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Picasso: 1901 – The Courtauld Gallery

By Samuel Spencer –

When imagining Picasso, it’s almost as if we see his name in capital letters. PICASSO, the genius painter with the bald head and starey eyes. It’s hard to remember that he didn’t emerge fully-formed out of some sort of cubist egg, that he too was once a student who had to learn how to paint; that he too was once an awkward teenager. This is a state of affairs that the latest Courtauld Gallery exhibition seeks to remedy.  Titled ‘Picasso 1901’, it focuses, unsurprisingly, on the work the 19-year-old Picasso produced in that year for a show ran by his benefactor Ambroise Vollard (yes, art geeks out there, the Vollard of ‘the Vollard Suite’ shown at the British Museum last year).

Here, though, we are confronted with the principal issue with this show; Picasso was 19 when he produced these works. It seems not even Pablo is immune to the rule that all teenage art must be at least partly embarrassing. Although the description tries to convince us that he is merely inspired by his predecessors and fellow artists such as Van Gogh, Velasquez and Goya, it does often seem like purely imitation. An example of this is ‘Dwarf Dancer’ which takes the dwarf from ‘Las Meninas’ and paints her like an uninspired love child of Manet and Degas – his equivalent of those early pictures we all did recreating our favourite album covers, bands etc.

What is interesting in this early work, however, is the rush of ideas and the slight glimmers of Picasso as we know him coming through. Picasso worked frantically on the works that make up the first half of this show, often producing three paintings a day, and whilst it often comes across as rushed, at its best it gives work a fascinating youthful energy.

The show only gets truly interesting, however, in its second room, in which we see Picasso moving from movement to melancholy as he confronts the meaty art issues of death and the self. The turning point comes with ‘Casagemas in his Coffin’ (above), in which he paints an elegy for his fallen friend, beginning his ‘blue period’ in stunning fashion with a portrait that is both beautifully restful and disconcertingly turbulent, dead and alive, sombre and startling. Not more startling, however, than the two self portraits in the exhibition , both titled ‘Yo – Picasso’ (yes, really – it means ‘I’  in Spanish…), of which the most interesting is the second, unfinished work. In this painting, Picasso ‘s infamous stare is locked straight on the viewer, with the unfinished background showing the artist in the process materialising – a process that could be said to sum up the entire show.

From this point on the exhibition goes from strength to strength, as he moves from imitating apprentice to inventive master, and all the Picasso tropes begin to fall into place. Whereas before this point he has been merely copying his contemporaries, the remaining works show his taking on their subject matter and forms and emphatically making them his own.This is most clear in the work ‘Harlequin and Companion’ , in which he takes the ‘café scene’  that was immensely popular with painters of the time  and places within it a harlequin, one of the figures that would quickly become part of his painterly vocabulary. In fact, the gap in terms of quality between these works and those that preceded them is so huge that if it weren’t for the heavy repetition of ‘1901’ throughout the exhibit it would be almost impossible they believe that they came from the same year.

So all in all, then, there is no doubt that this is a flawed exhibition. Just as it would make for deeply awkward viewing if someone made a show of our teenage art, or published our teenage poetry, so too do the early works in this show feel a little embarrassing, especially considering the giddy stratospheres that Picasso would eventually ascend to. However, the later works are worth the entrance price alone. – especially as, as with the entire Courtauld collection, it’s free entry with a student card…


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