Of all the established painters in the School of Paris, Picasso alone remains a mystery. One by one the others have been explained to us: Matisse with his color-spots and semi-Persian arabesques; Derain who skillfully concocts new traditions out of old, Braque, the twentieth century Chardin. Only Picasso, the Malagan who came to Paris thirty years ago and who for more than three decades has been the center of every important art flurry and movement, eludes the critics. They cast their nets into the sea but all they bring up is a school of little followers. The whale escapes.
Try as they will, they cannot corner him. The ordinary artist is easy to classify. His “development”, as it is optimistically called, takes place along well-grooved and evolutionary lines. Once grasped, an artist’s “style” is not difficult to pursue, even through various “periods”. But what shall we say when confronted with the bewildering variety and apparent contradictions of Picasso’s work? How can one man, just fifty, have already lived so many painters’ lives? Is it any wonder that professional analysts have fallen back upon such words as “enigmatic”, “mysterious” and “baffling”; that they have made of Picasso a sort of super-magician who produces casually from the depths of a silk-hat, the various movements known as “cubism”, “neo-classicism”, and “super-realism”. On his own account, Picasso has given them little help. He is that anomaly, a silent or almost silent artist. By his enemies this reticence is attributed to the fact that he has nothing to say, while his friends explain it to the ground that he prefers to speak through his art alone.
The latest investigator of the “sealed works” of Picasso is his fellow countryman, Eugenio D’Ors, and it must be said that he comes out rather better than most. Of course it is manifestly impossible to state and prove a theory about Picasso in a few words. Perhaps the key to Picasso may be found in this phrase: he is not a national but an international painter. That is, he unites in his art two major strains of European painting, the Latin, emotional fervency which he took from Spain, and the formal, organizing and intellectual spirit which he found in France. These two contrasting elements, may, it seems, be held accountable for the superficial inconsistencies in Picasso’s work. He will not relinquish either one; both are parallel in his nature, and if at one time, the Romantic gets the upper hand, it is followed by a strong reaction towards the Classic. Let us take, for instance his famous painting in the Art Institute the “Guitar Player”. Painted around 1905, it shows him deep in the so called “blue manner” when he was trying to express moods of tenderness and sorrow by employing one dominant color. Various tones of grey-blue, blue-green and greenish tan created the starved, bent figure of a musician who wears the head of a Christ by Morales. Spanish ascetism and Spanish ecstasy mingle in the angular design and fine, tense draughtsmanship. Clearly here Picasso is being swayed by deep human considerations, and such considerations have already made this period the most popular with the public.
But even in the race of gaunt, beautiful dancers and clowns, and even more markedly in the happier families of the “rose” epoch which follows, the artist shows a tendency towards abstraction. In his drawing this tendency unites with his interest in negro sculpture. The composition may be connected with a series of paintings of two peasant girls, done at Andorra, but even less than in the “Guitar Player” do these figures refer to nature. They exist as studies in primary form, as ovoids, cylinders and spheres. The head of the left figure shows the typical conventionalized mask we have come to associate with African idols, modified as always by Picasso’s extreme sensibility. The quality of the line betrays the early period. Instead of being flowing, easy, calligraphic, it is jagged, careful, and touches the form at numerous points. Nevertheless, the artist has managed to convey an effect of grey gravity and solidity in the design.
Picasso arrived at cubism by way of Cezanne in a series of objective studies of still-life: carafes, bottles, compotes. Paramount at this period is his interest in organization and arrangement, for the style may be said to represent the ultimate in his classicism. Unintelligible as much of this painting is to the layman, it will repay his study and appreciation. Picasso is clearly the master of all the cubists. Not only are his abstract designs richer and deeper in their content than those of other artists; they are practically the only examples which continue, the central tradition of European painting. For each one Picasso creates a profound and three-dimensional plan. He varies the surface with troweled, plastered, glazed effects, all of which relate to the composition. His color, which in other places is inclined toward the conventional, here develops sharp and surprising harmonies over which he exercises remarkable control. Moreover, for such is his dual nature that he cannot stress one side of his temperament without recalling the other, these abstractions are always firmly rooted in psychological meaning. Where other cubists incline towards ornament, Picasso presents you with the psychological clue to his painting. The process of viewing one of his cubist pictures is something like this: you sense, first of all the emotional background of the picture, through its color and through the interrelations of the design in space; then gradually, by aid of the psychological clue, you experience the unfolding of the painting, until finally it appears, clear and concrete.
But, of course, completely abstract art could not hold Picasso. Having invented cubism and set to work a whole factory of little cubists to apply its principles to architecture and the minor arts “Harlequin Lays Aside his Mask” and becomes a Greek. The artist’s variations on the neo-classical theme are still vivid.
Concerning the artist’s works, since the period of neo-classicism there has been further mystery and much disagreement.
But, it is a dangerous thing to pass judgment on Picasso; he has a way of confounding those who criticize him, by some new and perfectly unheard-of type of invention.
For, when the final word is said, Picasso remains a great inventor of new types of art, a fertile, imaginative mind, from which will continue to spring startling pictorial ideas. This power to explore seems to have been heighten by the two parallel strains in his character, Spanish emotionalism, and French rationalism. His impressive art derives from a basic antithesis; it is a reconciliation of irreconcilables, a union of contrary moods and ideals. It is perhaps this single quality which gives Picasso his power to move us, and makes him a symbol of the complex, dual world in which we live.
Daniel Catton Rich