Why Picasso Needs the Old Masters

Over the past few weeks, my students and I have been discussing some of the ironies regarding the avant-garde tradition. One of the biggest ironies is that although avant-garde artists are radical and break away from tradition, the avant-garde is also reliant upon tradition. Without the conservative Academy, the avant-garde would have nothing to react against. Hence, avant-garde art will never be able to break completely free from Western artistic tradition, because it would become meaningless without that context.

Today I’ve been thinking about this irony in relation to Picasso. During the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, a stray shell broke the defenses of the Prado Museum. Picasso was very concerned about the masterpieces in the museum, particularly the work of artists like Goya. But the artist had added motivation to be concerned: this same year Picasso accepted the honorific title of Director of the Museum, which was bestowed on him by the Republican government. Picasso’s acceptance of this title is an indication of his sympathies with the Republican government (in case you think his attack on General Francisco Franco via his etching The Dream and the Lie of Franco Part 1 (1937) isn’t enough evidence of his political leanings! Ha!).

As director of the Prado, Picasso managed the removal of several masterpieces from Madrid to Valencia. Two years later, Picasso contributed part of his personal funds to have these paintings removed once again to safekeeping in Geneva. For the most part, the paintings were kept safe, although Goya’s Second of May 1808 (1814, shown right) and Third of May 1808 (1814) were both severely damaged by a falling balcony. The Prado reports that some damage was intentionally kept on the left corner of Second of May as a reminder of the Civil War.

Of course, on one hand, it isn’t surprising that Picasso was concerned about the masterpieces in the Prado collection. After all, as an artist, Picasso undoubtedly appreciated the work of other artists. But could there be another reason why Picasso was invested in preserving this art? Think about it: what would Picasso be if artistic masterpieces did not exist? The radicalism in his own art wouldn’t make sense. His commentaries on artistic tradition (and his rejection of those traditions) would have no meaning. Picasso needs masterpieces and tradition in order to stylistically reject them. In this light, one could say that Picasso was helping his own career when he helped to save the work of earlier masters. The continued existence of masterpieces would help ensure that Picasso’s art held meaning and relevance. I wonder if Picasso realized this ironic fact.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Interesting thoughts M! I must admit, I don't have has hard time separating the likes of Picasso and Dali from the old masters. Indeed, some commentators called these two "the last of the old masters"

    There have been some interesting parallels with Picasso and Coptic Christian art in particular – the deep focus on facial features, which at least in the Coptic tradition were inherited from antiquity.

    It's moreso the later modern and contemporary artists that really threw artistic convention aside. Now, art is so diverse, so myriad in its forms – that Picasso and Dali's efforts in paint are closer to the old traditions than the new.

    There is a ongoing tension between the old and new traditions, not only from artists and scholars, but from the general public as well.

    Art in digital format, be it in film or video games is not given the same reverence as a painting – despite the great efforts involved in producing it.

    The late 20th/Early 21st Century will be looked back upon as the Renaissance equivalent of generated images, although this being covered in a traditional art history course is quite a way off.

    It took Western scholars some 300 years to get hip to what happenned in The Southern and Northern Renaissance, so hopefully it won't take that long until new art forms beyond the gimmicks of Koons and Hirst are discussed in an art historical sense.

    Incidentally, my favourite Old Master/Picasso crossover was the role Raphael's "Fire in the Borgo" played in influencing Guernica.

    Great work, once again M! Your students are SO lucky to have such an insightful teacher!


  • heidenkind says:

    So do you think the avant-garde even exists anymore?

  • Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow says:

    Although revolutionaries, artists like Picasso and Dali were firmly steeped in the old masters. I tend to see (of course with the benefit of many decades) more of a continuum than a break. It seems in all forms of art, including music, the true revolutionaries almost always have a command of the tradition before them. Before venturing into cubusim, Picasso could draw like Michelangelo; before pioneering what came to be known as avant-garde or free jazz, John Coltrane could do traditional swing, balladry and bebop; ee cummings wrote sonnets, and on and on. Who was it that said "everything that is not tradition is plagiarism"? Though at first sight this seems like a contradiction, it embodies a deep truth.

  • [c] @ penbrushneedle says:

    @ H Niyazi

    I agree that from today’s point of view Picasso seems very much like „the last of the old masters“.

    But the thing is, I believe, that in Picasso’s own time – at least during his formative years – the definition of „old masters“ or „high art“ was much narrower than it is today. The aesthetic canon propagated by the art academies of that time was still firmly based on classicist ideals and certainly wouldn’t have included anything like Coptic Christian art. Though the latter may have inherited much from antiquity, in the early 20th century it would have seemed just as exotic, primitive and „out there“ as all those artworks from Africa and the South Sea which were, for want of a better word, „discovered“ and imitated by Picasso and other Primitivist artists.

