Report from… Toronto
Picasso: Painting the Blue Period at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Phillips Collection
Toronto: October 6, 2021 to January 4, 2022
Washington, DC: February 26 to June 12, 2022
“Picasso: Painting the Blue Period,” seen by this reviewer at the Art Gallery of Ontario and headed to the Phillips Collection, Washington DC, in February, conveys above all the young artist’s painful hunger. Some of those cravings were carnal. Rakish charm and stints of poverty made women easier to obtain at times than food, it would seem. In his ambition to best every other artist, past and present, he bounced from style to style. Scanning the walls reveals a list of masters that Picasso was chasing down, all at once, from 1901 to 1904: Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne, Degas, Puvis de Chavannes, El Greco, and Daumier just for starters. A dive into the catalogue reveals that as a sixteen-year-old student at the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid, Picasso was already anxious to take on the whole circle of Catalan modernistes, principally Isidre Nonell, whose technique he pilfered aggressively.
Even the preternaturally talented Picasso could only digest so much at once. Consequently, a lot of the earlier Blue Period pictures fail to cohere. In 1901 he attempted a bold fusion of Cézanne and El Greco in Evocation (The Burial of Casagemas) (1901). The eponymous painter-poet friend, dead by suicide, is enshrouded on a hillside in front of a tomb, as mourners gather. One figure, wrapped in blue, may as well be the grieving Mary. In the upper portion of the picture, Casagemas is mounted on a white horse. His arms are outstretched, and a nude woman is smashing her face to his as her legs dangle in space. He gallops through the sky to his supernal reward, which is apparently a bevy of stockinged harlots. (From a certain standpoint that would be just recompense for Casagemas, who had been defeated in love by impotence.) This is rendered unconvincingly in the blocky hachure of Cézanne’s faceless bathers. It lacks the older master’s inner directives, it being instead a project of reverse engineering. Still, Picasso is such that it can be interesting even to watch him screw up. He never painted anything like this again, and while he lost the war, he won the battles, demonstrating that he had understood something significant about how both Cézanne and El Greco worked figures into their compositions.
Picasso was not a religious artist, but there’s a distinctly Catholic tone of mourning to Blue Period works that postdate Evocation. One catalogue author suggests that he attended an Ancient Art Exhibition that was held at the Palace of Fine Arts in Barcelona, where he would have seen two thousand examples of Romanesque and Gothic work. The heavily robed female figures who appear around 1902 and ‘03 support the assertion. The subject matter was informed by visits to a women’s prison in Saint-Lazare. (Speculation continues as to whether the reason for them was because he didn’t have to pay the syphilitic models, or because he was being treated himself by a staff doctor. Not often proposed is that he felt genuine pity for the women’s plight, which ought to be considered.) Though secular, there is a Maria Dolorosa affect in A Woman with Bangs (1902), whose asymmetrical face suggests resignation to insanity.
She looks as though she was carved from jade. Picasso played to his natural strengths when he was modeling form. The hairdos of Two Women at a Bar (1902) rest along the top of the picture like storm clouds. The figures hanging in the cyan-tinged darkness beneath them, with their mass and angularity, seem to have been hewed with an ax. The cloak enshrouding Crouching Beggarwoman (also 1902) has more of a feeling of clay, even an entire cliffside. This is leagues beyond the work from 1901. It is also remarkable that someone this skilled at crafting dimensional form would eventually pioneer a genre of painting driven primarily by flat planes. It would be right to suspect that some kind of shape-making engine drives both projects, and Picasso’s was of an unusually high horsepower.
Blue served a Symbolist purpose, and Picasso likely adopted it due to his fascination with the painter Santiago Rusiñol, in whose work the employment of blue had become something of a trademark. But it also allowed Picasso to take a break for a couple of years from dealing seriously with color, which plagued him. His otherwise prodigious visual memory did not record details of hue, and his reflex was to put down full-strength, acidulous primaries. One of the 1901 still lifes, Chrysanthemums, is garish. Some Rose Period works, hung as a postscript to the exhibition, show his difficulties beginning to resolve. La Toilette (1906) is orders of magnitude more sophisticated in coloration. I contend that Picasso was so good at form that for a while he had a problem deciding what not to do with it. It wasn’t the Morisot-inflected Impressionism of the nude Jeanne from 1901, nor the post-Impressionist wedges of Cézanne. It was, finally, the sculptural calm of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. Only when he worked that out did his color mature.
The AGO exhibition gives edifying attention to the influence of Puvis. Picasso became interested in how to establish full-length figures in a given space. He had accomplished this sporadically using licks cribbed from Cézanne, notably in The Blue Room (1901), but with them came Cézanne’s tendency to pop the planes at the viewer. Puvis’ spaces, in contrast, are architecturally sound. The Soup (1902) appears amid dozens of drawings, one of them worked until the artist dug through the paper. Picasso slaved at the 18-inch wide painting for months under conditions of cold and short funds, while figuring out how Puvis made his figures interact. The older artist’s influence was not just formal, but moral. Puvis had treated the theme of charity in magnificent canvases, and Picasso developed a heartfelt concern for the privation he had witnessed beyond his own. The space in this painting is also a touch askew but not by Picasso’s standards, and The Soup remains a Symbolist triumph, full of sympathy for its subject. Hungry ghosts can die, it is said, and be reborn into the human realm. That seems to be what’s happening here.