Saturday, December 29, 2018

Picasso: Bleu et Rose @ Musee d'Orsay, Paris

Pablo Picasso, Autoportrait, 1906
Picasso is like Mozart; we think we know his work inside out. But in reality, we have seen a handful of paintings and drawings reprinted ad infinitum, quoted by other artists, bandied about, and then, often given a bad rap – even by me. For this reason, I resisted going to the Picasso: Bleu et Rose exhibition, currently on at the Musée d’Orsay for months. And now, I am dismayed at having taken so long to get there. The exhibition is magnificent, challenging all of the platitudes and assumptions that have circulated for years about Picasso's work. Even though the exhibition's focus is narrow—1900 – 1906—the period when Picasso was looking for his identity as a painter, these years tells us so much more about his prolific career as a painter who changed the way we see the world. In the huge display of works from all over the world at the Musée d'Orsay, we see the twentieth century master’s thinking evolve, from painting to painting, from idea to idea, across these productive and creative six years.
Pablo Picasso, Arlequin et sa compagne,  1901 
Pablo Picasso, La Buveuse d’absinthe, 1901 

These years, 1900 – 1906, when he came to Paris for the first time, were a period of experimentation and exploration for Picasso. Intriguingly, he actually visualizes his own search for identity as a painter in the works. He is repeatedly present in the form of a hand, a paintbrush, a palette or as we often see in his photographs of people visiting his studio, in the form of one his own paintings in the background. Alternatively, paintings such as Femme en chemise (Madeleine), 1905 show Picasso thinking on canvas. If we are to see the ambiguous shape of the woman's left arm indicates a change of mind as Picasso covers over and starts again. The many drawings, inks and drypoint sketches from the period also show Picasso thinking, preparing, resolving, putting not yet fully formed ideas on paper. 
Pablo Picasso, Femme en chemise (Madeleine), 1905
Because I am a guilty feminist, I have always believed that Picasso’s obsessive and often objectifying focus on the female body was somehow derogatory to women. Certainly, many of his portraits are of women, and he doesn't hold back from revealing their intimate body parts. However, again and again in this exhibition we see an artist obsessed with form and shape and their technical composition. The body as an erotically or sexually charged object seems to be secondary to his thinking. This reaches a crescendo in works such as Arlequin et sa compagne (1901) or the Hermitage Museum’s La Buveuse d’absinthe (1901) in which the length of the arms, the pose of the contemplative sitter and the otherwise grotesque hands are rendered in the interests of an enclosed sculptural form. In addition, the work's colour palettes are often determined, not by an emotional theme, but as a way to bring the modernist play on surface and perspective to the fore.
Pablo Picasso, Pierreuses au bar, 1902
This enclosure of the body by the hands out of proportion in La Buveuse d’absinthe is also a characteristic that we see from the beginning to the end of Picasso’s career. In such works, the elongated arms, bodies with sallow faces and meditative eyes are clearly indebted to El Greco. Certainly, the blue palette, the withdrawn figures and the resultant sense of transcendence that pervades these figures can only be explained through reference to El Greco. However, whereas El Greco distorts the body for religious or fantastical purposes, for Picasso the same figures are realist expressions of their contemporary isolation. 
Pablo Picasso, La Célestine, Barcelone, 1904
El Greco is not the only artist who influences Picasso’s work. In fact, in his search for a style he looks everywhere. In his paintings, visitors will see Cezanne’s uses of perspective and thick impasto brush strokes, van Gogh’s crazy lines, Toulouse Lautrec’s cartoonish caricatures of women he finds in the bars and clubs of Paris, the introspection of Manet, and the style of Monet. In the later works in the exhibition, we also recognize Ingres and his fascination for women, particularly seen from behind, in the bath houses. Similarly, in Picasso's paintings of women on the street, the impoverished, and imprisoned, we see Daumier’s social realist cartoons. Indeed, Picasso doesn't leave all this behind until he begins his cubist work from 1907 onwards.
Pablo Picasso, Toits de Barcelone, 1903
I haven’t yet said anything about blue. It is true that after the death of his dear friend Casagemas, the blue takes over his canvas entirely. The blue palette is often said to be indicative of Picasso’s depression in the wake of his friend’s death. Similarly, critics claim that blue is the colour of melancholy and grief on Picasso’s canvases at this time. However, the exhibition also demonstrates that Picasso turned to the blue-green shades even before his friend took his life. When he arrives in Paris and is excited and inspired by the artistic energy and experimentation all around him, Picasso picks up a blue paintbrush. The historical trajectory here, therefore, strongly suggests that we need to expand our interpretations of Picasso’s blue. I am not a Picasso scholar, and any ideas I have about this are pure conjecture. But, judging from Picasso: Bleu et Rose, it does seem that he chooses blue, and later rose, as a way to pursue his painterly concerns without the distraction of the impressionist (and later Fauvist) colours that are all around him at the time. Viewers will also note that Picasso’s blue remains a dusty greeny-bluish hue. It never takes on the brilliance or richness of the lapis lazuli that had been used so prolifically throughout the history of art. It is indeed an El Greco blue. However, it can’t be equated with El Greco’s use of the color because Picasso uses blue in so many  more different ways: in portraits, street people, for city scapes, lovers and jesters. And, as I say, Picasso brings all of this subject matter into his contemporaneous moment.
Pablo Picasso,  Acrobate à la boule, 1905
There is much more I could say about this exhibition—I haven't even mentioned his use of thick impasto paint in a challenge to the two-dimensionality of painting from the very beginning of his career, his exquisite manipulation of light, the omnipresent divisions in walls, cafes, indeed all the background spaces. And then there are all the possibilities for exploration that Picasso finds in the circus—his attraction to performance, but not on a stage, rather, in the backstage moments of reflection when the jester shows his humanity. To say nothing of Picasso's radicalization of the portrait. And there are many other extraordinary revelations to be had at Picasso: Bleu et Rose.  This exhibition is a must for anyone who thinks they have seen enough of Picasso's painting. Like me, you will come away with renewed excitement about the magic of this twentieth-century master's work.   

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