The shock of the new. A trauma involving a break in the continuity of existence…
Which Picasso? As great an impresario as he was a painter, Picasso in his lifetime had produced a whole repertory of artists bearing the same name, each one distinct style and period. Never had an artist so commanded his audience through his dazzling changes, or attained such Old Masters’ prices while still living. If Picasso was the greatest single figure in the artistic upheaval of the twentieth century, he was no less a landmark in the changing relationship between the painter and his public. In the long history of art, no master had ever basked in the sunshine of such esteem while yet alive. And probably none except Rembrandt, Michelangelo and da Vinci has been the subject of so many scholarly books and articles. And no painter in his lifetime had been prized in such sheer monetary terms.
The love affair between Picasso and his public, to say nothing of his market, represented the culmination of a century long process of change in the world of art patronage. Before the French Revolution brought a sudden end to the eighteenth-century, a tight little circle of artists lived in a close relationship with their patrons, usually royal, or at least of the nobility class. There was no question or need of publicity for the artist, scarcely even for a dealer. Most important, there was no problem of public approval. Since the king and his nobility could do no wrong, certainly in terms of social recognition of the arts, they could, if they wished, patronize an unknown, unfashionable artist, even a radical innovator, without any embarrassment or public questioning.
In the eighteenth-century, Frederick the Great of Prussia broke away from the tawdry Hohenzollern taste and the bumpkinish showiness of his countrified nobility to send his emissaries to Paris so that he could become a collector of Watteau, Pater,Lancret and even Voltaire. Later, even the great onsurge of popular leveling following the fall of the Bastille, and the publicity apparatus that went with it, did not immediately engulf all of Europe.
In the less urbane courts there were royal figures who, through the end of the nineteenth century, did not care a fig about pleasing the public or whether the artists they liked and patronized were riding on a tide of high priced public applause: an outstanding example is, of course, King Ludwig II of Bavaria and his backing of the music of Richard Wagner at a time when it was vehemently unpopular. Of course Watteau had been a recognizable public brand through two hundred or more years of adulation and critical publication; the same machinery that today can inflate and hype the relationship between artist and public, and Picasso was there at the beginning of this brand name media machine and with intelligence and virtuosity could milk it for maximum value. There had never been an artist who could immerse his public in his own forms with such agility; never before had newly invented visual forms passed so quickly from the studio into popular culture.