Pablo Picasso and Vincent Van Gogh never met. The Spanish painter discovered the Dutchman's work in Paris aged 19, when he was paying visits to independent salons. But an exercise in historical fiction leads one to surmise that had they met, they would not have gotten along. Van Gogh was profoundly solitary and insecure, Picasso was a natural born leader. Yet once dead, both met figuratively on the international art marketplace, where their work commands the highest prices. Both men also share the top two spots of visitor charts at museums around the world.
And yet during the early years of the 20th century, Van Gogh's starry nights were both ethically and esthetically very close to Picasso's portraits in Montmartre. This similarity is now the object of a new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, called Picasso in Paris, 1900-1907.
Young Picasso was a "human sponge" - not yet the forceful man of his later years
The show explores the years when the Spanish artist became a world reference in European avant-garde art, during the period prior to Cubism and his Demoiselles d'Avignon. In June, the show will move to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona.
The piece of work that opens the exhibition provides a powerful beginning: it is the self-portrait with a palette that Picasso painted in Paris in 1906. The painting creates the perfect context to give the visitor a sense of this adolescent artist, who has just arrived in the French capital. Picasso is wearing a white, long-sleeved, V-neck shirt over a pair of blue pants. His right hand is in his pocket, and his face is reminiscent of the description of him made by Daniel Henry Kahnweiler: a young man with a dark, febrile, intimidating look in his eye whose meteoric rise to success seems unstoppable.
The 80 pieces on display, selected by curator Marilyn McCully, a world expert on Picasso, are an invitation to discover the genius' formative years in chronological fashion. The young artist who arrived in Paris in the early years of a very convulsed 20th century had a knack for capturing the zeitgeist. Up until then, he had depicted blind guitarists, ironing women and sad female nudes - topics that hinted at political concerns that would become more central to his work in later decades.
But once in Paris, he happily left behind the marginal characters of Barcelona - as well as his homeland and family - to embrace his voluntary exile. Penniless, he settled down in Bateau-Lavoir, a miserable studio he shared with other artists and with his sentimental partner at the time, Fernande.
His itinerant lifestyle was reflected in portraits of street acrobats and their promise of a free, nomadic existence. The sadness of his early blue tones makes way for pink here.
Pepe Serra, director of the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, which loaned the greatest amount of work for this show, explains that the most interesting thing about this less well-known period of Picasso's life is that the young man comes across as a human sponge, ready to absorb it all, rather than the force of nature with rock-solid convictions that he would later become. "We can say that he copied work, that he was inspired by others, that he adapted other people's work...What he saw in Paris at the time, he immediately took to his own canvases," explains Serra. "He painted almost exactly like Cézanne, like Van Gogh, like Renoir... And then he reinvented everything, because his talent was insuperable."
Meanwhile, the United States, which already hosted two major Picasso exhibitions at New York's MoMA and Metropolitan museums last spring, is organizing two more this year.
The first one opened last weekend at the MoMA. Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914 explores one of the artist's periods of more radical experimentation, with more than 60 pieces that have rarely been seen together before and which showcase the effervescence of Cubism.
The second show, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, is an ambitious, monumental retrospective made possible by loans from the National Picasso Museum in Paris, which is currently closed for renovations. This circumstance has benefited Americans who will be able to view 176 paintings that have rarely left the French institution until now.