Picasso & Antiquity: Was He That Modern After All?

Pablo Picasso is one of the most famous figures in modern art. His fascination with antiquity begs the question, though: was he really that modern after all?

Oct 15, 2020By Francesca Ramsay, Art Historian; BA Art History, MA Art History, Curatorship w/ focus Renaissance Culture
picasso antiquity
Minotaur Caressing the Hand of a Sleeping Girl with his Face by Pablo Picasso, 1933 (background); left to right Standing Woman by Pablo Picasso, 1947; Clay Female Figurine, Mycenaean army at Tanagra, 14th century BC, via the Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens


Pablo Picasso almost needs no introduction. Cubist painter, draughtsman, ceramicist, sculptor, and printmaker, he remains one of the most influential figures in modern cultural history. However, even though he was at the very epicenter of modern art, many of his sources of inspiration were taken directly from the ancient past. This comes as no surprise, artists have always looked backward. But the way that antiquity re-emerged through the work of Picasso was a far cry from the moralistic academic paintings of the 18th century or the Renaissance preoccupation with antique thought, culture, and imagery.


Picasso The Collector

pipes of pan pablo picasso
The Pipes of Pan by Pablo Picasso, 1923, via The Picasso Museum, Paris


Picasso was a great collector and was drawn in particular to the simplicity and mystery of ancient artifacts. He discovered ancient Greek art as a student visiting the Louvre, while visits to other European museums saw him picking up inspiration from other past Mediterranean civilizations. In 1917, Picasso visited Italy for the first time with fellow artist Jean Cocteau. He was so inspired by the Roman art he saw there that it ignited what is known as his Classical Period. The artist’s work from 1917 to 1923 is laden with statuesque nudes, classical composition, and mythology


Fascination With The Minotaur 

minotaur sleeping girl pablo picasso
Minotaur Caressing the Hand of a Sleeping Girl with his Face by Pablo Picasso, 1933, via Museum of Fine Arts Boston


Even before this, Picasso had begun making disturbing and often sexually aggressive etchings of the mythological Minotaur. It is not surprising that this bull-like mythological creature was a recurring image in Picasso’s work, bulls of course being an important element of Spanish culture, but this wasn’t all. The modern artist was fascinated by the creature’s sexual energy and huge physical power, and it is thought that he used the creature as a portrait of himself. 


Picasso himself once said, “If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up with a line, it might represent a Minotaur.” It is easy to look at his turbulent love life and see the horned and muscled beast as his animalistic alter-ego. If the stories are true, he was, to put it simply, quite the monster to many of his lovers. By depicting himself as the Minotaur, he was both boasting and confessing this aspect of his character. 

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The Venus Of Willendorf And The Female Form

venus willendorf
Venus of Willendorf, Approx. 25,000 BC, in The Natural History Museum, Vienna, via Google Arts and Culture


Meet the Venus of Willendorf, a 25,000-year-old limestone figurine discovered in 1908 on the banks of the River Danube in Austria. She is one of the world’s earliest known works of art. The figurine’s exaggerated breasts, along with her generous hips and stomach, lead many to believe that she is a depiction of a heavily pregnant woman, perhaps a symbol of fertility. 


Though there are some very blatant naturalistic elements (the uneven breasts, for example) this is evidently not a completely figurative object. Though, as an aside, this didn’t stop Facebook from censoring her image as ‘pornographic’ in 2018. Outside of the algorithms though, the Venus of Willendorf is more a glorification of a woman in all of her bodily extremes, a beautiful and weighty abstraction of the female form. 


Picasso was so fascinated by her that he kept replicas of her in his studio. Her influence shines through in the artist’s early Cubist nudes, painted at much the same time as her discovery. These monumental modern nudes hint at her body shape; her pendulous breasts and low-hanging stomach. Picasso’s nudes tend to hold the same feeling of gravitas in their surprisingly expressive simplicity. 


les baigneurs
Les Baigneurs by Niki de Saint Phalle, 1980-81, via Christie’s


This abstraction of the female body was reignited in the twentieth century with such a vigor that it hasn’t yet run out of momentum. The work of French artist Nikki de Saint Phalle is a great example of this. Her joyous Nana sculptures perfectly portray the weight and presence of the symbolic female form. They are somehow both ridiculously abstract, yet purely figurative. 


Interpreting And Abstracting The Figurative Form

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La Madeleine Bison Licking Its Side, Approx. 15,000 BC, via The National Prehistoric Museum, Les Eyzies

The Venus of Willendorf is just one example of how the prehistoric makers were abstracting the figurative form. Compare the images above and below. The first above is a carving about 14,000 years old, found in La Madeleine Cave in France in 1875. The second object below is a repurposed bicycle seat and handlebars; a witty piece of modern art. The pieces are thousands of years apart yet both imbued with the same quality of abstraction. 


