I thought I would start with one of the most prolific and influential figures of the last century: Pablo Picasso. When people think of a modern artist, Picasso is often who comes to mind and for good reason. His huge body of work, incredible variety of output, and pure inventiveness in originating a new grammar for painting and sculpture certainly merits him for the position of ultimate twentieth century artist.
What fascinates many people about Picasso, beyond his artistic creations, was his personality and often tumultuous relationships with women, which cannot be seen as separate from the art he created. His great love, lust, hatred, and fear of women was often to be found sublimated into his art. He was a notoriously difficult person, prone to bouts of jealousy and unfaithfulness, and was often quite cruel to his many lovers, valuing his work above all else. It was his single-minded dedication to his creations that made him the ingenious artist he became but also the flawed person that he was.
In 1911, during the late Cubist period when he was living in Montparnasse, he would not allow anyone into his studio without his express permission. His girlfriend, Fernande Olivier, would be left on her own all day until Picasso came to have dinner, during which he would sit in a kind of solemn silence, absorbed in thinking about his work. When company would come over, he would make some effort to be a better host, but alternated between conviviality and morose sulkiness.
Picasso’s process was as unconventional as his social habits. Françoise Gilot, Picasso’s partner during the 1940’s until the early 1950’s and mother of two of his children, Paloma and Claude, wrote a long and detailed memoir of her time with Picasso, called Life with Picasso, published during the early 1960s. In the book she talked about how she would spend much time watching Picasso work and he made many images of her.
Picasso was unconventional when it came to working on portraits. He preferred to work from memory. He once tried drawing her from life but was disappointed with the results. According to the photographer Brassaï, who spent much time with Picasso during the 1930’s and 1940’s, Picasso always believed he could do better. He would often redo a painting many times during the process of making it. He sought perfection in his art. For instance, he tore up the drawings of Gilot and then sat looking at her for a long time from across the room as she posed nude for him. She stated that his eyes did not once more away from her body. He then told he to get dressed, she no longer needed to pose for him. He began working on drawings and lithographs of her from memory, during which he had her watch him work. He said it helped him because her presence assisted in enlivening the portrait in his mind during the process of creation and in the final product as a result.
Picasso’s day was often arduous, painting nonstop from two in the afternoon until eleven at night without taking as much as a break to eat. When Françoise asked him if this tired him he said, “No. That’s why painters live so long. While I work I leave my body outside the door, the way Moslems take off their shoes before entering the mosque.” He began paintings and sometimes finished them in the evenings, stating that he had said everything he had wanted to in the image. Other times he would just stare at the painting, like he did with Françoise, without touching if for up to an hour until he started to paint again, at which point he had found a solution to the creative problem with which he was grappling. Other times he would give up on an idea completely or walk away and come back to it the next day.
As he got older, however, he seems to have gotten more open to seeing guests and having a dialogue with others about his art. Françoise asked him why he allowed any distractions at all. He said that he still needed a connection to the outside world, to have a dialogue with it and the people around him. He compared himself to a river which had overflowed its banks and was now dragging everything in its path with it. The same can be said for how he brought the world into his art, for instance in his use of collage during the late Cubist period, when he literally incorporated elements of the world like newspapers and chair caning into the work itself. It was this aspect of incorporation of the what was around him that allowed him to push what he took from the world to its furthest potential.
As mentioned earlier, he was extremely prolific. Once Françoise asked him why he didn’t just paint fewer paintings. He responded that he didn’t want to become a “connoisseur of paintings,” meaning that he saw himself first as a creator and an appreciator of art second. Making was what drove him. Different works demanded a different intensity and pacing of process. Many of his paintings and sculptures took him a long time to complete, others were dashed off quickly. For instance, probably his most well-known sculpture, Bull’s Head (1942), created as simply as by finding a bicycle seat and handlebars and welding them together. Man with Sheep (1943), on the other hand took much planning but was completed in a single day. His most important painting Les Demoiselle d’Avignon (1907), which marked the birth of Cubism, took many studies and iterations to complete.
Picasso went through phases of incredible, seemingly effortless production and brutal struggle and stagnation, often correlating with happy and tragic times in his life. His style of work also adapted to the environment around him. For instance, the bohemian artist colony known as the Bateau Lavoir, where Picasso and fellow painter Georges Braque invented Cubism, was practically a furnace in the summertime. Picasso would literally paint naked. He would not let a little heat keep him from his work.
As stated, Picasso was a driven and obsessed artist who was often eccentric in how he went about his process. But it was his single-minded drive to make his art, his fixation with painting and sculpting that make him both the artistic genius he undoubtedly was and the moody, arrogant, misogynistic beast he often turned out to be. For Picasso, it was this marriage of angel and demon that made him such a complicated figure and without those elements we would probably not had the sheer depth, complexity, and variety of works that make up his total output. Despite his nasty side, his dedication to his art is what made him otherwise admirable.