How Picasso’s Journey From Prodigy to Icon Revealed a Genius

Intense, provocative, disturbing, and captivating, the legendary artist led a life of restless brilliance.

By Claudia Kalb
photographs by Paolo Woods, Gabriele Galimberti
Published 24 Apr 2018, 22:12 BST
Picasso never stopped reinventing his artistic style, and nothing was out of reach. He created thousands ...
Picasso never stopped reinventing his artistic style, and nothing was out of reach. He created thousands of paintings, sculptures, ceramics, watercolors, and engravings. “He said he had no secrets in his work,” says the artist’s granddaughter Diana Widmaier Picasso. “It was like a diary.” Picasso drew this self-portrait when he was 90 years old.
Photograph by All work by Picasso: © 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
At Reina Sofía museum in Madrid, schoolchildren visit Picasso’s iconic painting “Guernica,” which depicts death and anguish in the aftermath of the bombing of the Basque town in 1937. Although precipitated by the Spanish Civil War, the image represents universal suffering, no matter the time or place.
This story appears in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.

It's the morning before Christie’s Impressionist and modern art evening sale in New York City, and suddenly, there it is.

Just past the auction house’s entrance at Rockefeller Center, Pablo Picasso’s vibrant geometric portrait “Femme Accroupie (Jacqueline)” jaunts down a hallway, carried by two art handlers dressed in black.

Painted in the south of France in October 1954, the canvas features Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s 27-year-old mistress, later to be his wife, her arms clasped around a patchwork skirt of green and purple triangles. The artist, then 72, painted “Femme Accroupie” in a single day, and it gushes with vigorous brushstrokes, thick pigment, rambunctious shapes, misaligned eyes, and an inverted nose. Golden light rings Jacqueline’s body. Even off the wall, the painting commands attention.

That evening, auctioneer Adrien Meyer will start the bidding at $12 million (£8.6 million), and it will quickly surge upward as two Christie’s representatives duel in a telephone bidding war on behalf of their anonymous clients. His back straight, his head jutting forward like a jaguar eyeing a peccary, Meyer will pivot between the pair until one of them signals defeat. Finally, with a bang of his hammer, he’ll announce the winning price: $32.5 million (£23.2 million).

Picasso’s art was intertwined with his personal life and relationships. His muses were his children, lovers, and wives, including Jacqueline Roque, depicted here. At Christie’s auction house in New York City, art handlers carry “Femme Accroupie (Jacqueline)” from a private viewing to the gallery.

Astounding but not surprising. Nearly half a century after his death, Picasso continues to bewitch, confuse, entice, and provoke. From his early days as an artist, Picasso shattered our most primal understanding of the world with his fractured faces and splintered perspectives. He worked voraciously, reinventing his style at a rapid pace—his blue and rose periods, the African period, cubism, surrealism—creating thousands of sculptures, drawings, copperplate etchings, ceramics, and paintings. Just as Albert Einstein envisioned gravitational ripples in the cosmos, Picasso saw undulations in the world we live in, long before we saw them ourselves.

Sitting on a chartreuse couch in his living room in Geneva, Picasso’s son Claude contemplates the impact of his father’s work. “He went on to destroy everything we were accustomed to,” he says, “and created a new vision for everyone.”

How does a person evolve from newborn to mastermind? How can a single soul redefine the way we see? Picasso the man was messy. He loved life at the circus and death at the bullfights. He could be both boisterous and silent, amorous and domineering. But from his beginning as a prodigy to his final years painting musketeers and matadors, Picasso seemed destined for artistic greatness, his journey to genius fixed as firmly as paint on canvas. All the elements were there: a family that cultivated his creative passion, intellectual curiosity and grit, clusters of peers who inspired him, and the good fortune to be born at a time when new ideas in science, literature, and music energised his work and the advent of mass media catapulted him to fame. Unlike creative geniuses who died young—Sylvia Plath at age 30, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at 35, Vincent van Gogh at 37—Picasso lived to the age of 91. The arc of his life was not only prodigious; it was long.

