The Blue Period
Then Picasso returned to Paris, where the dealer Pedro Mañach had arranged an exhibition for him at the Galerie Vollard, which opened in June, 1901. His paintings sold well, the show was a success, and he got a glowing review in the Revue Blanche:
...Picasso is a painter, wholly and beautifully a painter. His intuitive knowledge of the substance of things is proof enoughof this. Like all pure painters he loves color for its own sakeand each substance has its own special color. Moreover, each subjectcasts its spell over him, and to him everything is a subject...Itis clear that his sense of urgency has not yet allowed him leisureto form a personal style. His personality resides in that veryurgency, that youthful, spontaneous impetuosity (they say that heis not yet twenty and that he covers as many as three canvasesa day).
Towards the end of 1901, Picasso entered what is known as his Blue Period. Because so many biographers and scholars have studied Picasso, a sort of standard classification of his stylistic phases has developed. But the chronology of Picasso's artistic development cannot be neatly categorized like the periods of geological time. Picasso painted in a proliferation of styles, producing large numbers of canvases that share distinct qualities in their colors, treatment of space, subject matter, mood, and formal concerns; many of them can be grouped together, as he would paint a number of canvases while working through a single artistic idea or question. All the same, there are many works that cannot be so tidily lumped into one group or another, and furthermore Picasso was apt to adopt, discard, recycle, alter, and readopt a style from his own past. This complicates any chronology. A schematic overview of the phases of Picasso's development, as established by decades of criticism, is useful as a map, to help to get one's bearings, but it is a very limited view. All such classifications must be employed with a bit of skepticism.
Picasso's Blue Period, which lasted until 1904, is one of the classifications that hold together fairly well. He painted mostly in shades of blue; the mood of these paintings is melancholy, without the hint of satire of his earlier work. They are both stoic and a little sentimental. He gathered subject matter from the prisons and gutters of Paris; he liked to paint beggars, vagrants, and worn-out prostitutes. An early work in this new mode is his "Self-Portrait" of 1901. While he was only twenty at the time, he looks much older here, wizened and hollow. The volumes and contours of his face and coat are simplified.
In 1902, Mañach organized for Picasso another exhibition in Paris, this time showing a good handful of his Blue Period works at the Berthe Weill gallery. One critic remarked that a "sterile sadness...weighs on all this young man's work...but there is a force, a gift, a talent." During this time, Picasso was living the impoverished life of a struggling artist with the poet Max Jacob and hating it. Once again, Picasso returned to Barcelona. From there he wrote to Jacob, still in Paris, "My dear Max, I think about the room on the boulevard Voltaire, about the omelets, the beans, the Brie and the fried potatoes. But I also think about the days of misery, and it's quite sad."
Back in Barcelona, Picasso experimented with sculpture, as he had been doing since 1901. He also began a major painting, a complex and indecipherable allegory, a kind of summation of his Blue Period, called "La Vie." This he actually painted over "Last Moments," which he had painted in 1900. The male figure began as a self-portrait but was then given the features of Casagemas. The painting feels a little like a hieroglyphic, a message in a secret code from Picasso to himself. There is no single key or fixed meaning, but an air of weighty, though unspecified, significance hangs in the atmosphere.
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