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A feature by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!





Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901


Self Portrait (Yo Picasso), 1901

oil on canvas, 73-5 x 60.4 cm

Private collection

Courtauld Gallery

14 February 2013 – 26 May 2013


This concise, historically important exhibition showcases several of Picasso’s finest early paintings preceding his famous ‘Blue Period’, many of which are among his most beloved works. What’s perhaps most striking about this rich collection is its strong connection to and, reflections of, its’ creator, at a time when nineteen year old Picasso, newly arrived in Paris from Spain, was freely and prolifically drawing on the colourful ambiance of the city’s teeming café life and its bohemian characters.

To be able to see and, savour so many emotionally powerful, visually striking, metaphorically telling paintings in the space of two rooms of this bountiful gallery and realise they were all painted by the same artist, at the very moment in his career when he was working toward a breakthrough is truly astounding. Though the young painter’s influences: Van Gogh, Degas, Gaugin, Manet, Lautrec and, Spanish masters Goya and El Greco are apparent at the outset via technique and/or choice of subject matter, he was constantly reinventing what was, into something new and most importantly, uniquely his. Described in the gallery as ‘a breathless gallop through the sights and characters of turn of the century Paris,’ this figure based show lives up to its pronouncement, conveying a sense of a young, ambitious painter, rapidly working towards his first big break, an exhibition mounted by influential dealer, Ambroise Vollard in Paris, ‘capital of the arts’ circa June 1901. As such, this show is preceded by quotes from reviews of that exhibition, all of them complimentary in their fashion, though Felicien Fajues’ line from his article for La Revue Blanche, on June 15th, 1901 arguably, best summed up where Picasso, who oft painted three canvases a day in the May and June weeks leading up to his solo show was then, …’his personality is in this haste, this youthful, impetuous spontaneity.’ It is this aspect of his work, imbuing it with such presence and life that enables us to empathise with that statement. An intriguing photograph of nineteen year old Picasso in his Paris studio with his agent, Pere Manach, painter Torres Fuster and his wife, illustrates that the young painter is already, deeply in his element.


Photograph of Picasso seated in his studio, 130ter boulevard de Clichy, Paris, with his agent Pere Mañach to the left and the painter Torres Fuster and his wife to the right.  Spring or summer 1901
© Photo RMN-GP
Free image use - ¼-inside page max


The dramatic suicide of his close friend, poet Carles Casagemas, who shot himself in the head in Montmartne’s Hippodrome Café, deeply affected the artist, who was off in Madrid at the time. Two paintings created in the aftermath of that tragedy, “Casagemas in his Coffinand “Evocation” (“The Burial of Casagemas”) though held from public view by Picasso until the 1960’s, on show here, , herald the start of his renowned Blue Period. As any young man in the exciting capitol of a foreign land would, in Paris 1901, Picasso drank in the heady atmosphere, infusing his canvases with evocative colour and images drawing on the popular culture of his time and place, in the opening painting, via a bevy of Can-Can dancers, an Impressionistic flurry of red lipstick and crinoline forming a painterly snapshot.


Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Evocation (The Burial of Casagemas), 1901
Oil on canvas, 150 x 90 cm


There are a series of dancers depicted in the first room of this exhibition, each seemingly more deeply drawn and vividly coloured than that before, their manner and tones echoing posters of the time by Toulouse Lautrec. Café frequenting characters such as “king of bohemia”, Bibi las Puree, a grinning, foppish older man whose nickname literally translated to, ‘in dire straits,’ is also represented here, not far from a “Spanish Woman,” whose white crinoline skirt nearly engulfs her unhappy heart shaped face, one of the first canvases to feature Picasso’s soon to be famous signature. Though it is stated here that the artist found himself drawn to ‘melancholy, often isolated figures,’ he imbued each with their own oddly alluring beauty, through which individuality becomes a metaphor for loneliness.


Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Dwarf-Dancer, 1901
Oil on board, 105 x 60 cm
Museu Picasso, Barcelona (gasull Fotografia)


Most startling among both rooms of paintings are Picasso’s self-portraits, in the first of which, “Yo Picasso” (“I Am Picasso”) the young artist almost seems to have come out of nowhere to his central place in the painting, his shining, swarthy face glowing out of the darkness behind him, facing his admiring onlookers with confidence and an unstinting inner knowledge of his growing artistic powers.

Picasso’s escalating political awareness is also evidenced within these two, presence filled spaces by two very different paintings of the same subject. “Mother and Child”, shows an obviously secure pair, warmly dressed, while opposite, in “The Mother”, a bare-armed peasant, babe in arms, toddler in tow, is on the move, seemingly, in the act of hurrying her vulnerable young family out of harm’s way.

Drinkers of Absinthe were a popular subject for painters of this time and place and Picasso atypically addressed that topic in individualistic fashion, positioning their oversized hands to emphasise vulnerability or in the case of his hybrid, white faced Harlequin donned in the skull cap and ruffs of a Perrot clown, a scheming character. Three corresponding works originate from far flung locales, so this exhibition offers a rare chance to see them side by side, circling in, as it were, on their subject matter. Fascinating all, but most ethereal among them, the canvas chosen to represent the exhibition on its’ posters – “Harlequin and Companion”, in which the haunting countenance of a ring eyed woman peers, owl like from the painting, while her erstwhile friend seemingly stares off into space in a haze.


Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Harlequin and Companion, 1901
Oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm
© The State Pushkin Museum, Moscow


As I left the gallery, I felt as though I’d been moving, with fascination, though Picasso’s early days in Paris, which, thanks to his skill, observational eye and ability to translate what he experienced, emotions intact, to the canvas, I had. Cliché as it seems, this great exhibition is one not to be missed!

There is much to learn about Picasso’s artistic origins through this rare showing of his progressively original, inadvertently knowing early works. Perhaps the greatest gift an artist can have is an ability to share so much with the world through what seems on a surface level, so little. Truly, the magic of art.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Child with a Dove, 1901
Oil on canvas, 73 x 54 cm
Private collection

The Courtauld Gallery
Somerset House
London WC2R 0RN

Accessed through the Strand entrance of Somerset House
Daily 10am – 6pm (last admission 5.30pm)
Picasso Lates
Thursday 7 March, 18 April and 23 May 2013
18.00 - 21.00
The admission charge includes entrance to the permanent collection and all temporary exhibitions and displays.

Adults £6, Concessions (over 60’s, part-time and international students) £5, Children under 18, full time UK students, Friends of the Courtauld, registered unwaged, and with National Art Pass – FREE
Visitors with disabilities can bring an escort Free
£3.00 All day Mondays, including public holidays
The Courtauld's Drawings and Print Room can be visited by appointment.

N.B. The Courtauld Gallery will close at 17.00 on Monday 1 July (last admission 16.30) due to The Courtauld Institute of Art's annual graduation ceremony.
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