Before the ghoulish clowns and circus performers, the revolutionary movement of Cubism, the notoriously cruel treatment of women, and the immense power of Guernica, Picasso began transforming simple, re-used canvases into brilliant blues.
A blockbuster exhibition at the Phillips Collection attempts the difficult feat of both excising and contextualizing a young Spanish artist from and within decades of explosive, iconic creativity and misogyny. The early years of Pablo Picasso are in hyper-focus in “Picasso: Painting the Blue Period,” an astonishing look at his early output that runs through June 12.
For both Picasso fans and those more skeptical, myself included, this show is a demanding—and deeply rewarding—reassessment of the artist as a young man.
“Picasso was an artist who took from such a range of sources from his contemporaries, from Old Masters, from non-Western sources, and he processed it into something that was uniquely his own perspective,” Phillips Curator Susan Behrends Frank told The Washington Diplomat. “And that gift was there right at the beginning.”
This blockbuster show revels in both science and artistry. By looking at how Picasso was exploring stylistic changes early on in his career, the Phillips Collection opens up and indeed explodes the canvases on display. Three Blue Period paintings are the show’s center: the Phillips’ own The Blue Room from 1901, and Crouching Beggarwomen (1902) and The Soup (1903) from show partner the Art Gallery of Ontario. Curators have peeled back—literally—the layers of these works, doing extensive technical research on the hidden works beneath each painting.
The Blue Period, from between 1901-04, offers up some of Picasso’s most fascinating and politically charged works. He focused on marginalized people, particularly women, and the harsh reality of poverty in Europe. He reflected on life, death, the sacred, the profane.
Behrends Frank noted that the genesis for this exhibition stemmed from the scientific research begun on The Blue Room—which has been in the Phillips Collection since 1927—back in 2007. In 2012, “that project became more broadly investigative, and our art associate conservator Patti Favero put together this team of scientists from different institutions that facilitated this investigation,” she said.
The Phillips Collection’s conservation department had acquired a digital infrared camera, and that allowed Favero to get a much clearer image of the hidden portrait beneath The Blue Room, Behrends Frank recalled. After the Art Gallery of Ontario got involved, the curators realized they had the makings of an important show on the transitional moments in Picasso’s Blue Period.
Then, two things shook up the plan. One, the Picasso museum in Paris embarked on an enormous retrospective look at the artist’s Blue and Rose periods in 2018. “That kind of pushed us further down the road, gave us more time to do research on our own project,” Behrends Frank noted.
“And then COVID intervened.”
We should have all been able to visit “Picasso: Painting the Blue Period” back in 2020. But the curator noted that the disruption from the pandemic gave the exhibition “a window of opportunity that actually worked in our favor.”
Getting loans for Picasso in this early period of his career is incredibly difficult. “For North American museums and certainly American museums, there is a cultural embargo between Russia and the U.S., that also extends to Canada. And so we are not in any position here on this side of the Atlantic to borrow any works from the two Russian museums that are rich in Blue Period works,” Behrends Frank told The Washington Diplomat.
So they looked elsewhere. Paintings come from Israel, Japan, Spain, Canada, and Baltimore. And her co-curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario was able to arrange five loans from Japan in the show. “It is an amazing achievement for us and they are major works that reveal different aspects of this period, of early Picasso,” she said.
Throughout the show, visitors are confronted with works that are indeed amazing achievements. You’re greeted immediately by the transfixing, direct gaze of the artist, in a self-portrait, Yo, from 1901. He is 19. Don’t miss the ‘Yo’ inscribed in the top left corner. It’s like a dark bolt of lightning.
“I just keep reminding myself that in that first gallery that we have, you know, he was 19 years old. It’s just the kind of maturity that he had, it still just fascinates me, it amazes me, the manner in which he could absorb so many diverse sources,” said Behrends Frank.
The show is especially thorough in its exploration of artists who influenced Picasso. Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Isidre Nonell, Rodin, El Greco, and more are given their due for their impact on the young artist.
“We wanted all of our visitors to be able to see how Picasso took from artists who he valued and how he manipulated, altered, reinvented his source material into his own voice. We just thought that was like a really important way to think about the Blue Period works in a larger context,” said Behrends Frank.
Along with the in-depth look at the artists who inspired Picasso, the exhibition offers a fascinating dive into the science behind the art. Conservators examined The Blue Room with X-rays, paint sample microanalysis, and spectral data. They used state-of-the-art imaging and analytical technology to find the hidden portrait of an unknown man beneath the canvas. It’s astonishing (and you can watch the videos online).
The emphasis on science doesn’t detract from the art up on the Phillips Collection walls. It builds the picture of an extraordinary, inventive young artist, not yet dialed into the role he would later establish for himself. The show spurs dozens of questions even as it answers the mystery of what was beneath some of his canvases: What is Picasso truly revealing, and hiding? Who is the voyeur here?
Even in the emotional turmoil of the Blue Period, the works fizz with creative tension. In the remarkable The Dead Woman, blue paint spills off the edge of the exposed canvas. It’s haunting. His paintings of blue rooftops cackle with the spark of urban life at the turn of the century. His 1901 Evocation (The Burial of Casagemas) is powerful painting reflecting on the death by suicide of his friend, painter and poet Carles Casagemas. The exhibition notes that 60 years after producing this remarkable image, Picasso told another friend that his Blue Period was a response to Casagemas’s death.
The Blue Period paintings from his time in Paris are presented within thoughtful analysis of Picasso’s time visiting the women’s hospital prison at Saint-Lazare near Montmartre. These paintings offer several moments to reflect on the contrast between the sensitivity he shows these women with the poor treatment he bestowed on so many women throughout his personal life.
There are many fascinating details, buried secrets, and contextual clues to explore in the exhibition. The extraordinary reveals of the hidden parts of Picasso’s canvases fascinate, perplex, and yield a new look at the sometimes all-too-familiar artist.
“For us, the conservation part of the project revealed a lot of information about his creative process—the manner in which he would make decisions about the final composition that we see on the canvas, about how he could in perhaps a day, just his style could change so dramatically during that 1901 year,” said Behrends Frank. “I have to say that I’m still so impressed by all of this gift that this young man had—that he could take from so many different sources, process it through him.”