Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901 at the Courtauld

Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901, is a small, tightly focussed exhibition, showing a number of canvases all produced by Picasso in 1901.

The use of the word ‘becoming’ in the title of the show seems entirely appropriate, and in the canvases on show it is possible to see him assimilating the influences of the late Impressionists and Post Impressionists, trying out their subject matter and colour palette, and then moving on to something new and distinctly ‘Picasso’.  It shows a period of tremendous productivity, during which he apparently churned out paintings at an incredible daily rate; almost as if he was processing all the contemporary influences as rapidly as he could to get into his own stride.

Ironically it was the brighter earlier more derivative works which were popular and sold from his first major show at a large Parisian gallery.  The later more distinctive pieces didn’t sell, and by the end of the year, he had to return to Spain, nearly destitute.

The two self portraits show that evolution very clearly.  In the first Yo – Picasso, a young face with bold eyes stares out directly at us, a  frilly bright orange scarf throws light across the canvas, and suggests a dandy at work.  The later one, in a more muted and limited palette shows a much more melancholy lined face, still staring out, but expecting a little less immediate admiration from us, as if some of his confidence had been knocked, at least temporarily.  A couple of portrayals of a mother and her children also show a growing pessimism: in the first, the mother and baby are idealised and bright, while the second, in which a toddler drags on one hand with another baby hanging over her shoulder, suggests that it’s no longer so much fun when the number of children increases.

The accompanying literature suggests that the move towards the muted blue tones of the work he was about to embark upon, was inspired by the suicide of one of his close friends, and there are a couple of canvases relating directly to imaginings of his dead friend’s funeral and subsequent journey to heaven which I suspect are of interest only because of the period in which they were produced and their blue colour.

It’s a fascinating exhibition, delivering its lesson on the period of productivity in the artist’s life and so succinctly, so I emerged feeling better educated and with plenty of time left for a coffee.

PS, I am astonished to report that this is post number 800.

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