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May 2013 Journal

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Art notes (review)

He was 19 years old and about to launch himself in Paris. The year was 1901. The show was Ambroise Vollard’s summer exhibition and the young artist was Pablo Picasso. Shortly before leaving Madrid, he learned of the suicide of his friend, the poet Carlos Casagemas, in Montmartre. This tragedy would profoundly influence Picasso’s early work, known as the Blue Period, which features in the Courtauld Gallery’s current exhibition Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901 (until 26 May). To create his 64 works for the Paris show, Picasso worked intensely, sometimes completing three canvases a day with a vitality which proves his scope and imagination.
The surreal painting of Casagemas’s funeral – dark, weeping figures below, cavorting nudes above – was his provocative, yet subtle hallmark. Ever a lover of women, Picasso was also sensitive to their plight. His visit to the Saint Lazare women’s prison generated a painting of a gaunt mother with her children, eloquent of refugees in today’s media. In fact, loneliness and despair are surprisingly accentuated by the colour and energy of these early works.
In Seated Harlequin the contemplative figure in blue with long, white hands carries an aura of private grief, while in Harlequin and Companion two seated people are together and yet separate; their nervous hands carry the story. There is great tenderness also in the sexual ambivalence of Child with a Dove, said to have sold for £80 million.
Picasso brought the joy and colour of Spain to Paris too. His Spanish Dancer appealed to the French appetite for the Carmen image and there are references to Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet and Degas. It was the debut of a great artist ¬who brilliantly reinvented the work of the Impressionists. Yet it would never happen again. As new genres beckoned, Picasso was about to re-invent himself.
The National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition (until 27 May) of some 150 vintage prints between 1916 and 1968 is the first to focus on Man Ray’s photographic portraits, many seen for the first time in the UK. His genius lies in his ability to illuminate the life of the subject beyond the face alone. Photographer to the literati and glitterati of his day, the Philadelphia-born surrealist counted Duchamp, Picasso and Giacometti among his friends and probably photographed every one of them.
Moving to Paris in 1921, he contributed to the Dadaist and Surrealist movements. There, with his lover Lee Miller, he developed the solarisation process, notable in his portraits of Lee, Elsa Schiaparelli, Irene Zurkinden and others. One portrait resembles a smudgy ink painting; another turns an artist’s model from a pre-Raphaelite pose into a blonde spinning top. There is an insouciant profile of Coco Chanel in her little black dress and jumble of pearls. The portraits are stylised and narrative. A study of the young Picasso shows him with slicked black hair and a brooding, matador face.
The Second World War prompted Man Ray’s return to America. But he became ‘serious’ when Hollywood got him. Formal poses become the currency of stardom and you feel an interesting artist has been curbed, gilded with their stardust rather than his own, resulting in lavish, but less exciting portraits of the stars. Returning in 1951 to Paris, where he remained until his death in 1976, he used experimental colour photography in his portraits of Juliette Gréco, Yves Montand and Catherine Deneuve.
Model/ photographer Lee Miller stalked him to a Paris café to announce herself as his new assistant, and he photographs her majestic profile and shiny, short-cropped hair in flapper-girl style.

Gloria Tessler

previous article:Kindertransport 75th Anniversary
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