Picasso: Blue and Rose Periods

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The Young Picasso: Blue and Rose Periods, Fondation Beyeler, Basel (3 February-26 May 2019 ***** EXTENDED TO 16 JUNE 2019 *****) is an exhibition which explores a period of rapid development from 1901 to 1907 in the art of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). It traces changes from painterly Post-Impressionism through the Blue, Rose, Gósol periods up to and including the proto-Cubism. This exhibition is from the catalogue Picasso: The Blue and Rose Periods.

The Birth of the Blue Period

The earliest art in the exhibition was made in Madrid, where Picasso was briefly based. He was attempting to launch an art-orientated publication called Arte Joven, one of a wave of European avant-garde art journals aimed at celebrating Symbolism, Art Nouveau and Post-Impressionism. While in Madrid Picasso heard of the death of his artist friend Carlos Casagemas in Paris. Depressed, Casagemas had invited friends to a restaurant where he attempted to kill his girlfriend then shot himself dead. The event preyed on Picasso’s imagination and later influenced his art.

Picasso’s art in early 1901 is an amalgam of Post-Impressionism and Symbolism, painted in a bravura manner. When he arrived in Paris in May he agreed his first exhibition in Paris, at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery in June 1901. The exhibition starts with portraits (including Yo Picasso (1901)) inspired by Van Gogh and El Greco. Subjects ranged from nightclub demi-monde types to self-portraits. The Vollard show exhibition launched Picasso’s public career in Paris and received good notices. Alongside Francisco Iturrino, Picasso exhibited 64 paintings and an unrecorded number of drawings. Some show evidence of being very hastily (and carelessly) painted, for example Femme dans la loge (1901). Most of the art was made over the course of a month before the exhibition.

In the summer, freed from the pressure of making pictures for his June exhibition, Picasso turned to the subject of Casagemas. Four critical works in the evolution of the blue period are included in the exhibition: two versions of the dead Casagemas, The Burial of Casagemas (1901) and a scene of mourning. It was the public suicide of Picasso’s friend Carlos Casagemas that inspired the use of blue to indicate his grief and led to a new preoccupation with the tragedy of life. The demi-monde gives way to the outright destitute and impoverished as subjects: beggars, prostitutes, cripples, mistletoe sellers. These blue paintings did not sell when exhibited in 1902, unlike the colourful paintings of the Vollard exhibition. Picasso spent January to October 1902 in Barcelona with his parents, unable to afford rent on a room in Paris. For the only time in his life Picasso was genuinely poor. Many paintings are made over old pictures because the artist could not sell much; he had little money for new materials. Paintings were also made on cardboard for cost reasons.

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[Image: Pablo Picasso, La Vie (1903), The Cleveland Museum of Art, Schenkung Hanna Fund. © Succession Picasso / 2018, ProLitteris, Zürich Foto: © The Cleveland Museum of Art]

The exhibition includes his masterpiece of La Vie (1903). From sketches and X-rays, we know that when this picture was started it featured Picasso and a model in a studio with a painting in the background. Later the face of the man was changed to that of Casagemas. The woman and child on the right were also added. Interpretations vary: “(1) an allegory of sacred and profane love conveyed through the opposition between the standing naked couple on the left and the mother and child on the right; (2) as a symbolic representation of the cycle of life, progressing from the infant to the cadaverous woman in the lower center; and (3) as a working-class couple facing the hazards of real life, including potential pregnancy and venereal disease.” John Richardson, Picasso’s biographer, suggests that poet friend Max Jacob’s fascination with tarot and palm-reading may have suggested to Picasso various themes which directed La Vie.

Iconic exhibited Blue paintings are La Soupe (1902-3), The Blind Man’s Meal (1903) and La Célestine (1904). The fine self-portrait of 1901 is also in the display. It shows the artist as impoverished bohemian. Apart from a little exaggeration of the facial features to accentuate Picasso’s gauntness, that presentation as a starving artist was not far from the truth. The mystique of the bohemian poor youth of a genius is part of the reason people respond so strongly to Picasso’s early art.

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[Image: Pablo Picasso, Self-portrait (1901), Musée national Picasso – Paris. © Succession Picasso / 2018, ProLitteris, Zürich Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau]

Picasso’s Sculpture

Accounts of Picasso’s sculpture often kick into gear with Cubism, featuring his Head of Fernande (1909) and the sheet-metal Guitar (1914). This selection demonstrates that sculpture – and sculptural thinking – played a larger part in Picasso’s early art than generally noticed. Picasso’s main form of sculpture in the Blue and Rose periods is modelled clay for both stoneware ceramics and (later) bronze casts. Picasso was deeply influenced by the example of Gauguin. Picasso’s dealer Vollard had many works by Gauguin. Additionally, Picasso was friendly with Paris-based Spanish sculptor Paco Durrio (1875-1940), who assisted Gauguin in making stoneware figures of based on Gauguin’s imagery of Tahitian culture. Durrio had some original ceramic pieces by Gauguin and Picasso would have seen them. Durrio trained Picasso in making ceramics in Durrio’s workshop and assisted him technically to make some of the pieces in this exhibition.

