'The Dream and Lie of Franco I' (1937).

Pablo Picasso was a Spanish painter and sculptor, widely regarded as the most important, famous and influential 20th-century artist. Even to people who know little about art he is a household name. He broke with thousand years of naturalistic painting and sculpting by making heavily distorted images, some still figurative, others abstract. His Cubist art is instantly recognizable, but Picasso constantly changed styles, techniques and topics throughout his long life. His bold and radical works paved the way for countless modern painters and sculptors, but likewise influenced numerous cartoonists and comic artists. Stylistically, Picasso was comparable to a cartoonist. His characters often have a grotesque, cartoony look and some of his artworks, like 'Sueño y Mentira de Franco' (The Dream and Lie of Franco', 1937) and 'Tauro' ('Bull', 1945-1946) are sequential illustrated narratives, picture stories, or, to quit beating around the bush: comics.

Early life and career
He was born in 1881 in Málaga, Andalusia, Spain as Pablo Ruiz. The name Picasso actually belonged to his mother. His father was an art professor who painted birds from nature. From a young age, Picasso was preoccupied with drawing. In 1895 Picasso's youngest sister Conchita fell ill with diphteria. He swore that if she survived he would give up painting forever. As fate would have it, she died, whereupon he devoted his entire existence to art. The boy studied at the School of Fine Arts in Barcelona and the Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid, but left after only a few weeks. In 1900, he first travelled to the cultural capital of the world, Paris, where he eventually settled by the 1920s. Like many struggling artists, he was very poor, but he enjoyed a bohemian lifestyle. Fellow painters Henri Matisse and Georges Braque, as well as French poet Max Jacob and the U.S. art collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein were among the few people who believed in his work.

Detail from Picasso's comic strip about his arrival in Paris in 1901, accompanied by Jaume Andreu Bonsons (in the collection of the Musée Picasso-Paris).

To this day, there are still people who dismiss Picasso as a hack "who couldn't draw". This couldn't be further from the truth. As a child, he was a talented realistic painter, with a great eye for detail. He ranked Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Goya, Peter Paul Rubens, Antoon van Dyck, Titian, David Teniers and Félicien Rops among his influences. Many of his early portraits are still on display today in the Musée Picasso in Barcelona, proving that Picasso's career could've gone into a more academic direction. But he probably wouldn't have been hailed as an innovator. During the 1900s, Picasso grew dissatisfied with simply drawing by nature. To him, there was little achievement in simply copying reality. It had been done before. He took more interest in artists who experimented with swift linework, colors and distorting the human figure. A prime example was the 16th-century Greek painter El Greco, who used looser lines and unnatural colors. When Francisco de Goya grew deaf in old age, he made darker and more disturbing works, which often featured grotesque faces. Picasso studied great caricaturists and stylists like Honoré Daumier, Théophile Steinlen and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and he admired impressionists and fauvists such as Edvard Munch, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cèzanne, Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Matisse. He was additionally enthralled with tribal art from ancient Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan and Iberian culture, as well as Africa and islands in the South Pacific. Critics dismissed this as "primitive" work, but the simplicity and directness spoke to him. Picasso always stressed the importance of having influences and famously said: "The best artist is the one who hides his inspirations the best."

Finding a style and fame
Gradually, his own art became more stylized, with 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon' (1907) being his radical breakthrough. The painting shows a group of nude courtesans, all with distorted, asymmetrical, almost mask-like faces and bodies. The background is a combination of simple abstract lines and bright colors. No other Western painter had gone so far in departing from figurative art. Picasso initially only showed the work to his friends, associates and sympathizers. Even they were shocked and confused by his audacity. The painting almost looked like a step back instead of forward. Likewise, Picasso had a tough time finding a gallery owner willing to exhibit it. It took him nine years! Again, visitors and critics were unanimously outraged, but the scandal did launch his name in the art world. Picasso continued making works in this style. Because of his frequent use of cubist forms it was nicknamed "Cubism" and he quickly became its most famous representative. Soon even average people knew his name and that he made paintings of "colored melted faces", with "eyes, ears, noses and limbs in the wrong place". But Picasso refused to be pigeonholed. In the decades that followed, he kept incorporating influences from other art movements, like surrealism and abstract-expressionism. He tried out different techniques, making etchings, collages, assemblages, sculptures, ceramics, tapestries and murals. He designed theatre sets and costumes for Erik Satie's ballet 'Parade' (1917), in co-production with choreographer Sergei Diaghilev of Les Ballets Russes. From 1936 on he also wrote numerous poems, often of an erotic nature. He had an eye for capturing the essence of things in a few carefully chosen lines. Likewise, his grotesque artistic deformations were not only bold, but also managed to find beauty in ugliness. Picasso gave a brand new interpretation of what art could be and especially how it could be marketed.

