Picasso’s celebrated Blue Period (starting in the second half of 1901) commands such public attention that it is easy to overlook the truly seminal half year that preceded it, in which Picasso, energised by the prospect of a first exhibition in Paris, worked with determination to create a corpus of work and, in the process, to really define himself.
Pablo Picasso becomes ‘Picasso’
For biographers and art historians alike, the year 1901 is literally the seminal and formative year in which Picasso – then just 19 years of age – found his voice. The moment was given its due recognition in the exhibition Becoming Picasso, held at the Courtauld Gallery in London in 2013. Curator Barnaby Wright argues that the small exhibition – it contained just 15 paintings – “presents a selection of Picasso’s major figure paintings of 1901 in the belief that these works demonstrate most clearly the emergence of seminal features of his artistic practice.”
The 1901 Paris show was held for Père Mañach, who rented Picasso his studio and acted informally as his agent. The proposed exhibition was to be held, however, on the premises in the rue Lafitte of the reputable Parisian dealer, Ambroise Vollard. The show was deemed a success by all. This prise de conscience occurred in fact in two stages over the course of 1901: the first, leading to the corpus of modernist works that was exhibited in May, and the second, the group of Blue Period works that followed fast upon it. The painter himself clearly now felt that he had become what he wanted to be, and it was at this stage that he adopted the signature ‘Picasso’. Subsequent art historians concede that these are his first true masterpieces, as opposed to his previous youthful essays.
Picasso set up his studio at 130 Boulevard de Clichy in Montmartre. For Picasso, it must have been an evocative, if not haunting, space: his friend Casagemas had previously rented here, and Picasso had arrived in Paris in May still shocked by the news of his friend’s suicide in February 1901.
An intense campaign of production
The first thing that is clear is that Picasso worked with an unparalleled intensity to produce a large, coherent corpus of works. It is known that when he left Madrid for Paris, he had with him only a few paintings and some drawings; almost all of the Paris exhibition consisted of works done in Paris, and in one intensive campaign. In just over a month, he produced almost all of the 64 works he was to exhibit. By his own account, he sometimes painted three or four canvases a day.
Essays in Parisian night life
The second defining feature of this corpus was that Picasso was defining himself by assuming, essaying and mastering the many individual styles he saw around him. Foremost amongst these were Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Behind them loom the larger figures of Old Masters such as Goya and Velasquez, whose work Picasso also synthesises and makes his own. More importantly, he went beyond essaying and went on to synthesise and combine their style into his own fervent, feverish, highly-coloured form of modernism. In his scenes of Parisian night-life, in particular, he achieves his own vision and his own expression, which is rather more individual and compelling than a mere mimicry of an admired painter. Like the painters who inspired him, his brushwork is also broken and gestural, and his palette high-keyed, and yet we sense an engagement with Parisian modern life even more febrile than those of his models.
We can see this process at work in his Dwarf Dancer (La Nana) (1901, Picasso Museum, Barcelona).
The painting is confronting in the extreme, and not only because of the pugnacious posture and confrontational gaze of the dancer. Seen in the context of a cabaret, she must have been merely a novelty; in Picasso’s hands, she becomes a grotesque and disturbing presence. This is not just an appropriation, it is a violation: Picasso has taken Degas’ ballet dancers, and produced a willfully ugly variant. Gone are the shimmering, delicate pastel tones of Degas; now, Picasso’s unprecedented lurid palette of explosive colours conveys a message of florid excess and innate viciousness. He sees the underworld of Paris as being corrupted and corrupting, and revels in it. The same qualities can be discerned in French can-can (1901, Private Collection).
A dichotomy of emotional tenor
The third feature of the works of 1901 is the dichotomy in their emotional tenor. The first group, painted prior to May-July, is full of the restless energy of fin-de-siècle Paris: Picasso is clearly reveling in the social life he depicts, even in its garish and sickly aspects. This will change in the second group, painted in the months after the exhibition, when he will turn from social scenes to scenes of social exclusion, and from frenetic gaiety to introspective suffering.
Critical and financial success
Those who attended the show in chez Vollard clearly felt the same way. It was a critical success in terms of commentary, and a financial success in terms of sales. The influential art critic Gustave Coquiot, for example, enthused: “Pablo Ruiz Picasso – an artist who paints all round the clock, who never believes the day is over, in a city that offers a different spectacle every minute… A passionate, restless observer, he exults, like a mad but subtle jeweller, in bringing out his most sumptuous yellows, magnificent greens and glowing rubies”.
Towards the Blue Period
It is commonly said that, after the closure of the exhibition on 14 July, Picasso progressed to less sociable, more reflective and often quite sad scenes. This second group of works clearly anticipates the works of the Blue Period over the ensuing few years. This change of emotional tenor is often ascribed to Picasso’s grief over the news of the death of his friend Casagemas, but this biographical explanation is made problematic by the fact that the artist had heard the news of his death quite some time before, in February 1901, prior to his second trip to Paris. There is absolutely no doubt that Casagemas was one important exemplar of human suffering – since he subsequently became the subject of a number of paintings – but it is unlikely that his death alone was the single trigger for the Blue Period works.
A turning point: ‘The Blue Room’, 1901
One important early work is The Blue Room (1901, Phillips Collection), which really marks the beginning of less frivolous social scenes and a slightly more subdued palette.
At this early stage, Picasso does not seek the socially marginalised, merely the bohemian: he depicts a young woman washing herself in a tub, probably in a cheap bedroom in Paris. Recent analysis by X-ray has, however, revealed an interesting aspect of this work. This canvas had first been painted with a quite bleak image of an old man resting his head on his hand. Picasso had then sacrificed this work by over painting the present image. Art historians have argued that Picasso might have essayed this early example of social marginality and human frailty, then found that it simply did not sell, and had then been obliged to sacrifice this early essay by painting something more pleasant over the top of it. It is believed that at this stage Picasso simply could not afford to buy canvases at will, and that he had to re-cycle them if one composition did not find a buyer. But despite the change of subject, this work is still a turning point, an intimation of Blue, because of its more muted colours tending towards cool and dominated by blue.
Self-portraits: ‘I Picasso’
Perhaps the best barometer of Picasso’s new self-image is, literally, his self-portrait, Yo Picasso (1901, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). It breathes self-assurance, complete focus, and real determination and ambition. And this is located not just in the stance and the direct, compelling gaze: it is in the very paint surface. As far as we can tell, this – like so many other of these paintings – was dashed off at high speed, and brought to completion without a single change, revision or pentimento.
Art critic Souren Melikian argues that even his choice of name is subversive, and indicative of a bold new start in life: “The very name that he chose for himself defied social convention. The painter’s patronym was Ruiz, which he used earlier. Breaking with established usage, he now opted for his mother’s name, Picasso.”
Dr Michael Adcock is social and cultural historian who specialises in the field of modern France. He has published works on the French Revolution with Cambridge University Press. Michael has over ten years’ experience in leading residential study tours in Paris and France. He has a strong interest in the interpretation of the arts in the context of the political and social moment in which they were created. Michael holds a Bachelor of Arts (Combined First-Class Honours in French and History), a Master of Arts (French History) and a Doctor of Philosophy (French History), all from the University of Melbourne. Michael led his first Academy Travel tour to Paris in 2006 and speaks fluent French.