The heads of types are striking and the most impressive is Mask of a Blind Singer (1903), a small modelled head, cast in bronze in 1960. The physiognomy is the same as the acrobat and some of the beggars who appear in paintings and the celebrated Frugal Repast (1904), which is included in the exhibition. The image of the emaciated face with hollow eye sockets and open mouth is haunting. It is a vision of an outsider which blurs the line between living action and deathly repose. So often in Symbolist paintings the poor and starving exist in a liminal space between life and death. This sculpture is little known but very effective. Picasso’s output is so vast and various that such wonderful discoveries are a common occurrence, even for seasoned followers of Picasso’s art.

The wooden carvings of 1907 show Picasso replicating the lessons he was learning from African tribal art. The combination of paint and carving shows a wish to fuse painting and carving, which is very apparent in the volumetric modelling of figures in his paintings. He did not exhibit these totemic figures and was later sensitive about discussing African art in relation to the origins of Cubism. He was reluctant to provide evidence which might be used against him. He had already suffered accusations during the Great War that his Cubism was a German plot to undermine French art. He did not want to go into details about his links with African carvings only for that to be used against him.

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[Image: Pablo Picasso, Femme à la chemise (Madeleine) (ca. 1905), Tate: Donation C. Frank Stoop 1933. © Succession Picasso / 2018, ProLitteris, Zürich © Tate, London 2017]

From Blue to Pink

From summer 1904 to spring 1905 Picasso’s mistress was Madeleine – a shadowy figure in Picasso studies, with even her full name unknown. Her thinness and delicate features appear in a number of art works at the time and her presence coincided with the transition from Blue to Rose periods. Picasso met Fernande Olivier in late 1904 and she would become his first celebrated mistress and muse. Picasso’s art is often divided into periods defined by Picasso’s mistress of the time. Madeleine is the “missing mistress”, whose influence has been overlooked due to the shortness of her relationship with Picasso and the paucity of information about her.

In early 1905 the unrelenting blues give way to touches of pink, sienna and ochre, mostly on figures. At first these co-exist with blue backgrounds but gradually greater colour variety takes over. At this time the waifs and beggars begin to be replaced by new characters: acrobats, circus performers, comedians, Harlequin and others. The melancholy is partly relieved. The art is stylistically Symbolism. The outright appeals to pity recede in the Rose period. The mood is lightened and varied now. A summer visit to Holland gave Picasso sturdy healthy farm girls to draw, taking him away from his raddled urban drifters. The new characters were still outsiders but ones who seemed more purposeful – outsiders by choice rather than victims of circumstance. One could imagine these individuals leading full lives and reaching old age, whereas the people in the Blue-period paintings seem unable to escape their fate to live tragic shortened lives.

The soulful Symbolism, picturesque content and accessibility of the Rose paintings make them perhaps Picasso’s most loved paintings. Picasso’s life was changing his art. The comfort and pleasure of a long-lasting romantic relationship with Fernande, a larger circle of French friends and the financial support of Gertrude Stein and her brothers (who became his collectors) all made Picasso feel more at home in Paris. A number of witnesses (including Fernande) noted that Picasso became in involved in occasional opium smoking at this time. Boy with a Pipe (1905) may be related to opium smoking, with the flower wreathing the boy’s head and appearing behind him perhaps representing intoxication.

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[Image: Pablo Picasso, Acrobate et jeune arlequin (1905), Private Collection. © Succession Picasso / 2018, ProLitteris, Zürich]

Many of the Rose-period paintings are gouache on cardboard, a technique that Picasso largely neglected in later periods. He paints larger canvases too, daring to be more ambitious, as in the paintings of an actor on stage, acrobats and a boy leading a horse. This last is an image which seems to have been inspired by antiquity rather than circus life. Richardson suggests that it was related to a homage to Gauguin called The Watering Place, a picture that was never painted. Classicism was seemingly on the artist’s mind at the time, particularly Ingres, David and ancient art. The modish sentimentality is replaced by something tougher.

There is one aspect that makes Picasso’s art of 1901-6 melancholy, beyond the melancholy of sentiment and the predicament of the impoverished characters. The melancholy is seeing for the last time a top-flight artist animating characters in a meaningful way, as a director directs actors. We see Picasso bring to life his figures. We get to recognise them. We see their dramas and interactions. We attempt to read their expressions and discern their personalities. At the same time, Matisse and the Fauves were taking apart the unspoken Symbolist assumptions about the value of human drama in pictorial form. They shattered forms and detached colour from observation-derived description. When Picasso took on their achievements to develop a visual language that became called Cubism, he abandoned the possibility of narrative and entered the territory of fine art as a purely visual non-narrative field, rarely to leave it again.