'Guernica', 1937.

Social consciousness
While Picasso became the most famous Spaniard living in Paris, his home country was in a mess. In 1936 the Spanish Civil War broke out. General Francisco Franco and his Fascist troops tried to take over the country. Adolf Hitler supported the coup by sending military equipment and having Nazi planes bomb Spanish cities like Guernica. Meanwhile, resistance groups fought back, mostly made up from socialist and communist activists, backed with Soviet military support. As a communist, Picasso sympathized with the resistance fighters. When he was asked to create a work for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris, he made a monumental anti-war painting, 'Guernica' (1937), generally considered his masterpiece. Unfortunately, Franco won the Civil War in 1939 and established a dictatorship which lasted until 1975. 'Guernica' was sold to the Metropolitian Museum in New York City to raise funds for Spanish refugees. Picasso made it clear that the painting should only be delivered to Spain once it became a democracy again. He wouldn't return to his home country either for the same reasons. It took until 1981, eight years after his death, before 'Guernica' took up its permanent place in the museum El Prado, Madrid.

During World War II, Picasso stayed in Nazi occupied Paris. He tried to apply for French citizenship, but was rejected. The Gestapo regularly questioned him and searched his apartment. One time an officer asked him about 'Guernica' with the piercing question: "Did you do that?", whereupon the artist snapped back: "No, you did." Since Picasso's art didn't conform to Hitler's artistic ideal, he was scolded as "Entartete Kunst" ("Degenerate art"). Luckily, he was too famous to be arrested, but during the Nazi occupation he couldn't exhibit his work. He had to buy scrap iron from the black market just to be able to make sculptures. After the war, Picasso continued taking political stances. He made paintings depicting the Holocaust ('The Charnel House', 1945) and the Korean War ('Massacres in Korea', 1951).

'The Dream and Lie of Franco II' (1937).

Throughout his life, Picasso only won two genuine awards, both from the Soviet regime and likely more to thank him for supporting communist causes: the Stalin Peace Pize (1950) and Lenin Peace Prize (1962).

Final years and death
After World War II, Picasso achieved his greatest fame. His social consciousness and bravery to take a stance against Franco with 'Guernica' were widely admired. By now, art critics, fellow artists and common museumgoers had warmed up to his work. Millionaires all over the world bought his paintings and sculptures. Photographers made his balding face with the huge nose and piercing eyes recognizable to millions, such as in Robert Doisneau's famous 1952 photograph 'Picasso and the Breads', in which an optical illusion makes a group of strategically placed breads look like his fingers. Through documentaries such as Paul Haesaerts' 'Bezoek aan Picasso' (1949) and Henri-Georges Clouzot's 'Le Mystère Picasso' (1956), his talent was brought to even wider audiences. In both films the world famous artist is seen painting on a glass plate, while the camera films him from the opposite side. It cemented him as a genius who created masterpieces on the spot, all while wearing nothing but a short. Picasso cultivated this image by rarely allowing interviews. It kept both him and his work an enigma. Well aware of his status he made personal interpretations of classic masterpieces from past ages, symbolically duelling with masters like Diego Velázquez, Eugène Delacroix, Lucas Cranach and Édouard Manet. Picasso was one of those lucky artists who not only became rich and respected, but was recognized as the leading artistic voice of his era while he was still alive. The veteran kept producing new artworks right up until his death in 1973 at age 91.

'The Weeping Woman' (1937).

Picasso was a polarizing figure from the start of his career. To this day, a significant number of people still don't understand his artistic importance. They dimiss his work as being "so easy" that "even a child could do it." Picasso more or less popularized common stereotypes about modern art. He was not the first, nor the last, but certainly the most famous example of an artist becoming a millionaire by producing work that seemingly requires little effort and is utterly incomprehensible. All while traditional artists who combine great academic skill with long work hours aren't considered valuable. Picasso was also a shining example of somebody whose famous signature had enough market value on its own. He once sold several empty canvasses for millions only by putting his name on them. Likewise, he often paid for expensive restaurant meals by quickly scribbling a drawing for the waiter. Because of this, he's sometimes considered overrated or a dubious artist at least. At the height of his fame, Picasso found himself in the questionable position of being hailed as an indisputable genius. He constantly produced new works, which were all praised and sold off for millions. Few dared to make the perfectly understandable observation that he had perhaps succumbed to commercialism. In the same vein, he was criticized for calling himself a communist, while being a billionaire at the same time. He remained a lifelong member of the French Communist party and never condemned Communist regimes and atrocities, except for a throwaway remark to Jean Cocteau: "I have joined a family, and like all families, it's full of shit."

