For most of my life, I was no fan of Pablo Picasso’s. I just didn’t get what he was trying to do with his art. But then I took an art history class at Gateway Community College in New Haven, Connecticut run by a sometime Yale professor who loved art so much that his enthusiasm was infectious. Once I began to understand Picasso’s mindset, I was able to find a way into his work. I also began to appreciate that Picasso had started as a representative artist and had a solid art foundation—which is what enabled him to break free of tradition and create new forms of art. I believe that we need to know the right way to do things before we can subvert those ways and do things in our own unique way.
To help you understand Picasso’s work, here’s an essay I wrote in my art history class about his painting “First Steps,” which is part of the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven. Maybe the essay will help you find a way into Picasso’s work, too.
When you first views Pablo Picasso’s painting “First Steps,” human figures can be recognized immediately, but the abstract style the master artist pioneered and perfected is jarring and confusing to the observer. Soon, however, a clear image emerges of a mother and child. (The title of the piece, of course, helps to arrive at this conclusion.) The oil painting on canvas, measuring 51” x 28”, is a study in dark and neutral tones: a nondescript greenish background, a gray-brown floor, blue and white clothing on the child, and a black dress and shoes characteristic of Parisian women in the 1940s on the mother. The painting is all foreground; little room or consideration is given to the background, which darkens into space. The oil paint is applied in such a way as to give the paint a “chalkboard” appearance.
The scene in the painting depicts a solemn, caring mother standing behind her child, reaching down and gently cupping his hands to give him support as he attempts to walk for the first time. She is guiding him but not restraining him. The mother’s focus is on the child, while the boy looks out at the viewer. The child, bug-eyed and uncertain, his face contorted, his body disjointed, almost grimaces with the effort of walking. He seems confused, tentative, and excited all at the same time to move forward. The two figures are out of proportion and hugely drawn; the child is particularly large in proportion to the mother’s size. Both figures look almost like sculptures and take up the entire space of the canvas.
The mother’s soft, dark, rounded body contrasts sharply with the child’s light, angular shapes and sharp lines. The mother’s body recedes and the child’s body advances. It is as if the old is making way for the new in the form of the figures and style of drawing. The child’s body and legs look robotic or ape-like, and he appears to be wearing either a knight’s suit of armor or perhaps the traditional sailor suit of young boys of that era. The mother’s face and figure have a primitive, naturalistic style to them. In contrast, the child’s face and body are composed of geometric shapes and the features are bizarrely off-center (particularly his eyes, nose, and lips). His face is shaped like a painter’s palette.
Picasso (1881-1973) was a classically trained painter who experimented with a variety of styles and media over the course of his long, innovative, and prolific artistic career.(1) Along with the French painter Georges Braque, Picasso is credited with the invention of the “Analytic Cubist” style of painting, which represented a sharp departure from the Renaissance art tradition in vogue up to that time.(2) The goal was not to realistically present figures and nature as a photograph might—in fact, the figures in this painting, particularly the child, are so bizarrely rendered that they test the viewer’s credulity that they are figures at all. Thus, the form of the painting—how it was created and the use of geometric shapes—is an integral part of the story (the content and narrative) of the work. Artists painting in the Analytic Cubist style rejected established painting conceits, preferring to dissect and analyze figures and objects and reconstruct them using fractured, geometrical shapes—cylinders, spheres, cones—on a two-dimensional picture plane in an attempt to “move far beyond the description of visual reality.”(1,2) Cubists also used a limited, often monochromatic color palette, as in “First Steps.”(2) In contrast to Renaissance-style paintings, which invited the viewer into the picture, Cubist paintings aggressively move toward the viewer. This is clearly the case with “First Steps,” as the jarring image of the child appears to be almost stepping out of the frame and into the viewer’s space.(3)
In “First Steps,” Picasso mixed both the Primitive style, drawing from the artwork created by early human cultures and particularly African and Iberian sculpture from his homeland,(1,3) and the Cubist style. Despite where he ended up, however, Picasso always began where he started as a child prodigy: With the observable and real human body. Picasso was quoted as saying about Cubism, “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.”(4)
This form of art demands much of the artist, as well as much of the viewer, who must analyze the painting to discern the shapes and stories the artist is trying to convey, as well as devise a new way to “read” the painting. Abstracts invite speculation and close viewing to appreciate the artist’s intention. The figures depicted here are certainly easier to identify than those in other abstract works by Picasso, such as his most famous painting “Guernica,” “The Three Musicians,” “Sleeping Nude,” or Yale University’s acquisition “Dog and Cock.” However, “First Steps” was also a departure from other depictions of mother and child Picasso did over his lifetime, such as 1904’s black crayon sketch “Mother and Child,” a classical drawing, and the soft, colorful, tranquil “Maternity”, created in 1909 during Picasso’s so-called “Neoclassical” period; both of these works focus on a mother breastfeeding her baby.
On the surface, “First Steps” can be seen as merely a representation of mother and child. However, within the context of the time and place of its creation, a subtext emerges. The curator’s placard that accompanies the piece at the Yale University Art Gallery notes that the painting was created in May 1943 and then revised in the summer of that year while the artist was residing in Paris.(5) World War II was ongoing at the time and German forces had been occupying Paris since June of 1940, imposing a curfew, suppressing free expression, holding hostages, and turning citizens against one another as some Parisians collaborated with the occupying forces and others rebelled. Paris was oppressed by the Germans for four years.(6) The Yale curator suggests that “The war can be viewed as a thematic subtext to the painting’s portrayal of the determined but uncertain first steps of a child and its evocation of hope in the face of precarious circumstances.”(5) In fact, Picasso’s painting was prescient in predicting freedom: Paris was liberated from the Germans by Allied Forces a year later, in August of 1944, and took those first tenuous steps toward a freer way of life.(6,7)
1. Kleiner FS. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Volume II. Fourteenth edition. Mason, Ohio: Cengage Learning. 2013, pages 844-851.
2. Pablo Picasso. www.pablopicasso.org/cubism.jsp.
3. Leslie R. Pablo Picasso: A Modern Master. New York, NY: Smithmark Books. 1996.
4. Pablo Picasso. www.theartstory.org/artist-picasso-pablo.htm.
5. Yale University Art Gallery, curator notes, “First Steps.”
6. Historynet.com. World War II: The Liberation of Paris. http://www.historynet.com/world-war-ii-the-liberation-of-paris.htm.
7. History.com. Liberation of Paris. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/liberation-of-paris.