“Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World” by Miles J. Ungar— How Picasso Became Picasso

Ungar, Miles J. “Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World”, Simon and Schuster, 2018.

How Picasso Became Picasso

Amos Lassen

Miles J. Ungar’s “Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World” is the story of how an obscure young painter from Barcelona came to Paris and made himself into the most influential artist of the twentieth century. In other words, this is the story of how Picasso became Picasso.

Let me get a bit personal here. Those of us who grew up in the ‘60s certainly knew the name of Picasso and certainly there were those who had seen paintings and prints but for most of us Picasso became a symbol of a period. I read about him but really never appreciated Picasso until I took an interdisciplinary graduate course on Cubism. I was very lucky to have Dr. Rima Drell Reck as my professor and she remains one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. She opened my eyes to Picasso and the effect he had on the modern world.

In 1900, an eighteen-year-old Spaniard named Pablo Picasso came to Paris for the first time. Paris was the capital of the international art world that and it was magical for Picasso. After having suffered suffering years of poverty and neglect, he emerged as the leader of a bohemian group of painters, sculptors, and poets. These artists were fueled by opium and alcohol and inspired by their own late-night conversations with each other. Picasso and his friends had resolved to shake up the world.

For many of his early Paris years, Picasso lived and worked in a squalid tenement known as the Bateau Lavoir, in the heart of Montmartre. It was here that he met his first true love, Fernande Olivier, a muse whom he would transform in his art from Symbolist goddess to Cubist monster. These early years were not easy but later Picasso looked back on them as the happiest of his long life.

Fame and recognition came slowly to Picasso. It actually began in the avant-garde circles in which he traveled, and then among a small group of collectors, including the Americans Leo and Gertrude Stein. In 1906, Picasso began “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and it was become one of his great masterpieces. His inspiration came from the paintings of Paul Cézanne and African and tribal sculpture. In “Les Demoiselles”, Picasso captured and defined the disorienting experience of modernity itself. The painting was so shocking that several of his friends thought he’d gone mad. Only his colleague George Braque understood what Picasso was trying to do. Over the next few years they teamed up to create Cubism, the most revolutionary and influential movement in twentieth-century art.

Picasso’s story is the story of an artistic genius with a creative gift and it is a story “filled with heartbreak and triumph, despair and delirium, all of it played out against the backdrop of the world’s most captivating city”. He ushered in the birth of modernism a century ago and it was a great moment of creative disruption including Einstein’s physics, Stravinsky’s music, and the writings of Joyce and Proust and these was “Les Demoiselles”, a painting with lasting impact in today’s art world.

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