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Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901, Courtauld Gallery | reviews, news & interviews

Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901, Courtauld Gallery

Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901, Courtauld Gallery

A compelling set of 18 paintings tells of a formative year in the life of the artist

Picasso: The Blue Room (The Tub), 1901The Phillips Collection, Washington

In Yo Picasso!, a self-portrait from 1901 (pictured below, Private Collection), the 19-year-old Picasso is already projecting an inimitable bravura, emphasised by his dashing orange cravat. He looks out at us with that mesmerising and legendary, unwavering and intimidating stare he made his own. Even at the time, critical responses noted his courage and confidence. He had made the first of his several moves to Paris in the spring of that year.

And here Picasso undertook perhaps the most significant of his many metamorphoses. (Self-Portrait, pictured below, Private Collection)

The 18 paintings harvested from public collections held in Moscow, St Petersburg, New York, Paris, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Bern, Zurich and London and anonymous private collections concentrate on Picasso in Paris in 1901. The year comprised two long residences away from Spain, when the hard-partying, hard-loving, hard-painting Picasso was indeed becoming Picasso. He was said to complete as many as three paintings a day; he had his first exhibition with the dealer Vollard, whose portrait by Renoir is on the first floor of the gallery.  A contemporary reviewer described him as “the brilliant newcomer”.

The paintings are strident, loud, full of energy, and irradiated with influences – Degas, overwhelmingly Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Van Gogh - although Picasso cheerfully stated the obvious: that he did not borrow, he stole. Violets, oranges, yellows, reds of all kinds dominate before icy, cool disturbing blues anticipate the coming of his Blue Period, partly the result of the terrible catalyst of his close friend Casegamas’s melodramatically public suicide in a Paris café. 1901 is the first major turning point for the career of the most discussed, exhibited,  documented artist in the history of art, and this special show, three years in the making, demonstrates above all else the ferocious energy with which he tackled a huge variety of situations that he set up for himself. He painted in the studio, he painted from the model and from imagination and memory, often combining a haunting realism – especially the self-portraits – with an inventiveness infused with an apparent ability not to mind risk, in fact to rush to the precipice with just enough residual balance not to fall over.

One of the major works on view is almost ludicrous, although shot through with both passion and hope. The fantastical Evocation (The Burial of Casagamas) (pictured below, Musée d’art moderne, Paris) is a painfully and poignantly sincere homage to the Spanish poet who was a close friend. The influence of El Greco is typically subverted. Its composition, a strong vertical with figures strewn through spac,e echoes traditional altarpieces without a trace of irony, including playing with proportions, making the scene both unreal and believable as a dream.

The Blue Room (main picture) is a haunting painting of his studio in which he acknowledges those he has been looking at so attentively - Lautrec, Degas. Tenderness is evident in awkward but compelling versions of harlequins and columbines, absinthe drinkers, and mothers and children.

These are neither easy nor likeable paintings, some perhaps not very good, but all distinguished by his burgeoning individuality. So many of his motifs visibly have their origins at the turn of the last century - you can compare with School of Paris and German expressionist works in the next-door galleries. And Picasso from almost the beginning was never sentimental. This compelling selection - not so much a decorous announcement of a new talent as an explosion - is unmissable.

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