Once upon a time, the artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) said that "museums are just a lot of lies." If he said that today, he would be damning himself; his work is in the collections of many of the world's most prestigious museums and there are several entirely devoted to him (one in Paris, one in Barcelona, and one in Antibes.) At the beginning of his career, the majority of people–curators down through the crowds–considered Picasso's work too shockingly different from what they expected from art. Paintings such as Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) seemed both brutal and incomprehensible to people used to the kind of pleasant, conventional trifles offered up by painters like Bouguereau.
However, over the course of the twentieth century, Picasso and his avant-garde associates transformed popular taste. While Picasso and the modernists had seen themselves as rebels against those staid curators and dull crowds who defined aesthetic norms, they found themselves eventually embraced by them. By mid-century, Picasso enjoyed a celebrity that no living painter had ever known. He had sycophants and mistresses, he was in movies and on the cover of Life magazine. He was the conquering hero of modernism.
Picasso and his contemporaries were not the first avant-garde; they were simply the first to win their battle. The Impressionists before them had defined the rules of the game, seeing themselves as a group out to both attack and transform a moribund mainstream culture through bold artistic innovation. If the Impressionists worked out the group dynamics of avant-gardism, the painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) worked out the pattern of the individual avant-garde persona. He brought to nineteenth-century French painting both novelty and a sense of revolt, and he wanted his paintings to have effects beyond the gallery wall; a committed socialist, he wanted to change the world by the gritty, unidealized realism of his paintings, making proclamations like "I am a Courbetist, that's all. My painting is the only true one. I am the first and only artist of this century. The others are students and drivellers." Inheriting Courbet's sense of mission, Picasso and his group wanted to annoy, outrage, and disgust the middle class and the leaders of middle-class taste. Their goal was to change the world. Paris was the great capital for these bohemians–the place for ambitious and angry young artists to meet like-minded companions–and continued to be so decade after decade. When Picasso, who grew up in Spain, established himself in Paris in 1904, he fell in with a crowd that included the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and American author and patron of the arts Gertrude Stein. Paris was a hothouse–the artistic community there germinated one movement after another as various strategies for innovation and transformation burgeoned–and Picasso was soon in the thick of it, influencing, and influenced by, this tremendous growth.
In a few decades, modernism did indeed conquer the world, in a way that Courbet and his followers were never able to do. Once this victory was achieved, of course, earlier statements against the museums (like Picasso's), against popular taste, against the middle class, and against the art academies, sounded either blindly hypocritical or strangely self-hating–but in truth the world had changed, and the statements now were simply out of context: at the time they were made, they referred to territory that modernism had not yet claimed for itself. Having won, modernism could no longer play the rebel. Picasso's very long life–from starving artist to painter as hero, prophet, and icon all in one–spans the story of modernism's outward struggles, inner conflicts, and ultimate triumph.
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