Picasso’s love of bullfighting stemmed from childhood visits to the Plaza de Toros de la Malagueta in Málaga, Spain, where young people train and fight today. Picadors and bulls are a recurring motif in his work, as is the half-man, half-bull Minotaur.

Pablo Picasso was born on October 25, 1881, in Málaga, Spain, a baby so lethargic he was feared stillborn. He was revitalised, Picasso said, by a puff of smoke from his uncle Salvador’s cigar. Landmarks of the artist’s childhood brim with vitality today in this sunlit Mediterranean city. A choir sings Man of La Mancha’s “Impossible Dream” in the Church of Santiago, where Picasso was baptised with holy water as a baby. Plaza de la Merced, where the artist etched his first drawings in the dust outside his home, bustles with tourists at cafés ordering, if they desire, a 12-euro (£10.50) hamburguesa Picasso. Pigeons light on the stones; the waters of the Alboran Sea lap at the shoreline; and Gypsies, like those who taught young Picasso to smoke a cigarette up his nostril and dance flamenco, continue to traverse Málaga’s streets.

Sipping tea out of a red cup in the courtyard of the Museo Picasso Málaga, the artist’s grandson Bernard Ruiz-Picasso reflects on how these early influences shaped Picasso’s art. Everything about this place is rich with history and sensuality, he says. Civilisations collided on the soil Picasso inhabited: Phoenician, Roman, Jewish, Moorish, Christian, and Spanish. Aromas filled the air. Gesturing to a nearby orange tree, Bernard says Picasso drew inspiration from the colour of the fruits, from the violet flowers that drape Spain’s jacaranda trees, and from the beige and white stones of Málaga’s 11th-century Alcazaba, set into Gibralfaro hill, steps from the museum.

“He kept in his mind all those senses, all those images, all those smells and colours, which nourished and enriched his brain,” says Bernard, who established the museum—which opened in 2003—with his mother, Christine Ruiz-Picasso, fulfilling his grandfather’s wish.

Genius is almost always cultivated by parents and teachers who support and nurture the seeds of greatness. Picasso’s mother, María Picasso López, prayed for a son and revered her firstborn child. “His mother was gaga about him,” says Claude Picasso, who is the legal administrator of his father’s artistic estate. From the start, young Pablo communicated through art, drawing before he could speak. His first word was “piz,” short for lápiz, or pencil. Like the composer Mozart, Picasso had a father in the business, José Ruiz Blasco, who was a painter and his son’s first teacher. “He was the best student his father ever had,” Claude says. Picasso was still a child when his artistry began surpassing that of his father, who may have been “not only astonished but petrified by the talent of his son,” Bernard says.

The legacy of genius looms large among family members. Olivier Widmaier Picasso never knew his grandfather but has written two books about the artist “to set the record straight about rumours and legends and truths,” he says. Trained in law, Olivier brokered a deal with French carmaker Citroën to make a signature Picasso automobile. You live with Picasso, by Picasso, or without Picasso, he says.
Picasso was penniless during his early years as a painter living in Paris; he died a millionaire. Forty-five years after his death, Picasso’s work is a global brand. Chinese film mogul Wang Zhongjun bought this Françoise Gilot portrait for $29.9 million (£21.4 million) in 2015. Last fall Wang opened the Song Art Museum outside Beijing, where he paints and sometimes uses Picasso’s art as inspiration.

Such a mix of awe and fear is not uncommon when it comes to prodigies. The Latin prodigium carries the connotation of something that’s unexpected but also “unwelcome and possibly dangerous,” says David Henry Feldman, a longtime researcher in the field. Prodigies perform at an advanced adult level before adolescence, playing Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano sonatas or doing complex math problems while some of their peers are still learning to jump rope. “It shakes your view of the world,” Feldman says.

Where does such early expertise come from? Prodigies are rare, making it difficult to gather robust sample sizes to research, but Ellen Winner, director of the Arts and Mind Lab at Boston College, has found several core features among those she has studied. Precocious artists have acute visual memories, show remarkable attention to detail, and are able to draw realistically and create an illusion of depth years before their peers. Winner believes these children have an innate talent propelled by a “rage to master”—a passion so intense they feel compelled to draw or paint whenever possible.

