Pablo Picasso was born in 1881 and created his first oil painting at age 8. He was adept at realism, but as he became more experienced, other artists inspired him to try abstraction. In 1917, at age 26, Picasso painted "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," a work showing a group of abstracted figures. Critics called the type of abstraction Picasso used "Cubism" because many geometric shapes made up the image. His Cubist period waned about 1918, but he is still known as one of the giants of abstract art.
"Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"
Often cited as Picasso's first abstract work, "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" is an oil painting that shows five women with mask-like faces. The shapes are not soft, round and feminine, but geometric, flat and angular. This is different from classical art in that traditionally the realism of the subject is more important than the art technique used to represent it. With abstract art, it is the other way around.
Abstract Ideas in Picasso's Time
During Picasso's time, abstract art evolved out of several ideas. Traditional painting typically shows realistic figures and scenes of nature. Picasso himself was trained to draw classical figures. But after photography was invented, artists began to see what they could do outside the boundaries of tradition. Also during this time intellectuals debated the existence of the "4th dimension," which was the theory that one could see all sides and facets of a third dimensional object at the same time. In Picasso's early abstract art such as "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," the female figures and background have many sides, like a crystal.
Picasso did not create his abstract art alone. He saw what other artists did and adapted it to his own work. He viewed how Paul Cézanne treated the objects he painted and the space they were in. In Cezanne's painting "Bibémus Quarry," it appears the rocks have different facets, like later Cubist paintings. Picasso was also good friends with the artist Georges Braque. Both Picasso and Braque were interested in facet cubism and collage. The two artists developed these styles at the same time.
A Basis in Reality
Picasso said, "There is no abstract art. You must always start with something." Even though Picasso is known for abstract art, there is always something recognizable in his work, and, therefore, it is not purely abstract. Picasso also based his work on mythology. Some, as noted by Jackie Wullschlager in an article in the "Financial Times," believe "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" is a modern version of the "three graces" -- three nude women commonly depicted in classical art. Picasso continued to explore different degrees of abstract art throughout his life. He died in 1973 at age 92.