Picasso and The Inner Self, by Will Barber Taylor
Updated: 3 days ago
Pablo Picasso is a controversial figure. This is not just for his attitude towards women, particularly those who he had intimate relationships with. This is also because of his approach to art, his strange and expressive works that seemed to defy the laws of artistic reason. In his paintings, whether surrealist or cubist, Picasso found a way to express himself and deconstruct himself and the world around him. In a time when self-expression can feel limited because of the coronavirus pandemic and the pressures of social media, it is worth examining what Picasso’s work can teach us about self-expression and how to properly channel it.
One of Picasso’s great early works was his self-portrait painted in 1896. This work though painted at the turn of the century, when artists were beginning to experiment with form and style in a way that would have been frowned upon centuries before, is fairly conventional. It depicts a young Picasso in a black frock coat with a dark blue cravat around his neck. His hair is cropped close to his head and betrays none of the inner wildness that would emerge in his later works.
Pablo Picasso, Self-portrait, 1896, Oil on canvas
Painted whilst at the La Lonja School of Art in Barcelona, the almost stoical image portrays a young man in a hurry. Picasso was only fifteen when he painted this image but already, he was attempting to imitate the great figures of portraiture like Van Dyke or Rembrandt. Whilst it may seem as if a self-portrait is a portrayal of the inner self, this image is as much about the public Picasso as it is of his deeper personality. It is a depiction of a boy determined to strive for greatness and place himself in the pantheon of artists who will be remembered forever. Yet whilst his face is set, there is almost in his eyes a glint of something to come – as if he is not entirely satisfied with the depiction that he has presented to the world.
By 1901 Picasso had moved around Europe and spent several years in Paris. It is there that his friend Carlos Casagemas committed suicide because of his troubled mental health and a failed relationship with his model Germaine. Casagemas’ death greatly impacted upon Picasso and sent him into a deep melancholy that consumed his art and drove what is commonly known as his Blue Period. Unlike his 1896 portrait by 1901, Picasso had moved away from the traditional form of portraiture and towards a more experimental mode of expression.
Pablo Picasso, Self-portrait, 1901, Oil on canvas
Key to this image is not the foreground of the picture but rather the dark blue background. The blocky blue background dominates the image because it perfectly expresses how Picasso felt following Casagemas’ death – utterly hopeless and filled with remorse that he could not save his friend’s life. Picasso’s figure in the foreground of the painting shows him as a man almost tired of the world. His face is solemn and drawn, his expression displays a melancholic recognition of mortality. His body, though almost entirely black in colour seems to merge into the dark blue of the background representing the despair that Picasso felt at the time due to the death of Casagemas. It engulfed him and his art as this portrait demonstrates and unlike the other portrait, there is no attempt to present a public Picasso. This picture eloquently depicts Picasso’s inner emotions at this moment of great turmoil when his friend’s death forced his art to go in a new and dark direction.
By 1907 Picasso had again changed his approach to art. As with the 1901 portrait, this was due to changes to his personal life and his perception of himself. No longer the grief-stricken genius or the boy making his way in the world by the year of his 25th birthday, Picasso had established himself as one of the great new ground-breaking talents of the art world. Whilst his elders such as Matisse felt that Picasso’s journey through primitivism and cubism to be repugnant future generations would be kinder.
Pablo Picasso, Self-portrait, 1907, Oil on canvas
What is particularly striking about the 1907 portrait is not simply that Picasso’s face is far broader than in the previous images but also that it feels almost more natural. Whereas the previous portraits, even his 1901 portrait which was unconventional for the time, tended to stick towards a traditional representation of the human face, his 1907 work does not. It is loose and free and expresses an almost inner peace within the artist that is reflected in his work. Whilst Picasso would, of course, continue to evolve and adapt his style throughout his life by 1907 he was beginning to find his groove. Though not into his cubist period yet, the blocky lines of his face portray what was to come.
Yet, the greatest expression of Picasso’s inner self is perhaps not a portrait but a depiction of a horrific war crime. Guernica is a name that has echoed throughout history because of what occurred in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War when Franco’s fascists invited the Nazis and Italian fascists to bomb the Basque town of Guernica. The horror of the events turned the politically lapsed Picasso into a convert. Guernica is not a meditation on politics but a cry of anguish at the horror that true evil can inflict in the guise of politics. It is an eviscerating and powerful piece of art that demonstrates the raw power of Picasso’s brush. Anyone who has seen it whether in person or in reproduction can testify to its grip upon the imagination. It shows the pain of a man separated from his country as it undergoes a trauma that resonates today.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937, Oil on canvas
Picasso, for all his faults, was a truly great artist who throughout his life was in touch with himself. What his work should remind us is that it is important not simply to reflect upon ourselves and consider where we are in our lives but to express our inner selves as comprehensively and as freely as possible. For without the ability to reflect upon one’s inner self we are denied the ability to grow and learning is one of the greatest pleasure’s life can hold. So, whilst this pandemic may have curbed our lives it may provide us with the opportunity to examine ourselves and come out of the other side with a new direction or a new desire which may change us for the better.