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PARIS — Picasso is back in the spotlight in Paris, but this time, there is a twist. The exhibition Picasso. Blue and Rose at the Musée d’Orsay examines the pivotal early years of the artist’s career, before he was the Picasso we now know. One of the most comprehensive collaborations between Musée Picasso Paris and Musée d’Orsay to date — surely the largest in scale — with an impressive selection of loans from public and private collections, it features around 300 artworks (including 80 paintings) dating from 1900 to 1906.
In search of his artistic identity, the 18-year-old Pablo Ruiz Picasso arrived in France from Spain in 1900. He was delighted to be selected to exhibit his paintings in the Spanish pavilion at the universal exhibition in Paris, which was visited by nearly 50 million people. Though he had already experimented with modernism, his academic paintings won him this opportunity, and the chance to relocate to Paris, then the capital of the art world. Picasso arrived at Orsay train station — now the Orsay museum — with his friend, a young Catalan painter, Carles Casagemas, in mid-October. The two painters immersed themselves in the vibrant Parisian art scene. In 1901 Picasso had his debut exhibition at French dealer Ambroise Vollard’s prestigious gallery. The paintings of this period are bursting with the vibrant colors of Fauvism, and show the influence of van Gogh in their style and Toulouse-Lautrec in subject matter.
Still struggling to make ends meet, Picasso lived between France and Spain. He was in Madrid when he learned that Casagemas had committed suicide over a failed love affair. This personal tragedy marked the beginning of the eminent blue period. Shades of Prussian blue, sapphire, and ultramarine are seldom warmed by touches of burnt sienna or ochre in these paintings. His searing portraits of Casagemas in his coffin — three exhibited side-by-side in the exhibition — evoke the elongated faces, tonality, and expressiveness of El Greco’s paintings.
A color palette that could hardly be more austere is paired in the blue paintings with themes of misery, pain, and poverty; slow art sales following a brief period of success exacerbated Picasso’s depression. He depicted the marginalized and disabled, winding drunks and bent beggars, and women of the Saint-Lazare prison, all in cool tones that dominate the canvas. The paintings of this period are accompanied by several ink drawings and a handful of sculptures. A melancholic atmosphere pervades the works in all media — somber images of despair that are difficult to look away from.
Picasso himself did not consider his blue and pink periods as separate. The curators likewise attempt to integrate these artistic phases. Yet, as visitors roam through the galleries, the atmosphere insubordinately changes. Gloom is displaced by a dash of bliss as shades of pink — rose in French — illuminate the canvases.
Settling in Bateau-Lavoir, a cheap residence heavily populated with artists, Picasso mingled with poets and writers including Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, and André Salmon. He famously said, “Apollinaire knew nothing about painting, yet he loved the real thing. Poets have a sixth sense. In Bateau-Lavoir days, the poets had that sixth sense.” These fruitful encounters inspired Picasso to explore more lighthearted themes, such as circus acts, harlequins, and clowns.
While soft shades of fuchsia, light pink, and orange render a sense of visual jubilance, Picasso’s subjects, often depicted off-duty, appear pensive, meditative, and at times dispirited. These behind-the-scenes images of meandering buskers contrast with the work of artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and Seurat, who were inspired by the spectacles. The rose period remains one of the most important periods in Picasso’s career as it marked his break with figurative paintings, which he returned to occasionally throughout his life.
The exhibition concludes with a switch from rose to ochre. During the summer of 1906 in the Spanish village of Gósol, away from the modernization taking place in Paris, Picasso took up earth tones and produced 300 artworks in a creative frenzy. Connected with nature and the tranquility of rural life, he began exploring expressive yet simplified forms of the female body. Iberian art, along with the work of Gauguin and Cézanne, which Picasso greatly admired, are clear influences on his work from this period. These colossal figures, with simplified features, paved the way for the creation of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907 and the emergence of cubism.
Whether or not one considers Picasso a prodigy, Picasso Blue and Rose allows the public to bask in the world of a young, energetic, and sensitive artist who took up challenge after challenge to achieve a unique visual language of his own, after which he no longer signed his artworks “Pablo Ruiz Picasso.” He was now simply Picasso.
Picasso. Blue and Rose continues at the Musée d’Orsay (1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 75007 Paris) through January 6.