Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901, Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Picasso’s ‘Seated Harlequin’ (1901)

In our conceptual, democratising art age, homage to genius is unfashionable. Even the greatest artists tend to be shown in exhibitions straining for cultural and political context – Tate’s Picasso and Modern British Art last year and Picasso: Peace and Freedom in 2010, are examples. The Courtauld Institute’s new, deeply erudite exhibition Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901 gloriously defies this trend.

Its year-in-the-life story of genius emerging is revealed through the most exuberant, magnificently focused selection of early Picassos that I have encountered. Although it contains just 18 paintings, what paintings these are! The starting point is the iconic “Child with a Dove”; jewel of Picasso works in British collections, this was once owned by Samuel Courtauld and was put under a temporary export ban in August after Christie’s negotiated its sale from the Aberconway family to a foreign buyer. The painting may not soon be seen in this country again. Courtauld acquired it as a late example of his favoured impressionist period but today we see it as an important transitional work, marking a moment when Picasso abandoned his post-Impressionist apprenticeship in favour of flattened forms, broad areas of abstract colour and bold sculptural outlines.

In its simplified composition and its depiction of innocence and fragility, “Child with a Dove” contrasts wonderfully with the other British piece here, the National Gallery’s “Bibi la Purée”, an impressionistic portrait of an elderly Montmartre tramp wearing theatrical rags, depicted, in dashing, summary brushwork and a richly layered paint surface, with a broad grin pulled across his face: an arresting grotesque.

In essence, this pair of pictures illustrates how 19-year-old Picasso, nicknamed “the Spanish invasion”, took Paris doubly by storm. Within weeks of his arrival in 1901 he achieved a solo show with the capital’s leading dealer, Ambroise Vollard, where his virtuoso portrayals of bohemian life were widely acclaimed. Months later he transformed this successful, highly marketable style into something incomprehensible, unsaleable and so radical that it would revolutionise 20th-century art.

The Courtauld has pulled off spectacular, precisely chosen, loans to unravel the drama of how diverse masterpieces from the same year at once relate to each other, look back to art history and anticipate the future of Picasso’s oeuvre. The high-octane energy of the youthful Picasso is evident: he created the works for Vollard in a few weeks, sometimes producing three canvases a day for a series that turned out to be nothing less than a gallop through the rapidly learnt history of recent French painting.

“Spanish Dancer” has the loud colouring, clamorous composition and compressed treatment of Toulouse-Lautrec’s dance hall scenes. “Dwarf-Dancer” goes further, confronting Degas’ classical dancers with a diminutive figure, recalling the celebrated sculpture “Little Dancer Aged 14” but replacing her vulnerability with the dwarf’s assertive, defiant air. In strong contours and the posture and weight of woman and infant, “Mother and Child” follows Van Gogh’s portrait “Madame Augustine Roulin and Baby Marcelle” but, in another work using the same models, “The Mother”, the solid bourgeois figures turn skeletal, threadbare, as they trudge stoic­ally along a road – a composition resembling Honoré Daumier’s “The Washerwoman”. By contrast, the sumptuous “French Can-Can” melds impressionist strokes with Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster designs of billowing skirts and stocking-clad legs: oil paint blurs and bleeds like pastel as swirling, disjointed forms, powdered, rouged faces, crimson lips, dark eyes peering out of shadows, evoke an unstable, menacing urban nocturne – a genre turned decadent.

Picasso would tread that tightrope between caricature and tradition all his life, endlessly renewing his art by interrogating the past – Delacroix inspired his “Femme d’Algiers” series in the 1950s, and he looked to Manet’s “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” in the 1960s. In the immediate aftermath of his Vollard success, he took stock in the carefully modulated “The Blue Room”. The bedroom composition references Van Gogh; the central figure of the nude washing herself, warmed by the early morning sun, acknowledges Degas; a poster of Toulouse-Lautrec’s bluest picture, “May Milton”, hangs on the wall. Yet, suffusing the work in a cool blue tonality that overwhelms the rich red stripes of rug and sofa, Picasso is bidding farewell to all these influences.

‘The Blue Room’, painted in 1901

He knew he had synthesised what these artists could offer him and now he prepared to create something new – the long series known as the Blue Period. “The Blue Room” highlights, too, the subject of artist and model that would always obsess Picasso. It did not sell – it ended up on offer for 10 francs at a Montmartre mattress shop – but it opened the way to a trio of important works, fabulously reunited from Russia and America here, which develop the motif of the interior as a piece of artifice rather than as realism.

“The Absinthe Drinker”, stony as the glass and bottle before her, has exceptionally long hands and talon-like fingers wrapping around her body to define it as a loop of introspection. Yet more theatrical and angular are “Harlequin and Companion” and the monumental, white-faced, elaborately ruffed “Seated Harlequin”, pensive on a grey banquette, with a floral frieze floating above his head as if emanating from his mind. In all these works, spatial values are achieved by overlapping forms rather than perspectival construction, meticulous lines are more powerful than colour; isolation and melancholy, rather than the frenzy of the Vollard works, are keynotes.

Blue, Picasso said, came to dominate his work following the death of his friend Carlos Casagemas, the Spanish painter who shot himself in 1901. The Courtauld includes the stark, abstracted “Casagemas in his Coffin”, which the artist kept hidden for five decades – “Picasso has distilled raw horror into a blue essence,” his biographer John Richardson wrote of this work – and the blasphemous, icy-blue altarpiece “Evocation (The Burial of Casagemas)”, depicting the dead painter’s ascent to a whore-filled heaven. Prostitutes, dancers in coloured stockings, mothers and children, waif-like blue mourners: this mocking painting is a compendium of the Parisian subjects of 1901, all now excessively fragmented, linear, elongated – and thus already, mesmerisingly, pointing to the laboratory of modernism, six years later, of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”.

‘Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901’, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, February 14-May 26,

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