On April 27, 1937, Adolf Hilter’s air force bombed the Basque village of Guernica for target practice. It was a market day. Approximately 1,654 people were murdered and 889 injured.
On May Day, 1937, Parisian newspapers broke the story. Pablo Picasso, who was living in Paris at the time, was overwhelmed by images of the slaughter. He immediately began work on his infamous mural, Guernica. Three months later, it debuted at the Spanish Pavilion of the Paris World Fair.
The following is excerpted from Julián Ríos’s book Kitaj: Pictures and Conversations:
“Each epoch usually has its own Apocalypse. Ours is called Guernica. This painting of chaos is in a way a time bomb. It exploded, and unfortunately continues to explode, our time. This grey printed matter that will never be reproduced enough is the stamp of a stampede. And of a stampede in the slaughterhouse of History. Our collective unconscious with its archetypes, the ‘nightmare’ of History with its disasters and sordid absurdities, the slaughter of the innocents in a black painting, and besides—because Guernica is above all an artistic production—a large part of modern art history, are condensed in a powder flash. A fusion-fission of antagonistic styles. It is precisely this war of forms that allows the painting to articulate the tearing cry of its contents.
“The epic and ethical dimension of the great Picasso painting—a moral painting—demands the viewer’s aesthetical participation: an ethical attitude.
“And we see this painting as the animals trapped in the war of Guernica would. War irrationalizes man. He can suffer or inflict war but he will never manage truly to understand it. All animals in the same slaughterhouse. The war of Guernica. ‘Dans Guernica il y a guerre…’ It is not impossible that the guerre camouflaged in the French pronunciation of Guernica would resound, even unconsciously, in the ears of a painter settled in France for more than thirty years. What’s in a name? Obviously, the memory of the Basque town destroyed by the bombers of Franco and Hitler. But after this bombing in reality there will no longer be any local wars or civil wars. And this is reflected prophetically in the great painting-mirror of Picasso. The war of Guernica is the war of all of us.”
Photo of Picasso in his studio at 23 rue La Boétie, standing in front of Rousseau’s Portrait of a Woman, 1932
Picasso in his studio in the country house Notre Dame de Vie with the portraits of the Rousseaus 1965
Picasso purchased Rousseau’s painting Portrait of a Woman (c.1895) for five francs in 1907. He kept it by him, moving it from residence to residence for the next 65 years, until his death in 1973.
Pablo Picasso, 1937
oil on canvas, 349 × 776 cm
Museo Reina Sofia
Life for Picasso was defined by art. Language, love, and even politics burgeoned for him almost exclusively through his visual associations; he saw everything first as a picture to which all his emotions could later be traced. The frenetic nature of his life forced him to break apart the images that, as a painter, he arrested in two dimensions. Through acts of distortion and violence against his world, Picasso tried to make sense of the clash between the inner and outer self. Picasso could never pin down a specific way of representing things, and consequently he laid the foundations for many of the movements that drove Western culture through the 20th century.
Pablo Ruiz Picasso was born on October 25, 1881, in the town of Málaga, Spain, where he lived for the first 10 years of his life. When his mother delivered the baby, he neither cried nor breathed, and legend has it that his uncle gave him life by exhaling cigar smoke into the infant's nostrils. Pablo's father, José Ruiz Blasco, came from a family of a few aristocrats and did not work until the age of 37, when he became an art instructor. His wife, María Picasso López, who did not even have a dowry, came from Andalusian stock. This Mediterranean ancestry afforded her a bodily strength and mental power that became the foundation for her son's machismo as well as a lifelong struggle -- both artistic and personal -- with his attitude toward women.
The boy's first signs of artistic inclination began with drawings of spirals. Early biographers speculate that these simple sketches, which resembled Spanish pastries called churros, were equivalent to a baby's realization that learning the spoken language would allow him to ask for what he needed. The logical development of this story suggests that Picasso's fundamental mode of communication, even manifested at an early age, was visual rather than verbal. In his mind were objects and forms, translatable only through the art he created.
In 1895, the same year Picasso began studying at the School of Fine Arts in Barcelona, his younger sister Conchita died from diphtheria. He made a vow to God while she was sick that if she were cured, Picasso would never paint or draw again; the relief he felt upon her death of not having to keep his promise left him with lifelong guilt. Many paintings from the next few years, when Picasso was enrolled at the School of Fine Arts, have as their subject a dying girl. Though Picasso's father steered his son toward religious art, he knew that the future cubist possessed a creative mind that far surpassed his own. Once, Blasco asked his son to help with a painting of pigeons by finishing the claws; when he noticed his son's talent in observing detail, Blasco himself renounced art. This is one of many stories about Picasso, however, that romanticize his life but do not always hold true.
