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Picasso’s Blue Period

An exhibit of Pablo Picasso's Blue Period work displays some of the artist's most melancholy paintings.

Picasso: Painting the Blue Period, at the Phillips Collection, Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C., until June 12.

The strong should go ahead and take what they want: Such a quasi-Nietzschean maxim is dynamite in the head of an impressionable young person, and that is what Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) likely heard while in his late teens. Living in Barcelona, the most cosmopolitan city in Spain, the teenage student-painter hung out with a circle of avant-garde artists and writers who gathered at a local tavern, Els Quatre Gats (The Four Cats). Picasso’s biographer John Richardson argues that young Pablo absorbed Nietzschean ideas about the exalted role of the artist with consequences that would astonish the European art world.

In 1907, Picasso painted his revolutionary “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” pushing himself to the head of the line as the leading modernist in Europe. But that would only happen after he fiercely absorbed, digested, and then competed with the artists he encountered on the walls of museums and galleries. The list includes famous names—Degas, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin—and many less well known ones. Along the grueling road to early fame, he faced venereal disease, poverty, depression, and guilt over the suicide of a friend. It’s no surprise that another principle he took from the author of The Birth of Tragedy was “All art grows out of suffering.”

As we learn from the comprehensive and brilliantly organized exhibition Picasso: Painting the Blue Period (1901–1904) at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., closing June 12, many other forces shaped the artist’s early style. With almost 90 works, including paintings, drawings, and sculptures by Picasso and his influencers, along with videos and elaborate wall texts explaining what lies beneath some of the pictures, this is a rare opportunity to look at how the most influential artist of the 20th century evolved leading up to “Les Demoiselles.” The show is structured around three paintings: the Phillips’ “Blue Room” (1901), the Art Gallery of Ontario’s “Crouching Beggar Woman” (1902), and “The Soup” (1903). As a coda, there is an additional gallery devoted to works from the Rose Period (1905-6), his following style, which offers colorful views of circus performers and monumental female nudes.

In Charles Baudelaire’s seminal essay of 1860, “The Painter of Modern Life,” the poet urged contemporary French artists to look away from classical beauty, “the eternal and the immutable,” and seek the beauty of “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent” all around them in urban life. Manet and the group of painters who would be called Impressionists took this advice and sought out fresh styles and techniques to capture novel subject matter. Edgar Degas and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, who influenced Picasso early on, were two of the foremost painters of modern life. It meant the louche nightlife of the cafes, lounges, and brothels for them. Twenty-year-old Pablo was eager to sample these urban pleasures and paint them, moving into a studio apartment on the Boulevard de Clichy, near the famous Moulin Rouge, at the foot of la Butte in Montmartre 1901. The show opens with a selection of colorfully charged and vividly painted works representing the performers and prostitutes he knew well. The erotic Picasso is on full display in these first two galleries.

A shocking event occurred early in that year that had a devastating effect on Picasso and his art. His close friend and sometime roommate, the painter and writer Carles Casagamas, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head in a Parisian cafe in front of his friends. Pablo was back in Spain at the time studying the work of El Greco in Toledo. He painted several tributes to his friend, including a large and complex canvas, “Evocation (The Burial of Casagemas).” In the lower half, a group of mourners dressed in blue stand around the white shrouded corpse in a similar group to the Lamentation scenes. But then three half-naked prostitutes greet the dead man riding a white horse into a distinctly unholy Paradise in the upper part. Picasso based his composition on one of El Greco’s renowned two-tiered altarpieces, “Burial of the Count of Orgaz” (1586), taking what he needed and then going his own irreverent way.

In “The Blue Room,” one of the Phillips Collection’s treasures, Picasso focuses on a naked young woman washing alone in a room. Her elongated, sleek body derives from El Greco. The voyeuristic view derives from Degas’ keyhole portraits of women bathing. Yet there is a deep pathos in the young woman’s posture—derived from Auguste Rodin’s statue of the fallen Eve— suggesting her vulnerability and resigned melancholy. Toulouse-Lautrec’s “May Milton” poster on the back wall highlights the seminal importance of this French artist, who died just weeks before of alcoholism and syphilis. Picasso brings together four influences in a complex yet entirely successful and delightfully captivating picture. 

Shuttling between Barcelona and Paris, the painter suffered depression and saw eros turning into pathos. His attention turned from the seductions of both cities to the plight of their despised and neglected denizens. One explanation for this change was that Picasso contracted an STD. His doctor worked at the Saint-Lazare women’s hospital prison near Montmartre, where prostitutes who had broken the law or were sick languished in jail. The doctor, an art enthusiast, allowed Picasso to study and draw the women. The painter later acknowledged that their plight was one impetus for the Blue Period. Picasso painted these females as isolated, pensive figures monochromatically to make his audience feel the cold fate of these marginalized women. 

Yet as Richardson’s biography and the catalog suggest, there was more to Picasso’s art of this period. His upbringing and training in Catholic Spain filled his imagination with agonized saints, martyrs, and sacred figures. The artist had a photographic memory, so these images may have proved impossible to disavow. During his Barcelona residence, he tapped into the Christian pictorial tradition for a mostly Spanish audience. Spanish Golden Age paintings of the suffering Virgin echo in many of the works in the exhibition. Picasso secularized Christian imagery to increase respect and empathy for the unfortunate homeless women and men in both cities. Blue was the traditional color of the Virgin’s robe. “Our Lady of Sorrows” by the 16th century artist Luis de Morales hangs on the wall next to Picasso’s “Crouching Beggarwoman.” The similarities in posture and dress reverberate. 

In 1903, Picasso produced what may look like a straightforward painting, a mother bending to offer her child a bowl of food, but the exhibit reveals the sophistication beneath the surface of “The Soup.” The painter started making sketches for the work while still in Barcelona. He returned to Paris for an exhibition, but his joyless pictures of women did not sell. He was frequently broke and could not even afford canvases, so he tightened his belt and drew on scraps of paper or cardboard instead. 

The work of two artists, Honoré Daumier and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, became his inspiration. Daumier was a realist, sympathetically portraying the urban poor. The starting point is his watercolor of a mother at a table ferociously slurping her food while breastfeeding her child. The almost forgotten Puvis de Chavannes painted large civic murals in a classical style. Picasso studied and drew figures from the St. Genevieve murals, now located in the Pantheon, and “Charity” in the City Hall, depicting angels of mercy feeding the hungry during a wartime siege of the city. 

The fascinating sketches on display show how much he labored over the composition. The mother in “The Soup” is not Daumier’s stout plebeian but an elegant elongated angel. Chavannes’ style helped him to monumentalize Daumier’s subject, becoming in the process an allegory of the moral virtue of charity.

The painter understood Nietzsche’s maxim about the strong taking what they want artistically. He applied that principle with increasing insight and evolving technique throughout the four years of the Blue Period, absorbing the work of other artists and then transcending them in a manner suited to his inclinations, abilities, and situation.

Joseph R. Phelan has taught at the University of Maryland, the Catholic University of America, and the University of Toronto. 



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