Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901

Picasso: Harlequins

(Courtauld Institute, London, until 27 May 2013)

I haven’t left you much time to see this exhibition, but if you can get to Somerset House by the end of Bank Holiday Monday, I’d highly recommend it. The Courtauld have done again that which they do so well: choosing a very specific focus for an exhibition in order to throw new light on a familiar subject. Here they home in on one particular year in the young Picasso’s career: 1901, the year in which he came to Paris, had his first well-received exhibition at Galerie Vollard and then made his first compelling steps on the road to developing a distinctive style of his own.

It’s a colourful, lively immersion in the world of turn-of-the-century Paris, populated by a quasi-fantastic cast of Montmartre characters: can-can dancers, vagabonds, courtesans and figures from the Commedia dell’Arte. Eighteen paintings, gathered from public and private collections, combine to offer a strong and very coherent narrative about Picasso’s artistic development in this one crucial year.

The exhibition is divided into two rooms: the first shows the works which Picasso displayed in his debut Paris exhibition at the age of only nineteen (25 June-14 July 1901), and the second focuses on the pictures he painted in the second part of the year, when he was already pushing himself to achieve new and different effects. I don’t know Picasso’s work as well as I should, and so the first room was surprising in its impressionist flair and the use of darting, shimmering spots of colour to create the tawdry glitter of life in the city’s dance halls. The spirits of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec infuse these paintings, many of which are as eye-catching for their vivid tones as for their subjects.

The show quoted a rather wonderful extract from a critique of the Galerie Vollard exhibition, by the critic Gustave Coquiot: ‘A passionate, restless observer, he exults, like a mad but subtle jeweller, in bringing out his most sumptuous yellows, magnificent greens and glowing rubies.’ And that’s exactly what we see in pictures such as the Dwarf Dancer and the Spanish Dancer (El Tango), where the women’s striking red dresses are set off by a cascading background of frenetic strokes in yellow and green. The Spanish Woman, by contrast, is in cooler tones and reminds you of one of Degas’s ballerinas; but Picasso isn’t interested in the grace and movement of the dance so much as in the woman’s attitude – she sits, bored and a little grumpy, one fist propping up her chin, the other balanced combatively on her hip.

Cooler colours also predominate in the two portraits of men in this room, of which the most memorable was the Portrait of Bibi-la-Purée. This Montmartre dandy is depicted with broad, rough strokes and Picasso gives him an eerie, sinister, oddly clownish air. (He reminded me of nothing so much as the Child-Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.) My favourite picture in that first room, however, was At the Moulin Rouge, one of two pictures of can-can dancers (the other one very influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec). We are sitting in a box, looking out over the dance-floor of the Moulin Rouge, where a sea of raised skirts and black-stockinged legs meet our eyes. To the left of the picture, framing the view of the dance floor, sits a woman with a red flower in her hair and the glint of gold in her earlobe, staring out at us with casual indifference. Is she half-heartedly trying to seduce the artist (and, by extension, the viewer)? Or is she off-duty, waiting for the start of her next shift? Either way, her impassivity interested me more than the directly sensual challenges of the Dwarf Dancer and Spanish Dancer (El Tango).

Passing into the second room, we begin to see a more familiar Picasso. The suicide of his friend Casagemas in February 1901 was weighing on him heavily and this seems to have been the catalyst for inspiring a series of more restrained, melancholic works (which formed the beginning of the Blue Period). Many of these pictures show moments of stasis – still invoking the flavour of life in Montmartre, but turning away from the theatrical frenzy to the sombre contemplation of life behind the scenes. His Seated Harlequin shows this most recognisable of commedia dell’arte characters at a café table, unexpectedly translated into the real world; yet here an element of the stage still remains in the striking pose and strange gesture of the figure’s hand. By contrast, Harlequin and Companion shows the clown with (presumably) his girlfriend Columbine, posed at another café table and both sunk in deep boredom – or, maybe, in the aftermath of an argument. For Picasso, perhaps, even the magic of Paris has become mundane (or, alternatively, is it that even the mundane has elements of magic?). These Harlequins also point to the changing style of Picasso’s pictures: the depth and volume of the works earlier in the year have given way to flatter, simpler forms shaped with thick black outlines: his first steps in his experimentation with perspective and distortion.

Then there are two pictures which testify to his grief at Casagemas’s death: first the haunting deathbed portrait, painted (if I remember correctly) from Picasso’s imagination, a picture which more than any other shows the haunting tones of blues and greens which captured his imagination in the years immediately to come. And then there is the striking Evocation (Burial of Casagemas), in which statuesque, monumental mourners gather around the shrouded corpse on the lower level; above, beyond the clouds, Casagemas is received into a strikingly Montmartre view of Paradise, where he is helped onto a white horse not by angels but by Valkyrie-type figures dressed only in the stockings and garters of Parisian prostitutes. It’s a quirky, deeply personal take on traditional ascensions of saints.

The final picture I want to mention is the large self-portrait from this year: Yo Picasso (it took me a few seconds to remember that ‘Yo’ is ‘I’ in Spanish). This shows the young artist at his most confident, the tones limited to yellows, oranges, white and the rich indigo-blue of the background, and the paint applied in sweepingly broad strokes. Picasso meets our eyes, looking over his shoulder, his gaze half-amused, calm and self-satisfied. His confident self-assertion is underlined by the inscription at the upper left, in which the word ‘Yo’ proudly overshadows his actual signature. This is a young man who is convinced that he is going somewhere. And, by God, he was right.

Although it took me a while to get round to this exhibition – longer than it should have done! – I’m so glad I got to see it. It was laid out clearly and logically, with short but informative labels (and none of the meaningless theoretical waffle that so frequently shoulders its way into commentary on modern art). The curator Barnaby Wright has done a great job and affirmed the Courtauld’s growing reputation as the best place in London to see challenging, unusual and well-organised small exhibitions.

Buy the catalogue

Picasso: Self Portrait

Pablo Picasso, Yo Picasso (Self Portrait) (detail)

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