Pablo Picasso never made David Letterman’s “Top Ten List.” Or Box Office Mojo. Or even the FBI’s most wanted list. Yet he’s famously famous, the most influential artist of his time.
Create a list of the 20th century’s most impressive figures: Edison, Roosevelt, Gandhi, Gates and Jobs come to mind. Ellington, Elvis, John, Paul and George. Ringo, too. All that’s swell for all things pop, but things get downright murky when discourse turns to Picasso.
There are facts and achievements that remove Picasso from the mysterious and subjective realm of the art world and put him in perspective, if you will. It begins to help us understand, “What’s so great about Picasso?”
Top: “The Weeping Woman,” oil on canvas, 23 in × 19 in (60 cm × 49 cm), 1937. Art © Succession Picasso/DACS 2002. Photo © Tate.
“La Vie,” oil on canvas, 77 in x 50 in (196.5 cm x 128.5 cm), 1903. Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
In one sense, art is discovering or inventing a way to express a unique vision—think Dali, Pollock, Warhol. Picasso had something to say for more than 70 years.
Picasso’s first, identifiable style began in 1901 with his “Blue Period.” Flavors of the month come and go, even in art circles, but Picasso remained on the radar until the end of his life—he never put down his brush until his death in 1973.
Picasso mastered just about every graphic medium around. According to some estimates, he created the unbelievable total of 50,000 works of art.
Nearly one million visitors attended the 1980 Picasso retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, an exhibit that packed every gallery space to display more than 970 objects.
“Les femmes d’Alger,” version O, oil on canvas, 18 in x 21 in (45 cm x 53 cm), 1955.
Ahead of the curve
Picasso remained at the forefront of painting and sculpture for decades (The Beatles’ dominated pop music for less than 10 years). Picasso developed cubism, collage and assemblage. His work influenced numerous styles and movements, including Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism, De Stijl, Vorticism, German Expressionism and Dada.
Picasso’s black and white painting, “Guernica,” expresses the horror of war (named for a Spanish village attacked by German and Italian warplanes in 1937). It remains one of the most famous examples of fine art as political statement, and, with dimensions of 137.4 in × 305.5 in (349 cm × 776 cm), one of the largest.
Simply called, “The Picasso” by locals, this 1967 sculpture graces Daley Plaza in the heart of the loop. Powerful, engaging, enigmatic, the work stands 50 feet high and weighs 162 tons. It’s Picasso’s gift to the people of Chicago—no one knows why.
“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” oil on canvas, 96 in x 92 in (244 cm x 234 cm), 1907. Image courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Ninety years after the creation of Picasso’s game-changing “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (shown above), James Cameron displayed it in his 1997 film, “Titanic.” The agency representing Picasso’s estate denied Cameron permission, but he used it anyway. The legendary question remains: what’s bigger than the Titanic, the ego of Picasso or Cameron?
True or false, there’s a story told about Picasso that says a lot. A woman approached the artist as he sketched in a park. Would he draw her portrait? Of course. Pleased with the result, she asked:
“What do I owe you?”
“But it only took you minutes!”
“It actually took me my entire life.”
All artwork by Pablo Picasso, images © respective owners.