Pablo Picasso – the artist of the century

He is considered a talent of the century, developer of cubism and pioneer of modernity. The word “Picasso” alone has become a symbol for art, perhaps even for “not understood” art. But what is the difference to his contemporaries and to what extent did the artist live up to his role as a superstar? Or in short: how did Picasso become Picasso?

No artist of the 20th century has been written so much about. There are innumerable biographies, literature of contemporaries, introductions to works and interpretations, right up to scandalous tabloid publications of his ex-lovers, who divulged piquant, private details. As an author, one is seduced again and again to want to fix Picasso to one role, and the much-cited “universal genius” would be just another. With all the artists presented so far in our “Knowing Art” series, I was able to approach their portraits about the work itself. But these works are largely homogeneous. Picasso is often defined as a “cubist”, but the spectrum of his work is incredibly complex. Apart from the fact that Picasso would never have called himself a “cubist”, the use of cubes was only one of many means for him and not a dogmatic program. It’s also common to divide Picasso’s work into different periods. Thus, there is the early work, which was written before his time in Paris, the blue and pink period, followed by the Cubist period. Within Cubism, a distinction is made between analytical and synthetic Cubism – more on this later. Parallel to the periods, the work is often structured by the different genres. Besides painting and drawing, Picasso produced thousands of prints, ceramics and sculptures. An approach to his work also becomes confusing because, although there was basically a continuous intellectual development in his work, he always jumped back and forth, referred to his past formal language and, above all, varied the expression of his work in many ways. A cubist oil painting could be supplemented on the same day by an almost photorealistic drawing or naturalistic etching.

A further hurdle to rapprochement can be seen in the glorification and heroisation of Picasso’s figure, which began during his lifetime and makes a more neutral view all the more difficult. Since the Renaissance, which removed the artist from the rank of simple craftsman, the “new” artist has stood for the type of genius. Best born as a child prodigy, the artist should embody a mixture of genius, madness, creativity, imagination and virtuoso craftsmanship. Thus, no Picasso biography lacks the comparison between the “great” Raphael and Picasso, who each took over brushes and paint from their father so that they would never have to paint again. Picasso is said to have corresponded entirely to this type of genius and child prodigy – he was thus a good projection surface for the fantasies and ideas of his environment. Parameters that ran counter to this heroization were quickly ignored or reinterpreted.


A more neutral approach to the figure of Picasso is perhaps possible if we place the person in a historical and geographical context. Picasso was born in 1881 in Malaga as the son of a drawing teacher. It is often said that even as a child, Picasso drew with an adult’s point of view, which made him a child prodigy. In fact, his father taught him academic drawing even before he went to school. This included dissecting objects into their basic geometric shapes. This made it easier to maintain proportions and master even supposedly complex shapes. Once these simple drawings are mastered, the copying of classical masterpieces follows, as well as the drawing of plaster busts, which were available as sculptural impressions. Picasso was literally trimmed to master this academic craft to perfection. By the time he was old enough to begin drawing training, he had virtually completed this training in advance and was able to easily stand out against his fellow students in this repetition of skills. It was also his father who made sure that on the one hand the steps learned in the training quickly condensed into main paintings and on the other hand that these paintings were admitted to endowed exhibitions. Through his position as a drawing teacher and member of various committees, he had a corresponding influence. Thus Picasso won his first awards at the age of 15, followed by press mentions. Anyone who sees the oil paintings in the style of Velázquez himself (or just now) today will understandably find it hard to believe that they are by a 13 – 15 year old boy. Of course, a certain talent is needed, but in Picasso’s case, diligence and almost dictatorial discipline were added to the mix.