These characteristics mesh like a checklist with Picasso, who boasted about his exceptional artistry early in life. After seeing a children’s art exhibit in 1946, he famously said that he would never have been able to participate in such a show because “at the age of 12, I drew like Raphael.” Family members recalled that Picasso would draw for hours at a time as a child, sometimes taking requests—his cousin Maria’s favorite was a donkey—until he was too exhausted to continue. His earliest surviving works are believed to date to 1890, the year he turned nine, and include his oil painting “Le Picador,” which depicts a bullfighter on horseback.

Within a few years, Picasso was painting skilled portraits of family and friends. By the age of 16, his work had landed him a place in the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid. At the Prado Museum he studied the Spanish masters he admired, including Diego Velázquez and El Greco. Art, Claude says, was “the only thing he was interested in. That’s the only thing he was. He was an artist through and through.”

Neuroscientists are measuring art’s impact on the brain. At the University of Houston, in Texas, professor Jose Contreras-Vidal uses imaging to record brain waves of a painter, a dancer, and a musician. Images on the wall show each artist’s brain activity. Neuroscience may one day unlock the biology of creativity.

The vast majority of prodigies don’t grow up to be geniuses, no matter how flawlessly they master a skill. Genius requires a game-changing personality, endowed with the courage and vision to transform a discipline. Picasso was a boy when Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, and other Postimpressionists liberated themselves from the luminous brushwork of Impressionism, adding defined forms and emotional intensity to their canvases.

When his turn came, Picasso charged forward with the intensity of a fighting bull. With his 1907 painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” the artist upended traditional composition, perspective, and aesthetic appeal. The canvas’s depiction of five naked women at a brothel—their faces distorted, their bodies jagged—alarmed even Picasso’s closest friends. But the painting would become the cornerstone of a radical art movement, cubism, and vault to the top of the list of the most important paintings of the 20th century. In that moment, “he brought down everything that anyone knew about art,” Claude says.

Picasso’s art was never meant to please. He avoided commissions, instead painting what he wanted and expecting people to be interested, his son says. So why do we find it so compelling? Science is providing interesting fodder here too. In the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, researchers are using brain images to better understand people’s responses to art—everything from Claude Monet’s water lilies to Mark Rothko’s rectangles.

In one study, Edward Vessel, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, scanned people’s brains as they ranked their reactions to more than a hundred images of artwork on a scale of one to four, with four being the most highly moving. Unsurprisingly, the participants’ visual system engaged every time they looked at a painting. But only the most moving artworks—the ones that were perceived to be especially beautiful or even striking or arresting—activated the “default mode network” of the brain, which allows us to focus inward and access our most personal thoughts and feelings.

Such a balance of outward viewing and inward contemplation is unusual, Vessel says. “It’s a unique brain state.”

A master of fine arts from a prestigious school can boost the career of an aspiring artist. At the Yale School of Art, ranked as one of the premier programmes in the world, prospective applicant Maria Vargas Aguilar chats with current student Felipe Baeza during an open house.

This experience creates a special relationship between viewer and art, bringing the works alive. Neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, an avid art collector who owns two of Picasso’s Vollard Suite etchings, says images that challenge, like Picasso’s, recruit viewers into the creative process with the artist. The human brain is capable of taking incomplete clues and reconstructing fairly coherent images. “We have a tremendous ability to fill in details that are missing,” he says.

But how? In an ongoing study, Kandel, co-director of Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, is taking brain scans as participants complete a series of exercises with figurative and abstract paintings by Rothko, Piet Mondrian, and other artists. Kandel’s Columbia collaborator, Daphna Shohamy, says they are eager to see whether abstract art elicits increased activity in the hippocampus, the brain’s storehouse for memories. This would suggest, at a biological level, that humans intuitively draw on their own experiences when viewing and processing complex art.

Long before brain science could corroborate it, Picasso seems to have understood this dynamic. “The picture,” he once said, “lives only through the man who is looking at it.”

Mera and Don Rubell, standing in one of their storage rooms, own the Rubell Family Collection Contemporary Arts Foundation in Miami. The couple is known for launching superstar artists like Keith Haring, whose black and white works hang behind them.

