In 1945, Pablo Picasso produced a series of 12 lithographs entitled The Bull, in which he began with a realistic drawing of the animal, progressing through gradual removal of ‘superfluous’ elements of the creature to reach a simple linear abstraction. This piece, showing the stages of abstraction, is in many ways emblematic of Picasso’s approach to the abstract; a daring experiment in reduction and non-conventional forms of representation, but one that never completely abandons the real.
Picasso’s art never reached the pure abstraction attained by pioneers of the movement, such as Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Delaunay, figures who made popular the idea that art could exist in its own right, completely separated from depictions of the real world. Although this idea can be traced back to Plato, the birth of abstract art is now seen to be in 1910, the same time at which Picasso was developing Cubism, although truly abstract works, such as Kandinsky’s Black Square, did not appear until a few years later.
Picasso’s early works are surprisingly realistic compared to some of his better-known pieces such as Guernica, his formal training and talent evident in his early portraits such as The Old Fisherman (1895). After his Blue and Rose periods, the influence of African art saw the rise of Primitivism in the West, profoundly influencing Picasso, and was a determining factor in his move towards more abstract modes of representation. With Gaugin retrospectives at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1903 and 1906, a series of Western artists, including Picasso, were inspired by the angular forms and accentuated features of tribal masks. Although still firmly based in reality, his 1907 work Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is a crucial move for the artist towards a more abstract and markedly less realistic form of expression. A Proto-Cubist work, the painting broke with convention through the sharp angles and flat blocks of colour which make up the women’s bodies. Just as the bull became stripped of its realistic features, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon shows Picasso taking a further step away from realism, a precursor to the Cubist aesthetic which would define much of his later artistic output.
It was through Cubism, a movement that Picasso founded with the artist Georges Braque, that Picasso would go on to reach what is commonly regarded as his most abstract output, completely abandoning traditional view points. The first phase of the Cubist movement, Analytical Cubism, involved rearranging the compound elements of an object on the canvas, leaving behind an obscured, but nonetheless discernible image of the subject, such as in the work Seated Nude (1909-1910). As he developed Analytical Cubism, Picasso dissected his subject matter further and further, the movement reaching its peak in pieces such as Still Life with Bottle of Rum (1911), in which the actual bottle is barely discernible. The still life has been abstracted to the point at which it has become a series of overlapping panes and spidery lines in a pallet of greys, blacks, and browns.
The next phase of the Cubist movement, Synthetic Cubism, showed Picasso incorporating pre-existing elements into collages. Again, the artist was not concerned with the faithful replication of reality in his works but took reality as a starting point, building up with simple shapes and lines (often cut out from pieces of paper or other materials) a general shapes which evoked real life objects. Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper, amongst other pieces, emphasises the role of flat shapes and materials, starkly aware of its own artificially. This element of art being expressive of its own status, and not attempting to mimic reality, is a key principle of abstract art, and shows the artist going one step further in his pursuit of abstraction.
It was this key 20th century movement which extended the boundaries of what was considered art, paving the way for movements such as Futurism, Constructivism, Orphism, and Vorticism, and in a more general sense, revolutionising art and laying the groundwork for the entire of 20th Modern art as we know it. Nonetheless, as inextricably linked Cubism was with abstraction, for Picasso, "there is no abstract art.” His works pursued abstraction but in a way which always took reality as a starting point, and worked in a way which always left an imprint of the real on the canvas, despite its abstract appearance.
(Photo credit: Tate. "Bottle of vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper, 1913, by Pablo Picasso)