When Picasso Almost Invented Abstract Painting
Portrait of Pablo Picasso, 1908. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
It took four hours by train and seven hours by covered wagon to reach Cadaqués from Barcelona. The group of travelers—including a 28-year-old Pablo Picasso and his then lover, Fernande Olivier—arrived in the small Spanish beach town after nightfall on July 1, 1910.
Picasso would produce just a handful of works that summer, 10 of which are extant today. For the famously prolific artist, whose total output is estimated at 50,000 works, this was an aberration. Just the summer before, in the Spanish village of Horta de San Joan, Picasso produced what biographer John Richardson calls an “avalanche of paintings.”
“It’s always interesting to note when he actually slows down,” said Yve-Alain Bois, a professor of art history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In this case, he noted, “I think Picasso knew that his work had pushed him into a corner.”
The preceding years had been wildly productive for Picasso. In 1907, together with French painter Georges Braque, he began to lay the foundation for Cubism. The pair collaborated more intensively in 1909, a back-and-forth that led to the development of “Analytic Cubism”—characterized by fragmented, overlapping planes and a monochromatic palette.
In his beach-side studio in Cadaqués, Picasso continued to pare down his mark-making. Eventually, he settled on a structure of gridded perpendicular lines that would serve as the basis for each new work. He also began to shade each plane of the fragmented picture separately, rather than maintaining a single light source—an approach that created a sense of depth without the illusion of a solid form.
These developments were driving him closer and closer towards pure abstraction. Even Picasso, Richardson notes, had a difficult time identifying the original subject matter for the Cadaqués paintings. Beyond their titles, Femme à la mandoline (Woman with a mandolin) (1910) and Glass and Lemon (1910) are difficult to parse as anything other than a series of interlocking geometric planes in shades of brown and gray. “These works seem abstract in all but name,” wrote Museum of Modern Art curator Leah Dickerman in a catalogue essay for the museum’s 2012–13 exhibition “Inventing Abstraction.”
And if Picasso had embraced this direction in his art, his would have been among the first Western paintings to be truly abstract. While this accolade is, and likely will always be, contested, Wassily Kandinsky—often hailed as the “father of abstract painting”—didn’t display his first non-representational painting until December 1911.
But pure abstraction remained, as Richardson puts it, “a Rubicon [Picasso] would never cross.” When the Spanish painter returned to Paris in late August, he changed course. “It’s true that whatever Picasso felt about those works, he decided to stop this vein, to amend it shortly afterwards,” Bois explained.
The artist may have been influenced by his primary dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who evidently declined to purchase all but one of the works he’d made that summer. A 1910 portrait of Kahnweiler, begun before Picasso’s trip to Cadaqués and completed after he’d returned to France, reveals the new direction Picasso’s art would take. He began to add “attributes” to his paintings—a tie, a pipe, an ear lobe—small signs that indicated what object was being represented.
Later, in the 1920s, Picasso began to publicly decry abstraction. Bois notes that, as far as he knows, Picasso had made no comment on the style before that point. The comments came “precisely when abstract art was making some kind of noise and he felt a bit of a threat,” he explained. “The threat being: I’m no longer the most avant garde there is.”
In a 1928 interview, Picasso declared: “I have a horror of so-called abstract painting.…When one sticks colors next to each other and traces lines in space that don’t correspond to anything, the result is decoration.” The floodgates had opened; in 1935, the painter opined: “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterwards you can remove all trace of reality. There’s no danger then…because the idea of the object left an indelible mark.”
A third argument, which came later, held that it was impossible to entirely eliminate a painting’s subject. “Even if the canvas is green—so what? In that case the subject matter is greenness!”
Pablo Picasso, Still Life with a Bottle of Rum, 1911. Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection. © 2017 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But despite these outward rejections of abstraction, Picasso would revisit the style in sketches periodically throughout his life—often corresponding to a particular exhibition or artist’s work that he’d just seen. “Each time, it’s almost to reassure himself,” said Bois. “Like, ‘Oh, I can make the same stuff as these people.’ You can sense there’s some kind of anxiety.”
Although Picasso himself may never have gone fully abstract, Cubism certainly inspired a generation of painters like Kazimir Severinovich Malevich and Piet Mondrian (although not the “expressionist” wing of abstraction, represented by Kandinsky). Mondrian spoke publicly about that influence, saying once that “Cubism did not accept the logical consequences of its own discoveries.”
Maybe the most important lesson from Picasso’s summer in Cadaqués, however, is that breaking the boundary between figuration and abstraction was no easy feat. “I thought that it was a very interesting thing,” Bois mused. “If someone as fearless as Picasso could recoil in front of the possibility of abstraction, how much more difficult would that have been for everyone else?”