So when Picasso came to Paris in 1901, he already had a special position, not only because of his youth, but also because of his awards and press publications. Shortly before that, after only one year, he had left the famous Madrid Academy of Art. In the outdated educational structures prevailing there, he would have had to go through the process of the classical school for the third time, and he already mastered this keyboard effortlessly. In 1868, as a result of the revolution, a democratic republic had been introduced in Spain and with the lost war against the United States in 1898, not only social structures changed, but also perspectives in art, philosophy and social issues. For young artists in particular, classical painting had become alienated from the reality of experienced reality. At the beginning of the 20th century, Paris was the centre of art and, alongside Spanish compatriots, the young Picasso met intellectuals, poets and artists from all over Europe and Russia. When I speak of the “centre of art”, this should by no means be compared with today’s conditions. When Daniel Henry Kahnweiler (Picasso’s later gallery owner and companion until his death) came to Paris, there were only a handful of galleries. When he opened his gallery in 1906, there were already a few dozen, in 1911 about one hundred and thirty galleries, and in 1930 there were already over two hundred. In principle, there were only two factions at Picasso’s arrival: the classical painters and the savages – the Fauves, who caused turmoil at the legendary autumn salons with their garish and Impressionist paintings. So painters, poets and intellectuals knew each other and their total number was quite manageable.

Picasso’s blue and pink periods fall into this period. The terms “blue” and “pink” are, of course, an insufficient simplification of these works. What is clear is that this monochromization at least contrasted with the gaudy works of the Fauves. Otherwise, Picasso rehearsed, observed, inspired and tried everything he encountered. All the approaches known at the time can be found in these early works.

However, three aspects are striking and relatively consistent. Firstly, there is the choice of motifs. Almost his entire life, the motifs in Picasso’s work will repeat themselves: mother with child, juggler, prostitute, harlequin, painter and model, bathers. Here Picasso deliberately breaks with the classical selection of motifs. The individual and above all the socially excluded moves into focus. Already now, a pictorial particularity becomes apparent, namely the use of line and surface. Exemplarily recognizable in one of his major works of the blue period, “Self-Portrait with Cloak”, the figure is defined by a strong, graphic line – a procedure already used in Art Nouveau. This strong line not only ensures contour and clear delineation, it also creates a two-dimensional drawing, which is coloured by the surfaces. The use of drawn lines within painting will remain a characteristic of Picasso and play a decisive role within later Cubism.

The third aspect is the arbitrary stretching of the body in favour of proportion. This is not entirely new. Whether Michelangelo, Grunewald, Feuerbach or Ingrés, examples from almost five hundred years of art history. Here, too, anatomically correct reproduction is neglected in favor of composition, though not to the extreme as Picasso does.


It is not spared to venture a short art historical and philosophical digression, which I would like to limit to the following section. Remarkable and a clear difference to his painter colleagues is Picasso’s examination of the formal means of painting. There is none (perspective, light, line, surface, contrast, plane etc.) which he does not question extensively. The means are used by all painters, but only Picasso takes the step from observing the respective effect of a variation to the overriding meaning. Around 1906 he made a supposedly simple but revolutionary discovery. Every painting moves between two poles: an ideal correspondence between object and imitation and, on the other hand, the complete absence of this correspondence.

Every drawing therefore always contains lines that are completely abstract when taken out of context. Picasso’s discovery is based on the fact that every nature-imitating image is a combination of elements that do not necessarily belong together.
It must therefore also be possible to reassemble these elements in order to obtain forms that are still understandable but are no longer seen as pure imitations of nature. What may sound confusing at first, after more than 800 preliminary works (according to Kahnweiler even more than 900), is realized in the key painting “Les Demoisselles d`Avignon” 1907 (unfortunately we do not own the picture rights for publication). This is the birth of Analytical Cubism: it shows – to put it simply – the different views of an object in order to represent a greater truthfulness. The greatest painterly challenge here is the constant struggle between the lines that define the figuration and the composition as a whole. And in contrast to Impressionism, it suddenly becomes clear: the Impressionist paints what he sees, the Cubist paints what he knows. The impressionist paints a kind of realism of the ephemeral, so to speak, while the cubist tries to portray truthfulness as such.