At the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid, where he enrolled in 1897, Picasso felt the urge to become a Modern artist, though only on his own terms. By the time he went back to Barcelona in 1899, he felt independent. It was there that he met Jaime Sabartés, who would become a lifelong friend. At the end of the summer of 1900, Picasso moved to Paris for the first time, thinking he would just travel through the city on his way farther north, unaware that Paris would structure and inspire much of the rest of his life. He and his best friend at the time, Carlos Casagemas, were inseparable while in the new city -- except at brothels where, for lack of money, Picasso would repay the prostitutes by painting murals on their walls. Casagemas, unfortunately, was impotent, and this flaw mixed with general depression brought about his suicide. Picasso's sorrow, and the memories of his friend that Málaga inspired, made the artist decide to return to Madrid. It was there that Picasso came into formal contact with the Catalan Modernist movement, many of whose aspects he incorporated into his art in these formative years.
When Picasso went back to Paris in 1901, he couldn't afford comfortable living arrangements and would visit the galleries of the Louvre just to keep warm. The museum's shelter from the cold and damp weather symbolized Picasso's immersion in his work, and his sad images from the Blue Period are saturated with the depth of his depression. The Blue Room (1901) is one of the first works of this period and represents his tiny shared room. He also painted a composition whose content had haunted him for months: formally called Evocation, this work was known to his friends as The Burial of Casagemas (1901). In the painting, a group of mourners surround a shrouded corpse laid out in the foreground. This motif of heavily draped figures continued throughout the Blue Period, emphasizing the darkness of these works.
In this year, Picasso exhibited at Vollard's gallery, selling works that are some of his most famous now, but could not even bring in enough money for art materials then. Picasso met Max Jacob -- the poet, painter, and art critic -- at Vollard's. Though Picasso spoke little French and Jacob no Spanish, Jacob's reading of nineteenth-century poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud smoothed out the language barrier, and the two formed a friendship that ended only with the poet's death in a Nazi concentration camp.
Painting that year probably saved Picasso from suicide and insanity, just as the Louvre saved him from the winter. Picasso's artistic sanctuary also turned into a sort of mission. If depression came out of a deeper perception into the inner world, then painting could recreate that world for a myopic audience. In 1902, Picasso moved back to Barcelona for the last time and found a corner where he could paint without being disturbed. He began to draw with a new sense of sculptural form, often using a theme of two people meeting. By portraying people's facial expressions, Picasso gleaned a remarkable ability to imply meaning behind the external.
Picasso's deep insights never satisfied him, however. Instead, the symbolic notion of blindness -- portrayed poignantly in several paintings -- haunted him all his life, as if to mock him for seeing the outer world as a projection of the inner self. Though he lived most intensely by what he saw with his eyes, Picasso also fantasized about an inner vision untouched by a changing world. In The Blind Man's Meal (1903), a man whose eyes are nothing more than empty sockets sits at a table touching a jug set before him. His hand replaces the visual sense of place that viewers have taken for granted; lacking muddled images of the secular world, the blind man can reside in a purer imagination. This painting represents Picasso's idea that "they should put out the eyes of painters as they do to goldfinches to make them sing better."
Back in Paris, Picasso met Fernande Olivier, who would remain his lover for several years. She moved into his studio soon after they met, and Picasso set up a small shrine above Fernande's bed with a picture he had made of her. It was around this time that Picasso met the Americans Leo and Gertrude Stein, who were just settling into the literary art world. As she had with other promising figures such as Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound, Gertrude befriended the young artist. She also bought his paintings long before they were sought after, and in 1915 she introduced Picasso to Henri Matisse, who was an older and established painter. In these years, Picasso spent most of his day with various visitors such as Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob, a group informally called the Rendez-Vous des Poètes. Picasso would paint late into the night using an oil lamp or candle.
