“Picasso: Painting the Blue Period”

The first section of Wallace Stevens’s great poetic meditation on Picasso, “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” is a kind of dialogue between the aspiration toward art as a way of transfiguring the world and art as a way to depict “things exactly as they are.” Stevens was hardly a realist or social commentator. He was more a metaphysician and ironist, but in a way he captures a tension in Picasso’s early work, from the first Blue Period paintings in 1901 through analytical cubism. After all, Picasso’s iconic cubist works, with their nearly monochromic earth tones, the figures indecipherable in the fractured picture planes, have often been read as exploring space’s deeper and more complex reality. Curated by Kenneth Brummel, Associate Curator of Modern Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), in collaboration with Susan Behrends Frank at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, “Picasso: Painting the Blue Period” explores Picasso’s crucial Blue Period in a way that is meticulous, scholarly and incredibly illuminating. “Picasso: Painting the Blue Period” is a spectacular way to open the Art Gallery of Ontario’s fall season in what everyone hopes will be the coronavirus pandemic’s final phase—a world-class original AGO international exhibition that will appeal to both scholars and anyone who loves painting. The exhibition is accompanied by a thorough and beautifully produced catalogue.

Pablo Picasso, La Soupe, 1903, oil on canvas, 38.5 x 46 centimetres. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Gift of Margaret Dunlap Crang, 1983. © Picasso Estate / SOCAN (2021).

“Picasso: Painting the Blue Period” opens with a section titled “The Blue Room and Related Works,” which includes both pre-Blue Period works and works by other artists that most likely affected Picasso. Indeed, throughout the exhibit, the curators take the trouble to include specific works by other artists Picasso could at least have seen, either in Paris or Barcelona. For instance, Picasso’s painterly Nude with Cats, 1901, the woman on the bed clutching her legs and angrily glowering beside two black cats, one lounging on its back, is accompanied by Auguste Rodin’s by turns tormented and erotic bronze Crouching Woman, 1880–1882. Picasso’s eroticism is never simple or lyrical; Rodin’s figure is fearful or in pain or in ecstasy. And what is arguably Picasso’s first Blue Period painting, The Blue Room, 1901, a woman standing washing herself in a room largely tinged a soft, pliant blue is implicitly compared with Edgar Degas’s and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s preoccupation with women bathing. But Picasso soon moved away from the concerns of French artists and Paris—and his work became darker, more ruminative. Based on observations and sketches that Picasso was able to do in a women’s prison in Paris, Melancholy Woman, 1901–02, shows a woman sitting on a bench, presumably in prison, with her arms folded, gazing forward and at nothing in particular. She is immersed in blue with white highlights illuminating her face from what one assumes is a window high on the blank walls.

The exhibit’s next section, titled “Crouching Beggarwoman and Related Works,” includes paintings Picasso made during a return to Barcelona in 1902 and is the most powerful and revelatory section. It speaks to the isolation and disaffection brought on by modern societies. The people in these paintings are often homeless and on the streets—but in a way they’re not anywhere at all. In Crouching Beggarwoman, 1902, for example, a woman wrapped in a shawl crouches in front of a wall, her head tilted to one side, dark shadows spreading below her closed eyes. The palette is a washed-out, pale blue-grey. The Dead Woman, 1903, is a dead woman in her anonymous deathbed, blankets pulled up to her chin, a scarf tied around her head. She is, however, by no means peaceful with her almost smirking face. These paintings could be read as realist social commentary, like Honoré Daumier’s The Laundress, 1860, which is also in the exhibition. But they aren’t. The figures are too isolated for that, and too eerily transcendent. They are essentially religious paintings, icons if you like, in a Spanish tradition that Picasso would have grown up with. Among the curators’ most inspired strokes was including El Greco’s sublime Penitent Magdalene with the Cross, 1585–1590, in which Mary Magdalene, wrapped in an undulating magenta shawl, her pristine white hand on her chest, seems to be reaching out toward a skull. Beside her is Christ on the cross, and then jagged mountains and a storm-buffeted sky. In a way, all of Picasso’s women in the Blue Period are Mary Magdalene, trying to reach out past suffering and toward redemption. One of the last great Blue Period paintings included in the exhibit is The Soup, 1903, in which a stooped, seemingly barefoot woman in a blue shawl is walking down the street, carrying a steaming bowl of soup. A young girl in a white dress is leaping toward her with her hands outstretched. Perhaps this is a mother bringing food for her hungry daughter, and in the painting, the daughter reads as angelic.

Pablo Picasso, The Blue Room, 1901, oil on canvas, 50.5 x 61.6 centimetres. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Aquired 1927. © Picasso Estate / SOCAN (2021).

The exhibition’s final room moves from blue to pink, and reflects another radical shift in Picasso’s restless sensibility. If the Blue Period paintings often evoke religious icons, the Rose Period paintings have a sensuous, sunlit materiality and immediacy. In Nude with Clasped Hands, 1906, for instance, a pale pink young woman stands, clasping her hands in front of her genitals, the ground and background darker reds and smouldering oranges. In Woman with Loaves, 1906, the figure with a white headdress balances loaves of bread on her head, her face subtly smiling and serene. And in Nude with a Pitcher, 1906, a fleshtoned nude woman pours water, or wine, into a pitcher against a background of loosely scumbled pinks and browns. The Rose Period paintings don’t evidence the inward torment of the Blue Period, but they are neither realist nor really symbolist either. They are, rather, the most straightforwardly humanist of any of Picasso’s paintings. They are meditations on what is most basic: flesh, food, drink, earth, sunlight. They depict human beings to sight, touch and taste. Picasso painted the savage and transformative Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon, 1907, just a year later. The exhibition “Picasso: Painting the Blue Period” captures the artist before he vaulted himself into some of early 20th-century modernism’s most radical and unsettling gestures. But no one who sees this exhibit will be able to see the rest of Picasso’s work in quite the same way again. ❚

“Picasso: Painting the Blue Period” was exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, from October 6, 2021, through to January 16, 2022.

Daniel Baird is a Toronto-based writer and editor. He was a founding editor at The Brooklyn Rail and has written regularly for The Walrus magazine.