From Gósol to Proto-Cubism

In 1906 Picasso and Fernande visited Barcelona then travelled to spend the summer in Gósol, a remote Pyrenean village in Catalonia. The rural setting and simplicity of the people and architecture charmed the couple. Picasso’s changed from pink to ochre, reflecting the stone and soil of the region. Picasso became increasingly engaged by the primitive. He connected with the simple archaic style of the Madonna and Child in Santa Maria del Castell (the local church) and memories of the Iberian primitives that he had seen in the Palais du Trocadéro Museum, Paris. He reached back into ancient history to revivify his art and purge himself of affectation. The inexpressive carved faces led to Picasso’s use of simplified masklike faces in the coming years. (The reduction in expression directed how he finished his portrait of Gertrude Stein, which he had left incomplete before departing for Spain.)

He painted nude figures – women of the appearance of Fernande, Fondevila (an old man whom Picasso befriended), ideal youths and children in a state of nature. The scenes he chose were generic. Mood was more important than story. Figures exist is uncomplicated situations, many of them nude. As Gauguin had found sought simplicity in ancient cultures in the Pacific, so Picasso thought he had found something personal, primitive and profound in Gósol. Moreover, it was in his adopted homeland of Catalonia; he had not had to travel to the other side of the world. Picasso completed a number of canvases and small works on paper and card, as well as a number of rough wood carvings. Although Picasso was not much attached to landscape painting, he recorded views of the village. The landscapes he did there, with their facets of muted earthen colours, seem to anticipate his Cubist landscapes.

Fernande becomes increasingly present in Picasso’s art, becoming the template for multiple figures (sometimes in the same picture). Her dark hair, high cheekbones and almond eyes represented an archetype for the artist. The couple were in close proximity constantly and deprived of distractions other than the communal festivals of the village. Fernande wrote in her memoirs that the couple were never happier or closer than during their three months in Gósol.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

On his return to Paris, he continued to make invented figures painted in earth hues, simply modelled forms and with inexpressive faces. The women become thicker, like earth goddesses – fertile and ponderous. Picasso thought of his art as a series of grand tours de force. (La Vie and Les Saltimbanques had been conceived in such a spirit). He worked towards a new allegorical painting of a sailor and a medical student in a brothel. As he worked on the preparatory material, he cut the two men and reduced the composition to the prostitutes. This became Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Inspired by the energy of El Greco and the late paintings of Cézanne (which suggested to him to flatten his pictorial depth) – and wanting to make his figures as alarming as they were alluring – Picasso radically simplified the forms. He later altered the two figures on the right to make their faces resemble the African masks he saw in Paris museums and galleries.

A few of the numerous preparatory studies for the painting are here. Some of them are unfinished – or rather they were just tests that were not intended to be considered as finished paintings for display. The main area was the heads of the women. The forms not so much drawn as hewn with curving strokes, with forms built of facets. The studies are in a variety of colours but it seems that the artist was just using what was to hand, scrubbing in areas to model the figures and space. The final colour selection for the painting is limited and restrained. Picasso realised that to use strong colour would have distracted from the innovations in design, line and pictorial space that the painting developed.

The Catalogue

The exhibition contains some 70 paintings, prints and sculptures. One of the key strengths of this exhibition is the loan of works from Russian museums, which left Paris before the Russian Revolution. Obviously, with the great value and fame of the paintings, it is difficult to arrange for masterpieces dispersed around the world to come together for exhibitions. The selection cannot include all of the most famous paintings but the selection is broad and covers all relevant aspects of the period. The inclusion of minor pieces allows us to give time to art that is often not included in general studies of Picasso. In the catalogue, each exhibited art work is given a full-page illustration with full data and commentary on the facing page. Concise yet informative summaries cover the development in the art and Picasso’s life and career. There is an interview with John Richardson about Picasso’s early work. The large size (31.5 x 28 cm) allows larger reproductions, which are of good quality.

Picasso’s art at this critical period would change the direction of Western art. In addition to its role in art history, the art of the Blue and Rose periods is widely respected and loved, which is why it has been so commonly emulated. The catalogue Picasso: The Blue and Rose Periods does a good job of displaying and explaining Picasso’s art 1901-7 in an attractively produced publication. It is highly recommended for fans of Picasso and those interested in the development of Modern art.

 

Fondation Beyeler/Raphäel Bouvier (ed.), Picasso: The Blue and Rose Periods, Fondation Beyeler/Hatje Cantz, 2019, half-cloth hardback, 300pp, 171 illus., €60, ISBN 978 377 5745055 (German edition also available)

© Alexander Adams 2019

See my art and books at: www.alexanderadams.art

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