Many years ago, when Italian military service was still compulsory, the army subjected its new conscripts to a general culture test with various types of questions. One asked: “Who is Leonardo?,” which prompted a surprising range of responses. Someone, it seems, even replied “The pope.” The artist behind the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa, wasn’t as famous as one might have thought.
If the question had been “Who is Picasso?” then the majority, if not all, would have probably given the right answer. How is it possible that the genius of all geniuses, the great Leonardo da Vinci, could be less famous than a modern artist, of whose actual works few would be able to name a single one? Why is Picasso so famous and every exhibition that carries his name guaranteed huge box-office success, regardless of what is on display?
To simplify matters, you could say that Leonardo’s own fame has been obscured by that of one of his masterpieces, the Mona Lisa itself. An oil painting so famous that it leaves its creator forgotten.
For Picasso, exactly the opposite is true. The boundless production of works, none of which have reached the heights of Mona Lisa fame, has allowed him to incarnate, without disruption from his own art, the ultimate myth of the modern artist. He became the first true star of art history: his face is unmistakable, as is the blue-striped shirt he adopted as a uniform, his life was an adventure, even if it was led for the most part between the walls of one or another of his villas in the south of France.
All famous artists henceforth are destined to compete with Picasso’s standard for fame. They will find themselves trying by any means, often much more sophisticated and far-flung than those employed by the Spaniard, to reach his heights of notoriety and success.
It was a trove of accomplishments accumulated over the course of the artist’s long life, which ended in 1973 at the age of 91. It was a life which, like a good investment fund, continues to produces riches not only for its heirs, but also for all those who still today continue to manage the works of this outsized giant of modern art.
The influence of Picasso on the generations that followed has been most obvious in the “Pic-Hirsts,” “Pic-Cattelans” or Pic-Koons:” artists who have made a true work of art out of their own image and cult of their own personality, just as Picasso did.
Picasso’s Mona Lisa is none other than the man himself, Pablo Picasso. It is as if the Mona Lisa had created Leonardo, rather than the other way round. What may appear even more confounding today about Picasso’s success, however, is that when the artist began to achieve fame, he didn’t have at his disposal the modern media machine, nor Facebook, nor the Internet, nor Google, nor a standard public relations agent.
Picasso spoke exclusively French and Spanish, and didn’t know any English and never traveled to the United States, where one of the temples of art, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, worshipped him and continues to worship him in its collection, like a god.
This painter who is more famous than Michelangelo and Leonardo, more identifiable even than the pope, has managed to transform his own name into a logo, a brand, as famous as CocaCola or McDonald’s. The signature of Picasso on a banner is unmistakable: even those who can’t read or who only read Cyrillic, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese or Korean will recognize it. Picasso is a name, a statue, a symbol, to also consider a modern brand like Prada.