“Variation does not mean evolution,” Pablo Picasso said in 1923. “If an artist varies his mode of expression this only means that he has changed his manner of thinking, and in changing, it may be for the better or it may be for the worse.” With these words, Picasso shed light on two central principles of his artistic production over nearly 80 years: his openness to a diverse range of styles, subject matters, and mediums, and his resistance to the notion that change in art necessarily corresponds to improvement or progress. Take, for example, his eclectic approaches to rendering the human head. Works as different as the painting Woman with Pears (1909), the papier collé Head of a Man with a Hat (1912), the pastel Woman with a Flowered Hat (1921), the sculpture Head of a Woman (1932), and the ceramic tile Head of a Faun (1956) exemplify some of the multiple creative strategies that Picasso adopted, discarded, and returned to. Even though during his life Picasso’s work was heralded as representative of specific artistic movements, such as Cubism, Classicism, and Surrealism, the artist actively resisted categories and challenged notions of linear development.
Picasso’s eclecticism goes hand in hand with his ability to combine multiple sources. Although he trained in the academic tradition at the school known as La Llotja, in Barcelona, from the age of 13, he did not limit himself to the naturalistic forms and canonical subjects conventionally taught to art students at the time. Instead, after moving to Paris, where he would spend most of his life, in 1904, Picasso took inspiration from objects as diverse as archeological remnants from the Ancient Mediterranean world, the material culture of colonized people from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas gathered in European museums, Western art historical traditions, elements of French cabaret, and everyday artisanal or mass-produced goods. He studied these objects and condensed their features into his works, engaging in a process of appropriation even as he hardly ever copied specific artifacts.
Picasso also liberally drew on the innovations of his peers, sometimes engaging in productive collaborations like the one with Georges Braque, whose cubist experiments became so intertwined with his own that the two artists stopped signing their respective paintings. At other times he provoked accusations of plagiarism from fellow artists like Diego Rivera, who denounced the theft of a particular way of rendering foliage. In these ways, Picasso created representations that are both derivative and, at the same time, completely new.
Consider the 1906 painting Two Nudes, which depicts two massive, undressed women facing each other in front of a large curtain. Here, Picasso combined the art historical subject of the female nude with echoes of the sturdy shapes that he admired in archaic Greek and Iberian sculptures. The fact that the women appear as mirror images of each other evokes the subject of reflection explored by Renaissance artists, while the presence of the curtain engages with themes of draping and unveiling that have preoccupied Western artists since Classical antiquity. Picasso’s assimilation of these models simultaneously revives them and gives them new life, situating his painting within a long lineage of artistic precedents.
Picasso often approached his production in the same way, transforming his own past works at will. Fifty years after its creation, Two Nudes reemerged in the form of Women before the Sea (1956), in which Picasso repurposed the terra cotta tones, geometric volumes, and mirroring theme of the 1906 painting, altering the figures’ scale and posture. Throughout his career, Picasso embraced this potential for continuous regeneration and mutability. “To me there is no past or present in art,” he claimed. “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.”
Francesca Ferrari, 2020–21 Mellon-Marron Research Consortium Fellow, Department of Painting and Sculpture, 2021