March 14 (Bloomberg) -- On February 17, 1901, a young Spanish poet and close friend of Pablo Picasso’s named Carles Casagemas invited several people to a Paris restaurant. After dinner he pulled out a gun, fired at one of his guests -- a model with whom he was in love -- then, having missed her, shot himself.
A splendid small exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, “Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901” raises an intriguing question: What would we think if it had not been the poet but his artist friend who had died in 1901? In other words, how good, really, was the 19-year-old Picasso?
The answer, based on the works in this show, is that he was an extraordinarily brilliant artistic chameleon (which, in a way, was what he always remained). Picasso (1881-1973) had arrived in Paris from Barcelona for the first time in October 1900, and returned in May 1901 determined to make a success of his Parisian career.
At that time, Paris was the place to make it if you were a painter: it was the world’s arts capital and the most culturally exciting city on earth. Picasso’s first major exhibition was held at the dealer Ambroise Vollard’s gallery at the end of June 1901. Many of the works in the Courtauld exhibition reflect a whirlwind of energy over a couple of months, producing as many as three works per day. Clearly, from the very start, Picasso proved amazingly prolific.
These pictures reveal him absorbing the influences around him at a tremendous rate. Edgar Degas, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gauguin: he does them all. Toulouse-Lautrec is the obvious model for Picasso’s scenes of Parisian night life such as “French Can Can.”
But most of all, you can see the impact of Vincent van Gogh. Picasso’s biographer, John Richardson, has written that Van Gogh meant more to Picasso than any other artist in his later years. He even got a copy of the newspaper report of Van Gogh’s ear-mutilation episode so he could frame it.
There isn’t much sign of Van Gogh influence in Picasso’s mature work, but in 1901 it’s unmistakable. “Mother and Child” is clearly derived from the pictures that Van Gogh had painted of the wife and baby of Joseph Roulin, his postman friend.
It’s not hard to guess where Picasso had seen those paintings. Vollard had bought a magnificent array of works from the Roulin family given to them by Van Gogh, which resided in his gallery storeroom appreciating in value.
The effect of seeing Van Gogh is evident too in the thick brush strokes and piercing gaze of the terrific self portrait, “Yo -- Picasso’ (or “I, Picasso”). Then, abruptly, in the second half of 1901, the young maestro changed his style.
Casagemas’s death had deeply affected Picasso, who painted a series of somber, blue-toned pictures in his memory including “Casagemas in his Coffin” and “Evocation (The Burial of Casagemas).” The latter is a bizarre apotheosis of the dead poet in the manner of El Greco, in which Casagemas is carried up to a heaven full of naked women.
It was these works that led Picasso to develop his first truly individual style: the “Blue Period.” But as was shown by another picture from late 1901, the slightly soppy “Child with a Dove,” the manically energetic 19-year-old virtuoso also revealed one of his weaknesses: an unexpected streak of sentimentality. The paintings influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Van Gogh are often better than those which immediately followed.
“Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901” is at the Courtauld Gallery until May 26.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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