    Ironically, due to its Mannerist leanings, even Raffael’s „Fire in the Borgo“ wouldn’t have received the blessing of the academic establishment of that time since Mannierist art was pretty much perceived as a depraved aberration from Renaissance classicism. It was only in the 1920s that art historians like Max Dvorak and Max Friedländer began to claim that Mannerism, too, was proper art and that people like Pontormo should have their rightful place in the list of „old masters“. Before that, even most art historians (like Heinrich Wölfflin) seemed actually quite relieved at the possibility to ascribe the „Fire in the Borgo“ to Raffael’s pupil and collaborator Giulio Romano and assert that Raffael himself would never have painted something as debauched as that…


  • [c] @ penbrushneedle says:

    …oh, one more thing…

    I vaguely remember reading that Picasso's Guernica was also influenced by an 11th century manuscript commonly known as the Beatus of Saint-Severe. Unfortunately, I don't recall any of the details, nor where I read it, but looking at the manuscript's illustrations (especially the one showing the Deluge) it sure makes a lot of sense.

    Just thought this might be of interest…


  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    I can see what people are saying about how (from today's perspective) Picasso is seen as being "the last of the old masters." I've often thought it interesting that throughout Picasso's long, prolific career, he never fully departed from representational forms. When one considers that artists like Pollock and Rothko were painting in the latter part of Picasso's career, it's interesting to think about how Picasso still stuck with representational forms (albeit abstracted forms).

    That being said, I wonder how much Picasso saw himself as part of the "Old Master" group. As people have suggested, it's easier to assign that title to him in retrospect. With Picasso's revolutionary rejection of traditional illusionism, space, and perspective, I think he perceived himself as a radical break from tradition. Even when Picasso referenced traditional features or motifs in his art, I think he did so in order to visually assert how his art was so different from that tradition. (His art seems to fits well with Griselda Pollock's "gambits" for avant-gardism: the avant-garde artist needs to show 1) reference, 2) deference, and 3) difference).

    @heidenkind That's an interesting question! I think that the much of the mentality of the avant-garde still exists (i.e. artists feeling pressure to be radical and groundbreaking). That being said, I think that the avant-garde now is so common and expected in Western thought that it no longer has the offensive/reactionary feel that previously existed. Plus, since 20th century artists like Duchamp widened the interpretations for what constitutes "art," it's rather difficult for contemporary artists to depart from a traditional "standard." There really isn't a standard anymore, is there?

    Does anyone else have thoughts on heidenkind's question? That's a really interesting topic.

    c@penbrushneedle: Thanks for the link to that manuscript! What great timing: I'll be discussing "Guernica" in Monday's class with my students. I think they'll enjoy seeing that comparison.

  • H Niyazi says:

    In response to heidenkind's statement about the avant-garde, I think that the average world weary, web savvy youngster is much harder to shock these days – and this will filter into the mainstream when these young people enter the workforce and media.

    It's not so much a case of what is avant garde or not, but picking an appropriate time and place!

    The Wojnarowicz fiasco at the Smithsonian showed that there are elements of the community that will still protest certain things being shown at a publicly funded institution – whereas if it was part of a show at a smaller private gallery, the Catholic League's protests would have had less impact.

    @penbrushneedle – thank you for your comments. I was indeed aware of the Beatus but did not know of that online resource – thank you for the link!

    For those interested in another resource on Guernica – there is a free pdf of Melvin Becraft's "Guernica: Images within Images" which you can get to via my Raphael piece that mentions Fire in The Borgo/Guernica


    Kind Regards

  • Hels says:

    Very interesting question.

    My feeling is that even if there had not been a civil war, and even if the Prado and its contents were not threatened, Picasso would have owed a debt to the Old Masters.

    He learned his craft well, by studying the Old Masters, by copying other artists' works, by mooching around significant galleries. His early works show the continuities from artists in previous eras.

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    "Tradition" is also an incredibly broad thing, and one can pick and choose from it. It's pretty standard avant-garde rhetoric to argue that "the academy" is propagating the wrong aspects of tradition, or misreading it, and that their work (in contrast) relates to the true and vibrant aspects of tradition. Clive Bell's "Art" is just one example of this: out with the High Renaissance! In with Byzantine Art, Post-Impressionism, etc.

    Picasso seems unique in the way he was happy to borrow from so many different sources–many of which seem antithetical to one another (Goya AND Ingres). The Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) seems important partly as an argument in favour of stylistic eclecticism: Egyptian + Iberian + African tribal arts + French etc. To enclose, as Andrew Marvell put it, is more than to oppose.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.