Arts Curriculum

Picasso Black and White

October 5, 2012–January 23, 2013

Surveying the Spanish master’s oeuvre from 1904 to 1971, Picasso Black and White examines the artist’s lifelong exploration of a black-and-white palette through 118 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. Picasso’s deceptively simple use of isolated black, white, and gray hues belies the extraordinary complexity and power of these expressive works, which purge color in order to highlight their formal structure. The exhibition traces the artist’s unique vision thematically throughout his whole body of work, including early monochromatic blue and rose paintings, gray-toned Cubist canvases, elegant and austere neoclassical portraits and nudes, Surrealist-inspired figures, forceful and somber scenes depicting the atrocities of war, allegorical still lives, vivid interpretations of art-historical masterpieces, and the electric, highly sexualized canvases of Picasso’s last years.

Themes

Blue Period
Blue Period
Cubism
Cubism
Protest
Protest
Tribute to a Friend
Tribute to a Friend
Inspiration
Inspiration

About the Artist

Pablo Picasso is widely considered the most influential artist of the twentieth century, and his lifelong creative invention repeatedly changed the course of visual thinking and art history. He was born in 1881 into a middle-class family in Málaga, Spain. His father, a painter, teacher, and museum curator, was a major influence in Picasso’s formative years as an artist. In September 1891 his family settled in La Coruña, Galicia, where his father taught drawing at the Instituto Da Guarda; Picasso also studied at the school. When Picasso was still a boy his father handed him his own paint brushes, stating that his son—who had demonstrated a remarkable talent for drawing and painting—was the better artist.

Moving to Barcelona in 1895, Picasso enrolled in the city’s Escuela de Bellas Artes (School of Fine Arts). He began frequenting a new cafe, Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats), where forward-thinking artists and writers gathered. There he met painters who introduced him to the work of the French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901). On February 1, 1900, Picasso’s first exhibition opened in the cafe.1

In 1900 Picasso visited Paris for the first time, soaking up the cafe culture and nightlife of the bohemian arts capital. He settled in Paris soon after, quickly becoming part of a circle of writers, actors, musicians, and artists. Here Picasso began a lifelong process of experimentation and innovation.

His style developed from the Blue period (1901–04), characterized by its predominantly blue tones, melancholy themes, and forlorn characters, to the Rose period (1905) with a brighter, more naturalistic palette and scenes of circus and carnival performers in intimate settings. In 1907, after he painted Les demoiselles d’Avignon, his pioneering investigations into Cubism introduced a revolutionary system of painting—one showing multiple views of the same object simultaneously in deconstructed, geometric compositions using austere, predominantly gray tones. During World War I (1914–18) Picasso created his first work for the theater. He designed the scenery and costumes for the ballet Parade, directed by the founder of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev (1872–1929). In the years after the war, Picasso’s style changed again. He produced figures that harkened back to the classical traditions of Greece and Rome.

By 1924 Picasso was a highly successful artist. He became interested in the new ideas developed by the Surrealist movement, which sought to fuse the world of the subconscious with reality. He collaborated with the Surrealists but would never become an official member of the movement. In the midst of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), warplanes supporting General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces carried out a devastating aerial attack on the Basque town of Guernica. Outraged by the bombing and the inhumanity of war, Picasso painted Guernica (1937), a testament to the horrors of war conveyed in black, white, and grays. Guernica remains one of the most moving and powerful antiwar paintings in history.

In adopting this restricted palette, Picasso was also faithful to a centuries-long Spanish tradition, following in the footsteps of earlier masters whose use of the color black was predominant in their canvases—artists such as El Greco, Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Zurbarán, José de Ribera, and Francisco de Goya (who made black paintings in his old age, as did Picasso until the very end of his life).

Picasso’s subject matter was far-reaching, ranging from historical and political subjects to common, everyday objects. The human figure was a central theme in many of his works. His numerous portraits of women include those of his companions, who were always a source of inspiration.

During World War II, while German forces occupied Paris, Picasso remained in the city. Because his artistic style did not conform to the Nazi ideal, he did not exhibit during this time. Instead he retreated to his studio and continued to paint and sculpt.

The postwar years for Picasso marked a period of daring experimentation in lithography and ceramics. Although he had made prints throughout his career, he did not concentrate on printmaking until the late 1940s, when he developed new techniques. He brought a similar energy to ceramics, and his unconventional handling of the medium opened up new possibilities. During the 1950s and 1960s Picasso continued to build upon earlier themes and styles and never stopped exploring new materials and forms of expression.

During his later years Picasso continued to produce paintings at a prodigious pace. He devoted particular attention to reinterpreting masterpieces from the history of art. He was now the old master of his day and found inspiration in the works of great masters of the past, including Velázquez, Jean-Auguste- Dominique Ingres, and Eugène Delacroix.

During his long career, Picasso produced roughly one hundred thousand works of art, ranging from paintings and sculptures to ceramics, prints, and drawings. Although he is perhaps best known for his paintings, sculpture was similarly an important lifelong pursuit, and his three dimensional works—in mediums including bronze, plaster, cement, metal, and found objects—represent some of his most radical and personal oeuvre. More than any other artist of his time, Picasso made viewers and critics alike question traditional approaches to creating works of art. He continued to work prolifically until his death in Mougins, France, in 1973 at the age of ninety-one.

 

1. Susie Hodge, Pablo Picasso, Lives of the Artists (Milwaukee, Wis.: World Almanac Library, 2004), p. 11.