Another ongoing controversy is Picasso's treatment of women. The artist was often accused of misogyny. Despite being married twice, he was a notorious womanizer. He had several mistresses, which left him with children both in and outside his marriage. Picasso treated his partners as nothing more but sex objects or, at best, models. He famously named women "machines for suffering" and only distinguished two kinds: "goddesses and doormats". He had a tendency to put them on pedestals, but once he got tired of them, he went back to his art. The busy artist never felt he had any obligations to them. He was so devoted to painting and sculpting that he rarely made time for his family. His first wife, Olga Khokhlova, and his mistress, Dora Maar, both suffered nervous breakdowns over his abusive treatment. Another mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter, as well as his second wife, Jacqueline Roque, both committed suicide. After one of his mistresses, Françoise Gilot, published a book about their relationship, 'Life with Picasso', he disinherited her and their children. One son, Paulo, died of alcoholism caused by depression, while his grandson Pablito committed suicide when he wasn't allowed to attend his grandfather's funeral.

'The Pure and Simple History of Max Jacob' (1903).

Pablo Picasso was fond of comics. He doodled in his school books and made his own comic magazines by folding pieces of paper into half. He kept copies of the Spanish comic magazines Papitu and Blanco y Negro and the French comic magazine L'Épatant. His favorite series were Rudolph Dirks' 'The Katzenjammer Kids', James Swinnerton's 'Little Jimmy' and Winsor McCay's 'Little Nemo''. According to Gertrude Stein's 'The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas', she and Toklas once gave him a whole supply of Sunday comics, including several 'Katzenjammer' episodes. Picasso was delighted, but apparently his friend Fernande was quite irritated that the famous painter kept them all to himself. As he expressed it: "It's a brutality I will never forgive him for." An often repeated claim is that Picasso was also fond of George Herriman's 'Krazy Kat'. However, Herriman's biographer Michael Tisserand  found no source that proved it. 

In 1953, Picasso posed for photographer André Villers, dressed up as E.C. Segar's Popeye (though given the fact that he wore a fake beard, it could be that he was actually imitating Popeye's father, Poopdeck Pappy). 

The notion that Pablo Picasso is quite close to a comic artist isn't a new observation. Stylistically, he is comparable to a cartoonist who found his way into the "high art" salons. He made use of caricature, exaggeration and stylized visualisations of people and animals. When one looks at some of his etchings and paintings outside the context of a canvas, they look remarkably like funny cartoons. Art Spiegelman recalled that his art teacher at the time helped him get over his snobbish attitude towards "high art" painters like Picasso by telling him to look at Picasso "as if he was a comic artist". Between 24 March and 26 July 2020 a special exhibition was planned in the Picasso Museum in Paris about Picasso's connection with comics: 'Picasso and the Comics'. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic the expo was postponed to 21 July of that year and planned to run until 3 January 2021. However, new government measures again meant that the museum had to be closed for visitors.

The 1956 Maurice Henry cartoon about Picasso, and Picasso's response. The punchline under Henry's cartoon reads: "Guess what painter I just posed for?'. 

Unpublished cartoons and comics
An early cartoon by Picasso, 'Un Sabio' ('A Wise Man', 1899), shows a caricature of a deadly serious man studying a painting, unaware that it's actually hanging upside down. In 1903, Picasso made a comic strip about his good friend Max Jacob. In 1956, Picasso noticed a cartoon by Maurice Henry in which a woman with a cubist face comes home and tells her husband: "Guess what painter I just posed for?", making direct reference to Picasso's 'Portrait of Dora Maar'. Picasso copied the cartoon in his own style, dedicated it to Henry and sent it to him.

The Dream and Lie of Franco
In 1937, Picasso made a picture story in etches titled 'Sueño y mentira de Franco' ("The Dream and Lie of Franco"). It attacks general Francisco Franco who was staging a military coup during the Spanish Civil War. In 18 successive images, Picasso depicts the military despot riding a horse and later a pig. Franco is shown as an ugly gnome-like figure with a huge penis: a literal dickhead. He attacks a classical sculpture, a horse and a bull. His sword and flag make it difficult not to compare him to the mad knight Don Quixote. Everywhere he goes he leaves corpses behind. The general is additionally shown dressed as a woman, complete with fan, and praying to a shrine. Other images are more dramatic and depict a crying woman fleeing a burning house with a child in her arms. She is eventually shot by an arrow. 'The Dream and Lie of Franco' was originally intended for the World Exhibition in Paris that year and to be sold as postcards to gather financial support for the resistance against Franco. 1.000 numbered copies were pressed. Yet in the end, they were presented in their current form.

