Most 19-year-olds are naive, egotistical little things. They’re filled with the arrogance of youth and the kind of self-belief that comes with having experienced almost nothing of life. Pablo Picasso was 19 when he moved to Paris in 1901 for his first exhibition in the city, thanks to art dealer Ambroise Vollard. And, aside from his exceptional gift, he was just like every other 19-year-old.
The paintings united in the first room all come from the Vollard exhibition, with most having been hurriedly created in the month leading up to the show itself. The rushed and frantic brushwork of ‘French Can-Can’ and ‘Dwarf Dancer’ is the work of a breathless young man, drunk on his own ego and immense talent, but unable to find his voice.
Picasso aped the hedonistic rush of Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas in his excited depictions, but sans finesse. These are the physical manifestations of the giddy rush of potential success, fuelled by teenage testosterone. But they’re derivative, and sometimes even a little ugly.
If the Vollard works are the vaguely unsuccessful result of a month of frenzied excess, what follows is the birth of the great Picasso – with the shocking public suicide of his close friend Carles Casagemas in a Montmartre café acting as a tragic artistic turning point. Gone is the tentative dotted early brushwork, replaced with thick, confident dark outlines framing blank, near-featureless skin. The contorted figures of his bar scenes are twisted with emotion, while the grey unrecognisable face of the woman in ‘The Mother’ is stunningly sombre.
Most striking of all is the deeply painful imagined portrait of Casagemas in his coffin. Saturated in the shades that would define his 'Blue Period', the deathly pallor of a beloved friend almost leaks from the canvas. It’s Picasso’s pain made paint.
These works aren’t totally original. The blocky colours of Gauguin and the thick outlines of Van Gogh are everywhere – but Picasso had finally started to assert himself. What truly makes this show great is seeing the leap, over a matter of only months (indeed, all the pieces here are dated 1901), from the youthful naivety of ‘Spanish Dancer’ to the swaggering assurance of ‘Child with a Dove’. Most of the works on display aren’t perfect, some aren’t even good, but this isn’t just a show about art. It’s about the birth of a modern master.