No Technicolour Here: Picasso in Greyscale

“I see for the others. That is to say I put down on the canvas the sudden visions which force themselves on me. I don’t know beforehand what I shall put on the canvas, even less can I decide what colours to use. Whilst I’m working I’m not aware of what I’m painting on the canvas. Each time I begin a picture, I have the feeling of throwing myself into space. I never know whether I’ll land on my feet. It’s only later that I begin to assess the effect of what I’ve done.” –Pablo Picasso (Berger (1965), 136)

It is appropriate that this quote of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) highlights not only the importance of approaching the canvas outwards from a micro to macro-structure, but the selection and detailing of colour use as almost subservient to the structure. There have been many exhibitions of Picasso’s work over the years but a recent one from the Guggenheim caught my eye. From October last year to January this year, the Guggenheim in New York featured Picasso: Black and White which billed itself as the first study devoted to his work limited to what I describe as the photocopying ‘grey scale’ (using black, white and grey). image of the dustjacket for the exhibition catalogue Picasso black and white at the GuggenheimIf you couldn’t make it to the Big Apple, no worries as the catalogue is available for your viewing pleasure. In addition, some of the works are featured in the Guggenheim’s website specifically devoted to the exhibition.

Forty years ago today Picasso passed away leaving behind an indelible imprint as arguably one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. The Spanish painter, sculptor, draughtsman, printmaker, decorative artist and writer who along with Georges Braque came to become associated with the Cubist movement. Although neither man took up the term to describe their style, Cubism would become one of the key movements of the avant-garde movement. It was originally coined by the French critic Louis Vauxcelles who derisively described one of Braque’s paintings as ‘bizarreries cubiques’ or cubic oddities. This deconstruction of material (both physically and philosophically) through geometric forms would provide inspiration for painters throughout the coming century and manifest itself in Picasso’s works in various but consistent guises. I might use the word ‘evolve’ if Picasso hadn’t strongly refuted that type of characterisation in analysing his works over the decades whether they are from the ‘Blue Period’ or those which displayed an African-inspired primitivism.

Evolution of an artist

“Repeatedly I am asked to explain how my painting evolved. To me there is no past or future in art. If a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was. Art does not evolve by itself, the ideas of people change and with them their mode of expression.

When I hear people speak of the evolution of an artist, it seems to me that they are considering him standing between two mirrors that face each other and reproduce his image an infinite number of times, and that they contemplate the successive images of one mirror as his past, and the images of the other mirror as his future, while his real image is taken as his present. They do not consider that they all are the same images in different planes. All I have ever made was made for the present and with the hope that it will always remain in the present.” –Pablo Picasso (Chipp (1968), 264-5)

As we remember Picasso today, it is helpful to remember that our view of him should not be one of those fun-house mirrors projecting optical illusions of the self but instead, as he suggests, a man whose expression was of his time: paintings serving as living testament to Paris in the middle of the Second World War, Spain under the Franco dictatorship and the other important events of the 20th century.

Learn more about Picasso

There have been other recent exhibitions over the past couple years covering his influence on British painters of the 20th century, his time in Paris and a detailed comparison of his deconstruction of the guitar. These catalogues can be found in the Art Collection within the Library.

Picasso & modern British art (Tate Britain, London, 15 Feb.-15 July 2012)

Picasso in Paris, 1900-1907 (Museu Picasso, Barcelona, 30 June – 15 Oct. 2011.)

Picasso: guitars, 1912-1914 (MoMA, New York, 13 February – 6 June 2011)

Picasso : the Mediterranean years 1945-1962 (Gagosian Gallery, London, 4 June – 28 August 2010)

Another resource is a video called: Pablo Picasso: Magic, Sex and Death. It was a documentary on Picasso done for Channel 4 and presented by Picasso scholar and art historian, John Richardson. It includes interviews with various scholars and those of his children, grand-children and former lover, Francoise Gilot.

See Picasso in London

image is snapshot and link to Becoming Picasso Paris 1901 exhibition at the Courtauld galleryCurrently there is an exhibition on Picasso at the Courtauld Gallery: Becoming Picasso 1901 (until 27 May). Admission is free to full-time UK students (£6 for adults).

Also at the Courtauld, there is a parallel drawings display entitled Picasso, Matisse and Maillol: The Female Model (until 26 May).

A version of this post was also published on 8 April 2013 here.

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