Courtauld Gallery, London

Visual art review: Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901 - Portrait of the artist as quixotic genius and grieving friend

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

In one year, Picasso staged his first show, lost his soulmate, and forged the giddying range of styles that revealed his pedigree and future

The Courtauld Gallery's new show has a catchy title that prompts a question: becoming which Picasso? There were, after all, several – Picasso the Surrealist, the Classicist, the Analytic and Synthetic Cubist; the Blue Period Picasso, the Rose Period Picasso .... Which will we find as we climb the steep stairs in Somerset House?

And the answer is, none and all of them. Becoming Picasso deals with a single year in its subject's life, 1901 – the moment when he launched himself with an exhibition at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard, champion of Cézanne, protector of Gauguin, promoter of Vincent van Gogh. Picasso was 19 when the show opened in June. He was other things as well: classically trained, Spanish, 19th century. Above all, becoming Picasso meant coming to Paris – being a Parisian painter but also not, stealing just enough from Degas and Manet to build a French Trojan horse for his own Spanish genius.

That spring, he worked like a mad thing. Picasso showed more than 60 works at Vollard, all of them new, all made in a studio in Montmartre. How many canvases he painted and did not show, we can only guess: certainly, he could turn out three a day, and did. Most of the 18 pictures at the Courtauld were at Vollard, but not all. As well as the famous five dozen, he painted scores more in 1901, in so many styles and genres that even the small sample here makes your head spin. Becoming Picasso is the picture of an artist on fire.

Almost literally so in the case of the self-portrait known as Yo – Picasso, ("I, Picasso"). The nickname comes from the inscription in paint to the left of Picasso's face, although, in a sense, it is a tautology. A less aggressive but equally insistent message is his signature – the simple "Picasso" that would adorn all his work for the next 70 years, replacing the patronymic "Ruiz" he had used in Spain. Yo – Picasso is a 19th-century swagger portrait, Spanish – its immanent light is like that of Goya's Condesa de Chinchon – but radically new too: painters did not daub slogans on their canvases in 1901. A self-portrait, it also depicts that spring. Between Picasso's cravat and the edge of the canvas is an area of orange paint, jabbed on with an open brush, alive with energy. It is like staring into a flame.

As a statement of intent, though, Yo – Picasso arguably ranks second to La Nana (Dwarf-dancer). In the 1840s, French artists, in the Louvre's new Galerie Espagnole, had discovered Spanish painting. ("Discovered" is not putting it too strongly: in 1688, the historian André Félibien had described Velázquez as "an unknown".) To Picasso's annoyance, the genius of Spain was now viewed as an inheritance of France. La Nana is a response to this, flicking two Hispanic fingers at the French claim. Picasso's dwarf is rude, black-haired, glowering with Spanish attitude – Degas' Little Dancer Aged Fourteen morphed with the dwarf Maribarbola from Las Meninas. With her bunched left fist, she looks as though she is ready to take on all comers – as was the man who had painted her.

In this are glimpses not just of the later Picassos but of Postmodernism. Yes, the Spaniard plays Parisians at their own game – Gauguin and Manet in Absinthe Drinker, Toulouse Lautrec in At the Moulin Rouge – but there is irony in the brazenness of his stealing. La Nana's ballet-shod feet, in fourth position, both echo Degas and mock him. In the same way, the black outlines of his harlequin pictures are unabashedly from Gauguin, but they tell a story that has nothing to do with Cloisonnism or Pont-Aven.

In February 1901, Picasso's friend and countryman, the painter Carlos Casagemas, unlucky in love, had shot himself in the head in a Paris café. Spelled out in the melancholy of Seated Harlequin is a sorrow so deep that it can only be told in mime: the two fingers the pierrot points at his temple echo Casagemas's mode of suicide. Beyond this is Casagemas in his Coffin, the first picture in the show that is less about where Picasso was coming from than where he was going: in its deathly hues are the roots of the Blue Period.

A second self-portrait was painted weeks after the first. The gulf between the two is vast. Self-Portrait (Yo) is less Goya than Munch, a soul-painting – a response, perhaps, to the Norwegian's lithographic Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm of 1895. "I live with the dead," Munch had said; now Picasso did, too. In fewer than 20 works, the Courtauld tells a story that leaves you aching for the next instalment, to know those other, later Picassos. It is a customarily brilliant show.

To 26 May (020-7300 0500)

Critic's Choice

Get in line! The Royal Academy's Manet show is a predictable hit; with a focus on portraits, it offers a wide survey of the artist's impressive output. Booking is necessary, but you have until 14 Apr to catch it. Another worth-the-queue exhibition is the Hayward Gallery's Light Show, featuring works by 22 artists (with a stand-out installation by James Turrell). It's illuminated until 28 Apr.

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

    Tribal gathering

    Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

    Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

    Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
    Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

    Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

    No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
    How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

    Power of the geek Gods

    Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

    Perfect match

    What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
    10 best trays

    Get carried away with 10 best trays

    Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
    Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

    Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

    Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
    Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

    Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

    He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high