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Picasso: Painting the Blue Period, an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, proves what is covered up on a canvas can be as important as what we see

On right, Crouching Beggarwoman [La Miséreuse accroupie] Barcelona, 1902. © Picasso Estate / SOCAN (2021)Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When curators, conservators and scientists subjected an early nude by Pablo Picasso to a battery of tests, they found another painting underneath, featuring a pensive man in evening dress. With its rumpled bedsheets and dawning light, Picasso’s scene of a naked woman scrubbing her leg represents the morning after in a brothel, but the artist had painted it over a scene from the night before. So, an image of a vulnerable woman covers one of a privileged man, an effect replacing a cause.

Picasso: Painting the Blue Period, a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, proves that what is covered up on a canvas can be as important as what is shown – and reveals a youth from Catholic Barcelona negotiating his attitudes towards women in libertine Paris.

The backbone of this exhibition, finally opening after a 15-month pandemic delay, is the testing that the AGO and its co-organizer, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., have done on three paintings from Picasso’s early career when he was trying to establish himself in Paris. Using X-rays, paint analysis and digital “false colour” images that highlight certain areas, the tests reveal compositions hidden underneath the final paintings.

(Left) Pablo Picasso. La Soupe, (1902). Art Gallery of Ontario. © Picasso Estate / SODRAC (2018); (right) False colour IR Hyperspectral Image reveals details of underlying painting. John Delaney, National Gallery of Art, Washington (NGA).

Under The Blue Room (the 1901 nude from the Phillips), it’s the man in evening dress, his pose allowing curators to conclude he was also painted by Picasso. Under the AGO’s Crouching Beggarwoman of 1902, there’s a scene from a park in Barcelona – but Kenneth Brummel, the AGO curator responsible for the show, argues that the landscape is too conservative to match up with Picasso’s temporary return to Barcelona in 1902. The impoverished artist was probably reusing somebody else’s canvas, although he borrowed the contour of hills to create the outline of the woman’s cloak.

Testing The Soup, a small 1903 painting in the AGO collection showing a bowed woman offering a bowl to a child, the researchers discovered how Picasso gradually simplified the composition to these two timeless figures. The painting may have originally featured a second child, or people eating at a table, in a less stylized image of poverty.

These revelations are the foundation for a large show – more than 100 works, 94 of them by Picasso himself – that explains the artist’s sources and techniques in his Blue Period, named for the limited palette of melancholy blues he favoured between 1901-1906.

Pablo Picasso, The Blue Room, 1901. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Acquired 1927 © The Estate of Pablo Picasso.Pablo Picasso, The Blue Room, 1901. The Phillips Collection © The Estate of Pablo Picasso via AP

The exhibition begins before he went blue, however, with the portraits and nudes heavily influenced by the artists he had now encountered in Paris: Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The Blue Room is prefaced by a gallery full of cruder nudes as Picasso (then a mere 19-year-old) searched about for the right tone to depict the more-or-less joyous sex-trade workers, entertainers and models of Montmartre. The powerful Jeanne is seen foreshortened as though the viewer stood at the foot of her bed buttoning his trousers; the repellant Nude with Cats crouches in a pose that mimics the animals.

Does Picasso sympathize with these women, or lust after them? A bit of both, since he also shows himself in a small self-portrait as another gentleman in evening dress with a top hat – and surrounded by bare-breasted ladies of the night.

But in 1901, he was also introduced to the women of the Saint-Lazare hospital prison, where he began mournful blue paintings such as Woman Ironing or Melancholy Woman. Not surprisingly, despite their deep humanity, these depressive figures didn’t sell well, and Picasso was forced home again. As he transported his new style back to Spain in 1902, its religiosity becomes apparent: Blue is the colour of the Virgin’s cloak after all. Curators Brummel and his Phillips colleague Susan Behrends Frank include a particularly melodramatic Our Lady of Sorrows by the 16th-century Spanish Luis de Morales to remind you of that.

Now, Picasso’s paintings all feature clothed women, beggars and single mothers, the downtrodden elevated through their visual association with religious art. Even two sex-trade workers, seen from behind in Two Women at a Bar, are clothed – and closed off to the viewer’s consuming eye as they turn their backs.

Here, the curators reveal how Picasso dignifies the woman by comparing that painting to a small version of Augustin Rodin’s famed Thinker, with its similar emphasis on the musculature of a turned back. The woman and child in The Soup, meanwhile, are compared to Pierre Puvis de Chavanne’s symbolic representations of the figure of Charity and Honoré Daumier’s drawing of a famished couple at a table, the woman baring a great breast to her baby while she devours her food. The notion that feeding one’s own child represents an act of charity is certainly the conceit of male artists, not nursing mothers, but Picasso elevates Daumier’s grittier vision of hunger to something classically respectful of its subjects.

From left: Two Women at a Bar (1902), Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, and Crouching Woman (1902). © Picasso Estate / SOCAN (2021)Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Visitors stop to look at Self Portrait (Yo) Paris, 1901. © Picasso Estate / SOCAN (2021)Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The curators don’t position their work this way, but viewers may be forgiven if, by this point, they recognize Painting the Blue Period as an exhibition of whores and madonnas: A few impoverished blue men only begin to appear in the final room. (They include the particularly fine Portrait of a Man, a person Picasso described as “a sort of madman who was a well-known figure in Barcelona.”) The young and socially engaged Picasso feels for the women of the street and the tenement. Considering the notorious misogyny of the artist’s later biography, it’s easy – with hindsight – to conclude that the artist who would paint Guernica was one of those people who was better at loving humanity than at loving individuals.

Not coincidentally, as Fernande Olivier, his first live-in girlfriend, appears on the scene, Picasso moves into the Pink Period in 1906 and begins painting nudes once again. As a footnote, there’s a room full of them here, many based on Olivier herself, their warm skin, auburn hair and pink or beige backdrops celebrating love and life. One, Nude Combing Her Hair, begins to show the reduction of the body to geometric planes. A year later, Picasso would paint the proto-cubist group portrait Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a representation of the brothel’s workers as wild, exotic and frightening. The rest is art history.

Picasso: Painting the Blue Period continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario to Jan. 16, 2022.