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Monday, June 6, 2011

The Reinvention of Picasso

Being an artist is like being a detective. It's like being a psychiatrist. It's like being a gourmet chef, like being a writer, being a ditch digger, and a circus ringmaster. The artist must detect what he is all about, solving the mystery of himself, often by psychoanalyzing himself or herself. Then once all the ingredients are assembled, like a cook, he or she must stir it all up and write it all down in paint, digging a deep trail toward his ultimate goal. If and when that goal is finally reached, then he must become the ultimate promoter, trumpeting his self-discovery to the rest of the world, waiting breathlessly for the applause or moans of angry disapproval or worse, sad boredom. Some artists work a lifetime to achieve this exposition of self-discovery. And when the peak has been achieved they can rest, their personal style set in stone, endlessly achieving by simply recounting the journey.

Pablo Picasso achieved this pinnacle with his discovery/invention of Cubism in the second decade of the twentieth century. He made a name for himself and became an international star, commanding very respectable prices for his work and settling comfortably into a domesticated middle-age. His trademark Cubistic style was starting to be collected and even imitated. He stood next to Monet and Matisse as one of the three most respected artists in all of France. His services as an artist were in demand wherever he looked, painting, designing posters, sculptures, ceramics, even set and costume designs for the theater. Only a little more than ten years after landing in Paris as a brash young Spaniard, barely out of his teens, not even speaking the language, he was the toast of the art world.

Deux Femmes Nues Assises, 1917, Pablo Picasso,
near the beginning of his Classical Period
Imagine then, the surprise and chagrin when this "father of Cubism" suddenly decides he is no longer interested in the popular style he practically invented, and instead has decided to study Raphael, Michelangelo, El Greco, and other artists from the past. It was the equivalent of his going back to kindergarten and starting over. It happened in February of 1917 when Picasso decamped for Italy.  The ostensible purpose of the move was to design sets and costumes for his friend, Jean Cocteau's, Avant-garde ballet, "Parade," but the effect the move had upon Picasso
Women Running on the Beach, 1922-24, Pablo Picasso,
near the end of his Classical Period
was nothing less than cataclysmic. Thus began his "Classical Period," dating from 1917 to about 1922 in which his painted images seem to regress, taking on heavy, volumetric, monumental forms, often more realistic than anything he'd done in a decade. It was a total metamorphosis, and it was a spectacle the world would see again and again during the next 60 years of the man's life--the reinvention of Pablo Picasso.

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