Matthew Biro remembers working at the Museum of Modern Art as a 19 year old in 1981 during a Pablo Picasso retrospective. “That was when I first understood what a blockbuster show was. The high attendance, the audience’s excitement: Picasso’s work managed to attract people who likely wouldn’t spend an afternoon at the museum.”
Biro, age 51, is now chair of LSA’s History of Art Department. With April 8 marking the 40th anniversary of Picasso’s death, Biro sat in his oak-paneled office, located in the 119-year-old Tappan Hall, reflecting on some of the reasons Picasso still resonates with the public.
Biro's admiration for Picasso stems back to one of his first published articles, in 1990, an analysis of different readings and interpretations of cubism. "He was instrumental in changing the way we understand visual representation between 1909 and 1913, " Biro says. Picasso incorporated language into art at a time when few, if any, artists thought about linguistic models of representation. “He was getting us to think about how visual art has a linguistic component or how it functions like language, ” says Biro, referencing the way that Picasso incorporated text, such as newspapers, into his work.
Pablo Picasso in 1955.
U-M Museum of Art
When Picasso was young, he started on a more traditional course, following a 19th-century realist style, painting portraits, landscapes, and figure groups, providing a representation of what he saw. But “what made him Picasso is that he broke every rule in the book of painting, ” moving from a realist paradigm to one that is closer to pure abstraction.
Though he had a talent for realistic painting, he didn’t reproduce the status quo or stick with something safe. “He was always pushing the bounds of painting, ” Biro says. Initially the public didn’t embrace Picasso's vision; it was too starkly different. It took time for his work to gain public acclaim.
Picasso’s father, a painter himself, was well aware of his son’s artistic gift. A classic legend, Biro says, is that when Picasso was a teenager, his father gave him all of his painting equipment—essentially conveying the message that “‘you’re the artist so there’s no point in me going on. ’ He greatly admired his son’s work.”
Picasso’s high-profile status was also due to the fact that his physical presence was very present in the public consciousness for a long time, from 1900 to 1945. He was extensively photographed and represented in newspapers and movies. “So our image of the artist is very defined by the bald Picasso wearing swim trunks at the beach, ” Biro says.