Think what you will of their work; these two could arguably be considered the most influential artists that have ever lived. The art they produced was like an atom bomb whose fall-out we are still feeling the effects of to this very day. Picasso owned the first half of the 20th Century and Warhol the last. After them nothing was the same again. They may have not been the sole inventors of the movements they are most renowned for, but they sure perfected them. They both launched a million imitators, with very mixed results. In the 21st century; some of our biggest names: Koons, Hirst and Murakami (to name a few) all follow the Warhol formula. In the arena of painting, Picasso’s shadow still looms large. Their output was astounding and they both worked right up until their deaths. Long after the soup cans and the three musicians they continued their respective artistic journeys, but was it still genius? If we set aside all the masterpieces and focus on the later work when the shock of the new had faded and try to divorce the art from their reputations, who’s the greater artist?
Throughout his career Picasso reinvented himself countless times from blue to rose to cubist to neoclassical and so on and on. Along the way he relaxed into a bold hybrid of cubism with expressionistic overtones. He relied on black to outline his ideas and the immediate world to be found only an arm’s length away to inform his subject matter, but because it is Picasso the simple isn’t all that simple. If we look at the Tomato Plant painted in 1944 during WWII we see a moment of change. The fruit is ripening on the vine and the outlook feels promising. Picasso leaves the background flat accentuating the plant. It feels like a simple study in colour and composition but it reflects his deeply entrenched approach to exploration.
Warhol as well constantly changed his game from Pop to film to portraiture to social commentary and so on. Later in his career he collaborated with other artists including Clemente and Basquait. His portraits became more about business than art but he still messed with the formula. Although every portrait he ever did was roughly the same dimensions (22.2 x 22.2 -his intent was to have a huge show of them displayed in a grid at the Met after his death) he did constantly experiment with colour and line. He even famously played with copper oxidization (piss paintings) that poke fun at both abstract expressionism and the art market itself. In the above portrait Jean-Michel was in on the joke and aware of his own critics. Warhol was also hyper aware of his own reputation and even if he didn’t show it on the surface wanted more than anything to be remembered as an important artist and not just a showy personality.
Picasso’s reputation remained intact throughout his lifetime but as the post war world found new delights in action painting, conceptual and pop art his voice was being pushed to the sides. The demand for his work was still high but newer artists weren’t following his lead any longer, so Picasso started looking to the past. In the fifties he decided to tackle one of the heavy weights of Spanish painting -Velasquez. He did 58 variations on Les Meninas, many which can be found in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. Standing in front of them you get a sense that Picasso is trying to work out the demons of cubism that he is now eternally chained to. Most of the studies feel unresolved and repetitious. Picasso tries to best Velasquez at his own game but constantly comes up short. The strongest of the suite is the large black and white version that feels like many paintings all rolled into one and has to rely on a reference to one of his own masterpieces – Guernica to compete with original Les Meninas. There will always be something compelling in his attempts but the end result is neither good Velasquez nor good Picasso.
Warhol also tackled the greats throughout his career. The Last Supper painted in 1986 based on a kitschy reproduction of the Da Vinci original works for that very same reason. The fact Warhol used a reproduction as the source material comments more on his own output than the original subject matter. It reflects any version other than the original will always fall short. This is the lesson Picasso had to learn the hard way.
One of the strongest collaboration pieces done with Basquait would be their Punching Bags . Warhol who was a devout Catholic and attended church every Sunday places religion firmly in the ring with public opinion. Like all good Warhols, it satisfies both aesthetically and conceptually.
In the last few decades of Picasso’s life he started to paint against the clock. It would not be uncommon for him to do a painting in the morning, break for lunch and do another one in the afternoon. These works have been considered a side note on a long distinguished career and not taken very seriously due to their fevered execution. Although they seem pale shades of past triumphs,they are still very much Picassos.
As distinct as his style is, and along with the sheer number of paintings he completed, it is mind boggling that there is always something innovative to look at in every one of Picasso’s works. He was always surprising from his first painting to his last. Every brushstroke is applied with a confidence and assuredness that is both intoxicating and humbling.
Repetition was a cornerstone of Warhol’s ethos but sometimes too much of a good thing can take its toll. Near the end of his life new ideas were too often being replaced with recycled ones. Warhol made endless Warhols but if you strip away all the helpers and the mystique of the factory, he was still a brilliant draftsman and colourist. Picasso could have learned a thing or two about colour from Andy and Andy could have benefited from being a more solitary artist like Pablo. In the end, the entirety of Warhol’s career qualifies him as a true artistic genius whose influence will be felt for a long time to come, but ultimately he can never escape from the long shadow of the Spaniard.
Winner: Pablo Picasso
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