The journey to greatness is never a solitary pursuit. Picasso found his first creative gurus at the Quatre Gats café in Barcelona, where he hobnobbed with more experienced Spanish artists, each one contributing to “the stimulus that fuelled the early stages of Picasso’s rocket-like ascent,” writes Picasso’s longtime biographer and friend, John Richardson. In Paris, where he moved at the age of 22, Picasso immersed himself in another cluster of exuberant minds—writers Guillaume Apollinaire and Gertrude Stein and artists Henri Matisse, André Derain, and Georges Braque, the man who would become Picasso’s partner in cubism. The bande à Picasso, as his original bevy was known, stoked the artist’s creativity and competitive drive.

Still, Picasso’s singular behaviours and traits stood out. He was driven by an obsession and a voracious dedication to his art, a rage to master that never subsided. “It was almost neurological, something that forced him to be very active all the time,” says Diana Widmaier Picasso, an art historian and the granddaughter of Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter, one of Picasso’s most radiant muses, with whom he had a secretive affair.

Picasso cultivated his reputation, relying on the influence of patrons, including Gertrude and Leo Stein. Today collectors Mera and Don Rubell are at the forefront of elevating modern talent, most recently Allison Zuckerman, whose guests at her opening are pictured here. She began posting her work on Instagram before catapulting to a solo show at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami. She uses elements of Picasso’s style.

The artist found promise in everything, etching an owl or a goat onto a stone from the sea. He formed the face of a sculpted baboon using two of his son’s toy cars, and crafted his famous “Bull’s Head” out of a bicycle seat and rusty handlebars plucked out of a junk pile. Picasso produced incessantly—paintings, sculpture, ceramics, even jewellery. “He had the ability to renew himself constantly,” Diana says. “He was so prolific, it’s almost disarming.” Picasso said he didn’t know where his creative bursts came from, but they rampaged through his head, discrete parts becoming whole through his hands and his paintbrushes.

The artist’s sharp and colossal memory served as a storehouse for inspiration. “He was a sponge,” says Emilie Bouvard, a curator at the Musée Picasso Paris. In her office, not far from the bustle of visitors, I ask Bouvard to pick the quality that best exemplifies Picasso’s prowess. “In my opinion, it’s assemblage,” she says, the artist’s ability to sift through layered memories—a conversation with a poet, the haunting expressions in an El Greco painting, the medley of sensations from Málaga, a pot of paint in his studio. As she reflects, Bouvard calls up the French expression faire feu de tout bois (to make fire of all wood). “That’s the genius of Picasso,” she says.

Picasso’s global reach and the Internet have created a made-to-order business of knockoff paintings in Dafen, a village near Shenzhen, China. Each day, painter Yaoliang Liu produces several fake Picassos, including this likeness of Dora Maar, the photographer and artist whose tumultuous relationship with Picasso began in the mid-1930s. The Paris-based Picasso Administration, which manages rights issues related to the artist’s work, says that the production and sale of such fakes are illegal under French intellectual property law.

Talent, nurturing, opportunity, personality: Picasso had it all. He was also lucky. The artist came of age when photography overturned the focus on traditional realism in paintings. The art world was primed for rule breaking and disruption, says András Szántó, a sociologist of art in New York City, and the media was newly equipped to celebrate it. Picasso, well aware of his stature, was masterful at branding his image. “He was so aware of his talent,” says Diana’s brother and Picasso’s grandson, Olivier Widmaier Picasso. “He understood that he would be important in the future.”

Early on, the artist shed his father’s name, Ruiz, and adopted his mother’s more memorable Picasso. He began dating his paintings so they could one day be assembled in chronological order. He invited photographers to capture him posing with bravado in front of his canvases, dancing bare-chested with his lover, and playing with his children on the beach. By 1939 Picasso had vaulted onto the cover of Time magazine, which deemed him “Art’s Acrobat.” In 1968, five years before he died, Life magazine dedicated a 134-page double issue to him. “He was able to layer his biography over these enormous inflection points in our culture,” Szántó says. “He happened to play it really well.”

