Pablo Picasso, perhaps the most prolific and protean painter in the history of art, painted many self-portraits during his career, and he even made some photographic self-portraits. One of the most significant of these is the 1907 self-portrait in the National Gallery in Prague, the Czech Republic. The portrait reveals a critical juncture in Picasso's life and art.
Picasso's Early Life and Art
Picasso was born in Spain in 1881. He was a remarkably precocious draftsman and artist. His father, also an artist, was Picasso's first teacher. Picasso's father recognized his son's exceptional skill as a draftsman; by the age of 13, Picasso had mastered realistic, academic drawing. Picasso said later, "I made academic drawings at the age of seven, the minute precision of which frightened me." By 1900 he had turned his back on classical academic drawing, and he left for Paris to make his living as a modern artist.
Picasso in Paris
In Paris, Picasso rented a studio space called the Bateau Lavoir and set about making himself into a painter in the modernist mode. By 1905, he had collectors of modern art, especially Gertrude Stein's family, avidly collecting his drawings and paintings. A huge turning point in Picasso's art came when he saw a collection of African art at the Louvre. The stylized, abstract, mask-like faces fascinated him and launched him into a new phase of his art.
Picasso painted his self-portrait of 1907 shortly after he saw these African masks and sculptures. He depicts himself as a mask, with huge eyes that don't quite focus at the same point. The planes of the face are cut as if in hard wood, with hard, angular edges. Even the hair seems almost like a slab of wood. The eyes gaze straight ahead, frontally, while the nose is in semi-profile. This reflects Picasso's other new obsession: cubism.
Picasso began thinking about his new theory of painting, cubism, in 1907 when he painted this self-portrait. He and his friend Georges Braque were both thinking about the fact that conventional painting only shows reality from one point of view whereas in real life we see people and things from different angles. Why should a painting freeze only one instant in time? Maybe it's more "realistic" in a way to show people and objects from different angles. In this self-portrait, Picasso deconstructs his own image, showing it from both the front and the side. Again, it's a nod to "primitive" painting, which never shows the eye in profile, only from the front. Picasso and Braque went on to explore cubism for years, influencing many other 20th-century painters and changing the course of art history permanently.
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