Picasso @ Courtauld


In the year 1901 a young Picasso arrived in Paris. It was to be a big year for the spaniard who launched his career in the city with the help of Ambroise Voillard. The artist who has been all over London exhibitions in the past few years is now having his very earliest works shown at the Courtauld Gallery in a compact yet impressive display of his teenage works.

The Courtauld exhibition is divided into two rooms. The first of which shows work which was shown in Picasso’s first parisian exhibition. These paintings are figurative and display the ordinary characters of Paris life. Rather than high society elite, Picasso shows performers, prostitutes and vagabonds like Bibi La Puree. He has been inspired by the everyday dance hall scenes of Manet and Toulous Lautrec and we see depictions of the Can Can and the Moulin Rouge. Also on show are some works completed in spain of spanish dancers, one of which, a dwarf being particularly memorable for her provocative, cheeky, childlike expression. These works are rich in colour and texture, made up of thick reds and greens.

Where the first room may be described as a bright and very lively french summer. The second may be compared to a harsh, bitter winter. Here the colours are distinctly more cold. Blue to be precise. The works are also much more sombre, due to the suicide of one of the artist’s closest friends. There are more broad areas of colour and the outlines are stronger and more confident. In Melancholy, we see the colour blue used as emotion. The image depicts the artist’s friend in his coffin, eyes shut, stone cold and lifeless. In another painting showing his fantasy burial the poet is placed in a blue fantasy layered with nudes and mourners. The body is white showing pure admiration and love for the lost friend who has been given a momentous ending by Picasso.

Also on display in this room are melancholic figures in cafes. They are seen to be drinking absinthe resting their hands on their chins, serious, pensive and expressionless. Among these figures is a harlequin, a motif which Picasso will continue to reproduce as his oeuvre grows. The young artist even shows this melancholy in Young Girl with Dove. Here the girl who is looking down embodies serenity, purity and innocence. She is in her play environment with her brightly coloured yellow and orange ball yet everything around her is blue. There is evidence to suggest that the child was painted over a female nude, an erotic image in a vast juxtaposition of the young girl.

The Courtauld also includes two self portraits by Picasso completed with the same title ‘Yo Picasso.’ The first of which shows a confident young artist who has been interrupted in the act of painting. He is wearing white and lights up the dark background behind him. He stares out at the viewer confidently with his palette in hand, confirming his profession of artist. The second portrait is much different. It is smaller and much more serious. It is not as active as the first and shows how quickly the artist’s attitudes to others and himself changed in his first year in Paris.

In 1901 Picasso was just 19. The same age as me. It is astonishing what the artist achieved when still just a teenager and the Courtauld have put on an impressive display which must be seen.

Becoming Picasso: 1901 is on display at the Courtauld Gallery until 26 May

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier aka Gallery Girl is a writer and curator based in London. Her work has been featured in publications including Dazed, Hyperallergic and Vogue Arabia. She was curator of Perpetual Movement during AWAN Festival 2018 and in 2019 had a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan. She has also worked with Armenia Art Fair for its inaugural edition and previously worked as an editor at I.B.Tauris Publishers. In 2019 she co-founded Arsheef, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery. She has given workshops at Manara Culture in Amman, Jordan and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. As of 2020 she is currently in law school, with the ambition of greater understanding the intersection between art and the law.

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