Paintings On The Wall - Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Paintings On The Wall - Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

[Pablo Picasso - 'Seated Woman (Marie-Therese), 1937]


Pablo Picasso re-invented painting for the 20th century and in the process created some of the world's most iconic artworks. In this latest instalment of 'Paintings on the Wall' Paul tells us how the painting 'The Old Guitarist' wound up influencing the writing of 'All Day' with Kanye West, and how a newspaper headline seen by actor Dustin Hoffman resulted in the writing of the fan favourite 'Picasso's Last Words (Drink to Me)'.  But before Paul's anecdotes, journalist Adam Jacques gives us an introduction to the works of Pablo Picasso. Take it away, Adam...!

Legend has it that Picasso was once sitting in a café in Paris when an admirer approached him and asked if he'd create a quick sketch for him on a paper napkin. Picasso whipped out a pen, doodled a sketch, and said, "That’ll be 1 million francs". "But it only took you thirty seconds!" Exclaims the man. "Yes," said Picasso. "But it took me 50 years to learn how to draw that in thirty seconds." Whether this was just a popular local myth doesn’t really matter: in the skilled hands of one of the world’s wealthiest and most famous artists, a blank napkin was worth far more than the highest denominational note.

But how do you solve a problem like Pablo Picasso? He applied his brushstrokes like a child, painting eyes in the wrong places and noses at impossible angles – yet could paint like an Old Master, producing the lifelike 'The Old Fisherman', at just 15. The classically-trained Spaniard notched up a treasure trove of art, creating over 70,000 works, with a little help from his hundreds of mistresses-come-muses over his 70-odd year career painting, sculpting and drawing his way to global celebrity.

[Pablo Picasso - 'Bulls Head' sculpture, 1942]

[Pablo Picasso - 'Dove of Peace', 1949]

[Pablo Picasso - 'The Old Fisherman', 1895]

And along the way, he invented Cubism, gave us a secular peace symbol (the dove of peace was his design) and, according to some historians, was even responsible for the way we associate the colour blue with sadness. With genre-breaking works such as 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' he drove the art world wild, while acting as the globe's conscience, with his seminal work on the Spanish civil war, The Guernica. He changed art – and culture – forever.

When the 19 year-old Spaniard first arrived in Paris, in 1900, he'd already parted ways with the tutelage of his art-teacher father and abandoned his course at Madrid's Academy of Fine Arts for a far bigger draw: the art capital of the world.

And the down-at-heel Montmartre, with its warren of ramshackle artists' studios, was its hub. Picasso was soon caught up into the bohemian throng of this throbbing hillside quarter, with fellow painters such as George Braque, his poet friend Guillaume Apollinaire and the dandyish Carlos Casagemas, strutting around the disorderly streets teaming with working girls, the homeless and itinerant street performers. They ate, drank and visited the neighbourhood's dance halls of Le Moulin de la Galette (top of the hill, based in a former real windmill), and Le Moulin Rouge (bottom of the hill, fake glowing red windmill that Picasso initially detested).

[Pablo Picasso - 'Le Moulin de la Galette', Autumn 1900]

While bourgeois patrons and prostitutes rubbed shoulders, Picasso was spellbound by the potent air of decadence and garish glamour. So it was fitting that 'Le Moulin de la Galette' was his first ever Parisian painting. And the prostitutes spilling out on the streets were among the first of his many portraits.

Art critics talk about the distinct artistic periods in his life, and when one of his gang, Casagemas, shot himself after suffering from the unrequited love of a local artist's model, it shocked Picasso. Grieving for his lost best friend, a bluish hue descended down on much of his work for the next three years, as he depicted the neighbourhood's many outcasts and social outsiders - including this destitute old musician and a partially sighted elderly women - along with beggars and circus performers: every painting casting an air of isolation and despair.

[Pablo Picasso - 'The Frugal Repast' (print), 1904]

[Pablo Picasso - 'The Old Guitarist', 1904]

[Pablo Picasso - La Celestine (Woman with a Cataract), 1904]

It also tells us as much about his own state of mind, with Pablo intuitively using colour to convey his own emotions, as much as his sitter's. This 'Blue Period' may even have played a part in defining blue as the colour of sadness: Picasso was an influence on legendary jazz musician Miles Davis in his celebrated, but sorrowful, 1951 album, 'Blue Period. Later, Miles even had a track named after him – 'Blues for Pablo'. Picasso, meanwhile, moved on to other colours and periods: a Rose(-tinted) one, featuring representations of his first serious lover; Cubism (of which more shortly), Neo-Classicism and even, eventually, Surrealism. Blue, was a popular style with collectors, and in a few years Picasso went from burning his paintings to keep warm, to selling them for large quantities of cash.

And a rather more cheerful Picasso emerged the other end of 1904, after meeting an artist's model Fernande Olivier, his first great love. Life looks better when you're in love, and the local motley crew of down-and-outs and travelling entertainers including acrobats (or saltimbanques) were painted with warmer hues – cue in the Rose period.

[Pablo Picasso - 'Study for The Saltimbanques', 1905]

At some point, Picasso had an epiphany. It might have struck him while wandering around the Palais du Trocadero for its exhibition of African tribal masks, which were hot off the boat from French colonial territories. Or it could have been seeing for the first time a series of recovered ancient Iberian sculptures, at the Louvre. Perhaps it was as a result of the fierce rivalry with his off-on/friend-rival, the painter Matisse: he'd just found form with a rather suggestive figure painting that had shocked Paris, called 'Blue Nude'.

