By Jackie Wullschlager
Of the eight most expensive Picasso paintings sold, six date from 1901-1905, when Picasso, newly arrived in Paris, was unknown, broke, hungry and so cold that, according to legend, he stoked the fire with his drawings. No one wanted his “Blue Period” works, depicting in icy, melancholy hues the beggars and streetwalkers of Montmartre, nor the “Rose Period” harlequins and jesters, graceful but sad, who succeeded them.
Why are these now so popular, far outstripping in both price and public affection the cubist and later canvases with which Picasso changed the course of modern art? Two answers spring to mind in Picasso in Paris 1900-1907, a revelatory exhibition just opened at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum and travelling to Barcelona this summer.
The first is that here Picasso is at his most human and empathetic. Elongated and bony, the couples in early masterpieces of delicate shadows and blue-beige layers – such as the drooping pair in “Les Misérables”, clinging together for warmth, or the blind man whose skeletal fingers reach out to embrace his indifferent partner in the virtuoso etching “Le Repas Frugal”, with its subtle tonal gradations from velvet black to grey to bursts of light – are as poignantly expressive as anything in El Greco. Secular, modern, instantly engaging, they are touched with the spiritual fervour of the Old Masters.
The second is that, especially seen together in Amsterdam’s perceptively unfolding display, these works invite us into the laboratory of the artist’s mind as he was forging the most radical new artistic language since the Renaissance. There is a staggering gap in sensibility between the show’s major opening piece, “Le Moulin de la Galette”, a post-impressionist celebration of Paris as pulsating capital of light, with cropped, caricature figures in a bright dance hall, and its closing one, the aggressively primitivist, abstracted pastel “Nude with Arms Raised”. Yet only seven years separate paintings that look as if they span several eras.
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