Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901
On our recent visit to London, the choices were overwhelming – we saw Roy Lichtenstein’s major retrospective at the Tate, the work of one of our all-time favourite painters, Manet, at the Royal Academy, as well as contemporary art – but no exhibition was as carefully conceived and memorable as the small gem of a show, Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901 at The Courtauld Gallery. With just 18 paintings, comprising some of Picasso’s earliest masterpieces, this intensely focused exhibition reunites major works completed when the artist was just 19 years old and includes those created for his first show with influential dealer Ambroise Vollard, as well as works that marked the beginnings of his haunting Blue Period. Each work is a stunner, captivating in its own right and even more striking when seen in concert with the other paintings on view, early proof of Picasso’s undeniable genius.
1901 was a pivotal year for the young Picasso – he moved from Madrid to Paris and had a little over a month to produce most of the 64 works he exhibited in his show with Vollard sometimes painting 3 or 4 canvases a day. In a sense, the first room of the exhibition is a dizzying tour of the masters who have come before him – Picasso clearly pays homage to the work of Degas, Goya, Toulouse-Lautrec and Velázquez, digesting the subject matter and style of these influences and spitting out images that are familiar but also innovative, daring and entirely his own. He was attracted to the demi-monde – performers, prostitutes and vagabonds – capturing the modernity and gaiety of La Belle Époque, including its seedy underbelly. Dwarf-Dancer (La Nana) is rendered using boldly unapologetic brushwork in a dazzling array of colours that swirl around the figure’s unforgiving face which blasts a fierce sideways glance. This vigorous brushwork is also found in Spanish Dancer, a work in which Picasso has flattened the picture plane, abolishing perspective. The painting features a crouching figure, surrounded by a kaleidoscope of pattern reminiscent of Klimt; the bright, expressive colour is in sharp contrast to dancer’s pallid face and vacant stare. At the Moulin Rouge evidences a bold composition with the female subject occupying the entire left portion of the canvas – the colours of her dress and hat are recycled in the costumes of the can-can dancers who perform on stage below her on the right.
In the second-half of 1901, Picasso’s work becomes more solemn, it is thought as a reaction to the suicide of his good friend Carles Casagemas earlier that year. Evocation (The Burial of Casagemas) tackles this subject directly: it depicts Picasso’s deceased friend, first laid to rest at the bottom of the panel, then ascending to heaven on a white horse above, surrounded by revelers, mourners and a Madonna and child. Evocation is a secular altarpiece, outrageous at the time of its making for its merger of religious imagery with bare-bottomed prostitutes. Throughout the year, although preoccupied with Casagemas’ death, Picasso also painted scenes of life and purity such as one of his most beloved works Child with a Dove. This work is a precursor to his Blue Period – with a sombre, limited palette Picasso captures the innocence of a young girl who delicately cradles a dove in her hands. He also continued to tackle the styles and subjects of his predecessors. The long face of a woman seated in front of her glass in Absinthe Drinker recalls Degas’ treatment of the same subject; this work as well as Harlequin and Companion and Seated Harlequin all feature figures seated at a table, hands prominently displayed at their faces. Picasso has flattened his subjects and given them dark outlines and their long, mask-like faces and shrugged shoulders give them a despondent appearance. But perhaps the most striking work in the second gallery is his Self-Portrait (Yo, Picasso) which was included in his exhibition with Vollard – his figure glows in a bright white shirt against a darkened background. The artist’s direct, almost confrontational gaze, fiery orange cravat and the large palette all confidently proclaim the artist’s arrival in Paris.
The Times proclaimed “This show is not to be missed,” and they are right. That a 19-year-old artist executed the works on view is simply remarkable. Picasso’s facility between styles is unparalleled and it would be entirely forgivable to assume the paintings were executed by different hands; these works offer a glimpse into the experimentation and innovation that would characterize his career for decades. Curator, Dr. Barnaby Wright, must be commended for his tight curatorial premise and, given the quality of the works on view, his extraordinary skill in negotiating these loans which must have been a Herculean task. Becoming Picasso is a triumph and convincingly demonstrates that quality should prevail over quantity – although there were just 18 works on view, we left entirely satisfied.