For the first time in the two + years of existence of this blog, I thought the exhibition had a perfect title for my article. Becoming Picasso... C'est tout un programme. It reminds me of this well-known anecdote when Picasso was asked by someone - one of his suppliers? - to draw something for him. He scribbles on a paper tablecloth and hand the piece to the guy who had sollicited him. "That's all? the guy says. 10 minutes of work". "No, you got it wrong, Picasso replies. It took me fourty years to get there"
So the Courtauld Institute, in an ambitious way, is asking the question. How do you become Picasso? Ambitious because there is no shortage of Picasso exhibitions globally - on this note, one of the best ones was definitely the one given by the Albertina in Wien four or five years ago, Picasso and the War. A very innovative and untraveled perspective on Picasso's work
Courtauld, as it may seem, has been surprised by its own success. Only two rooms and 20 paintings, and nevertheless the exhibition is sold out several weeks in advance. Got European-wide press coverage (pls note the good article two weeks ago in Le Figaro). So probably worth seeing, I thought
Fraying through St Patrick's day parades, London's usual road closures and other city ailments, I finally reach the adorable Courtauld Institute (adorable by its collections, clearly not because of the people working there)
Top floor, first room. We are in 1901 in Paris Montmartre and Quartier Latin. Picasso has just arrived from his native Spain for his first exhibition at Ambroise Vollard's whom he met through a common friend, Spanish and a painter too. He is nineteen. This will be a success and yet he will change completely his style a year later, to start his wonderful Blue Period - my favourite! But back in 1901. The young Spaniard paints what he sees. French can-can (Private collection) is wonderful of movements and colours, prefiguring those of the Blue Period. Tribute to Toulouse-Lautrec - and possibly his love of ethanol
Women are dancers, almost prostitutes. Vivid colours. Provocative in poses and attitudes. Human beings are misshapen. Bibi-la-Purée (Private collection on loan to the National Gallery, London) est dans la mouise mais chic comme un pape. The ancestor of the Sapeurs? The Spanish Woman (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen) is the Spanish and authoritative version of Rodin's Thinker. At the Moulin Rouge (Private collection) could possibly figure one of Gauguin's Polynesian indigenes, but in the French cabaret. The Dwarf-Dancer (Museu Picasso, Barcelona) comes straight from las Meninas, par petites touches. Striking!
I am totally enchanted by the second and last room. So many Blue Period's works in the same room. So rare! The only one missing is the one from the Stein's collection
Before, or more accurately next to, his Blue Period, Picasso's first self-portrait: Yo - Picasso (Private collection). Amazing: the bold look, the blunt clothes (plain white shirt and orange cravat), the dark skin. It is Joey Starr-meet-Basquiat (pictured)
First painting in the room of the Blue Period, The Blue Room (Phillips Collection, Washington) is a condensé of tributes: a ballerina (Degas), May Milton on the wall (Toulouse-Lautrec), muted colours and clear outlines (a new feature of the young Picasso's work) à la Toulouse-Lautrec: this piece is a summary of late nineteenth century painting
Some of the single figure portraits are less attractive, I think. The Mother (Saint-Louis Art Museum) and Mother and Child (Kunstmuseum, Bern) display less genius than other pieces. A social statement, says the cartels. Really?
Amongst the various figure portraits, Harlequin and Companion (Pushkin Museum, Moscow) is immensely interesting. Clearly a re-invention of the traditional café drinker subject, this is far from the only reason why it is interesting. The composition, first. Three areas vertically, three areas horizontally. In the middle, Harlequin with the clothes of Pierrot, looking away to plot something for sure. To his right, Colombine, with a bit of an empty look. Trying to understand what her cunning clown is plotting? The lack of communication between these characters, traditionally so close - but close geographically - is emphasised by the different directions of their looks and the vivid orange colour and disordered brushstrokes of Colombine's blouse. Who is leading the pair? Unclear to me, even after fifteen minutes of contemplation. And I don't think the size of the glass in front of each of them is a good clue
The back wall holds one of the most beautiful Blue paintings: The Burial of Casagemas (Musée d'art Moderne de la Ville de Paris). Greatly moving, this piece immediately reminds me of the Greco (colours, elungated shapes, mystic feeling) - and Chagall, 15 years later, with the Procession or the Burial in Vitebsk. It is such a tribute that Casagemas is almost represented in some New Testament's postures. Wait a minute, just read the wall's comments - and they also refer to El Greco. Pity! Thought it would be a reference of my own
What? It is already over. 20 paintings, the board said. There are only 18 but I realise I have been there for more than an hour. And could stay even longer, undeterred by the loud voice of an uninteresting guide shouting next to me
Chapeau bas, donc, to the Courtauld Institute that was bold enough to dedicate a very well publicised exhibition to one year only, 18 paintings and 2 rooms. Book early, and multiple times
Becoming Picasso, Paris 1901
The Courtauld Gallery
Until 26 May 2013