The early years of the 20th century were not a happy time for Pablo Picasso, barely out of his teens and struggling to make ends meet—hardly the force he was to become. It is those years (1901-04) that are the focus of the blockbuster show Picasso: Painting the Blue Period (6 October-16 January 2022) at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). Visitors should be ready to put on their thinking caps because the show is “super intellectual,” says the museum’s director and CEO, Stephan Jost—although that is not always the case with exhibitions on the artist. “So many shows that have Picasso in the title are a little light. But people want to be intellectually engaged.”
Picasso: Painting the Blue Period—originally scheduled to open last summer, but “punted because of Covid” to this fall, Jost says—features paintings, sculptures and works on paper by Picasso as well those by artists who inspired him, including El Greco and Daumier, with more than 100 in all on view. “We’ve only included works that Picasso saw,” explains the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Modern art curator Kenneth Brummel, who has been work on the exhibition for the past seven years, with help from Susan Behrends Frank of The Phillips Collection. This marks the first major collaboration between the AGO and the Washington, DC, museum, where it travels to after its Toronto run.
The show focuses on a trio of paintings by Picasso—Crouching Beggarwoman, The Soup and The Blue Room—the first two from the collection of the AGO and the third from the Phillips. Both the AGO’s pieces were done in Barcelona, while The Blue Room was painted in Paris and was also one of the first works by the artist to be acquired by an American museum.
Cutting-edge technology, and art historical research, revealed lost works underneath the three pieces, even an underlying landscape in the Beggarwoman. Picasso was ever adaptable (although it would be decades before he turned a bicycle seat and handlebars into a bull) and there are even hints of the earlier work in the final painting. It was not unusual for struggling artists to re-use canvasses and, as Brummel pointedly puts it: “Picasso was short of supplies and funds.”
The Blue Period was a trying time for the artist, which he divided between Paris and Barcelona, haunted by the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas. Barely getting by, sales few and far between, he turned his eye to the needy, the abandoned and the blind. “Picasso engaged with the poor,” Brummel says. “Whether his art was selling was immaterial to him, but he certainly had ambition.” As if to emphasise that point, the curator later adds: “The ambition is insane.” An article in a Paris newspaper may have been the spark, asking in a headline: “Who will be Spain’s new El Greco?”
Perhaps that lowly kid painter seemingly stuck on blue?