When it comes to blockbuster artists there is one name that dominates – Picasso. Picasso is big business. He is taught in schools, has international appeal and sells tickets, postcards and mugs by the bucket load.
So the Courtauld’s approach to tackling this mammoth of the art world is most welcome. Instead of overwhelming us with Picasso’s extensive and eclectic back catalogue, this exhibition chooses to focus on one epoch-making year in the young artist’s career. The date is 1901 and the place is Paris. This is the story of how Picasso became the legend he is today.
The story begins with Picasso’s first trip to Paris and subsequent first solo exhibition in 1901. A sense of youthful adventure pervades the first room. Picasso was based in Montmartre and sought to capture the urban bohemian lifestyle of its inhabitants. This was not the Disneyland district of today; Montmartre was on the fringes of Paris and its inhabitants existed on the fringes of society, in an underworld filled with dancers, performers and prostitutes. One gets the sense job descriptions between these worlds often coalesced.
Picasso wanted to depict this underworld in all its grotesque glory. The swirling figures dancing the Can Can are reminiscent of Toulouse Lautrec. There is something hypnotic about these forms as they swirl into one another – one can only imagine what this spectacle must have looked like on stage. This was not a static world but one full of dynamism and danger, and Picasso’s palette pulsates with energy. Dwarf Dancer (1901) is dazzling with clashes of yellow ochres, crimson and cobalt blues, conveying the restless energy of the dancer, standing with hand on hip staring defiantly out of the canvas.
If the first room is characterised by energy, defiance and youthful fascination, then the second room negates these emotions dramatically. The pulsating colours are gone and in their place are shades of blue and pastel turquoises. The subject is still Montmartre but the approach has shifted. The dancers and, with increasing regularity, the harlequins, are no longer of this world. Instead, they have been transfigured into symbols of rejection and isolation.
The cause of Picasso’s stylistic transformation is well documented. The suicide of his close friend Casagemas in 1901 deeply affected him, and he began to move towards a more reflective account of human existence. Paintings such as Absinthe Drinker (1901) explore the relationship between innocence and experience, purity and corruption. These themes found their expression in his large-scale Evocation (The Burial of Casagemas – 1901). The secular altar piece dominates the second room and depicts Casagemas ascending to heaven on a white stallion, surrounded by naked prostitutes, playful children, mourners and a Madonna and child. It is testament to Picasso’s genius that this piece, which challenged the conventions of religious art in the twentieth century, was produced when the artist was only 19 years old. The painting suggests the ambition and radical vision that Picasso was to invest into his work. It was this challenging and restless youthful energy that Picasso never lost, and that is what this exhibition celebrates.
The exhibition is made up of just two rooms; the shortest exhibition I have visited. This was no bad thing. The two rooms celebrate the process of becoming, of an artist who was finding his voice through personal experience and experimentation of artistic style. I hate the cliché of artists going on a ‘journey’. The multitudes of X Factor hopefuls who venture upon ‘a journey’ has debased the term for me. But in this exhibition it is difficult to deny that in 1901 Picasso was on a journey, both personally and professionally. The most exciting part of the exhibit is knowing what came next, knowing the young Spaniard’s legacy and wanting to rediscover Picasso beyond the school project, beyond the mugs and the postcards.
Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901 runs at the Courtauld Gallery, London, until the 26th May.