The Blue Period continued through 1904, but slowly Picasso began to turn away from the melancholic shades of monochrome. Though The Actor (1904-1905) suggests a sense of suffering similar to the works just before it, the pink clothing indicates a break from the Blue Period. Perhaps it is this painting that led to the label of "Rose Period" for the next two years of Picasso's work. The actor, modeled after a neighbor, heralds Picasso's new obsession with the circus and stage, and with the delightful disguise these forums permitted.
The image of the Harlequin, a youth who represents both the excitement of imitating the daily life of a society and the despondency of being an outcast from that society, recurs in Picasso's work even through the later Cubist period. His character is often thought to mask Picasso himself, and this idea has been developed further into a theory that all of Picasso's motifs, from the bull to the dove to a child holding a candle, are various symbols for the artist's mercurial nature.
This performer motif persisted with Picasso's first sculptures, which were inspired by the voluptuous figures of Dutch women he painted during a trip to Holland in 1905. Picasso began The Jester (1905-1906) after returning one night from a trip to the circus. The sculptural works following this one show the influence of Greek art, and even the painted figures maintain a sculpted look.
In 1906 Picasso asked Gertrude Stein if he could paint her portrait. Before this time he had rarely used models -- instead just walking the streets or visiting the circus people and gathering images in his head for later -- so Stein was surprised by the demands he made on her time. She remembers posing more than 80 times, until suddenly one day he painted out the whole head, exclaiming, "I can't see you any longer when I look." The picture remained that way, and Picasso went to Spain for the summer. When he returned, he painted in the head without seeing Stein again. Many who saw the finished portrait were shocked by the severity he depicted in her, but Picasso in his complacency answered this disapproval by saying, "Everybody thinks she is not at all like her portrait but never mind, in the end she will manage to look just like it." He was proven right in two ways: first, that the most lasting and well-known image of Stein would be Picasso's portrait of her, and second, that when Stein died and the painting was bequeathed to the Museum of Modern Art, everyone remarked how much it resembled her.
In that same summer, Picasso visited the town of Gosol, where an exhibition of pre-Roman Iberian sculpture turned his focus to the crude features of the female body. Suddenly Picasso's nudes took on a sparseness of form; rules of proportion were forsaken in favor of energy and movement. Ironically, the primitive style that Picasso reintroduced the next year led a revolution in art, beginning with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which became the basis for Cubism and eventually an early landmark of Modern art. This painting combined allusions to ancient art with a new technique that made the figures look flat. The women in the painting are distorted and some of their features even look detached, a motif Picasso would develop more strongly in later years. The rupture of the figure that Picasso introduced with this painting caused a similar break in the conventions of art that had existed up through his youth.
When Picasso returned from a summer trip to La Rue des Bois in 1908, he found an artistic kinship with Georges Braque, whose landscape paintings resembled Picasso's own. Just a few years later, their similar dissection of objects created difficulties -- even for the two artists -- in distinguishing one's work from the other's. The two worked together in the invention of Cubism until separated by the First World War in 1914. Cubism indicated a break from the past; visually, painted objects were portrayed in fragments that resemble refracted light, and for the first time art would be seen as a representation of itself rather than of the natural world. Apollinaire, who incorporated Cubist ideas into his poetic style with the layered imagery of his Caligrammes, made the famous observation that Picasso "studies an object as a surgeon dissects a corpse."
It was during the whirlwind of this movement that Picasso's relationship with Fernande dissolved. Soon thereafter, he fell in love with Eva Gouel, to whom he often referred in Cubist paintings with the inscription Ma Jolie (the title of a popular song at that time) accompanied by pictures of music notes. From 1909 onward, Cubism developed from the analytical stage, where objects were fragmented in different shades to show surface volumes, to synthetic Cubism, which used collage to allow a play between reality and abstraction. The movement spread easily around Europe, but did not make its debut in America until 1913, when several of Picasso's paintings were displayed at the scandalous but impressive Armory Show.
In August of 1914, when World War I began, Braque abandoned the Cubist movement and his artistic companion to join the war. Picasso took him and André Derain to the train station at Avignon, and never saw his friends again. In 1915, Eva fell ill and died, and Picasso wrote to Gertrude Stein asking for her comfort. While the war continued, Picasso worked on the Russian ballet Parade with Jean Cocteau, helping to design the set and costumes. To see his ideas realized in movement brought Picasso into closer contact with the human form, turning him from the Cubist obsession with objects to a renewed interest in the figure. This interest was not exclusively artistic, however. In 1917 he met the dancer Olga Koklova, who would become his wife a year later.