[Pablo Picasso - 'Les Demoiselles d’Avignon', 1907]

[Pablo Picasso - 'Woman with Clasped Hands' (Study for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon), 1907]

Picasso shut himself up in his Parisian studio for several months, conducting 100s of studies, amassing a pile of increasingly abstract figure drawings ('Woman with Clasped Hands', was one androgynous example). And his final pièce de résistance was the huge oil painting 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon'. Art historians feverishly declare this image as both the birth of artistic Modernism, the abandonment of Realism and the demolishing of perspective. And looking at this frightening bordello of naked prostitutes, their black eyes rapaciously staring out of their distorted heads, you could see it as the overthrow of the old regime of representative art. But while it’s not lifelike, by capturing the lurid carnal harshness of a brothel, perhaps it's more truthful.

And in the rubble of Classical art, Picasso – along with French painter Georges Braque - pieced together an art movement they labelled Cubism: flattened pictures of fragmented and fractured forms, simultaneously offering multiple viewpoints - perfectly depicted in 'A Girl with a Mandolin'. Picasso was always going to ride the Cubist train a stop too far, and taking the form to its logical extreme was 'Ma Jolie' (Picasso's nickname for his then lover Marcelle Humbert), ditching the constraints of reality all together.

And why not? If the growing art form of photography could capture reality, what was the point of painting it? Picasso's art had to do more, which meant dragging them beyond the realm of the real. And it opened the floodgates to abstract art: take a bow Tate Modern and MOMA.

[Pablo Picasso - 'Girl with a Mandolin', 1909]

[Pablo Picasso - 'Ma Jolie', 1911]

By the mid 1920s and 1930s Picasso had become an extraordinary artistic chameleon, frequently switching from one form to another, and appropriating other artists' themes and forms as he went. Having moved on from his Cubist phase, and explored Neoclassicism, he was now dabbling with Surrealism.

The Spaniard was also a long way away from the brutal civil war that had broken out in Spain in 1936. But when the bombing of Guernica happened a year later Picasso, now 57 and comfortably wealthy, was utterly shocked. Reading in the news of the 1,600 civilian deaths - after General Franco ordered the communist-leaning town flattened - his instinctive reaction was to paint. And the result is probably his most powerful and famous work of all: in just over a month he'd created a 322 square foot canvas 'Guernica' (1937).

[Pablo Picasso - 'Guernica', 1937]

Few paintings have managed to convey the scale of torment witnessed here: a wailing woman clutching her limp lifeless baby, the mouths of man and beast open in a frozen shriek of anguish that makes the painting feel like it's saturated with the misery of the victims. It's a permanent memorial to their suffering, and for a moment, you can glimpse what it might have been like to be there. Hailed as one of the world's most powerful anti war paintings, it made Picasso deeply political: he joined the communist party, and created a Dove of Peace illustration for them, eventually evolving it into one of the world's most recognisable symbols of peace.

Every artist needs their muse, but for Picasso – who had affairs with perhaps 100s of women in his life, and featured many of them as his subjects – they were an essential driver of his work. But of the key women in his life, two killed themselves, two went mad and a third died from an illness after just four years together. More than any other artist, Picasso's art was drawn from his relationships and while their real-life dramas was the rocket fuel that ignited him, it left many of them diminished, and ultimately discarded, except for the violently contorted portraits of them, frozen in time. "Women were machines for suffering," Picasso would say: without realising, or perhaps caring, that he was responsible for much of it.

Each of Picasso's major relationships blurred between the other. He began seeing the young, acclaimed photographer Dora Maar, in 1936, towards the end of his relationship with his previous amour, Marie-Therese Walter (shown at the top, in glorious Cubist technicolour). The Maar on canvas that we see first depicts an elegant, composed woman. Skip forward three years, though, and the woman he now sees in 'Woman Dressing Her Hair' has been transformed into a frightening monstrosity, her body in parts bulging, others emaciated. For Picasso it was a reflection of her troubled mental health and their relationship on the rocks. When she was discarded for the younger law student, Françoise Gilot, in 1943, she had a nervous breakdown.

[Pablo Picasso - 'Portrait of Woman' (Dora Maar), 1937]

[Pablo Picasso - 'Dressing Her Hair', 1940]

Of course there was much joy to be had, too; "If he was happy with his work, he’d do a little dance," recounted Marie-Therese Walter. And he knew how to diffuse the awkwardness of his fame in his later years with second wife Jacqueline Roque: visitors to his family home in Cannes, France, were compelled to done a mask from the fancy dress box to wear around the house. And it proved a great ice-breaker: it's hard to feel overawed when your host is wearing a false nose.

Though he had long since passed the baton of modernity on to a new generations, Picasso died with a pen still in his hand, aged 91, artist to the last. Pablo's art-teacher father had hoped he'd become a classical painter, and it's fascinating to think what might have happened if he had stuck to his father's wishes, and completed his training at Madrid's Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Instead of Pablo the revolutionary, would the work of an Andalucía-born, classical-style painter with a talent for mimicry simply become an overlooked footnote in Spanish history instead?


A PS from PM:

"Due to my love of Picasso's work, I was admiring his picture 'The Old Guitarist' (1904) and was intrigued by the chord he was playing. I transferred it to my own guitar and found that it was a beautiful chord. I then set myself the task of writing a piece that would use only two finger chords. I was telling this story to Kanye West when I was working with him and whistled the melody for him saying we might want to use it. He sent me back the track ‘All Day' where the tune had morphed into a heavy urban riff and was the intro of the song. At the end of 'All Day', you can hear me playing the melody in its original form. All thanks to Picasso.

"My other connection with Picasso was many years ago when Dustin Hoffman, the actor, showed me Picasso's obituary which was headlined 'Picasso's last words'. Dustin asked me if I could write a song around these words and I did. It ended up as a track on Band on the Run called, not surprisingly, 'Picasso's Last Words (Drink To Me)'."

- Paul McCartney, August 2015