WASHINGTON — An expert on Pablo Picasso once told me that if the painter had been hit by a bus in 1905, he would have come down to us as a minor member of the Symbolist movement, just then petering out in France. It’s pretty clear that Picasso only really matters for what he came up with a few years later, when his Cubist pictures ripped apart the fabric of Western art.
In “Picasso: Painting the Blue Period,” at the Phillips Collection here through June 12, almost all the art predates 1905. Yet despite — or because of — the “wrong” dates of its pictures, this show is gripping. Yes, we only get to see Picasso before he figured out how to make art that matters. Sometimes, he gets on what’s clearly the wrong track. But we also get to watch as this very young man gets his first sense of the artist he needs to become.
The exhibition, curated by Susan Behrends Frank, from the Phillips, and Kenneth Brummel, of the Art Gallery of Ontario, includes more than 40 paintings by Picasso plus drawings, prints and a few sculptures by him and others. They give a fine survey of what the artist was up to in the first years of the 20th century, as he shuttled back and forth between Barcelona and Paris, where he moved for good in 1904. These were the years when Picasso, barely in his 20s, perfected the style of what is called his Blue Period.
The Phillips has brought in well-known Blue Period paintings such as “The Soup,” a 1903 work from the Art Gallery of Ontario, where the show premiered last autumn: A woman in blue robes stoops toward a blue-clad little girl to offer her a blued bowl of hot soup — giving off a cloud of blue steam, of course.
Another famous canvas, painted a year or two earlier and now owned by the Detroit Institute of Arts, shows another woman in blue, seated this time on a bluestone bench in front of an open window that looks onto an empty blue sky. In English, the painting has come to bear the title “Melancholy Woman,” which underlines the most notable fact about this work and others of its ilk: Their blue-ness obviously, too obviously, extends to their emotions, which can be so mopey they head into bathos.
The style of Picasso’s blue paintings matches their subject matter: It is similarly facile, too easy and fluid to capture all the ways we humans know how to suffer. Their style normalizes suffering by turning it into agreeable art. Misery should never go down this easy.
But the ease with which we digest these paintings may explain why they have come to be the most popular Picassos, and the ones that fetch some of his highest prices: They let us have the frisson of an encounter with a certified genius without actually having to confront the astounding difficulty of the Cubist paintings that did the certifying.
That difficulty is there, at least in utero, in some other early works at the Phillips. They give a thrilling glimpse of Picasso coming into his own.
Even pictures with subjects that seem fairly straightforward, like the paintings now called “Nude With Cats” and “Woman With Blue Stockings,” both made in 1901 for the artist’s first Paris solo show, can have wild brushwork that obscures and dismantles more than it depicts, as can’t be said of even the most turbid brushstrokes of van Gogh or Rembrandt. Picasso is not trying to create a coherently crude style; at his best he practices a crudeness that simply stops his art from congealing into style. These paintings are brilliantly hard on the eyes. That stands, brilliantly, for the hard realities lived by the prostitutes they depict.
The Phillips Collection’s own most notable Picasso, “The Blue Room” from 1901, doesn’t have — or hasn’t yet settled for — any of the stylish ease of the more classic Blue Period works. Picasso lets the body of the bathing woman in the center of the room fall into full incoherence and asymmetry, with arms that are hardly even articulated; they fall from shoulders that barely make sense as human body parts.
This isn’t a bathing beauty, such as Picasso would have seen in paintings by Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. but a woman caught in the all-too-human awkwardness of trying to bathe a body in a shallow tub in a crummy bedroom. Or, more likely, this is a sex worker coping with what it means to clean a body that has just been sold to some random man who happened to have a few extra sous in his pocket — quite possibly the man painting this memento of the encounter, to sell to some other john who collects pictures.
To understand what Picasso is up to here, it’s worth comparing his image of the painting’s “real” bather to the fully dressed dancer in the famous poster by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec that’s shown hanging on the bather’s bedroom wall. That elegant poster stands for precisely the kind of fully coherent stylishness that Picasso so clearly avoids in the rest of the painting, which struggles with depicting the world rather than settling for yet another artful way to do so.
That makes it a precursor to Picasso’s Cubism, which is never just about uncovering some new way for pictures to represent life. (Although that’s how Cubism has often been billed, almost from the moment it was invented, by almost everyone except Picasso.) Cubism is better understood as a grand declaration of the impossibility of coherent representation in a modern world — or at very least a modern art world — that has exhausted all options for coherence. The art historian TJ Clark has spoken of Cubism’s willingness “to make the best of that obscurity, and finally to revel in it.”
“I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” said a character in a novel by the great modernist Samuel Beckett — “the maestro of failure,” as he was once called — and Beckett’s famous line could be the motto of Picasso, the Cubist.
That radical Picasso can be spotted at work already in “The Blue Room,” and not only in the bather at its center. Look at the prayer rug at her feet, which she is using to cover a cold garret floor: The pattern at its center, which in the real rug would have been meant as a mihrab, or prayer niche, pointing to Mecca (I doubt Picasso would have had a clue about this) has become a kind of avatar of the woman standing above it, but reduced to the barest splotch of pink flesh surrounding a brown blot of pubic hair and set against a background that fails to cohere at all.
Consider just this part of the painting — cut it from the canvas in your mind’s eye — and you’ve got a pretty good idea of where Picasso would be in a handful of years.
Picasso: Painting the Blue Period
Through June 12, The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street, NW, Washington, DC; (202) 387-2151; phillipscollection.org.