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Picasso's Adolescence

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Once Picasso returned to Barcelona, in February, 1899, he began frequenting Els Quatre Gats, a tavern modeled after Le Chat Noir, the famous Parisian cabaret. This was the favorite café of the Catalan modernists and soon the bold and charismatic Picasso, still a teenager, became part of their circle. Els Quatre Gats was thick with a fin-de-siecle atmosphere: Symbolism held sway among this group and Picasso was duly influenced. He became particularly close with the painter Carles Casagemas and the poet Jaime Sabartés. At this time, Picasso began to go by the name that he would make famous; as Sabartés recollected later, "his Catalan friends got into the habit of calling him by his mother's name, his father's being commonplace, and Picasso by its very foreignness was deemed more fitting for a being who so markedly stood out from his fellows." Picasso had always gotten along better with his mother, María Picasso Lopez; the professional competition between Picasso and his father made their relationship difficult, especially since the son had overshadowed the father so very early.

In February, 1900, Picasso exhibited 150 drawings, mostly portraits, at Els Quatre Gats. Some of the older artists saw this as a rather brash challenge. But Picasso's talent could not be denied; several of his drawings were published and one painting, "Last Moments," was chosen for the Exposition Universelle in Paris.

In October 1900, Picasso and Casagemas left together for Paris. Barcelona was a fine city, but Paris was the place to make a reputation. Paris had been the great gathering place for innovative, ambitious painters since the Impressionists; it was the capital of the avant-garde. In Paris, painters confidently tossed around ideas for the artistic, political, and psychological transformation of the entire world and took such ideas more seriously than we can imagine now. Paris seemed to be the very epicenter and observation deck of a civilization changing faster than anyone could grasp; as one French writer remarked at the time, "the world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years." Paris sizzled with this sense of revolution.

Picasso did well for himself in this chaotic, exciting metropolis. He installed himself in Montmartre, met and sold works to the dealers Pedro Mañach and Berthe Weill, and devoured the art surrounding him, old and new. Mañach gave him a regular income in exchange for paintings.

For the next several years, until 1904, Picasso bounced back and forth between Spain and Paris. In February 1901, while Picasso was in Madrid, Casagemas committed suicide in Paris. In response, Picasso painted the "Death of Casagemas" and "Evocation: The Burial of Casagemas," which contained allusions to El Greco. In Madrid, Picasso founded a review, Arte Joven with the Catalan writer Francisco de Asis Soler; it was a flop, however, and lasted only four issues.

From the distance of Madrid, Picasso was better able to begin to digest all the bold experiments in painting that he had seen in Paris. His favorite subject matter during this period was the society women and courtesans of the Spanish capital, such as the woman portrayed in "Lady in Blue." In this painting– typical of those produced during his Madrid years–we see a kind of sickly energy combined with a satirical edge (see how the woman's face is overwhelmed by her coiffure and the gigantic bow around her neck). Her elaborate dress gives Picasso a good pretext to play with formal possibilities, to make a rhythm in green for its own sake, and yet link it to the depicted subject. We can see also that Picasso was trying hard to sort through all the paintings he had seen, that he was trying on styles to see what fit him; this painting looks less like a genuine Picasso and more like a cross between the styles of Munch and Toulouse-Lautrec, two painters who were influential at the time.

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