Small is beautiful

11th March 2013

The best – and best-value – show of modern painting in London right now is not the overblown and distinctly patchy Manet: Portraying Life at the Royal Academy (until 14 April; entrance fee £15). Rather, it is Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901 at The Courtauld Gallery (until 26 May; entrance £6, for which you also get access to Courtauld’s many other masterpieces). You can get a sense of the show from this video with curator Dr Barnaby Wright, and as critics have notes, it’s glorious. Alastair Sooke for the Telegraph called it ‘a tight, compelling and beautifully installed exhibition’; for Brian Sewell writing for the Evening Standard, it is ‘a formidable exhibition, didactic, intense and moving’; Jonathan Jones for the Guardian describes the show as ‘scintillating’. But perhaps not quite enough has been made of just how exemplary this is as a perfectly-formed and small exhibition.

The 18 works in Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901 are installed in just two rooms. Although you will know several of them from reproductions, most have come from private sources or comparatively hard-to-see (because in Russia, for example) museum collections. There are by anyone’s criteria a very high proportion of masterpieces, but on Friday afternoon one work stood out for me as a blazing canvas of supreme confidence and achievement: Self-portrait (Yo Picasso),which was one of three major self-portraits (there is another in the show) that Picasso painted in 1901.

Self Portrait (Yo Picasso) by Pable Picasso, 1901

The argument of the show is that 1901 is the year in which Picasso became Picasso, or at least that this is when his modernist maturity began. He was just 19, and after a short time in Madrid he spent much of the year in the French capital. The dealer Vollard gave him a successful show in the summer, but the later months of the year saw him responding to the suicide in February of his friend Casagemas. His melancholy images of low-life characters from this time are taken to be the first of what art historians call Picasso’s Blue period.

What the show does – and what all exhibitions of course should do, except that too many fall short – is encourage and prod and seduce you to look, and to look in a fierce and focussed manner, at the paintings on the wall. There is a sufficient number of these to be immensely satisfying (especially when they are of this quality) but not so many as to be overwhelming.

The show has an argument but this never feels reductive – the works have more than enough room to breathe and live and glow within the outlines of a lightly sketched but nonetheless revealing historical context. (For more, I recommend the relevant three chapters of the first volume of John Richardson glorious biography, A Life of Picasso, volume 1, 1889-1906.)

The space is just right too. At the Royal Academy the Manets, and certainly the great ones, are stretched across too many looming spaces, whereas at the Courtauld there seems to be both an intensity to the two rooms and also a wonderful sense of expansiveness. Had the second room on Friday not been quite so dominated a circle of county ladies assembling their social lives on their mobiles, my visit would have had a sense of perfection that I find rare in my gallery-going. I will most certainly be back (and with a little luck, the ladies will not be).

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