Two Girls Reading by Pablo Picasso
Image courtesy of U-M Museum of Art
Matthew Biro remembers working at the Museum of Modern Art as a 19 year old in 1981 during a Pablo Picasso retrospective. “That was when I first understood what a blockbuster show was. The high attendance, the audience’s excitement: Picasso’s work managed to attract people who likely wouldn’t spend an afternoon at the museum.”
Biro, age 51, is now chair of LSA’s History of Art Department. With April 8 marking the 40th anniversary of Picasso’s death, Biro sat in his oak-paneled office, located in the 119-year-old Tappan Hall, reflecting on some of the reasons Picasso still resonates with the public.
Biro's admiration for Picasso stems back to one of his first published articles, in 1990, an analysis of different readings and interpretations of cubism. "He was instrumental in changing the way we understand visual representation between 1909 and 1913," Biro says. Picasso incorporated language into art at a time when few, if any, artists thought about linguistic models of representation. “He was getting us to think about how visual art has a linguistic component or how it functions like language,” says Biro, referencing the way that Picasso incorporated text, such as newspapers, into his work.
Pablo Picasso in 1955.
Photo courtesy of U-M Museum of Art
When Picasso was young, he started on a more traditional course, following a 19th-century realist style, painting portraits, landscapes, and figure groups, providing a representation of what he saw. But “what made him Picasso is that he broke every rule in the book of painting,” moving from a realist paradigm to one that is closer to pure abstraction.
Though he had a talent for realistic painting, he didn’t reproduce the status quo or stick with something safe. “He was always pushing the bounds of painting,” Biro says. Initially the public didn’t embrace Picasso's vision; it was too starkly different. It took time for his work to gain public acclaim.
Picasso’s father, a painter himself, was well aware of his son’s artistic gift. A classic legend, Biro says, is that when Picasso was a teenager, his father gave him all of his painting equipment—essentially conveying the message that "you’re the artist, so there’s no point in me going on." He greatly admired his son’s work.
Picasso’s high-profile status was also due to the fact that his physical presence was very present in the public consciousness for a long time, from 1900 to 1945. He was extensively photographed and represented in newspapers and movies. “So our image of the artist is very defined by the bald Picasso wearing swim trunks at the beach,” Biro says.
One of the paintings Biro most admires is Picasso’s most significant political statement: Guernica, portraying a town in Picasso’s native Spain after it was bombed by German and Italian planes assisting Spain’s fascist government during the Spanish Civil War. Though Picasso resisted making political statements through his work, the painting was born out of outrage at the destruction of a civilian population. Aside from designing The Dove of Peace, used for the poster of the inaugural World Peace Congress in Paris in 1949, and creating a UNICEF greeting card in 1961, he was generally not known as a political artist. "But this one was a major painting. People found it incredibly powerful." Biro says one of the legendary tales is that some Germans said to Picasso, “That’s a magnificent painting you made,” to which Picasso responded, “Actually you made that painting.”
Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso
Image courtesy of Neftali / Shutterstock
Biro marvels at how much work Picasso was able to create, much of it unaccounted for. He heard of a gardener that said Picasso gave him 160 of his works. “Things got lost. People stole them.”
Even so, Biro says the famous artist’s legacy in modern and contemporary art won’t be forgotten any time soon.
“He’s the quintessential blue chip figure, leading the way before Francis Bacon or Andy Warhol,” he says.
“He broke all the rules and still made you realize it was painting.” Biro believes the public can learn from Picasso's mantra: “doing what you want and doing it every day.”
The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) has 50 works by Pablo Picasso in its permanent collection—including paintings, drawings, and prints. U-M students, faculty, and staff can view Picasso pieces virtually through UMMA’s online database.