By Andy Brown
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Paris 1901: Becoming Picasso

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In 1901, a 19-year-old Picasso, his self-confidence so clearly displayed in the self-portrait Yo Picasso, broke into the Paris art scene. This was the capital of the art world in Western Europe and the place where any aspiring artist had to make it. It was the home of the avant garde, with whom Picasso identified at Els Quatre Gats cafe in Barcelona, and among whom he was already making a mark.
Issue 380

It was also the political reference point for many Catalans, who looked north to the more exciting, progressive and forward looking Paris rather than the artistically and politically conservative world in Madrid.

In an exhibition at the Galerie Vollard – from which several exhibits are on display here – Picasso showed works revising many of the themes of Post-Impressionism. He also echoed the styles of great painters before him, from Manet and Renoir through Degas, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Producing dozens of works in weeks, Picasso mixed the themes used by these – for example the cabarets and cafes of Pigalle and Montmartre – with Spanish motifs and nods to Spanish masters. Those who enjoy the art of these will instantly recognise and appreciate visual references to Velazquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas and to Goya’s style of portraiture. Some in Paris even called Picasso “Le Petit Goya”. The young artist here was paying tribute, but also emphasising his own pedigree and ability, boldly (and somewhat presumptuously at the time, it has to be said) staking a claim to a place with the greats in the finest tradition of both French and Spanish art.

His work was well received, with around half the output sold, yet soon after the show it changed dramatically. The lively brushwork and palette were replaced by more solid and simpler forms with bold outlining and broader expanses of colour, which gradually became more subtle.

Child with a Dove is the best known of these. More melancholy themes of isolation, loss, grief and suffering replaced Belle Epoque gaiety. Drinkers, lone women or children (often inspired by the women with their children in Saint-Lazare prison) and the ghost-like image of his close and recently deceased friend Carles Casagemas dominated his output in the autumn of 1901.

These beautiful and poignant figures, overwhelmingly in the blue favoured by the Symbolists of the period, anticipate the famous Blue Period and show the emergence of artistic independence and the transition of a young artist into a personal style unexpected by many. They represent the first of several unexpected transformations in his career.

The exhibition is on at The Courtauld Institute, London, until 27 May

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