The AGO’s exhibit of Pablo Picasso’s early works as a (self) portrait of an artist as a young man.

By Diana Kobetic, Associate Arts and Culture Editor

Photo credit: The Phillips Collection

As you move through the seemingly interminable lines (suggestion: for your own sake, avoid attending the exhibit over the weekend at nearly all costs), displaying your proof of vaccination and your pre-booked admission ticket for what feels like the hundredth time, you eventually find yourself in a room with high ceilings and deep Prussian blue walls. Just metres away, you can finally see it: Picasso’s The Blue Room (1901) hangs before you, surrounded by dozens of the works that precipitated the creation of the famous masterpiece, and yet more that continued the work’s exploration of loss, disorder, melancholy, and their place in the new modern urban landscape. A large exhibition of over a hundred paintings stands before you, waiting to be taken in.

Nearly fifty years after the death of an artist so legendary that, by the end of his life, he was infamously rumoured to have paid restaurant bills with quick sketches rather than currency, this exhibit seeks to revisit some of his earliest works. The exhibition is focused on Picasso’s Blue Period, beginning in 1901 and ending in 1904, and leads into his Rose Period, which lasted from 1905 to 1906. This is the first exhibit in Canada to focus on the artist’s early works, and makes use of new technological tools to unearth hidden paintings underneath some of the artist’s most famous pieces.

For artistically-inclined students struggling to situate themselves both professionally and personally in the industry of their choice, this exhibition is likely to resonate on a deeply personal level. Picasso was nineteen years old in 1901, and newly arrived in Paris. He lived in a small Montmartre bedroom studio, a neighbourhood that hosted many of France’s most famous artists, and struggled to establish himself in the Parisian art scene while developing a body of work and sustaining himself financially as a young artist.

Having previously dismissed Picasso as an overrated, arrogant caricature of the ‘modernist artist, I didn’t expect to find much in the exhibit that spoke to me on a personal level beyond a begrudging appreciation for indisputably skillful artistic technique. However, in the first painting I saw, the artist’s Self-Portrait in Top Hat (1901), a glorious, riotous mess of oil paint and pastel scribbles modeled on the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the famed “painter of Montmartre”, I felt a strange kinship with this clear attempt of a young would-be artist to carefully craft and present a particular image of himself to an artistic community rarely welcoming to outsiders. In this work, Picasso depicts himself as an elegant, wealthy socialite, though at this point in his life, this was far from his everyday reality.

Self-portraits from the early years of the artist’s life are scattered throughout the exhibition, and paint a fascinating image of a young man attempting to create a place for himself and his work in the Parisian art scene. Self Portrait (Yo) (1901) makes this desire abundantly clear, with the artist representing himself as an intensely focused visionary, almost accusing the viewer of having failed to acknowledge the value of his art with his direct, piercing stare. The titular “Yo” inscribed in the upper left-hand corner of the piece announces the emergence of a new artistic presence, one that will soon take the art world by storm.

In addition to displaying Picasso’s early pieces, the exhibition shares new methods of historical art research applied to three paintings: The Blue Room (1901), Crouching Beggarwoman (1902), and The Soup (1902). New technologies have been used to display hidden paintings under the works of art. Picasso, like many of his artistic peers, reused canvases, and many of his works bear hints of what lies underneath the final artwork through bits of colour peeking through and thickly layered swatches of oil paint.

The use of X-radiography, macro X-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanning, infrared reflectance imaging spectroscopy, and paint sample microanalysis in art historical research is a key part of this exhibition, and was invaluable to the examination of those three paintings to reveal the hidden works underneath. The ability to perceive the densities of materials that make up the artwork and to identify pigments and pigment mixtures is crucial to this sort of research, and points to the new and exciting interpretive possibilities that the technologies of conservation science bring to widely known works and artists.

Themes of poverty and suffering expressed through religious iconography dominate Picasso’s Blue Period, with the artist continually demanding the empathy of his viewers through the tonal significance of his near-constant use of Prussian blue. The young artist traveled frequently between Paris and Barcelona, and was strongly impacted by the suffering he saw represented by the working and marginalized classes of each city. His Blue Period emerged largely in response to this context, and explored issues such as poverty, the prison system, labour unrest, and the sex trade. Picasso simultaneously foregrounds the humanity and deep pain of his figures, depicting the female prisoners of Saint-Lazare prison hospital with the same grace and dignity that he accords to his overtly religious subjects.

An aspect of this exhibition that I find particularly fascinating is its exploration of a young artist striving to establish a style suited to sharing his unique perspective on the issues he saw in the world around him. With pieces dating back to 1896, when Picasso was only fifteen years old, it becomes surprisingly easy to forget the name blocked out in large white letters at the exhibition’s main entrance, and instead become captivated by the sense of youthful exploration present in these paintings. The Blue Period contains works dealing with some of the most profound experiences of grief and joy of the artist’s life, and his years-long quest to cope with these events. There is a strange universality to be found particularly in the self-portraits of the exhibit, with the addition of works such as Two Women at a Bar (1902) and Barcelona Rooftops (1902) conveying a sense of an un-romanticized but strikingly poignant youthful urban experience that feels entirely applicable to that of a young student carving out a new phase of life for themself in Toronto. 

It is all too easy to hear the name “Picasso” and think of nothing more than a grandiose artistic master, elevated and respected to the point of seeming inhuman – but this exhibition urges viewers to instead examine the young man who would one day take on this role, and the inspirations in the form of cities, subjects, and other artists that brought him to that place.

The exhibition is immediately followed by the paired exhibit of Matthew Wong’s “Blue View”, which shares the works of the Toronto-born artist’s Blue series. The exhibits are united in their similar titular colour schemes and evocation of a calm, melancholy atmosphere, but Wong’s large, vibrant, and starkly graphic contemporary pieces present a refreshing contrast and a delightful sequential experience following Picasso’s works.

“Picasso: Painting the Blue Period” will remain open until January 16, 2022, and admission is free for all AGO Members, AGO Annual Pass Holders, and all visitors aged 25 and under.

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