Reviewing 'Blue and Rose Periods' at the Fondation Beyeler, Basel
Masterpieces are defined today depending on how many times they have been reproduced. Masterpieces decorate domestic interiors, hotels, and waiting rooms. They depict childhood, couples, wealthy families, luxurious objects, catholicism, gardens, stages and myths. The commoditization of artworks via kitsch collectables, influences institutional programs to lean on gift shops to spoon feed simplified forms for aesthetic satisfaction to their ticket holders. A simple souvenir, a regenerated memory compresses the visual experience into an object of infinite significance and desire. There is nothing today that historically bounds masterpieces to the present, nothing that bounds the body of work of old painters to contemporary culture than the spectacle institutions create to keep the pressure of numbers low and the visitors rates very high.
Existential matters leak from the countless households reproductions of Picasso’s Blue and Rose Periods have claimed. The extreme conditions in which the life of Pablo Ruiz-Picasso developed during his first years in Paris turn to be a matter of massive interest, and a never-ending source for blockbuster exhibitions. Today, these melancholic portraits demanded a quarantined revision, apart from his cubist icons, his isolated political statement against war, or the countless colorful scenes depicting naked women and hungry bulls. The Fondation Beyeler has carefully chosen the paintings that belong to his most sensitive period, his apotheotic youth.
The paintings contemplate the bare beauty of humanity. Juxtaposed in serenity, the paintings from the Blue and Rose Periods breathe through the vast, air-conditioned rooms. In Basel, the sobriety of the exhibited creates a stark contrast to the first stop of this itinerant retrospective at the Musee d’Orsay, where paintings, drawings, photographs and historic documents where tightly, and somehow randomly, put together. A gentle crowd of defining moments take the form of a warm gaze that searches for placement within the various modern pictorial turns.
But what can be said about the Blue and Rose Periods that is not already in the world? Is there something new to say about Picasso that has the potential to shift the cliché of the genius Spanish painter from the 20th century, who lived most of his life as a French bohemian,surrounded by broken-hearted women that adored him? What remains undiscovered beyond his wide eyes of tremendous emotion, and his early paintings, a time when he appeared a painter, rather than his own avatar.
“When I was a child my mother said to me, ‘If you become a soldier, you’ll be a general. If you become a monk, you’ll be the Pope‘. Instead I was a painter, and became Picasso.“
For those who are interested in Picasso as a historic figure, the Fondation Beyeler offers a general view through their own archive of paintings, publications and sculptures: Picasso Panorama. For those who are interested in a contemporary interpretation of how could one could understand Picasso’s beginnings, I offer to compare him with the most outstanding figures of contemporary culture, regardless of the genre or discipline. With a cloud-rapper, a Yung Hurn or Yung Lean, for instance. Imagine for a moment the surreal echoing of chant-like vocal samples by Max Jacob calling Picasso a “living star”, or a series of live-tweets narrating his first show with dealer Ambroise Vollard. Cloud-rap parodies and embraces the capitalization of culture on the internet, and Picasso was looking for a similar effect.
Within his Parisian milieu, starred by male poets and female models, Picasso’s paintings are typically characterized by their hazy, erotic, gender-ambiguous, lo-fi palette of colors. He presents himself later in autobiography as a sad boy, depressed by the suicide of his friend Casagemas. Casagemas dies brokenhearted, Picasso starts to paint only in blue; from sky blue to ultramarine, soberly shaping his own narcissistic monumentality. Picasso falls in love again, this time with Fernande Olivier, and all the tones turn warmer. The classicizing character of the adolescent paintings in the time in Gósol balance upon hieratic poses of androgyny.
The meticulous joy he spends in “Composition: Les Paysans”, ”Boy Leading a Horse” or “Boy With A Pipe” not only alludes to paradigmatic and iconographic referential games, but to his own sensual proximity to what he was painting, flowing between the sexes. The Harlequin in Picasso’s work, an omnipresent figure in popular culture by the time, is his alter ego, the outsider and manifestation of his gentle innocence. Guillaume Apollinaire, a close friend and influencer of Picasso’s nostalgia of eternal wanderers, described the Harlequin as being of the sexes indistinct. Innovation in rap is all about this: nomadism, self-sufficiency, daydreaming. Just like painting back then, it comes from the suburbs, the periphery, the autonome. Picasso's transformation from the figurative to abstraction appears in Gósol, far away from the shine of Paris, near his hometown Barcelona. The language of his work is devoted to the bodies of friends and lovers, but most of all, his recollection of reflexive reaction.
In spite of the over capitalized celebrity figure, his emotionally driven paintings are reactive to a universal need for understanding. Picasso’s feelings change according to his social life, and to his relation to commercial success. The more he earned, the more busy he was producing. Picasso’s commercial success can take unimaginable forms. This has brought the Fondation Beyeler to built a Café de Paris inside its minimalistic transparent walls. One for the flair of the fin de siècle, and an additional exhibition to once more simulate the precarious, gloomy conditions of the Variété, and bars where the young Picasso found the exile to his romantic dreams of montmartre. However, the applauded, grotesque appeal of the scenario turns the exhibition into a social phenomena, offering once a week a night program of burlesque, cocktails and other vernacular events.
The pulse of the Blue and Rose Periods that have been instrumentalized for the artificial Café de Paris emphasizes the commercial logistics are also followed by enterprises like Dior for the presentation of new collections by Maria Grazia Chiuri. Amongst the artificial smoke and descending rose petals, models galloped through the cavernous Dior presentation, while dancers moved to a choreography by Sharon Eyal, exagerating the luxury brand’s ode to agility and beauty. Without an experience, an audience would be hard to persuade to remain physically present. A collection presented publically, is a collection photographed and ultimately visible from the comfort of one’s scrolling hand.
Although the Fondation Beyeler’s choice to accompany the Blue and Rose Periods exhibition with a reproduction of Café de Paris can regrettably be seen as an unnecessary fetishization of Picasso’s young years, the risk of undermining the strength of his paintings had been seemingly outweighed by an institution’s dependency on digital distribution. An elusive, fragile experience shook as viewers confronted these inherently demanding moments of history, while the spectacled photo booth buzzed in the peripheral. The paradox of rare and reproduced snickered as if they were accelerating Picasso’s bohemian narratives into the sterile universe of historical artifacts.