One of the perks of a stopover in Paris in autumn is discovering the temporary exhibits that are popping up in museums throughout the city. Predictably, each year one will transcend all others and become the landmark artistic event of the season. For me, this year the honor goes to the Musée d’Orsay for its exciting “Picasso. Blue and Pink.”
From Pablo Ruiz to Picasso
It’s easy to overlook, but before he got around to inventing Cubism (with his friend Georges Braque) Picasso was already Picasso. Barely 19 when he arrived in Paris in October 1900, after being selected to represent his country in the Spanish painting section of the Universal Exhibition, young Pablo Ruiz already had all the makings of a prodigy ready to immerse himself into the vibrant local art scene.
A great admirer of Van Gogh, he immediately embraced his style of painting in broad strokes of pure colors with a self-portrait in the traditional three-quarter pause facing the viewer. With his knotted cravat and unruly hair, he styled himself as a modern romantic figure fashionable at the time. And with great self-assurance, he signed the work “Yo Picasso” (I, Picasso – 1901).
This marked the start of a six-year period of intense creative activity punctuated by travels between Spain and Paris. A time that would later become known as the master’s Blue and Pink Periods. Now the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée National Picasso-Paris, in their first ever large-scale collaboration, are presenting an exceptional event dedicated to this vital early period of his career. The chronological presentation of a vast number of paintings and drawings allows the viewer to better reconsider the work of this towering 20th century artist within the context of his 19th century roots.
Between Spain and Paris
The eye-opening experience of the 1900 Paris art scene is not young Picasso’s sole source of inspiration. His early works also speak volume of his attachment to both the 17th century Spanish Golden Age and the Catalan Modernism that flourishes in Barcelona at the time. In February 1900, he holds his first exhibition, filling a famous bohemian cabaret (Els Quatre Gats) with hundreds of stunning drawings, a number of which are included in this exhibition. Then, in Madrid for a few months in the winter of 1901, he creates a striking reference to Velasquez with his Woman in Blue.
Back in Paris in the spring of 1901 with a few pastels and paintings produced in Barcelona and Madrid, he catches the eye of Ambrose Vollard, a renowned gallery owner of the Parisian avant-garde, who proposes to organize an exhibit of Picasso’s work in the early summer. A few months of frenzied activity ensue, during which he focuses on subjects typical of Paris life by day and night. He embraces and reinterprets the works of the great of modern artists, especially Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas, to create most of the 64 paintings displayed in the three-week exhibition. The event is a critical success.
Into the Blues
This success, followed in short order by the suicide of his close friend Carles Casagemas, draws the young painter into a period of sorrowful introspection. His palette becomes dominated by blues, and his subjects an expression of his melancholy. In addition to a cycle of paintings directly associated with the death of his friend, he produces a group of poignant works revolving around the figure of Harlequin and the pathos of the world of saltimbanques (circus performers).
By the end of 1901, he visits the Saint Lazare women’s prison in Paris. Here the inmates are mainly prostitutes, some of whom are incarcerated with their young children. These visits inspire a series of painting on the theme of motherhood, and of solemn female figures as the embodiment of loneliness and misfortune. His tragic depictions are reminiscent of the Renaissance paintings of El Greco.
La Vie en Rose
By the end of 1904, Picasso is living in an artists’ colony in Montmartre where he befriends poets Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire, and becomes romantically involved with his model, Madeleine. The color range of his palette broadens, making a subtle transition to the Rose Period. In addition of a number of portraits inspired by Madeleine, he focuses with renewed interest on the Saltimbanques theme. Here he follows two main threads: the family and fatherhood of Harlequin, and the circus performers that combine the commedia dell’arte character with the lithe figures of acrobats and jesters.
The Saltimbanques cycle spans the period from late 1904 to the end of 1905. In early 1906, a retrospective of the works of early 19th century Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres inspires Picasso’s “Boy Leading a Horse,” and begins the transition of the Pink Period toward ochre. The trend becomes more pronounced during Picasso’s stay in Gòsol, a remote village high in the spectacular Catalan Pyrénées, through the summer of 1906.
When he returns to Paris in September, his attention is evolving toward a new expressive language: composing images by interlacing basic shapes, and a palette restricted to shades of ochre. The work gradually become more geometric, foretelling the ascent of Cubism.
This comprehensive chronicle of Picasso’s early creative development includes key works from the world’s outstanding museums and private collections to bring together some of the finest and most emotionally compelling examples of modern painting I have ever come across. It is unlikely that such a selection, on view at the Musée d’Orsay until January 6, 2019, will be seen again in a single place in the foreseeable future. But if you miss it here, do not despair. It will then travel to Basel, Switzerland, where it will be on display at the Beyeler Foundation from February 3 to May 26, 2019.
Good to Know
- Visiting – The Musée d’Orsay, 1 rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 75007 Paris, France, is open Tuesday through Sundays from 9.30 am to 6:00 pm with night openings until 9:45 pm on Thursday. It is closed on Monday, May 1 and December 25. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 1 40 49 48 14.
- Getting there – There is easy public transportation from anywhere in Paris to the museum: métro station Solférino (Line 12) or bus stops a few steps away (Lines 24, 63, 68, 69, 73, 83, 84, 94).
- Admission – Picasso, Bleu et Rose is included in the general admission ticket. However, due to the success of this exhibition, the lines can be even longer than usual for this wildly popular museum. To cut down on the waiting time, tickets may be purchased in advance through the museum’s on-line ticket office.