“Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901,” on view at the Courtauld Institute of Art (through May 26), is one of those fascinating exhibitions that forcefully make a point unrelated to the stated purpose.
Barnaby Wright, who curated this exhibition, writes in the catalog that “it presents a selection of Picasso’s major figure paintings of 1901 in the belief that these works demonstrate most clearly the emergence of seminal features of his artistic practice.” In short, the idea was to study style formation by concentrating on a given year.
To those who love art, this formidable pageant of 15 pictures above all reveal with glaring clarity what a blockbuster might conceal under an avalanche of works that overwhelm viewers. Here is an artist who at age 18 already displayed genius but never had much conviction.
Even in a year when Picasso’s works did not remotely herald the distorted portrayal of the human figure with which the wider public associates him, the versatility of the Spanish-born painter can be seen to have been unmatched at any time in Western art.
With disconcerting agility, he would be a revolutionary one day and a traditionalist respectful of time-honored rules the next.
Self-centered, possessed with an aggressive arrogance that came out throughout his life in his relationships with women as in his attitude toward the public, Picasso made his first disruptive statement in the self-portrait inscribed with the words “Yo-Picasso” (I Picasso).
The very name that he chose for himself defied social convention. The painter’s patronymic was Ruiz, which he used earlier. Breaking with established usage, he now opted for his mother’s name, Picasso.
“Yo-Picasso,” painted to be displayed at his Paris opening show staged by the dealer Ambroise Vollard, was meant to signal the debut of the newcomer from Barcelona as a determined participant in avant-garde art. The artist drew his inspiration from the work of the Impressionists that he had just discovered. Typically though, Picasso radically transformed the model. The sketchy brushwork in dots and short strokes of Impressionism gives way to broad dashes of paint applied as if in a fit of rage.
The colors — the deep blue, the chromium red and orange, the acid yellow — are borrowed from van Gogh. Yet, with that uncanny aptitude he had at modifying whatever he borrowed even when the source is obvious, Picasso’s self-portrait does not begin to look like a van Gogh, or, for that matter, like an Impressionist portrait by Renoir or Monet.
“Yo-Picasso” is in fact an early Fauvist painting, even though the likes of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck would only come to be dubbed “Fauves” three years later.
Ironically, by 1904, Picasso, who did not explore further the revolutionary avenue he had opened, had already embarked on other artistic ventures.
That year, he effectively laid down the foundations of Expressionism, which would take off like brushfire, not in France, but on the Germanic scene in 1906-1907. “The Spanish Woman,” on loan from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, breaks with a venerable compositional rule of European painting that places the focal point of a picture at the crossing of the diagonals of the rectangular format.
In marked contrast to “Yo-Picasso,” which still adheres to this principle (there, the focal point is at the intersection of the artist’s white smock and the edge of his orange-red scarf), the mass of the crinoline in “The Spanish Woman” surges from nowhere. It gives the impression of pushing back the edges of a frame too small to contain the ballooning skirt. The arms are merely suggested with color and lack contours. Conflicting rhythms are created by the green and white strokes lithely swirling on the sofa, and the staccato of color dots on the blouse. The dancer’s face, eyes drowned in shadow, makes her look like a pale apparition.
Expressionism grew on Picasso even though; here too, the name for the movement would be coined later. In “Spanish Dancer,” from the Nahmad Collection in Switzerland where the Lebanese-born dealers have their headquarters, perspective is abolished. The face is reminiscent of a Japanese mask for Noh theater performances. The hands melt away into formless whiteness. Color is used for its expressive value, not to represent what the eye sees. The lyricism of the intense yellow ground sprayed with pearl gray blobs contrasts with the blackness gathering over the dancer’s head. The red of the crinoline contrasts with the glaringly white strokes that hem it, presumably as a suggestion of the woman’s underskirt.
Picasso’s most remarkable premonition of Expressionism as later cultivated by Wassily Kandinsky or Otto Dix is “French Can-Can.” On loan from a private collection, this is a revelation that is enough on its own to warrant a visit to the Courtauld Institute exhibition.
Mr. Wright notes that Picasso borrowed the theme from a poster by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “Troupe de Mlle. Eglantine,” advertising the French dancers’ spectacle in 1896. The curator, who remarks on the metamorphosis of the subject at Picasso’s hands, remains silent on the astonishing anticipation of Expressionism at its most violent. The virtuosity in rhythmical composition and the mastery in the use of suggestive color would remain unsurpassed by German Expressionists.
However brilliant his achievements, none ever seemed to satisfy Picasso’s restless mind. He occasionally took his cue from the past as nimbly as he dived into futuristic modernism.
The “Portrait of a Man” from the Emil G. Bührle Foundation Collection in Zurich depicts a dealer waiting for clients in front of pictures stacked up to the ceiling. The historian Marilyn McCully identified several of these as paintings done by Picasso in Spain and France. This is obviously Vollard’s gallery where Picasso had his selling show.
“The Portrait of a Man” sends back an echo to Edouard Manet’s portraits of men in dark suits, but the French artist’s influence is easily overlooked in this harsh essay in realism, only thinly disguised by sketchiness.
When painting “A Mother and Child,” on loan from the Kunstmuseum in Berlin, Picasso remembered van Gogh’s 1888 portrait of “Mme Augustine Roulin and Baby Marcelle.” The black outlines and the yellow background are shared by both pictures, like the subject itself. Yet, there is no resemblance between the two works. The master did not indulge in imitation. He recast every loan on his own terms.
Assimilation indeed was at the heart of Picasso’s greatest creations. In “The Blue Room” from the Phillips Collection in Washington, his awareness of Toulouse-Lautrec is betrayed by the aristocratic artist’s 1895 poster of May Milton. It hangs on a wall next to one of Picasso’s own seaside views. Van Gogh, Bonnard and Vuillard are also mentioned by Mr. Wright among the painters whose works Picasso remembered to varying degrees. To these must be added the name of Cézanne. The light and the delicate lavender blue owe a lot to this great master who would die five years later.
At that point, Picasso still proceeded like the artists of the Renaissance and the Baroque age who all borrowed from admired predecessors. The difference that makes Picasso unique is the ease with which disparate influences were harmonized and merged into some of his greatest creations. More remarkably still, his readiness to absorb visual ideas from every possible source did not hinder bold innovation.
“Harlequin and Companion” — bought from Vollard by Ivan Morosov, the great Russian collector of modern art whose pictures, which were seized in 1918 by the Russian revolutionaries, adorn museums in Moscow and St. Petersburg — illustrates one of the most original phases of early 20th-century painting. So does the “Absinthe Drinker,” acquired in 1911 by Sergei Schukin, the other giant in the history of modern art collecting in Russia whose possessions were similarly commandeered after the 1917 revolution.
Together, these two pictures represent a moment in Western art when the psychological probe at which the masters of the past excelled remained alive, even as painters heading for ultra-modernity were about to break away from figuration. Picasso, cast in the mold of the old European tradition that he knew intimately, hovered on the brink before starting on a trip that would lead to its destruction.