Review: “Picasso: Painting the Blue Period”, at the Phillips Collection, delves into the artist’s early works

The focus is on three paintings, including Phillips’ 1901 “The Blue Room” and 1902’s “Crouching Beggarwoman” and Ontario’s 1903 “The Soup”. The last of these is the strongest of the three and reveals the surprisingly rapid development of the artist in just a few years. It also best demonstrates the scholarly effort of curators Kenneth Brummel and Susan Behrends Frank to connect lessons learned from the canvases’ complex imagery with insights into the artist’s methods, materials, and motifs.

But the exhibition has generous parameters and includes works from both before and after the Blue Period of 1901-1904. The first Parisian paintings, several of which were produced for Picasso’s first major international exhibition in 1901 at the Vollard gallery, suggest in their debauchery of colors and their mad brushstrokes the speed with which the young artist appropriated the visual universe of ‘Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edgar Degas . At the time, Picasso (1881-1973) was still a teenager and seemed to work almost recklessly, with more exuberance than concentration.

The blue period arrived not with a single work, but with a change in attitude, not only towards Picasso’s color palette, but towards women. The nudes seen from the front, the women with painted faces, the overdressed companions of bored rich men give way to more isolated and melancholy figures. In “La chambre bleue”, we see the Toulouse-Lautrec poster of May Milton, dancer at the Moulin Rouge, hanging on the wall near a solitary woman bathing in a large blue bathtub. The frenetic spectacle of Parisian nightlife seems to fade into a dark world of perpetual blue twilight.

Later Blue Period works, made after 1901’s “The Blue Room”, suggest that sympathy for poverty replaced desire as Picasso’s primary focus. Or maybe not. The curators see a moral evolution in the young artist, a growing awareness of social misery and a greater sense of empathy. Picasso was often desperately poor during this period, and on his visits to his native land, In Spain he encountered dire social conditions, hunger and unrest. He also spent time in Paris haunting the Saint-Lazare hospital-prison for women, where prostitutes and victims of venereal disease were held. He would credit his time there as a source of visual inspiration for some of his key Blue Period works.

In the blue period, women are often clothed or emotionally enveloped, or seen with their backs turned to the viewer, and generally less exposed to the traditional male gaze. They bend over their work or sink deep into a restrained, sculptural crouch. As Picasso’s palette became more and more monochromatic, space itself seemed to squeeze these figures into more compressed shapes, containing them in a dark penumbra of rich blue, as if the world couldn’t even allow them some air or light.

Was it empathy that drove him? I don’t find most of the adjectives commonly applied to these works appropriate at all. Are they sad? Melancholy? Are they “blue” in the sense that we often use that word to describe an emotional state? I feel the artist’s solipsism, his own late teenage despair, more than any deep connection to these women as people.

The dark lines of alienation that surround these characters detach them from the world, from reality, from any relationship with other poor people. They wear their blue rags much like the harlequins, and the circus characters of the following pink period will wear their motley rags. They are costumed to play the role of pure abjection, expressing the inner state of the painter more than any true state of poverty in the real world. Their isolation and loneliness is not only a visual distillation of the figure to its elements, but is also designed to reassure us – the art consumer – that these poor people are not dangerous. They don’t congregate, compare notes, hook up on the streets, or do anything in general that might destabilize the world of art collecting.

You have to have a love-hate relationship with these works, which are undeniably compelling, so much so that they have redefined how we think about the color blue and what it means to be alienated and alone. But in masterpieces like ‘The Soup’, there is a deep disconnect between the characters: a child who makes a seductive gesture with her right leg, and a motherly form, head bowed and expressionless face, who offers the steaming bowl as an act. of charity.

There seems to be more taking than giving in this image, more of a vision of gripping youth than a mature act of kindness and love. The final stage of human misery is the war of all against all, the jungle or the state of nature, in which everything is defined by the need for raw survival. An artist may feel this not only because he is poor, but also because he aspires to fame.

The scientific analysis and imagery of “The Soup” suggests at least two distinct layers of imagery beneath the last. In one, a second female figure is visible beside the child, perhaps a reference to another Blue Period theme – of a mother and child or children by the sea More intriguing are the remains of what might have been a still life and table top, and possibly a reference to Honoré Daumier’s drawing “The Soup”, from the 1860s. Picasso may have seen the Daumier in an April 1901 publication, says curator Brummel.

Picasso reused canvases painted during this period, sometimes out of necessity. But he also seems to have developed ideas so quickly that he often painted over his first thoughts. Does “La Soupe” suggest a deeper engagement with Daumier’s more authentic social consciousness? Are these indications of the evolution of his thought, or are they, to use the artist’s own words, more proof that painting is “a sum of destructions”?

When Picasso used this striking phrase, he also described art as a kind of zero-sum game: what is eliminated in one work inevitably ends up in another. As the exhibition moves out of the blue period, we see the desire and sensuality return with the terracotta-hued nudes of the rose period. Anything that happened in the blue era – genuine empathy or teenage angst – is left by the wayside, cast aside like an old beggar crouched in the dark.

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