Issue Number: 117
The Courtauld Gallery has distilled Picasso's breakthrough year into a perfect compact show, says Sarah Whitfield
Picasso, 'Harlequin and his Companion', 1901. The State Pushkin Museum, Moscow. ‘Becoming Picasso’ is exactly the sort of subject the Courtauld Gallery does best: small-scale, tightly focused, and put together with visual and historical intelligence. Picasso was just 19 when he made his second trip to Paris in May 1901, and this time he had an exhibition lined up. Typical of any young artist, he arrived woefully unprepared, with a little over a month to go before his show opened at Ambroise Vollard’s small gallery – a task that meant producing around three paintings a day.
Picasso’s drive and youthful impetuosity got him through, as did his phenomenal grasp of the work of Van Gogh, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Pissarro, painters who provided the examples of recent French art he devoured, as the work in this show demonstrates.
Between this visit to Paris and the one he had made the previous year, a catastrophic event had taken place – the suicide of his friend Carles Casagemas. Tortured by feelings of sexual inadequacy and a hopeless passion for a young woman, Casagemas had invited his friends to a farewell dinner in Paris, at the end of which he shot himself. Picasso was still in Madrid at the time but this terrible outcome helped turn his attention to the subjects of human misery and romantic agony that he would explore during the next few years, most memorably in his dream-like allegory, Evocation (The Burial of Casagemas), painted six months after his friend’s demise.
Picasso, 'Evocation (The Burial of Casagemas), 1901'. Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris. Picasso’s play on the theme of the grand apotheosis, as Casagemas is winged up to the heavens, underlines the absurdity of the tragedy and his own helplessness in the face of this extemely painful encounter with death. ‘It is one of Picasso’s first attempts at a large-scale painting and can be thought of as a secular altarpiece,’ says the show’s curator Barnaby Wright. ‘It looks back to El Greco’s altarpieces and combines many of Picasso’s concerns at that time. As such, it is a major artistic statement.’
Later in the year, Picasso discovered the women’s prison of Saint-Lazare, run by nuns, whose unfortunate inmates, many of them syphilitic, made themselves available to artists as free models. Their hunched and melancholy presences made a deep impact on his work, which was beginning to turn to themes of human sadness and loneliness, as can be seen in Harlequin and his Companion (1901). Such works anticipate the Blue Period outcasts of the next few years.
The art of transformation had begun, and in the course of 1901 Picasso began to understand that part of the artist’s purpose, as he put it, was to learn ‘to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.’ There was still a way to go, but in this show we begin to see how he would get there.