Storm Erik came to Switzerland and banished us from the slopes. What better way to compensate than with that superb fall-back, a visit to the Fondation Beyeler in Basel.
It is the first week of the breathtaking Young Picasso exhibition showcasing his Blue and Rose Periods. Call me old-fashioned, or a philistine even, but the late and more celebrated Picassos don’t really do it for me. So it is marvellous to find a whole exhibition devoted to this early work, painted between 1901 and 1906 in Madrid and when he first came to Paris, which reflects his early love of colour. Here he is in an early self-portrait, in the style of Toulouse-Lautrec and van Gogh, hung close to the colourful Harlequins.
But his mood and palette changed after his great friend the artist Casagemas committed suicide over unrequited love. This marked the start of his Blue Period. The two pictures below show his friend’s funeral and his body lying in its coffin.
This marvellous self-portrait (below) from the Blue Period is in stark contrast to the colourful daubing of the artist fresh from Spain. It emphasises just how many different shades of blue there are. He began to hang out in prisons, where the seated woman was probably painted, and in bars where the poorest of the poor, usually absinthe drinkers, sat comatose and miserably at their tables.
His masterpiece for this period is undoubtedly La Vie, which represents the circle of life, which naturally includes death as well as birth. The naked figure in the loincloth is his friend Casagemas which adds to the melancholic and poignant mood of the work.
This painting seems to mark a rite of passage as thereafter Picasso enters a lighter mood, transitioning into his Rose Period. This coincides with his new love, Madeleine, who is also his muse and perfectly reflects this transition. He becomes obsessed with jesters and harlequins who, despite their apparent love of fun and games, represent the marginalised of our society, often living sad and lonely lives. You only need to look at the blank faces, and at the depth of the gaze in the pictures below, to feel the empathy that flows from artist to subject. But the images of the young boys and their innocent faces are disturbing nonetheless. This was when Picasso lived in Montmartre, a stone’s throw from where I also lived for a couple of years. The photos of his haunts bring back many memories.
The final two pictures of note from this period were painted in Gosol, a small Spanish village where he escaped with his new muse, Fernande, on the proceeds of the sale of his first series of paintings. We see her doing her toilette, with possibly her alter ego holding a mirror to her, while the painting of the two bothers seems to float in space, the colour reflecting the earthiness and back-to-nature of the oncoming next phase of his painting.
In Gosol Picasso’s style changes yet again: he becomes interested in a more primitive and pictorial style, moving away from representing feelings to structure, in preparation for his step change into cubism. In the seated nude and the self portrait – how different from the previous two – he moves away from any form of emotion in his work and concentrates on geometric shapes, with mask-like faces, undoubtedly increasingly influenced by West African and Melanesian primitive art. Below are some images from the recent Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy, and a female African Senufo, which show this clearly.
And so to this final period before Picasso goes completely abstract. Here is Femme, whose face is very African in its structure…how far Picasso travelled in such a short time.
Not all the later paintings are without humour, however, as a couple from the permanent collection featuring my favourite muse, the cat, demonstrate. I particularly like Cat with Lobster…but give me a Blue or Rose Period picture any day,