7 Things You Need to Know about Picasso

Heading to the Picasso exhibition at London's Tate Modern? Here are some little-known facts about the great artist.

Throughout the summer, Tate Modern honours the great artist Picasso, with the spotlight on one significant year, in The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy (to 9 Sep). It's a month-by-month journey depicting a dazzling year,  through his art and also a tumultuous personal life. But we take a look back on some lesser known aspects of his life and ask, how did his childhood, parents and politics affect his work?

Picasso 1932 portrait by Cecil Beaton

Child Prodigy

While most babies’ first words are ‘dada’ or ‘mama’, the Malaga-born Picasso’s was ‘pencil’, or ‘piz’, in Spanish. A prophecy? It’s possible, but more likely because his father José Ruiz Blasco was an artist. A child prodigy, Picasso created his first painting, Le Picador, at the age of eight, and as a young teenager he was producing paintings that would merit being exhibited in any major gallery. At 13, Picasso enrolled and quickly shone at the Barcelona art school—where his father taught—yet he left three years later because he was "bored."

A Way with Women

That Picasso was a playboy is well known; he had many lovers in addition to his two wives, most were significantly younger than him. This exhibition focuses on his relationship with Marie-Thérèse Walter, who he met when he was 45 and she was 17. His young lover had no idea who he was, but her mother did. One of Picasso’s most famous paintings is of Walter; Nude Woman in a Red Armchair was painted after her 23rd birthday. It wasn’t until 1935 that his wife finally left him after Walter became pregnant by Picasso.

Rejected by the Communists

Picasso was a member of the Communist Party until his death in 1973 and a lifelong anti-war campaigner, yet his Comrades did not easily accept his Cubist art. Those on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in Moscow, preferred Realism—art that praised the struggle for a Communist utopia. So why did Picasso never shift his artistic genre to please others? ‘He was not a man of compromise,’ according to his granddaughter, Diana Widmaier Picasso, and remained true to his beliefs even when those with like-minded political principles rejected his art.

Guernica tiled mosaic in Guerica, Spain.

The Hand in Guernica

The mural-sized canvas Guernica is one of Picasso’s most powerful works – his response to the Nazi 1937 bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, which killed almost 2,000 civilians. Picasso’s muted monochrome palette of black, grey and white depicts the atrocity using symbolism: a bull, signifying brutality and darkness; a dead soldier clutching a flower; and a dove symbolising broken peace. Look at the bottom left-hand corner of the painting to see the outstretched hand of a victim, with flayed fingers. Picasso’s original drawings depicted a clenched fist, representing power, but he then realised that an unclenched hand is more likely to end wars.

A Brush with Theatre

Less well-known was Picasso’s skill as a stage designer, poet and playwright. He collaborated with Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, to create costumes and stage sets, described by dancer Lydia Lopokova as "moving and alive." The first public reading of Picasso’s play Desire Caught by the Tail, written in 1941, featured Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Installation view of Picasso exhibition at Tate Modern, London, UK

Earning his Stripes

You might not consider this artist as an influencer, but his penchant in later life for the striped navy-and-white Breton shirt made him a style icon. The style was the uniform for the French navy, with each of the 21 stripes on the shirt signifying a Napoleon victory. It caught the eye of Coco Chanel, who featured it in her 1917 Nautical Collection. Picasso loved representing the country where he spent most of his life—and some fashion lines today call the top the Picasso Breton shirt.

Mother’s Pride

Picasso had ample encouragement and endorsement from his mother, who told him, "If you wanted to be soldier, you would work and work and become a general. If you were a monk, you would work hard and become the Pope. But you wanted to be an artist and became the very best of them: Pablo Picasso."

Emma Levine
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