The Graphic Design Work of Pablo Picasso

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The second in a series of unexpected designers. Explore the design work of Henri Matisse here. 

Earlier this year I interviewed design provocateur and alternate design historian Art Chantry for AIGA Eye on Design, and he made the following statement:

“The art world can’t do design. Even Picasso made lousy posters. Sure, they had nice illustrations on them. But the poster? Stinko”.

I humbly beg to differ. Personally I find Picasso’s whimsical, childlike approach to design refreshing. Perhaps no one other than Polish poster designer Henryk Tomaszewski created such a unfettered, self expressive body of design work.

Pablo Picasso in 1904

Pablo Picasso in 1904

Alongside Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, born in Spain in 1881, is regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Cutting his artistic eyeteeth as a founding father of the Cubist movement (alongside Frenchman Georges Braque and fellow Spaniard Juan Gris) he also is credited with the co-creation of collage (with Braque); the invention of constructed sculpture; as well as myriad printmaking, ceramics, stage design and painting periods and styles throughout his long career.

Born and raised in Malaga, he was introduced to the paintings and poster work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec during a trip to Paris in 1900. He was so enamored with Lautrec’s posters that he began signing his early work with a simple “P” enclosed in a circle, after Lautrec’s own initials encircled likewise.

His flirtation with graphic design lent itself to exhibition posters for his own work; however there were magazine and book covers as well. Most of the former were done later in life, beginning in 1940s. Significantly there were also commissioned posters for the French Alps town of Vallauris, to promote their area as a perfume and pottery center of production following War War II. Picasso lived there beginning in 1948, and designed and illustrated these posters through the 1960s.

Of particular interest in these works is his approach to designing typography. In addition, reoccurring themes appear, similar to his other work, such as goats, bulls, doves and the human face. Alongside the exhibition posters he also took up the mantle of peace posters. He was a member of the Communist Party throughout his adult life, and remained neutral during both world wars and the Spanish Civil War, strongly advocating peace.

Exposition: Pottery-Flowers-Perfume, 1948. Commissioned by the French town of Vallauris to promote itself as a resort town and center for perfume and pottery production

Exposition: Pottery-Flowers-Perfume, 1948. Commissioned by the French town of Vallauris to promote itself as a resort town and center for perfume and pottery production

Vallauris Exhibition, 1948

Vallauris Exhibition, 1948

Book cover for "The Song of the Dead" a book of poetry by Pierre Reverdy, 1948

Book cover for “The Song of the Dead” a book of poetry by Pierre Reverdy, 1948

Book spread for "The Song of the Dead" a book of poetry by Pierre Reverdy, 1948

Book spread for “The Song of the Dead” a book of poetry by Pierre Reverdy, 1948

Vallauris Exhibition, 1951

Vallauris Exhibition, 1951

Vallauris Exhibition, 1952

Vallauris Exhibition, 1952

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Vallauris Exhibition, 1952

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Vallauris Exhibition, 1953

Vallauris Exhibition, 1954

Vallauris Exhibition, 1954

Verve magazine cover, 1954

Verve magazine cover, 1954

Vallauris Exhibition, 1955

Vallauris Exhibition, 1955

Gallery show in Cannes, 1956

Gallery show in Cannes, 1956

Vallauris Exhibition, 1956

Vallauris Exhibition, 1956

Vallauris Exhibition, 1957

Vallauris Exhibition, 1957

Exhibit poster in Paris, 1957

Exhibit poster in Paris, 1957

Vallauris Exhibition, 1959

Vallauris Exhibition, 1959

Vallauris Exhibition, 1962

Vallauris Exhibition, 1962

Vallauris Exhibition, 1962

Vallauris Exhibition, 1962

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Peace posters, 1960s

Peace posters, 1960s

Peace posters, 1960s

Exhibition poster for the County Museum, Los Angeles. A rare work in English

Exhibition poster for the County Museum, Los Angeles. A rare work in English

His oeuvre is firmly within and helped define the Modern Era of the twentieth century. However, with an acknowledged debt to Ancient and African Art, perhaps he should be revered as a prescient Post-modernist as well. After all, he is on record as stating, “ Good artists copy, great artists steal.”

He died in 1973 at the age of 91 in Mougins, France.

Up next: Verve and Broom magazines

For more on this subject, read Picasso Posters by Maria Costantino (PRC 2002).


prfl16_1Explore the topic of illegibility in the past and present of typographic design in the latest issue of Print Magazine, with a special cover by Shepard Fairey. See what’s inside or subscribe to get Print all year long.

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