According to the poet Olivier Hourcade, Cubism is defined as a search for truth and, in renouncing the reproduction of the external world of appearance, illusionistic and optical effects, as a “thing in itself”, entirely in the sense of an Immanuel Kant. Where previously in the history of painting content and form, as well as message and appearance, had to coincide, pure form now became content. For according to Kant, the depiction of a reality is extremely questionable, since it is based on an illusionary, human perception. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Arthur Schopenhauer follow this idea and acknowledge the aesthetic effect of painting as such through its pure means of drawing and colour.

But this is not the end of Cubism, it will be developed further over the years. In Picasso’s work, it is not only about different views of an object, but rather about the relationship of individual aspects to their surroundings.

But this is not the end of cubism, it will be developed further over the years. In Picasso’s work, it’s not just about different views of an object, but rather about the relationship of individual aspects to their surroundings.

But if the form is content-free, why not exchange them at will? Painting is a writing and not a reflection of reality. It presents itself in the form of signs and ciphers through which the artist communicates his visual experience and not through illusionistic imitation. Picasso is constantly pushing the turning away from the representation of a pictorial reality. He no longer tries to imitate the outside world, but to reproduce it through signs (Synthetic Cubism). This is a decisive step in the history of painting – a real break. For example, there is no real woman to be seen, but a number of signs that can be understood as a woman, similar to the characters F.R.A.U., which only give rise to an idea in the mind of the reader. Thus, one reads the picture and experiences more than the visual object it represents.

His companion and artist colleague Georges Braque expresses himself as follows: “Painting does not mean depicting … writing does not mean describing!

In Picasso’s work, recognizability thus runs through the intellect when he plays with recognizable and associative forms that are supposed to condense again in the viewer’s perception. This new approach in the visual arts finds parallels not only in philosophy, but also in music. Just as cubism, light and perspective break up, twelve-tone music breaks up tonality. Cubism is an optical matter, just as atonality is an acoustic one.


Do these achievements justify the rise to the position of century painter? You may have heard of Alban Berg or Arnold Schönberg, but they are not given such an exposed position in music as Picasso is in the fine arts.

Picasso’s life differs from that of other of his contemporary artist colleagues above all in that he always takes on a special role through which he and his work become visible. Surprisingly – or actually not at all surprising, otherwise his career would actually be much more predictable – this happens in constant repetition, without his active or conscious involvement. As a ten-year-old student at the Instituto da Guarda, Picasso already stood out because he had already mastered what he needed to learn – he had already received private instruction from his father. It was also his father who, through his network, laid the foundation for the first art prizes and awards and for admission to the art academy “La Llotja”.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, this meant a deep cut for the cultural life in Paris. While nationality or origin had played a subordinate role in intellectual circles up to that point, one suddenly found oneself facing each other as an enemy.
Quite a few of his painter colleagues went to war voluntarily and enthusiastically – Georges Braque was seriously wounded by a head injury. Others, such as his German gallery owner Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, went into exile in Switzerland. Picasso spent most of his time alone in Paris, continued to work, exhibited and remained visible as a neutral Spaniard. It was precisely during this time that he made valuable gallery contacts. A special feature of this period was that the gallery owners negotiated exclusive contracts with their artists. The artists received a fixed monthly salary and in return had to deliver a precisely negotiated number of paintings and drawings. Picasso was one of the few who simply didn’t stick to it. Again and again, he sold directly to collectors, other gallery owners or dealers. In Kahnweiler’s biography, there is a whole correspondence about this annoyance. Picasso had created a decisive advantage for himself. Even in those early years he had been somewhat more expensive than Legér, Braque or van Dongen. This alone gave him an elevated position at every exhibition, and he was “outstanding” at every negotiation with art dealers. What is less well known is the massive anti-Semitism that also shaped French society at that time. In combination with the German “arch-enemy”, there was intrigue against Jewish, German and Bolshevik artists on a political level. Picasso was not affected by this either. At the time of the world economic crisis at the end of the twenties, Picasso, unlike other painters, got off with a black eye thanks to his savings. And when war broke out again in 1939, Picasso, as a Spaniard, again had a special position within Parisian society. The German occupiers had banned Marxist, pacifist, Jewish-Bolshevik, Expressionist, or abstract art as “degenerate. But during the entire period of occupation, paintings by Picasso and Braque were shown in Paris. Even if Picasso painted Guernica, it would be wrong to see Picasso as a resistance hero. The Germans wanted to show abroad that art and literature in Paris could never develop as well as it does now (occupation period) – you don’t put a Picasso away. Picasso was of course not a collaborator, but he also sold to Germans during the occupation. We have a conversation with a German officer, who asked when looking at the work “Guernica”: “Was that you?” – to which Picasso replied, “No, you!” In 1944, Picasso finally became a member of the communist party, where he was abused as a figurehead, much to his own annoyance.