Picasso’s prodigious talent emerged in his birthplace of Málaga, where he spent his early childhood. Today references to the artist’s work appear throughout the city, including this graffiti replica of a 1924 painting of Picasso’s firstborn son, Paulo, dressed as a harlequin.

The legacy of genius is a sweeping affair with eminence and acclaim, often tied to personal anguish. The traits that promoted Picasso’s creations—his infatuation with his work and his rule breaking—led to praise and even cultlike worship. Until Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” sold for more than $450 million (£322 million) last year, Picasso’s $179.4 million (£128.4 million) “Les Femmes d’Alger” was the most expensive painting ever auctioned. Picasso exhibits continue to draw record-breaking crowds: The spotlight now is on a blockbuster exhibition in London called “Picasso 1932—Love, Fame, Tragedy.” His works inspire people as disparate as artist Allison Zuckerman, who made her debut at Art Basel in Miami Beach in December, and Wang Zhongjun, a Chinese media mogul who periodically paints with a cigar clamped between his teeth and the Picasso he purchased in 2015, “Femme au Chignon dans un Fauteuil,” set up nearby.

These same qualities, however, also tainted Picasso’s relationships, sometimes to the point of ruin. Fearful of illness and death, he cycled through women, many of them decades younger than he, perhaps in part to defy the odds of growing old. He craved women, and his charisma attracted them. Picasso had “a radiance, an inner fire,” wrote Fernande Olivier, who lived with him from 1905 to 1912 in Paris, “and I couldn’t resist this magnetism.”

But he could be jealous and misogynistic, displaying behaviours that are now fuelling a public debate about whether an artist’s conduct should affect the perception of his art. “Throughout his life there was a thing of women being sacrificed to feed his art,” biographer Richardson once said. Françoise Gilot, a painter in her own right and the mother of Claude and his sister, Paloma, met Picasso in a Paris café in 1943 when she was 21 and he was 61. In a memoir, she recounted Picasso holding a cigarette against her cheek and threatening to throw her over the Pont Neuf into the Seine River. His most lasting love was his art. Tragedies piled up after the artist’s death with the suicides of Picasso’s widow—Jacqueline—his paramour Marie-Thérèse, and his grandson Pablito.

Picasso’s surviving children and grandchildren have complex feelings about him.

Genius is fuelled by hard work. Picasso was one of the most prolific artists in history. The elegant Musée Picasso Paris in the city’s Marais neighbourhood houses the world’s largest public Picasso collection. Here a French visitor studies a portrait of one of Picasso’s lovers, Marie-Thérèse Walter.

Marina Picasso, his son Paulo’s daughter, has issued the harshest judgment. “His brilliant oeuvre demanded human sacrifices,” she wrote in her 2001 memoir. “He drove everyone who got near him to despair and engulfed them.”

But others, including Marina’s half-brother Bernard, who was 14 when Picasso died, and their younger cousins Olivier and Diana, who never knew him, have processed their grandfather’s life differently. While acknowledging the trauma, they also express gratitude for Picasso’s work and the fortune he left behind, which has not only deeply influenced the direction of their lives but also provided financial freedom. Olivier has co-produced two documentaries and written two books about his grandfather. Diana, who feels an obligation to work with the tenacity of her grandfather, is completing a comprehensive catalogue of Picasso’s sculptures. And besides overseeing the Museo Picasso Málaga, Bernard and his wife, Almine Rech-Picasso, built an art foundation around his grandfather’s work. “Life is full of drama. We are not the only ones,” Bernard tells me. “I’m deeply grateful for what Picasso gave me.”

In the end, Picasso’s journey from prodigy to legacy is a story of ultimate conquest.

“He left few corners untouched and unturned,” says Claude, as he sits surrounded by his father’s and his mother’s paintings in his home, midday sun streaming in. Still, when I ask how he explains his father’s genius, he answers with the most uncomplicated reply: “How do I explain it? I don’t explain it,” he says. “I just understood it. It was obvious to me as a tiny child.”

Claudia Kalb wrote Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History’s Great Personalities for National Geographic Books. Photographers Paolo Woods and Gabriele Galimberti live in Florence, Italy. This is their second story for the magazine.

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