Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Proteus of Painting

No figure in twentieth century art approaches the stature of Pablo Picasso, born on this date in 1881. Love him or hate him, he refuses to be ignored. His paintings, sculptures, and even thoughts on art continue to influence artists today, if not directly then indirectly through the vast web of influence surrounding him. No artist assumed and then discarded so many styles as Picasso over a lifetime, continually reinventing his artwork and his artistic persona. In the mythological world of art history, Picasso is Proteus–always seemingly seeing into the future while answerable to no one except himself. Like Proteus, Picasso escapes pinning down into neat categories. Who could have looked at the rather conventional Self Portrait from 1896 (above) done at the age of 15 in Madrid and guessed at the next 77 years of invention and self-invention?

Just five years later, Picasso finds himself in Paris, the heart of the art world, and immerses himself in his Blue Period. The Blue Period Self Portrait of 1901 (above), painted at the age of 20, makes Picasso look almost monstrous. The blue background heightens the emotional charge of the portrait where the brown backdrop of the 1896 subdued and even calmed any hints of emotion. Picasso charges his works at this time with color, melding a classical type of draftsmanship with the new vision of color coming on the horizon. Not only does Picasso’s painting style change dramatically, but his personal appearance alters considerably. The teenage boy of Madrid would cower before the bearded beast of Paris.

Cubism takes center stage in the 1907 Self Portrait (above). The previous style of draftsmanship disappears in an almost childlike boldness and simplicity of line. You can almost imagine this Picasso stepping into his own Les Demoiselles de Avignon and mingling with his own kind. The bearded wildman of 1901 just six years later assumes the almost professional appearance of a serious artist painting serious ideas. Here we see the beginning of the marketing of “Picasso” the artist in the mainstream mind versus the reality of the man. All the personal attributes of the man himself are amplified and made larger than life in his attempt to live up to the legend. Picasso plays the lover and user of women over and over again as a consequence of this oversized hunger for fame. The Self Portrait of 1907 begins the long line of masks that Picasso would assume before the public for the next 66 years.

Near the end of his life, Picasso paints the Self Portrait of 1972 (above). With only one year left on this earth, Picasso paints in a style that can only be labeled as “Picasso.” During all the strife and war of the twentieth century, Picasso never took the side of one nation over another, choosing to side with the pacifists against war itself in any shape or form. Guernica protests one atrocity by name, but all atrocities by implication. Despite this neutrality, you can see the toll taken on the artist by those events in the wild, staring eyes he gives himself. The entire head of the 1972 Self Portrait strikes an alien note, as if he was no longer a recognizable member of this planet or the human race for that matter. The most masterful artist of the twentieth century could convey volumes with the simplest series of lines—meaningful gestures stunning in their compactness in the same way that Louis Armstrong’s late style of understated singing and trumpet playing could overwhelm even the most complex flurry of virtuosity. When I was searching for a fitting epigram for Art Blog By Bob, I ended my search entirely when I hit upon the one now appearing under the title. In everything he did artistically, Picasso was pitch perfect, hitting the mark every time with a perfection that seems obvious after the fact and inevitable forever after.

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