F ew names in the history of western art reverberate as widely and loudly as Pablo Picasso’s. Famous and prolific in his lifetime, he has been even more fervently celebrated since his death on 8 April 1973. To mark the anniversary, dozens of exhibitions of his work are taking place around the world, from France to Spain and the US.
Picasso was born in Málaga, Spain, in 1881. His first known oil painting, Picador, is dated 1889, when he was only eight years old. He spent his formative years studying and exhibiting in his home country, while also spending time in Paris, before permanently moving to the French capital in 1904. There, he mixed with avant-garde artists such as Amedeo Modigliani and André Derain, as well as the influential collectors who would help make his name.
Picasso worked across drawing, painting, ceramics, sculpture and theatre design. His career has been analysed intensely and divided into clear phases: from his melancholic Blue period (circa 1901–04) to the circus-infused Rose period (circa 1904–06), the African-influenced period (circa 1907–09) to Cubism (circa 1909–19) and beyond. His influences included Greek and Roman mythology, bullfighting and African sculpture. Equally important were the women with whom he had relationships – among them Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar and Jacqueline Roque – all of whom became key subjects of his work.
Picasso was hugely successful in his own lifetime and, since his death, his work has continued to achieve top prices. In 2004, Garçon à la pipe, 1905, became the first artwork ever to achieve more than $100 million at auction when it sold for $104.2 million at Sotheby’s.
“There are few figures who have had so much impact on visual culture, whether through design or references in films or adverts. Once you are tuned in, you see Picasso everywhere.”
Picasso’s life and legacy is being examined afresh in 2023 and, while his treatment of women and appropriation of non-western cultures are now acknowledged, it is his astonishingly prolific and varied output as an artist that is being celebrated.
In this landmark year, we asked two experts to discuss Picasso’s career and the ongoing demand for his works. Nancy Ireson is the deputy director for collections and exhibitions and Gund Family chief curator at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, and co-curated Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy at Tate Modern in 2018. Helena Newman is chairman of Sotheby’s Europe and worldwide head of Impressionist & Modern Art.
Sotheby’s Magazine Why is Picasso so important?
Nancy Ireson He’s one of those artists who, even if you don’t know him, you have felt his influence. There are few figures who have had so much impact on visual culture, whether through design or references in films or adverts. Once you are tuned in, you see Picasso everywhere.
Helena Newman He was a giant of the 20th century, and because he was constantly evolving it seems there are several Picassos. That gives his work a breadth and comprehensiveness, not just in technique, but in style. He tracks the evolution of 20th-century art history and the evolution of Europe and America, although he never visited the US. He had a giant career and therefore a giant impact.
SM When did you first become aware of his work?
HN He was such a household name that I can’t pinpoint the moment when I first heard of him, which is a statement in itself. But I can certainly say that, from a career point of view, a key moment was when we sold the Stanley J. Seeger Collection of 88 Picassos in 1993.
NI That’s a good way of putting it – he is definitely part of the wallpaper. I can’t remember when Picasso came onto my radar, but in terms of study, as an undergraduate and later for my doctorate, I worked with Christopher Green at the Courtauld Institute. He’s a go-to man for Picasso and helped to ignite my love for him. I never thought I would work on an exhibition about him, so it was quite funny that I ended up co-curating Picasso 1932.
SM What role does his biography play in understanding his work?
NI In a way, he was many different artists. We have so much biographical information about him, but while it is a seductive way of reading his work, it isn’t the only way. It’s important that we keep things in balance.
HN There’s a historical way of looking at Picasso’s art through his relationships with women – Fernande Olivier, Olga Khokhlova, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, Jacqueline Roque – and the art that he created when he was with them. But that’s only one dimension. There are other biographical aspects that are also interesting: the Spanish-born artist who goes to Paris and has his first show with [French art dealer] Ambroise Vollard. And the importance of the Spanish civil war and his political views. Biography doesn’t just mean his relationships – I think it’s also about how he tackled the 20th century.
SM What do you think was the ultimate driver of the many different stylistic periods across his career?
HN It’s just intense innovation. We like to look back and put these things into neat periods, but actually elements of Cubism are there all the way through. Even the so-called Blue period – there are paintings from other decades that are predominantly blue.
NI He’s never complacent. He revisits things and he’s very self-reflective. For instance, the motif of the figure in the chair – it comes back time and time again. There is a sense that he’s always testing himself. When Achim [Borchardt-Hume] and I curated the Picasso 1932 show at Tate Modern, the thing we were most struck by was just how much he made. Picasso was very prolific. And just that sheer energy: there are plenty of artists who at some point decide to rest on their laurels. It’s interesting that as an artist in his 50s he started to experiment with printing and to try different ways of making sculpture. Rather than staying in his lane, he deliberately pushed the boundaries.
SM If you were trying to explain Picasso’s work to someone who had never heard of him, is there a stylistic period or time in his life you would point them towards?
NI Approaching Picasso is a bit like going to the Louvre and trying to see it all in a day. It’s better to go to a room and see what you are drawn to. People make Picasso their own in interesting ways. Do you find that’s the same in the market, Helena?
HN When I started 30 years ago, there was a sense of hierarchy in terms of the period or decade people were collecting. There was the Blue period, if you could get it – even then those works were incredibly rare – then the Rose period and Cubism. It almost went chronologically. There was a sense of the earlier the better, going back to around 1901. But there’s been a shift now – partly because of availability but also because of taste – to the middle period of the 1930s and 1940s.
