What’s your favourite colour? Why? Have you ever tried to get to know someone better by asking this question? It can fill an awkward silence in a conversation, and to some, it can reveal a personality trait that allows them to learn more about their interlocutor. The answer is often simple, spontaneous, of a certain obviousness, and echoing one’s subconscious as much as the collective unconscious.
But what about colour in art? What if one of the colours could become an obsession crossing the barriers of reason, creating links, and telling a story of some of the most traumatic as well as most peaceful moments of a lifetime.
The answer to this question is the central point of a new exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (18 September 2018 – 6 January 2019). The museum, once a train station, saw in 1900 the beginning of a Parisian adventure for the young Pablo Ruiz, a young man whom you probably know better by the name of Pablo Picasso.
It is here that 300 of his pieces, including some of his major works, have been brought together retracing two periods of his life, known as the Blue and the Pink.
He was 18 years old, and after a promising start of the career in Spain, Pablo is invited to Paris to represent his country at the Exposition Universelle with a work that had been lost since. An honour and an opportunity that he could not refuse, not only because of his career but also because he wanted to free himself from his father pushing him into a different artistic direction.
He and his friend Carlos Casagemas, who was also an artist, settled in the famous district of Pigalle, an ideal place for artists dreaming of taking part in the bohemian fantasy life that was so popular at the beginning of the 20th century. The two friends were inseparable and enjoyed the exhilarating Parisian lifestyle, whether during the day or in the embraces of the nights…
Casagemas quickly fell in love with a young woman, Germaine, but sadly for him, this one-sided affection became an obsession and the passion drove him into a fatal fate. At the time, Picasso was working and travelling between France and Spain and although he was aware of his friend’s depression and tried to help him, he had no idea of the tragedy that was about to take place on February 17, 1901.
Casagemas hosted a dinner party with his friends and Germaine at a restaurant called L’Hippodrome at 128 Boulevard de Clichy. At the end of the evening he rose, gave a short speech, and then suddenly drew out a gun and fired at Germaine. He missed his target but not realizing that he turned the weapon on himself and putting it to his right temple he pulled the trigger.
Picasso learned the terrible news and returned to Paris in March to suffer a long period of depression. A portrait is illustrating its starting point: The Death of Casagemas, 1901 is the start of the blue period. Three long years of mourning and working through his pain to finally achieve his own catharsis. A descent into the dark, almost blue-black depths of human nature.
There are two distinct worlds in this portrait, the one of the living – red and orange, illustrated by the oil lamp trying to bring life to a man’s face that might be at last serene. The other – blue, green and yellow, reflects nothing more than the cold absence of life, a profile in the shadow, created by a fatal bullet.
At the exhibition, I stroll in the alleys of these long years between the blues of the canvases and the blacks of Picasso’s drawings, which were totally unknown to me before. Bodies are slimmed down, attitudes filled with a certain piety reminding me of religious icons that should only be really observed by candlelight.
At a turning point, almost out of breath, I see in the distance that the tone is changing, I quickly move forward, impatiently passing canvases of major importance, and I stop suddenly. Indeed, the shades of blue are no longer the only element in Picasso’s work, and other tints of colour are creating a new harmony. I approach the portrait of a woman which draws my attention. The woman is presented in profile with a direct and powerful look. She is beautiful and full of new strength, her name is Madeleine, I come a little closer – her lips are pink.
Indeed, the colour of her skin proves that life begins to reappear in Picasso’s art, especially that during one of his trips to a circus he will meet his love in the person of Madeleine.
This exhibition continues to take on life and colour, and Expressionism eventually meets Cubism, but I decide it is time for me to conclude and propose an answer to my first question.
What does it all tell us about colours? Does colour define us? Do colours allow us to express a depth of emotions that cannot be reduced to “simple” words? Much has been said about Pablo Picasso and those periods, Carl Jung once talked about schizophrenia, historians create links between Vincent Van Gogh’s troubled nights, Edvard Munch’s intimate love life and Giotto’s starry skies.
For me, there is evidence, a lesson, or perhaps a piece of advice left to us by Picasso in his colour more than a century ago. The ability of colour to express emotion, regardless of the emotional depth they can reach and the madness they can inspire is perhaps the key to the liberation of the soul and a necessary catharsis to move forward. And Picasso’s works do move forward, acting as a testimony to his personal experience and on a greater scale, the experience of human nature.
Picasso, Blue and Rose
General Curator: Laurent Le Bon, President of the Picasso-Paris National Museum
Commissaires: Claire Bernardi, Stéphanie Molins, Emilia Philippot
This exhibition is co-produced by the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée National Picasso-Paris.
It will also be presented at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel from February 3 to May 26, 2019.