Picasso was arguably the most influential artist of the twentieth century. He had some degree of influence in all styles of painting which were used during his time, and was known and respected by almost every art enthusiast on the face of the planet. Pablo Picasso, born Pablo Ruiz y Blasco, came into the world on the 25th of October 1881 in the southern Spanish town of Malaga. Pablo was an artist from early in his life – he was a child prodigy. He began his career as a classical painter. He painted things such as portraits and landscapes. But this style didn’t satisfy Picasso, he was a free man and wanted to express himself and ultimately leave a lasting mark on art as we know it.
Picasso turned his attention to cubes. He invented Cubism – a radical art form which used harsh lines and corners to display a picture instead of the usual soft curves (see enclosed picture no. 1). Picasso won a lot of fame for his Cubist paintings, but was criticized for it also. He designed and painted the drop curtain and some giant cubist figures for a ballet in 1917. When the audience saw the huge distorted images on stage, they were angry, they thought the ballet was a joke at their expense. Cubism lived on despite this. Other artists mimicked Picasso’s Cubism, and it took hold. Picasso had only just begun his one-man art revolution.
In the late 1920s, Picasso fixed himself upon an even more revolutionary art form – Surrealism. Surrealism emphasized the role of the unconscious mind in creative activity. Surrealists aimed at creating art from dream, visions, and irrational impulses. Their paintings shocked the world – particularly Picasso’s – it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. Picasso saw his newly found art form as a kind of “painted literature” or sign language. He took advantage of this fact and also the fact that he was extremely famous, to make a few political statements, statements that would go down in history.
1936 saw the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Fascist revolutionaries, led by Francisco Franco took hold of Spain and imposed a fascist dictatorship upon the country. Due to poor economic control and disregard for the people on the part of the Fascists, the country went through hell. The unemployment rate was phenomenal. The majority of the population were peasants and lived in appalling conditions. Impoverished gangs scavenged in fields and rubbish heaps for anything they could find. A vast horde of ragged, jobless people wandered around from town to town. On top of this the Fascists operated as a police state and therefore anyone who opposed it would be executed. This incident sparked the most important time in Picasso’s life. On April 26 1937, Nazi German bombers flying under orders from General Francisco Franco, laid waste to the town of Guernica, in the Basque part of Spain, killing many innocent civilians. Guernica was not a military target and had no revolutionary significance what so ever. The bombing of Guernica was an extremely cruel example to the rest of Spain of what would happen if the Republican resistance continued. This action prompted Picasso to paint Guernica; some say his greatest masterpiece ever. It shows the suffering and destruction of the town, as well as Picasso’s own horror and outrage at what happened. The painting depicts death and carnage on a large scale. A grief stricken mother is holding her dead child, a woman is burning, a severed arm holding a broken spear is lying next to a dead man and a horse (Picasso’s traditional victim) which represents the people has been speared through the heart and is in agony. The bull (Picasso’s traditional evil figure) stands alone, above everything else. He is not himself responsible for the destruction but stands as an emblem of the powerful, terrible forces that caused it. In other words, the bull represents Fascism. The painting therefore says that Fascism, though not directly responsible, is the underlying cause for violence, death and destruction. The painting shook not only the art world but also the political world. Guernica is Picasso’s major political expression of all his paintings. Even though it is a single painting, it did so much. And even though it is painted using expressionism, it is still so powerful and (with no exaggeration) it made people realise what was going on in Spain and struck up sympathy for the Spanish people, and hatred for the fascists (see enclosed picture no. 2)
Even though Picasso only aimed to express his own horror, outrage, suffering and sorrow of the Spanish people. By unleashing Guernica on the world, Picasso achieved more than he set out to do.
Guernica struck up mixed emotions. The Nazis thought of his work as “degenerate” art – not only did it defy “the rules” of painting; his artwork was anti-Fascist and therefore anti-Nazi. On the other hand, the British, Americans, French etc. loved his work because it expressed, as nothing else could, the horrors and atrocities of Fascism (which is just the sort of message that the democratic countries tried to instil into their own people).
When Nazi occupation of Paris (Picasso’s home city) came, Picasso’s work was prohibited from public exhibition. Picasso then took on a new role. He refused to leave Paris while the Nazis were there – his fame protected him. But Picasso’s refusal to co-operate with the Germans also made him, as a person, a symbol of freedom, of the “unvanquished spirit”
After the war however, Picasso’s work was not met entirely with open arms. In Paris, those still influenced by Nazi propaganda, violently protested against Picasso. But this wore off and Picasso went down in history as not only one of the greatest artists ever, but also a hero, and a figure of defiance against Fascism.
All quotes taken from
J. Beardsley, “Pablo Picasso”, Harry N Abrams INC, New York, 1991.