Many art historians agree that 'The Dream and Lie of Franco' is undeniably a comic strip. It's very reminiscent of 18th-century and 19th-century Spanish picture stories, known as "aleluyas" ("aucas" in Catalan), which were accompanied by captions. Picasso's work has no captions, nor speech balloons, but came with a surreal prose poem titled 'Fandango de Lechuzas'. In that sense it's up for debate whether it is a pantomime or a text comic. The narrative is also very loose. In a nutshell, it shows Franco creating havoc in Spain, but the scenes aren't chronologically connected, precisely because they were originally intended to be sold as separate postcards. Some even repeat similar scenes. The work is additionally significant because it marked the first time Picasso took a political stance. Several images, such as the crying woman, the horse and the bull were later reused in his monumental painting 'Guernica' (1937), completed on 4 June. In July 1937, in the magazine Facetas de Actualidad Española, he said: "My opinion about the military caste who brought Spain into pain and death is clearly reflected in 'The Dream and Lie of Franco'.

'Tauro', 1945-1946. 

Around Christmas 1945, Picasso made eleven sequential lithographs which show the gradual transformation of a bull into an abstract work. They were made on several different days, starting off on 5 December and continuing with a few days inbetween until finally ending on 17 January 1946. He gave this work the simple name 'Tauro' ('Bull', 1945-1946). In conversation with his printers, he joked that this dissection of a bull made him feel like a butcher. Some images are also reminiscent of prehistoric cave paintings of bulls, like those found in Altamira, Spain. Decades later, Roy Lichtenstein made a similar painting with 'Bull Plates' (1989), though he only used three successive images.

Satyr, Faun and Centaur with Trident
In 1946 Picasso made a triptych, 'Satyr, Faun and Centaur with Trident', depicting these three Greek mythological characters separated by frames.

'The Kiss' (1969).

Legacy and influence
Pablo Picasso remains a cultural milestone. Together with Salvador Dalí, he is the most famous 20th-century Spanish painter and together with Dalí and Andy Warhol arguably the most famous and recognizable 20th-century artist in general. In 1999, Time Magazine named him one of the "100 most important people who shaped the 20th century". In May 2007 he was voted to the 8th place in the election of 'El Español de la Historia' ('The Greatest Spaniard in History'), where he was also the highest visual artist on that list. Every non-traditional painter and sculptor owes something to Picasso, including Karel Appel, Jan Bucquoy, Herman Brood, Philip Guston, Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock and Peter Rogiers. André Breton and Benjamin Peret devoted a biography in comic book style to him: 'La Vie Imagée de Pablo Picasso' (1951-1952), drawn by Paul Braig. Picasso was an influence on graphic designers such as Alan Aldridge, Dick Bruna, illustrators like Quentin Blake and cartoonists like Gal (Gerard Alsteens), Joe MurrayGerald Scarfe and Ronald Searle. He additionally inspired the comic artists George BoothCeesepe, Guido Crepax, Robert Crumb, Mary FleenerMatt Furie, Philippe Geluck, Edward Gorey, Kamagurka, Hanco Kolk, Aline KominskyPitshou Mampa, Bunny MatthewsLuc MorjaeuStewart Kenneth Moore, Dan Mora, Francisco Munguía, Gary Panter, Placid, Art Spiegelman and René Windig. Jim Brozman's very first published comic book was titled: 'Pablo Picasso: Police Artist'. Stéphane Rosse's first portfolio was named 'L'Épatant Picasso'. Picasso was featured as a side character in Tom Hachtman's comic strip 'Gertrude Follies' (1978-1982). Usamaru Furuya made the manga series 'Genkaku Picasso' (2009-2010), about a young boy who is nicknamed Picasso because of his artistry. Julie Birmant and Clément Oubrerie adapted the painter's life into a biographical comic, 'Pablo' (2012), as did Willi Bloess and Thomas Thiesen with 'Milestones of Art: Pablo Picasso: The King: A Graphic Novel' (Rakuten Kobo, 2015). Picasso is satirized in Willem's 'Les (Nouvelles) Aventures de l'Art' (Cornélius, 2004, 2019). In the 1970s, Picasso's daughters, Loulou and Kiki, were part of the radical comics collective Bazooka.

Self-portrait, 1938.


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