Parallel to Picasso’s special position within European history, the fundamental situation of the art trade must be examined. When Picasso came to Paris, the entire art trade was concentrated in one area from St. Petersburg, via Paris to London. The American market played a subordinate role – if at all, it was interested in classics, but not in contemporary art. This changed abruptly in the twenties, however, when American billionaires discovered contemporary art for themselves and founded their own collections with a new self-confidence. In 1929, the now world-famous MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York) was founded – with just 8 works. The American market literally exploded and demanded ever new works. It may sound mundane, but Picasso was able to deliver. No other artist of his time was so productive. In the course of his life Picasso created over 50,000 (!) works of art. With Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, Picasso had one of the most resourceful and well-connected art dealers at his side, who relentlessly advocated fixed prices and the progressive conquest of new markets.


It is undisputed that Picasso made an important contribution to the development of contemporary art with his intellectual ideas and formal elaborations. Without him, Constructivism, Suprematism, Informel or German Expressionism would not have been possible. And yet, apart from some very early works, his works do not really touch me. Because as important as an awareness of painterly means and their functions is, Picasso’s ideas don’t work very well when you look at the works as a viewer. When Picasso assembles a vase from different signs and perspectives, I as a viewer understand the intellectual idea behind it quite quickly and respect its necessity. But I didn’t get the “truth” of a vase or a deeper understanding through this visual experience. Once the intellectual has been worked out and understood, its significance cannot be further increased by a thousand variations of visual stimuli.
And so Picasso’s works exhaust themselves quite quickly, one gets tired and it becomes pointless to have to decipher his ideas over and over again. In some way, Picasso seems to have been aware of this. For especially in his late years, he refers more and more to subjects and compositions of old masters like Cranach, Courbet, El Greco, Manet, Velazquez or Murillo. Also his almost autistic, compulsive, driven way of working, having to be continuously creative, does not necessarily bring out only quality. I would describe his ceramic works in particular as dilettantish and naive, even though he refers to the unconscious and immediate, as a more valid form of reality. Ideas that, starting from Freud’s psychoanalysis, found their way into the art movement of surrealism and the subsequent action painting, and in this form, of course, also had an influence on Picasso. But perhaps Picasso is really to be understood as twelve-tone music: A great idea. Listen to it. A torture!

In this context it might also be interesting to mention that although intellectually already sufficiently elaborated, a whole German guard of artists superfluously devotes itself to similar themes and produces useless nonsense. The language is from a Markus Lüpertz or Jonathan Meese, who also proclaim the mistaken belief that their subjective dilettantism is based on a higher truthfulness.

But at the end of the day, alongside the artist, his work and the political upheavals within which he operates, there is always us: the spectator, the viewer, the audience. We are the ones who heroise and demand the extreme – rarely the balanced, stable. So if we call Picasso an artist of the century, it is precisely because we long for the idea of the ingenious, creative, excessive and intellectually superior unicum. The voices that search for nuances are naturally a little quieter.

  • Tobias Vetter