Prolific, rigorous and unrelenting in his innovation, Picasso led where many rivals feared to follow.
"Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” That was Pablo Picasso’s characteristically sardonic way of acknowledging the debt he, as the greatest artistic innovator of the 20th century, owed to the many painters he learned from – they included El Greco, Paul Cézanne, his friend and rival Georges Braque and the African artists which, with their bold representation of human forms, helped inspire Cubism, the art movement with which he became synonymous.
Managers trying to ignite innovation in their own organizations could learn a lot from Picasso. Though he played up to the public image of an unpredictable genius who cared about nothing but art, he was productive, determined and fiercely competitive. While rivals agonized over one idea, he made dozens of iterations until he got it right. As he said: “What comes out in the end is the result of the discarded finds.” His painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), which appears in more art history textbooks than any other modern work, initiated the idea that paintings didn’t have to mirror nature, they could function as diagrams – symbolic representations of invisible truths.
One of the overlooked traits that made Picasso so innovative was his mastery of process. His father was a traditional painter. From the age of seven, Pablo learned his craft so thoroughly that he is often described as the most technically adept painter of the 20th century. He found mastering techniques so easy that he seldom struggled to express his vision whether he was painting, sculpting or creating a collage. Picasso family legend has it that the boy’s first word was “piz”, short for lápiz, the Spanish word for pencil. He also had an instinctive sense of where the action was. Today, Silicon Valley is a magnet for wannabe dot.com millionaires. In the 1900s, Paris – and specifically Montmartre – was the center of the artistic ferment that created the movement we now know as Modernism.
Picasso’s intellectual independence – though associated with movements, he was no slave to them – enabled him to make three fundamental, revolutionary innovations in less than two decades: co-founding Cubism (with Braque), inventing collage as an artistic technique and developing assemblage in sculpture.
His thoughts ran so free that, as scholar Meyer Schapiro put it: “In the morning he made Cubist paintings, in the afternoon he made Neoclassical paintings.” Unlike many businesses that try to fit innovation into their existing models and processes, Picasso chose an approach that suited his subjects, so in 1917, he produced masterpieces in the styles of Cubism, Pointillism and Naturalism.
Picasso’s career proved that there are many kinds of innovation. Not content to experiment purely with his art, he broke new ground with the materials he created with. He used industrial coatings and, in his Cubist period, when he couldn’t find the right bright color in oils, he used a shiny house paint called Ripolin. Later, he pioneered the use of such everyday objects as wire, cardboard and string in sculpture.
One of the traps organizations fall into when they try to ramp up innovation is to throw a lot of resources at the problem. Yet Picasso proved that setting limits could be just as productive. As he said: “For a long time, I limited myself to one color – as a form of discipline.” That approach inspired two of his most successful styles: the Blue Period and the Rose Period.
Asked once to name his favourite Picasso period, the artist said: “The next one.” In his heyday, his relentless commitment to innovation dismayed rivals. Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky wrote that Picasso was, “driven madly onward… He makes a wild leap and there he is, standing on the other side, much to the horror of his followers. They had just thought they’d caught up with him, now they must… start the climb again.” That is the kind of enduring competitive advantage every business would love to have.