Picasso: Painting the Blue Period at the Phillips Collection
Before macabre clowns and circus performers, the revolutionary movement of cubism, the notoriously cruel treatment of women and the immense power of GuernicaPicasso began turning simple repurposed canvases into brilliant blues.
A blockbuster exhibition at the Phillips Collection attempts the difficult feat of excising and contextualizing a young Spanish artist from decades of explosive, iconic creativity and misogyny. Pablo Picasso’s early years take center stage in ‘Picasso: Painting the Blue Period’, a stunning look at his early productions which run through June 12.
For Picasso fans and skeptics alike, myself included, this exhibition is a demanding and deeply rewarding reassessment of the artist as a young man.
“Picasso was an artist who drew on such a range of sources from his contemporaries, from Old Masters, from non-Western sources, and he turned it into something that was uniquely his own perspective,” the Phillips curator said. , Susan Behrends Frank. The diplomat from Washington. “And that gift was there from the start.”
This hit show revels in both science and art. Looking at how Picasso explored stylistic changes early in his career, the Phillips Collection opens up and explodes the canvases on display. Three paintings from the Blue Period are at the center of the exhibition: that of the Phillips The blue room from 1901, and Crouching Beggars (1902) and Soup (1903) from the exhibition’s partner, the Art Gallery of Ontario. Curators have literally peeled back the layers of these works, performing extensive technical research into the works hidden beneath each painting.
The Blue Period, between 1901 and 1904, features some of Picasso’s most fascinating and politically charged works. It focused on marginalized people, especially women, and the harsh reality of poverty in Europe. He reflected on life, death, the sacred, the profane.
Behrends Frank noted that the genesis of this exhibit stemmed from scientific research begun on The blue room– which has been in the Phillips collection since 1927 – in 2007. In 2012, “this project became more broadly investigative, and our associate art conservator Patti Favero brought together this team of scientists from different institutions who facilitated this investigation” , she said. .
The conservation department of the Phillips Collection had acquired a digital infrared camera, which enabled Favero to obtain a much clearer image of the portrait hidden beneath The blue room, recalls Behrends Frank. After the intervention of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the curators realized that they had the ingredients for an important exhibition on the transitional moments of Picasso’s blue period.
Then two things upset the plan. First, the Picasso Museum in Paris launched a huge retrospective on the artist’s Blue and Rose periods in 2018. “It kind of pushed us further down the road, gave us more time to research our own project,” noted Behrends Frank. .
“And then COVID kicked in.”
We all should have been able to visit ‘Picasso: Painting the Blue Period’ in 2020. But the curator noted that the pandemic disruption gave the exhibit “a window of opportunity that actually worked in our favor.”
Securing loans for Picasso in this early period of his career was incredibly difficult. “For North American and certainly American museums, there is a cultural embargo between Russia and the United States, which also extends to Canada. And so we are not in a position here, on this side of the Atlantic, to borrow works from the two Russian museums rich in Blue Period works,” said Behrends Frank. The diplomat from Washington.
So they looked elsewhere. The paintings come from Israel, Japan, Spain, Canada and Baltimore. And his co-curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario was able to arrange five loans from Japan in the exhibition. “It’s an incredible achievement for us and these are major works that reveal different aspects of this period, of early Picasso,” she said.
Throughout the show, visitors are confronted with works that are indeed amazing achievements. We are immediately welcomed by the piercing and direct gaze of the artist, in a self-portrait, Yo, from 1901. He is 19 years old. Don’t miss the ‘Yo’ inscribed in the upper left corner. It’s like a black lightning bolt.
“I keep remembering that in that first gallery that we have, you know, he was 19. That’s just the kind of maturity he had, it still fascinates me, it amazes me, the how he was able to absorb so many diverse sources,” Behrends Frank said.
The show is particularly in-depth in its exploration of the artists who influenced Picasso. Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Isidre Nonell, Rodin, El Greco and many others are rewarded for their impact on the young artist.
“We wanted all our visitors to be able to see how Picasso was inspired by artists he liked and how he manipulated, modified, reinvented his sources in his own voice. We just thought that was a very important way to think about works from the blue period in a larger context,” said Behrends Frank.
Alongside the in-depth look at the artists who inspired Picasso, the exhibition offers a fascinating dive into the science behind the art. Conservatives examined The blue room with X-rays, microanalysis of paint samples and spectral data. They used state-of-the-art imaging and analysis technology to find the hidden portrait of an unknown man under the canvas. It’s amazing (and you can watch the videos online).
The emphasis on science takes nothing away from the art on the walls of the Phillips Collection. He builds the image of an extraordinary and inventive young artist, not yet composed in the role he will later establish himself. The exhibition raises dozens of questions even as it answers the mystery of what lies beneath some of his canvases: what does Picasso really reveal and hide? Who is the voyeur here?
Even in the emotional turmoil of the blue period, the works sparkle with creative tension. In the remarkable The dead woman, blue paint spills over the edge of the exposed canvas. It’s haunting. His paintings of blue rooftops cackle with the sparkle of turn-of-the-century city life. His 1901 Evocation (The Burial of Casagemas) is a powerful painting reflecting the death by suicide of his friend, painter and poet Carles Casagemas. The exhibit notes that 60 years after producing this remarkable image, Picasso told another friend that his Blue Period was a response to Casagemas’ death.
Paintings from the Blue Period from his time in Paris are presented as part of an in-depth analysis of Picasso’s visit to the women’s prison at the Saint-Lazare Hospital near Montmartre. These paintings offer several moments of reflection on the contrast between the sensitivity he shows to these women and the mistreatment he inflicted on so many women throughout his personal life.
There are many fascinating details, buried secrets and contextual clues to explore in the exhibit. The extraordinary revelation of the hidden parts of Picasso’s canvases fascinates, disconcerts and gives a new look at the sometimes all too familiar artist.
“For us, the curatorial part of the project revealed a lot of information about his creative process – how he would make decisions about the final composition that we see on the canvas, how he might one day , just his style could change so drastically during this year of 1901,” Behrends Frank said. different sources, process it through him.”