Pablo Picasso was the archetypal modern artist, and his work raises all sorts of questions about modernism. He was an artistic rebel who became fantastically wealthy. He was an experimental artist who hated much about the modern world, and his paintings, which so often baffled and shocked the establishment, are among the most reproduced images in the world part of our visual language.
The questions raised by Picasso's work have largely been avoided by turning him into a celebrity and concentrating on his personal life. We tend to be told more about his bohemian lifestyle, his fabulous wealth or his string of girlfriends than we do about his artistic motives. The film Surviving Picasso is a case in point. It concentrates on his legendary love life, portraying him as a nasty, sex obsessed and manipulating old man. It makes no attempt to understand him as an artist.
Academics have also been drawn by Picasso's personal life. John Richardson's massive biography is one of a string of studies that dredge through his personal life looking for significant details the suicide of a friend, sexual obsessions, a morbid fear of syphilis to explain the man's genius. This kind of posthumous psychoanalysis is not very rewarding. It is next to impossible to weigh up the impact of such episodes. More important, this approach doesn't begin to explain the influence and popularity of Picasso's painting in wider society.
Picasso produced an enormous volume of work in a number of distinct styles. But the breakthroughs that made him so controversial occurred in the six or seven years before the First World War. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon a 1907 painting of Parisian prostitutes is widely regarded as a turning point, not just in Picasso's work, but in the history of modern art. The painting caused outrage because of its brutality and anger, but its power lies in the extent to which the images of the women are disfigured and transformed.
Other modern artists like Cézanne and Mattisse had been experimenting with new ways of expressing the reality they saw. Picasso went further by starting to create an entirely new reality in his paintings.
Demoiselles was the catalyst for the development of Cubism. Working closely with his friend, Georges Braque, Picasso developed a way of painting which undercut any simple relationship between artist and subject. By revealing subjects from different angles simultaneously, the Cubists suggested that the real world was too dynamic and complex to be reduced to the two dimensions of a canvas.
Braque and Picasso went a step further with Cubism. They began to use everyday objects like wallpaper, newspapers and advertisements to make up their pictures.
In these paintings they threw out perspective altogether and abandoned representation in any traditional sense. These were open ended picture poems, celebrating the wonders of mass production, challenging the bourgeois concept of art as something unique and precious. They revelled in the excitement of city life, and by freeing the artist from the role of mere imitator of reality they suggested an intoxicating sense of power and freedom.
As two of Picasso's Cubist followers wrote, `Henceforth objective knowledge is at last regarded as chimerical...and natural form proven to be convention, the painter will know no laws other than taste... A realist, he will fashion the real in the image of his mind, for there is only one truth, ours, when we impose it on everyone.'
The breakthroughs of these years laid the basis for much of the artistic experiment that followed the First World War surrealism, the Dada movement and even abstract painting itself. Traditional perspective had been fractured and art itself was being redefined by the use of new materials and new artistic languages. To explain this kind of shift we have to go beyond personal anecdote and turn to deep seated changes in the world Picasso and his colleagues inhabited.
Since the late 1800s France, like the other advanced capitalisms, had been a place of restless change. The Paris Commune of 1871 the first attempt at establishing a workers' state had been defeated, but the industrial working class was becoming a major social force. Big new capitalist companies were invading every area of life and literally reshaping the world. Paris had been rebuilt in the 1860s and 1870s, and traditional artisan communities had been cleared out and replaced with standardised boulevards, dominated by the huge new department stores. Food, clothing, furniture, even entertainment, were being mass produced for the first time. It was a period of rapid technical change. First railways and then the motor car revolutionised transport. Electric light transformed the city at night. The miraculous possibility of air travel became a symbol of the human potential of new technology.
The burst of artistic experiment that began in the 1880s was a response to these changes. Artists could no longer simply record the lives of the rich or paint pleasing country scenes. As the Impressionists showed, even the countryside was being transformed by railways, new suburbs and factories.
The artist's role in society was itself in question. Photography and film challenged the relevance of the traditional `fine arts', but rebellion against the art establishment meant putting yourself at the mercy of the new art dealers and their capitalist clients. By the turn of the century the idea of the artist as the outsider in an oppressive, hostile world was common. Even an artist as politically conservative as Cézanne was complaining that `the world was being flattened by the dictatorship of the engineer and planner, beauty and inspiration are in mortal danger'.
Despite his phenomenal success, Picasso always considered himself a rebel. Shortly after arriving in Paris from Spain in 1904 he said, `A painter is always at war with the world. Either he wants to crush it or conquer it, change it or celebrate it.' His early `Blue Period' paintings are full of the loneliness and bewilderment of people rejected by mainstream society. Later he described his empathy with primitive art as a kind of magical protection against the world. `They were against everything-against unknown, threatening spirits... I too believe that everything is unknown, that everything is an enemy!'
Picasso's particular sense of outrage and distance from modern Paris were sharpened by his upbringing. He had arrived in Paris with the advantages and the limitations of the cultural outsider. He had been brought up in relatively backward southern Spain. Its lack of industrialisation and vestiges of feudal and semi-feudal past made a sharp contrast to turn of the century Paris. Picasso himself was born into the middle classes, dominated by the extensive administrative class left over from the high tide of Spanish imperialism centuries before. As he grew up he felt cramped by the provincialism of Spain, but his rebellion against his stultifying background was shaped by anarchist ideas. He believed that painting `is a sum of destructions' and his visions of social harmony tend to be idealisations of the past rather than visions of a modern alternative.
He retained the sense of being an outsider all his life. The civil war in his native Spain politicised him and inspired the great protest painting Guernica.
After the war he joined the Communist Party, saying, `I have always been an exile, now I am one no longer... I have found there [in the CP] all whom I esteem.' But he never really found a home with the Stalinists. They were ambivalent about him. They could use his celebrity status, but they viciously attacked his painting as decadent because it did not follow the rules of `Socialist Realism'.
Picasso's sense of being an outsider was double edged. After the great collaborative breakthroughs before the First World War, Picasso's art never again made that kind of progress. He was always prolific but at times his painting lacked passion and became repetitive or obscure almost to the point of self parody. Sometimes his paintings' only significance seems to be that they are obviously by Picasso. This kind of self conceit is not surprising given the way he was feted by the art world. As early as 1912 his dealer thought it was worthwhile demolishing a wall in Provence that he had painted on and sending the whole painted piece to Paris to be remounted on a wooden panel.
But it is not the case that he sold out in some simplistic way. Right through his life he had periods of brilliance. For all his supposed mistreatment of women, he deals with sexuality in the most open and sensitive ways. The drawings of artist and model from the end of his life are among his most moving and painfully honest work. But he rejoiced in sensuality as often as he recorded sexual alienation. As the Marxist critic John Berger has suggested, it wasn't that Picasso sold out, more that he rarely found the subject matter to light up his passionate humanism. Hemmed in by celebrity on the one hand, and the crudeness of Stalinist politics on the other, his instinctual rebellion against the modern world never found the allies it needed.