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Tue, 09 Jul 2002 22:40:06
The Blue Period marked the end of Picasso's juvenilia and the beginning of his professional career as an artist. During the Blue Period -- roughly 1901-1904 -- the young Picasso was searching for a style of his own. During these early years, Picasso painted prolifically and voraciously. Friends report that Picasso spent the bulk of his waking hours during his early twenties painting and drawing, using the sketches he drew during the day to fuel the stove in his apartment at night.
Picasso's work during this time shows little of the radical abstraction dominant during his cubist period and after. Centering on themes of loss, suffering and desolation, they evidence the young painter finding a subject matter in the streets around him. Though Picasso's early work had already been well received in exhibitions in Madrid and Malaga, during this period Picasso was himself destitute, and had a very difficult time making his rent and other debts. During 1901 and 1902, there were general strikes in Barcelona, and much of the city's population was destitute and unemployed. These rumblings of discord would eventually lead to the 1909 riots, and decades later to the 1931 left-wing ascendance followed by the 1936 beginning of the Spanish Civil War, the harsh violence and injustice of which Picasso would later record in "Guernica".
It was also during this period that Picasso's friendship with the poet Jaime Sabartés flourished. At the time the two circulated in the same bohemian circle in Barcelona. Sabartés initially occupied by himself by caring for his grandfather in Barcelona. In 1899 however his own eyesight failed to near-blindness to the point that he could be of little use in a caretaker capacity. He struggled to find his own voice as a poet but found himself in awe of the obvious talent of his friend and contemporary Picasso. Perhaps shifting from one caretaker role to another, Sabartés would thereafter, until the end of his days, dedicate the majority of his energies to advancing the career of Picasso. He took on a role of managing Picasso's business affairs, managing his exhibitions, even of waking Picasso each morning. In 1935, Picasso formally asked Sabartés to play the role of his secretary, though in fact, Sabartés had been functioning as such for the prior two decades.
Sabartés would later claim to be the "progenitor of Blue period 'blueness'." One of the first paintings that most place in the Blue Period, "The Glass of Beer-Portrait of Jamie Sabartés" (1901), now hanging in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow may lend some credence to his claim. The picture is a stark, dour portrait of Sabartés, striking a tone of desolation, which Sabartés would later refer to as the "specter of (my) solitude." As a kind of dark joke, Picasso painted this portrait using the body of Sabartés, but substituted the poet's head for that of Casas Casegemas, who had recently committed suicide in the Café L'Hippodrome over a failed love affair. Sabartés was reportedly not in the least upset by the juxtaposition. Other friends reported that Sabartés had the devotion towards Picasso that that Trappist monks have towards God, or that heroin addicts have towards the drug, and that he was able to find joy in few things other than Picasso. Sabartés was known to wear black garb and to sport mournful, almost tragic expression.
Picasso's Blue Period paintings owe a debt to El Greco's elongated forms and hallucinatory spaces. Picasso was suffused in the atmosphere of Spanish tragedy that surrounded him in the earliest days of 20th Century Barcelona. In 1901 the poet Rilke married one of Auguste Rodin's pupils, the young sculptress, Klara Westhoff, and Giuseppe Verdi died in Milan, while Pablo y Ruiz Picasso explored the nature of life in blue, through somber eyes that while yet a touch naïve manage never to escape towards bathos. Art historians remark that during this time we see a shift in Picasso's tone towards his subjects, from satirical tone to one of tender empathy with his subjects.
In "La Vie" (1903), now hanging in the Cleveland Museum of Art, an edenic couple stands to the left, the nude woman in the moment after a shock, just in the beginning of absorbing it, cradling her head on the man's shoulder, the (blue loin-clothed) man in a classical pose, his finger pointing towards a mother, right holding her swaddled infant. The mother looking somber, severe, fearful, angry in a tired kind of way. Between the couple and the mother and child, two silhouettes are outlined in the blue. In a slightly lighter shade of blue, a man consoling a woman, beneath them, a figure cradling head on knees, either weeping in torment, asleep or dead. It is as if the man is asking the mother what will become of her child, and in the space between, where one might expect find hope, instead there is desolation or, at best, mutual consolation.
In "The Tragedy" (1903), owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., three figures, one presumes a family, wife to left, husband center and boy of perhaps five years of age left, stand barefoot on a beach, a greenishblue beach in front of a pale blue sea and a darkened dusky sky blue. The man and woman have their heads bowed down. The boy is clapping his hands for heat. The husband is old beyond his years. There is something between that they must say but can't say and they acknowledge that they can't say it. They are missing a home or a child is dead. There is a space between them they know not how to fill. This oddly shaped middle space reminds me for some reason of a woman leaning back, both arms thrust to her sides, screaming in woe. Or of a chanteuse in a turn-of-the-century Paris cabaret, holding a note for just too long enough.
"The Blue Guitarist" (1903), hanging here at the Art Institute of Chicago, which I visited this afternoon with Sid, has become known as the archetypal work of Picasso's Blue Period. The old guitarist, a blind man playing in a dark corner of the city, has perhaps just finished a song. His skeletal frame looks tired, beaten, almost dead. He looks like he's about to pass out from lack of sleep and malnutrition, or that the song has taken his somewhere else, somewhere far from the street corner, somewhere where he lingers in a melancholy kind of blue. A sad song, an indelibly sad song, is finished, and he rests.