He was the most resourceful of innovators. Pablo Picasso transmuted old traditions into modern idioms. He might even be called the last of the great humanists. When Picasso ( 1881-1973 ) was alive, what he was doing, or had stopped doing, or seemed to be about to do, was always news, and was habitually expected to be surprising. Plenty of other artists worked into their eighties, but the works produced were often manual reproductions, often enfeebled, of the pictorial style that made their reputations. It is true that some develop a final style , which, by a combination of purification and exaggeration, summarizes a salient aspect that has run in one form or another through their earlier work. For example, before he died at age seventy-eight, Renoir painted a series of soft, lushly swelling and rolling female nudes drenched in color that suggest they had just emerged from a bath in crushed fruit. By one standard these terminal works apotheosize Renoir’s conception of woman as a symbol of the indestructible fertility of nature. However, they appear to push this conception beyond tolerance into the area of the grotesque.
Titian seems to be an exception to the rule that very old men who continue to paint only exaggerate or imitate their past work. In his very old age, Titian’s failing hand and unfailing spirit combined to produce some noble paintings in a broad, hazy technique that anticipated impressionism by three centuries. Before he died, the impressionist Claude Monet magnified and loosened his style in a comparable way, currently regarded as having anticipated abstract impressionism, although by a mere generation. American Edward Hopper, born only a year later than Picasso was another true exception; his spare, solid paintings continued to grow richer and deeper as contemplations of a steady theme.
Picasso was the world’s unquestioned top living old master of art as it was transformed in the twentieth century. Of all painters, he was the one whose contribution, as well as notoriety, had depended most upon startling shifts of style, sudden radical innovations and transmutations of form. As a kind of reverse surprise, he sometimes returned to the past at times when he was most conspicuous for apparently having finally embalmed the past once and for all.
There was a tendency to think of Picasso as the acrobat of modern art, and to demand and expect that he continue his stunts at the increasing pace that is necessary if stunts are not to grow tiresome; which was of course impossible and absurd. Yet, to aspire to be an avant-gardist during Picasso’s last years was to venerate him as a monument belonging to the past, but at the same time to condescend to him as a creative artist whose eclecticism had become obvious.
By such standards, Picasso became the great eclectic of modern art, a litmus test for hitherto unknown factors.A more precise term would be ”auto-eclectic” If he came up with no new shockers, it was only because he was doing to a much greater degree, a return to forms of his own invention and juggling them into new patterns; a reexamination of his own innovations. This juggling was much more than stuntsmanship. The old giant’s long run, one-man performance was as remarkable as ever for its pure skill, its certainty, and its ingenuity.
In Barcelona, where his family moved in 1895, he had his own studio and was so skilled and so productive that he held his first exhibition at the age of sixteen. By the time Picasso made his first trip to Paris in 1900, he was catching up to impressionism. When he returned there for another visit in 1901, he merged elements from Toulouse-Lautrec with those of nascent impressionism. By the time he settled in Paris in 1904 at the age of twenty-three, he had very nearly concluded his demonstration that ontogeny can repeat phylogeny in art as well as in biology, and he was just about ready to stop summarizing history and start making it, which he did, beginning about 1907, with cubism; its shattering and reassembling of form was modern art’s prelude to the split atom.
Conventionally, in order to keep art historians from going mad, Picasso’s work from 1901 on, is fenced into a series of periods of anywhere from a dozen to several dozen, as if he had gone forward in a straight line from th
ulouse-Lautrec paintings through the familiar Blue period which was emaciated, elongated figures painted in chilly blues and blue-greens, highly stylized into a mood of romantic pathos. This was followed by the Rose period, to which may be added the Harlequin period and the Circus period, all shifting to fresher, warmer, more palatable colors, more graceful forms, and a mood of tender, enjoyable melancholy.
The ensuing Black period, or ”Negroid” , as it was called at the time, shifted to near brutality, from gentleness to force, with a corresponding shift to earthy colors vigorously applied. His cubist period explored explored the most revolutionary concept in art since the Renaissance and finally the Classical period which was a return of sorts to antiquity since Picasso had determined that the future had been temporarily settled. This list takes Picasso only to the mid 1920′s. But, it left him supplied with most of the basic elements of his personal formal vocabulary for shiftings, variations, and recombinations in the service of ideas that over the last half of his life ranged from profundity to trickiness, from logical humanism to nightmare, and from anguish to high-jinks.
However, the list of periods is deceptive in its orderliness. Picasso’s devlopment during the early periods was like a complex network in which each cluster of paintings is linked not only backward and forward but on all sides, as well as to the distant past through influences as widely separated as El Greco and Praxiteles. Picasso’s mind as reflected in his art might be compared to a seedbed where all rules of germination, growth and decline have been abrogated by an inexplicable indulgence of nature. Prophetic sprouts, in the form of contrasting paintings, appear within a period dominated by another style for no explainable reason. Years later they may be seen to have grown into an entire group of paintings that makes up a period in itself. In Picasso’s explosively fertile mind a plant may grow to mammoth size overnight, after lying dormant for years, and may vanish as quickly or persist in full strength.
Although Picasso was always thought of, and correctly, as one of the great revolutionaries in the history of art, and although his work had been so varied that his detractors called him an inventor rather than a painter, he was always attracted as strongly to tradition as to experiment. But Picasso never confused tradition with habit. What is ordinarily called in a derogatory way traditional or conservative art is actually only a kind of art by habit, born of the confusion of ideas that leads a small talent to believe that imitation of traditional forms carries with it the expressive power of the spirit in which those forms were originally used by the artists who developed them. As the shock of Picasso’s disruptions of conventional forms wore off, the traditional and especially the humanistic purposes served by his inventions became more apparent.
A reader advised on the following error:
—The last piece labeled ‘Picasso 7′ is actually a piece by Lyubov Papova titled “Two Figures”