Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901. The Courtauld captures the magic of Picasso's pivotal year

By Richard Moss | 25 February 2013

Exhibition review: Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901, Courtauld Gallery, London until May 26 2013.

a painting of a woman on a balcony with can can dancers behind her
Pablo Picasso, At the Moulin Rouge (1901)© Private Collection
Fin de Siècle Paris and the dancers of the Folie Bergère are not things one readily associates with Pablo Picasso, but as these paintings from his Parisian debut exhibition in the summer of 1901 show, the most famous artist of the 20th century was briefly enthralled by the demi-mondes of the famous music hall.

Works like French Can Can, with its whirl of high kicking dancers retreating into  abstract swirls of colour, and At the Moulin Rouge, in which a young woman fills the entire left side of the composition, reveal a young artist with an individual style who was nonetheless in thrall to the famous theatrical posters of Toulouse Lautrec.

There are also traces of Degas, Van Gogh and other giants of impressionism and expressionism. But as this beautifully focussed exhibition makes clear, Picasso was no mere copyist.

1901 was his breakthrough year, when he launched his painting career in Paris with a popular exhibition at the gallery of influential art dealer Ambroise Vollard.  

a painting of a woman leaning on a table with an empty glass and soda dispenser
Absinthe Drinker (1901)© The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
A stunning group of pictures in the first of two rooms includes some of the paintings from this show, including penetrating portraits of dwarf dancers and street characters - the result of just a few weeks of intense activity in which the newly arrived Picasso painted as many as two vibrant canvasses a day. Vivacious and impetuous, they perfectly capture the sights and sounds of turn of the century Paris.

They captivated Parisian audiences of the time. Yet despite the show’s success, the same year Picasso set in train the blueprint for the next three quarters of a century by changing direction, and beginning a long engagement with introspection, death and sorrowful figures on the margins of life.

The change was in part due to impetuosity, but also the pall cast over his life by the death of his friend, the Spanish painter Carlos Casagemas, who in 1901 blew his brains out with a revolver in a Montmartre café. Picasso had used Casagemas’ old studio to create the daring and colourful paintings of the Vollard exhibition, but as the year wore on, the effect of his friend’s death began to tell.

This new intensity is exemplified by two self-portraits, boldly monographed Yo Picasso (I Picasso). Both are notable for the artist’s penetrating gaze; in the first he wears an orange cravat and extravagant white shirt, but in the second he seems to emerge from the shadows like an apparition.

It marked a turn towards melancholy, depression and the beginning of his interest in blue themes, explored here in 11 stunning paintings, including the famous recreation of Casagemas’ Deathbed (Picasso was in Spain at the time of his friend’s suicide) with a raw bullet hole in his temple.

There are also the famous paintings of melancholic café drinkers and harlequin figures that offer a distinct path into the beginnings of his Blue Period, a looser technique and a clear, bolder use of lines and darker subject matter.

The paintings were not popular however with Parisians who had enjoyed the Belle Epoque vibrancy of the Vollard exhibition.

But his Child With a Dove and The Mother, which depicts a mother and child walking a desolate road on the outskirts of town, reveal an understanding of the fragility of life. They also show how, within the space of just a few months, Picasso's interest had shifted from the heart of Parisian nightlife to the margins of society.

A perfect mix of brevity and impact, these paintings make for an absorbing journey.

  • Open 10am-6pm (9pm on March 7, April 18 and May 23). Tickets £6/£5 (free for under-18s, all tickets £3 on Monday), book online. Follow the gallery on Twitter @CourtauldGall.

More pictures:

a self portrait of a man with penetrating eyes, wearing a white shirt and a large yellow ruffled cravat
Self-Portrait (Yo - Picasso) (1901)© Private Collection
a painting of a harlequin figure and a woman leaning on their hands at a table
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Harlequin and Companion (1901)© The State Pushkin Museum, Moscow
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