Art Review: Becoming Picasso @ Courtauld Gallery

Picasso is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest artists for his ability to master any technique he experimented with, including sculpture, impressionism, primitivism and cubism. But how did he get to be this versatile?

This exhibition examines one year in his formative career — 1901, the year he left his native Spain and travelled to Paris. He became a devotee of the Impressionists and it’s clear that many of his works bear the hallmarks of Degas, Van Gogh and Gauguin, among others. Whether it be in the glaring stare of a dwarf dancer or the whirling movement of a line of cancan dancers.

Picasso shows his ability to emulate styles and make them his own. The tender emotions in ‘Child with dove’ bear the delineated style of Van Gogh, but he is moving away from the free flowing brush strokes of Impressionism. The Absinthe drinker and a couple at a bar bear the gaunt and angular faces that are precursors to Picasso’s journey into primitivism, which created masterpieces such as ‘The Three Dancers’.

Yet the most powerful works are those that started his blue period, such as the voyeuristic ‘blue room’. Picasso in his later life admitted that the blue period began due to the loss of his close friend, the poet Carles Casagemas. Though Picasso was back in Spain when this occurred, he imagined what his funeral would’ve looked like and painted a deeply melancholic portrait of a gaunt yet dignified Casagemas at rest in his coffin. Coupled with an ‘altarpiece’ showing his friend’s ascension to heaven, these are the two most stirring works in this exhibition.

It’s astonishing that two rooms covering one formative year of Picasso’s career can show us the beginnings of all of his hallmark styles, but it perfectly sets the scene for the brilliant artist he would become.

Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901 is on at The Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, WC2R 0RN until 26 May. Tickets are £6 for adults and also grant you access to the permanent collection, concessions available.

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