“Biography doesn’t just mean his relationships – I think it’s also about how he tackled the 20th century.”
The other thing I see is how major shows have influenced the way people look at Picasso. There was a legendary exhibition at MoMA in 1996 [Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation] curated by William Rubin. And there have been many others because Picasso was so prolific, whether it’s your Picasso 1932 show, Nancy, or the one in 1960 at the Tate, which had people queuing down the street. And Picasso and Paper at the Royal Academy in 2020 – one felt very close to his creative mind at that show.
SM It’s interesting that Picasso organised his own retrospective at the Kunsthaus Zürich in 1932. He curated his own image quite carefully in terms of how he dealt with the media.
NI I think you’re right, though it was easier to have some control over how you were perceived then than it would be now. That’s a thought – what would Picasso do with social media?
SM Picasso’s legacy is undergoing a continuous process of reassessment, including with regard to his relationships with women. Nancy, how did this affect the way you curated your show about him?
NI For Picasso 32, one of the things we tried to do when we could was to bring in Marie-Thérèse Walter’s words. There were times when she talked about what it meant to her to be with Picasso, and I think that is coming out increasingly: people now understand that Dora Maar was an artist in her own right, for example. The women he was involved with had their own agendas, and are now being shown as active players.
SM How have you perceived his popularity shifting and spreading across the world?
HN There’s no doubt that Picasso is absolutely massive in Asia. In Japan in the late 1980s, there was huge demand and collecting activity. More recently, as we have seen the number of collectors of western art in Asia grow over the past 20 years, we’ve seen that interest spread to Singapore, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and South Korea. We’ve been selling Picasso paintings in our Hong Kong auctions now for several years very successfully – particularly figurative works from his middle and late periods.
SM What lesser-known Picassos should people see?
HN The Pola Museum of Art in Japan has the Blue period Mother and Child by the Sea, 1902, which is a wonderful painting. The Pola owns 22 works by Picasso. And what about a big public sculpture like the one in Chicago [an untitled work in Daley Plaza known as The Chicago Picasso, unveiled in 1967]?
NI That’s nice, because Chicago has the drawings for it, which can be viewed in the study room at the Art Institute. At the Barnes Foundation we have Composition: The Peasants, 1906, which is interesting. Picasso had moved to Paris, but then spent a summer back in the mountains of Spain with Fernande Olivier. He made the picture when he was back in France, and it has so much going on. You can see the transition from the Blue to the Rose periods. There is a profound Mediterranean influence, and a figure loosely based on Fernande that is slightly Africanised. There’s also a Cubist element, with the faceting, and at the top there’s an enormous bouquet of flowers that feels very 19th century.
“There’s bound to be something we’ve missed. The more people who engage with the work, the more varied the perspectives.”
HN There is also a lovely 1938 drawing of Dora Maar [Femme assise (Dora)] that belongs to the Beyeler Foundation in Basel. It’s more than a drawing: it’s a painting in ink, coloured chalk and gouache.
SM It can sometimes feel like every angle on Picasso has been covered. Is there anything about his life and work we need to learn more about?
NI There’s bound to be something we’ve missed. Even the Picasso Administration [which handles his estate and authenticates works] has said it routinely encounters new examples. The more people who engage with the work, the more varied the perspectives. There was a show at the Met recently that revisited Cubism [Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition] but from a much more literal direction. It was very convincing.
HN There was also a show at the Musée Picasso in Paris last year [Maya Ruiz-Picasso, Daughter of Pablo]. It included a lot of loans from the estate that I’d never seen – even little fragments of drawings and cut-outs. It’s amazing that you can still discover things about an artist with such a massive reputation.
SM What was the situation when he died, in terms of market and reputation?
NI Critically speaking, people took a while to appreciate his late works. He didn’t have anything to prove anymore, and you get the feeling that here was an artist who was just making the work he wanted to make. There’s a certain freedom in that.
HN He was world-famous by the time he died in 1973, but by then Abstract Expressionism had come to the fore. The Tate had been given its Seagram Murals by Mark Rothko in 1969, but Picasso was still painting figuratively, which gives a bit of context to how people received his late works. Since then, there has been a return to figuration, and we’ve spent decades living with both abstraction and figuration in contemporary art, which has made people revise how they look at this stage of Picasso’s career. Right at the end, for example, he was making paintings on corrugated cardboard. It took a while for them to be accepted, but now they have entered into the canon of his work.
SM What about the market for Picasso’s ceramics and sculpture?
HN The ceramics didn’t come until later, and they give you a real sense of his playfulness. We’ve certainly seen that market grow, partly fuelled by works coming to market from the collection of his granddaughter Marina. The whole market for his sculptures has been evolving. When Tate staged a show titled Pablo Picasso: Sculptor/Painter in 1994, it made many people realise that Picasso wasn’t just a painter. In fact, his sculpture is in many ways more innovative. One of the reasons the market has been slow is because of availability – a lot of his works have stayed in the family or with his estate.
SM Is there a particular type of collector who is drawn to Picasso?
HN Just as Picasso himself can’t be defined as an artist, there is no single type of Picasso collector. There is a huge price range: you can buy a ceramic or a print for a few thousand pounds, but a major oil painting will be above $100 million. That means collectors and buying patterns are very varied. One of the great things about Picasso is that you can enter the market at so many different levels.
Cover image: Picasso in his studio in Vallauris, France (detail), 1948. Roger Viollet via Getty Images
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