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Bull’s Head by Pablo Picasso, 1942, via The Picasso Museum, Paris 


Both forms have been predetermined through the material they were constructed from. Our prehistoric sculptor has ingeniously shown the bison turning its patterned head to lick its side, in order to shape it from a particular piece of reindeer antler. Picasso’s Bull’s Head is even simpler; a re-purposing of a bicycle seat and handlebar. Both objects show the maker doing the same thing, interpreting an object. 


Picasso described the making of his artwork in 1943 to the photographer George Brassai; “Guess how I made the bull’s head? One day, in a pile of objects all jumbled up together, I found an old bicycle seat right next to a rusty set of handlebars. In a flash, they joined together in my head. The idea of the Bull’s Head came to me before I had a chance to think. All I did was weld them together…” Looking at the prehistoric and modern work together shows that the creative process just hasn’t changed. 


Ancient Pottery And Modern Art

terracotta panathenaic amphora
Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora attributed to the Euphiletos Painter, 530 BC, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


In fact, our ability to abstract is something that links ancient art to modern art. Ancient Greek black- (and later red) figure pottery, like the image above of the Panathenaic prize amphora, shows a complete lack of regard for the three-dimensional. Here, the nudes are far more choreographed in their group sprint than at all naturalistic, the graphic, two-dimensional characters set onto a flat monochrome background. This wasn’t due to these makers somehow lacking in technique. 


Red and black-figure pottery shows, along with the sculpture of around the same date, that artisans were much more preoccupied with patterning, symmetry, and style, than with showing any interest in depicting what (or who) was directly in front of them. The same goes for Picasso. You see, the ability has always been there, abstraction is the decision to look further. Abstraction is an understanding of what is in front of you, and the decision to depict it in a completely different way.


clay teapot bird pablo picasso
Left to right Clay ‘Teapot,’ from Vasiliki, near Ierapetra, 2400-2200 BC; with Bird by Pablo Picasso, 1947-48, via the Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens


Picasso’s interest in ancient ceramics was most prevalent in the late 1940s and early 1950s when his studio was based in Vallauris, France. It is in this medium that his fascination with antiquity is most striking, both in terms of the similarity in the shape of his ceramic vessels and sculptures, and their decorative and linear motifs. As ever, rather than copying images and shapes directly from the antique past, Picasso invented a kind of fictitious mythology, imbued with timeless and pastoral imagery. 


In 2019, the fantastic exhibition ‘Picasso and Antiquity’ opened in the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens. Curators Nikolaos Stampolidis and Olivier Berggruen paired rare ceramics and drawings by the artist with antique artifacts, allowing visitors to see the direct link between Picasso and the antique world. It is only when seeing these objects interact side by side, that it really hits home quite how much Picasso borrowed in his work. 


African Sculpture And Whitewashing

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Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso, 1907, via MoMA, New York


And it wasn’t just western antiquities that stole Picasso’s attention. During the early 1900s, the aesthetics of traditional African sculpture also became a powerful aesthetic amongst the avant-garde European artists. Picasso himself actually remained ambiguous on the subject, once famously declaring “L’art nègre? Connais pas” (“African art? Never heard of it”.) 


This whitewashing controversy came into the foremost recently just over a decade ago. The first significant exhibition of the artist’s work in South Africa prompted furious outcry after a senior government official accused him of stealing the work of African artists to boost his ‘flagging talent.’ In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon Picasso treats the figure in that highly stylized manner concurrent with non-western artistic tropes. Three of the faces in the above image are said to have been modeled on ancient Iberian sculpture. It is rumored that Picasso came into possession of a number of these ancient sculptures, stolen from the Louvre by an acquaintance.


Picasso, Antiquity And Modernity


So was he truly modern, Picasso? Yes of course. But it is vital to remember the links between his work and the art of antiquity. What Picasso’s modern art should do is remind us that the creative spark has burned bright in humanity since our very beginnings. We shouldn’t look at the work of Picasso and see him as creating something totally new, rather, we should use his work to remind ourselves that really, not much has changed after all.


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By Francesca RamsayArt Historian; BA Art History, MA Art History, Curatorship w/ focus Renaissance Culture Francesca is an arts writer based in Wales. She trained at the Warburg Institute in London. This multi-disciplinary education in Renaissance art and culture has left her with excellent academic research and writing skills (as well as some pretty niche knowledge). She’s since gone on to work in the auction and commercial sector, as well as in museums and in public sector ventures.