The year is 1901, the city is Paris. A world caught between the Victorian and the Modern, half looking back, half looking forward. A world of bohemians and philosophers, Can-Can dancers and circus performers. This is the world that we were plunged into on entry to the Courtauld Gallery for a late-night-opening of their exhibition Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901, the same world where – over a century ago – a 19 year-old Picasso found himself, preparing for his first major show.
We kick-started the evening (extremely smugly, realising we’d accidently chanced upon the opening night…bonus) by climbing up the grand, sweeping staircase of the Courtauld to the top floor, for a talk given by Vanja Malloy PHD in the centre of the exhibition, discussing the context surrounding these 18 works assembled for Becoming Picasso. It was fascinating to hear about the teenage artist’s entry into Parisian life and the beginnings of his career. We were left in total awe as Malloy described how he prepared for this first show in just over ONE MONTH, sometimes whacking out 3 paintings a day.
Next, down the staircase we went, through a room containing an astonishing collection of French Impressionist work on permanent display (loyal fans of the Courtauld, I apologise, but seriously – why don’t they tell anyone about this?!) which only added to the feeling of immersion in early 20th Century Paris, past a life-drawing class whose model was a living, breathing Harlequin in full costume and make-up (here’s the proof: galleryblog.courtauld.ac.uk/2013/03/08/becoming-picasso-late-night-opening), and into a room for a poetry reading and Spanish guitar recital.
Matthew Robinson’s solo guitar recital was extremely atmospheric (the Spanish guitar scene in Vicky, Christina, Barcelona anyone? Anyone??) , sometimes jarring and off-beat, sometimes beautifully melodic. What a great way to remind us – the audience – not only of Picasso’s Spanish roots, but that the teenager had only just left his homeland and pitched up in Paris. He has since become so part of the Parisian furniture it’s sometimes easy to forget he ever lived anywhere but France, and it’s especially important in context of this exhibition: he was still a visitor, almost the equivalent of a gap year student in the city, only with (presumably) a less irritating accent and no trust fund. It must have been both an exciting and frightening time, away from Spain, away from family and setting up “proper” in a foreign country, a time full of limitless possibility but also danger.
We returned (wondering whether we could ever learn to fully appreciate solo Spanish guitar) to the main gallery for another talk, this time focusing on the two Harlequin paintings in the exhibition: The Seated Harlequin and Harlequin and his Companion. A perfect follow-up to Malloy’s first broad, contextual introduction, this gave a more detailed analysis of Picasso’s studies on the famous Harlequin figure, a leitmotif which would return again and again throughout his life.
After this, we finally got around to exploring the exhibition. And we were not disappointed.
Room One s a total party room, full of vibrant brush strokes, movement and bold colours, nudging the more-than-willing voyeur to take a peep through the keyhole into Paris’s demi-mond, the intoxicated, indulgent, gaudy half-life of Montmatre.
La Nana (the fabulous dwarf dancer), disconcertingly glowers from her stage-side post, right hand jauntily on hip, left hand clenched tightly into a fist, chin jutted out. In direct juxtaposition to the rest of the painting, her face is in full, sharp focus, and she is looking directly, knowingly, warily, at us.
You don’t wanna mess with La Nana.
Elsewhere in Room One, we see undulating, green absinthe-tinged Can-Can dancers; a psychedelic trip during l’heure verte. A famous Montmatre vagabond known as the “King of Bohemia” – Bibi La-Puree – grins down at us from the walls, haggered and hook-nosed. Picasso seems to be celebrating the dirty, the ugly, the brash, the hedonistic, in a variety of styles while he finds his feet not only in Paris but as an artist.
Room One is also interesting in how Picasso plays around with the subjects and techniques of his heroes. His wild, fluid Can-Can has more than an echo of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s ghoulish self-portrait, Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge. Henri – pioneer of Art Nouveau – died the same year Picasso was preparing for his show.
Degas’ Impressionist style and beautiful, realist studies of ballerinas are turned on their pretty little heads by Picasso’s Nana and other dancers caught in “off-stage”, candid settings, and instead of daintily dancing or preparing for stage they are watching us, eying us with suspicion and audacity. They seem to be saying “Oi! What you lookin’ at?!” …is this a question Picasso wanted to pose in a society possessed by the stage and those treading upon it? Or is he directing the question at the viewers of his paintings?
Room Two could almost be described as the hangover after a bohemian night on the tiles and a little too much of the ‘green stuff’ (that’s absinthe, not the other ‘green stuff’. Although, who are we to say…). The work has a far more reflective and wistful tone, more introverted and still. Gone is the movement of the brushstrokes and bright, gaudy colour: here we see Picasso’s steep trajectory into his first defined period of the Blue.
An eerie, seated figure clasps her head in her exaggeratedly long, alien-like hands, almost hunch-backed, over a half-drunk glass of absinthe in a Parisian café. A Harlequin leans on the table as he contemplates the near-distance, sitting alone. A similar figure appears elsewhere (Harlequin and his Companion): two people at a table, together but not together, facing in opposite directions, disconnected and remote.
Many of these paintings feature an askew, off-kilter , perspective which throws the viewer slightly and adds to a general discomfort or sense of ‘not quite right-ness’, such as the angles of a lone girl’s bedroom in The Blue Room (the Tub), or the elongated limbs and hands of Picasso’s subjects.
We see the very personal paintings which were part of Picasso’s reaction to death: his little sister (who died aged seven when her brother was only 15, a short four years before his arrival in Paris) is depicted – in Child with a Dove – and painted in his new, idiosyncratic style, of heavy, flat colour and lines, naïve and childlike, in hues of green and blue. The little girl’s brightly coloured ball lies in the corner, untouched, while she clasps a white dove.
Picasso’s dear friend, Casagemas, and his recent suicide, feature heavily in this room, in the new cool tones favoured by Picasso as he withdrew into a deep depression. We see Casagemas’ ascension into heaven, and even his body lying in a casket. The fact that Picasso did not publically display Casagemas in His Coffin until the 1960s speaks volumes about the emotion he must have attached to it.
Straddling the EXIT door are two self-portraits. The earlier one is bold and colourful, Picasso is suave and debonair, glancing out at us, confident and seductive. It features his first use of the ballsy sign-off “YO Picasso” – meaning “I, Picasso”. The second is more pensive and muted in colour, Picasso is still looking at us, but we feel none of the easy self-assured arrogance of youth. He appears wistful and knowing. The work is left unfinished. Together, they provide us with an easy metaphor for the artist’s change in mood as he embarked on his journey into the Blue.
The thread between the earlier and later works seems to be the sometimes dismal, sometimes whimsical, always new, presentation of the ‘outsider’. A lone figure in a sort of limbo, caught between the gaps of society: the circus performer, the dancer, the thinker, the lone woman in solitude in her apartment, the impoverished mother, the artist himself.
They truly do depict an artist “on the turn” as it were, bridging the gap between obscurity and infamy, developing rapidly from playful experimentation with various styles and methods through to his first distinguishable, unique works. They are a genuine privilege to behold.
Got a date to impress?
A family member to buy a gift for?
Got a pulse and a pair of eyes?!
Then hurry folks, you have two more opportunities to experience this great evening of art, history and music: galleryblog.courtauld.ac.uk/2013/03/08/becoming-picasso-late-night-opening/
I’m off to book a one-way ticket to Paris.