whose works he assiduously copied during his first year in the capital.

 A Catalan Epiphany

The following year Picasso fell ill and spent most of the year recuperating in the Catalan village of Horta de Ebro.

The period of convalescence appears to have had a profound effect on his thinking, and when he returned to Barcelona in early 1899 he made a decision that would alter the trajectory of his life.

Picasso abandoned his art-school training and dedicate himself solely to the practice of art. His first exhibition in Barcelona in 1900 was a collection of more than 50 portraits of his friends through a variety of media.

Among them was his “modernista” painting, Last Moments, which was selected for the Spanish section of the Exhibition Universelle in Paris. Eager to see his own work on display, Picasso travelled there for the exhibition, where he discovered the joy of brilliant French tones (in contrast to the more traditionally dour Spanish use of colour), and a city at the height of its vibrancy. It was at this time that Picasso brought the French capital to life with his renowned post-impressionist work, Lovers in the Street.

Analytical Cubism

  Picasso´s experience in Paris was followed by his much vaunted blue period between 1901 and 1904, when he moved back and forth between the French capital and Barcelona, continually on the lookout for new, intriguing subjects, including Parisian female prisoners and depictions of Barcelona street people.

In the spring of 1904, Picasso moved permanently to Paris and began to work closely with Georges Braque, the only time he ever worked collaboratively. Together they developed what came to be known as analytical cubism, attempting to showed multiple views of an object in order to convey greater depth than could be presented on a traditional canvas.

William Rubin, a former director at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, describes Picasso and Braque´s partnership as “unique in the history of art for its intensity, duration, and generative impact”. According to Rubin it was a vision that “neither artist could have realized alone”.

Braque for his part described the relationship as akin to “two mountain climbers roped together”. After more than a decade working together the onset of the great war ended the collaboration, and dispersed Picasso´s social circle. Braque left for the front while most of his Spanish compatriots returned to their homeland.

Picasso opted to stay in France, entering a new avant-garde circle headed by legendary French writer, poet and film maker, Jean Cocteau.

They travelled together to Rome where Picasso would meet his future wife, dancer Olga Khokhlova.


Throughout the 1930s Picasso maintained intimate connections with surrealism, the most  important interwar literary and artistic movement, and with its main propagandist, Andre Breton. While sharing its pacifistic ideals, true to his loner spirit, he never officially joined its ranks.

Such  anti-war beliefs would, however, provide inspiration for one of his greatest works.

Though Picasso never returned to his native Spain after a brief visit in 1934, his sympathies had always lain with the short-lived Republican government, who named him honorary director of the Prado museum in Madrid.

They also commissioned hm to produce his iconic mural, Guernica, a masterpiece of the grotesque named for the Basque town in northern Spain savagely bombed by the German and Italian air-forces at the behest of Franco in 1937.

The works´ visceral images of dismemberment, death and chaos etched in stark grey, black and white are instantly recognisable. Three and half metres tall and almost eight metres across, it remains the most epic and moving anti-war painting of the twentieth century, perhaps of all time.

On a personal level, Guernica was also instrumental in burnishing Picasso´s post-war reputation, to such a extent that for many years he seemed to be largely beyond criticism.

 Public success, private failure

One of the few people to question Picasso´s godlike status in the art world was British critic John Berger. His book, The Success and Failure of Picasso, was published in 1965, and attacked what Berger viewed as Picasso´s inordinate interest in accumulating wealth, and his overrated public reputation.

While Picassos´ motives may be the subject of dispute, it is certainly true that his prolific output made him an extremely rich man, and kept him very much in the public eye. His remarkable artistic success was in stark contrast to failures in his personal life.

Though he remained officially married to Olga until her death in 1955, they had gone their separate ways decades previously. His most notable relationship in the 1930s was with French photographer Dora Maar, who served as inspiration for many of his works during their nine years together.

Maar was also instrumental in the realisation of Guernica, photographing each stage of its development in May and June of 1937. The stunning shots were used by Picasso throughout the creative process. Despite Maar´s great contribution to his art, Picasso, a serial adulterer, did not hesitate to leave her when another muse captured his attention.

After a chance meeting in a restaurant in 1943, Picasso took up with Françoise Gilot, a French painter forty years his junior. They had two children together before Gilot left him ten years later. Such was his ire at her departure that he refused to see his offspring, Claude and Paloma, ever again.

The years that followed were something of a throw back to the days of his youth, during which he lived a staunchly bachelor existence, before marrying for a second time at the age of 79.

 A rich (and lucrative) legacy

Picasso continued to be an innovator into the last decade of his long life.

Having been the darling of the art world for so long, criticism of experimental works in his final years came as something of a shock to the octogenarian artist.

In retrospect such criticism seems misguided, given the profound impact his late period had on a new generation of artists like Andy Warhol and David Hockney.

The breath of his influence was only belated recognised more than a decade after his death. In contrast to the well worn cliche of the impoverished painter who only posthumously finds fame, fortune and acclaim, Picasso found all three from a relatively young age, and so was able to hold on to a vast array of his own work.

In the wake of his death in 1973, one appraiser valued his estate at around 200 million dollars after more than 50.000 works, in a variety of media and from every period of his career, were discovered among his possessions.

While most of these works have passed into the hands of his heirs, a substantial selection were bequeathed to the French state, which are regularly loaned out to museums around the world for the global public to enjoy.

To mark the 50th anniversary of his death, a rolling series of exhibitions are being staged throughout the year around Madrid. 










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