Olga's pregnancy with their son in 1920 influenced Picasso's painting of nudes, which became fleshy and maternal in style. In 1925, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon was reproduced for the first time in a Surrealist publication. The acceptance of this work into the canon shows how, throughout Picasso's life, his violent distortions of nature always maintained a humanity that appealed to -- and even changed -- the existing aesthetic. Though Picasso focused on the human form, especially the female form, during his entire career, his sculpture work of the 1920s and early 1930s combined the dimension that Cubist painting lacked with an energy that seemed to encompass Picasso's whole career. An affair with his model, Marie-Thérèse Walter, and her conception of Picasso's daughter made his already estranged relations with his wife even weaker. It was around this time that Paul Eluard, a poet with whom Picasso later shared his own poetry, introduced the painter to the beautiful Dora Maar. Not only did she inspire and model for later nudes Picasso painted, but she also became his lover for many years.
When Picasso's promise to contribute a painting to the Spanish Pavilion happened to coincide with the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, a masterpiece was in the making. Guernica (1937), a work of great dimensions that unfolds the horrors and grief of war, left a legacy not only for the raw emotion Picasso realized but also because of its completion at the onset of World War II. The painting was shown right away in several European cities, foreshadowing the bombs that would soon visit the same places. When Picasso saw Paris in 1939, he found a fear he had only just painted; following the advice of friends, he left the city for Royan, a town on the coast. He stayed there with Dora Maar and his friend Sabartés, and he moved back to Paris only after Hitler signed the armistice with Pétain. He drew, painted, and sculpted through the war and after, becoming obsessed with Dora Maar's face, as evidenced by the many portraits of her from this time. With the end of the war in 1945 came another era in Picasso's life: he took on a new model, Françoise Gilot, who bore him two children a few years later.
Picasso's art began to be seen widely after the war. French museums clamored for his work, and in Antibes the Palais Grimaldi turned into the Musée Picasso. He lived a leisurely life at Vallauris, spending summers at the bullfights and doting on his children. Though he experimented with ceramics in those years (for Picasso, experimenting always meant eventually mastering whatever happened to pique his interest), his obsession with the female figure still prevailed, and his jugs and pots often resembled goddesses or breasts. His dove drawings also come from this time, when he frequented communist-sponsored peace conferences all over Europe. His paintings War and Peace from this period were shown separately in Italy until Picasso realized that the panels fit together perfectly. They now form the famous Temple of Peace, enclosed in an old Vallauris chapel.
Unfortunately, Picasso's feelings for and inspiration of national peace -- in 1961 he won the Lenin Prize, which intended "to strengthen the bonds of peace between all peoples" -- did not affect his personal life, and once again his love for a woman was eclipsed by his more lasting passion for art. Françoise left with the two children in 1953, and that same year Picasso began an affair with another model, Jacqueline Roque, whom he married eight years later. In 1957, Picasso accepted an invitation to paint a huge mural for the new Unesco building in Paris. Though he never saw the panels together, the 40 pieces came together in an astonishing presentation that Georges Salles called The Fall of Icarus.
Picasso was showered with adoration on his 80th birthday; both a bullfight and fireworks were given in his honor, and an exhibition of almost 200 works traveled around the United States, entitled "Bonne Fête Monsieur Picasso." Few artists live long enough to see their work duly appreciated, but again in 1970, an even greater exhibition of Picasso's sculpture went from Paris to London, and then ultimately to New York. That same year, Picasso donated many works to what became the Museo Picasso in Barcelona.
The paintings at the Museo Picasso span his whole career, but still cannot begin to offer a comprehensive idea of Picasso's goals. In the same way, a chronological mapping of his life can hardly pay homage to a man whose intellect reached through the past and projected into the future, defying time and, as Octavio Paz articulated, gathered inspiration from "all centuries without letting go of the here and now." Probably the greatest artist of the 20th century, Picasso did let go at the age of 91; he passed away on April 8, 1973, in Mougins, France. Except for those close to him who grieved his physical death, Picasso hardly left behind a void. His spirit lives in every drawing, painting, or sculpture he created, and parts of his legacy lie all over the world at the many museums that honor him.
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Penrose, Roland. Picasso: His Life and Work. Berkeley: University of California Press,
1981. Originally published London: Gollancz, 1958.
Richardson, John. A Life of Picasso, Vol. I, 1881-1906. New York: Random House,