SELWYN COLLEGE, Cambridge, is still the only Oxbridge college
that has a motto in Greek rather than Latin: ΣΤΗΚΕΤΕ ΕΝ ΤΗ
ΠΙΣΤΕΙ ΑΝ∆ΡΙΖΕΣΘΕ. "Stand firm in the faith; act like a
Since the 1970s, when the college was among the first in
Cambridge to admit women, as dons and students, the more acceptable
paraphrase has been "Stand firm in the faith and be the person you
are called to be."
Gender differentiation passed St Paul by in writing 1
Corinthians 16.13, but the sense of "becoming" is a richly laden
caravel for theologians and philosophers alike. Who are we, and
when do we become the person we are called to be? In our teenage
years, growing into adulthood, we come closest to exploring this
The current exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery delves
brilliantly into this, observing Picasso at the age of 19. It is
reckoned that Picasso may have produced more than 120 paintings in
1901 alone. Here, just 18 momentous works chart the challenges
faced by an artist on the cusp of coming of age.
Confident, full of life, invincible, and determined to establish
himself, Picasso gazes back at us from his self-portrait, Yo
Picasso: "I Picasso." Here I stand and I can do no other. The
arrogance and self-assertiveness of the young is encapsulated in a
gash of orange for the necktie and the garish downward strokes of
The face, in a mirror (notice that he holds the palette in his
"right" hand), is unflinchingly violent and combative. It is the
face of a bull, and will be the central highlight of this summer's
exhibition in Barcelona to mark the 40th anniversary of the
indefatigable artist's death. In photographs taken at the same
time, his eyes are equally penetrating and unwaveringly cold.
The self-portrait (private collection) was listed as the first
work in the June 1901 exhibition of his work staged at the Parisian
gallery of Ambroise Vollard. It is with that show, for which
Picasso produced some 64 paintings, and its aftermath that this
quintessential exhibition is concerned.
Picasso had made his first trip from Barcelona to Paris the
previous year, in October, shortly before his 19th birthday, with
his friend the artist Carles Casagemas, to visit the Exposition
Internationale Universelle in the Grand Palais, and to see how
Bohemian life in both cities compared.
Picasso had submitted a work to the Spanish pavilion which found
favour and brought him to the attention of a small-time art-dealer
and agent, the 40-year-old Catalan Pere Mañach. He found sales for
Picasso, and promised to arrange an exhibition for him next
For three months, Picasso and Casagemas shared a studio and a
girlfriend, a young married seamstress and model, Germaine
Florentin or Gargallo, as they painted the town red. An increasing
alcohol dependency and impotence led the 20-year-old Casagemas on a
ruinous path to self-destruction.
After returning home together to Spain in the winter, Casagemas
left Picasso there to go back to Paris. On 17 February, he took
several friends, including Germaine Gargallo, to supper in his
local cafe. Casagemas stood up to make a speech, drew a gun, and
fired at her. She dodged the bullet, and he turned the gun on
When Picasso, who was in Madrid, received the news a few days
later, he was devastated. He contributed an ink sketch of his
friend to the formal obituary in the Catalunya Artistica
(28 February), and some time later in the year painted several
portraits of his dead friend.
These remained unknown, in the possession of the artist, until
the 1960s, when he allowed them to be included in a catalogue of
his work, remarking that his friend's suicide had depressed him and
contributed to his "Blue Period".
But this did not prevent Picasso's painting or having a fling
with Gargallo when he came back to Paris to work towards his
exhibition. He shared a flat with the poet Max Jacob, and, through
Mañach, met Vollard in June. He was also introduced to some of the
fallen women who lived in the Hôpital St Lazare, often with their
babies. The women dressed in blue, and wore a white bonnet if they
had a sexually transmitted disease. Like the nuns Gauguin often
painted, they turn up in his pictures.
Sales from the show were respectable. The suggestion that
Portrait of a Man (Bührle Collection, Zurich) is set in
the exhibition, and therefore gives a snapshot of the hang, cannot
be the case, as we know that Vollard did not frame the pictures; so
we still have no reliable depiction of the landmark sale.
Picasso had carried small works with him from Spain, but he
painted most of the works shown in Paris at a speed that outraged
and amazed commentators, producing as many as three a day. As in
his show for the world fair, he included stock Spanish figures in
the exhibition: the pouting Dwarf-Dancer ("La
Nana"), with her hand on her hip, and an equally grotesque
courtesan-like figure of a Spanish Woman seated in a vast
crinoline skirt on a settle (Copenhagen), her head defiantly
resting on her right hand.
But there is something unreal and unnerving about the way in
which the women are observed which forces us to look again when we
might want to turn aside. The Spanish Dancer crouching on
the floor with her knees drawn up under her chin is more
threatening than seductive, even to a 19-year-old Minotaur.
The 1901 show also included the extraordinarily graphic portrait
head of a genial hobo, Bibi la Purée (the French have the same
aphorism of "being in the soup"), a drinking mate of Verlaine and
the toast of Montmartre. His wide forehead and grin suggest Frans
Hals as much as Goya. All dressed up and with nowhere to go, this
bon vivant flâneur was dead within two years.
The later paintings that Picasso produced include, on one wall
for our delectation, Lady Aberconway's Girl with a Dove
and three of the great "Harlequin" series of café portraits, with
the Seated Harlequin (The Met) lost in thought, gazing
across at the Moscow couple, Harlequin and Companion, an
enigmatic portrayal of marital ennui which may feature Casagemas
and Germaine. Next to them, St Petersburg has sent the abstracted
figure of the Absinthe Drinker, painted thinly as if by
The Girl with a Dove hung in the National Gallery from
1974-2010, loaned by the heirs of Lady Aberconway, to whom Samuel
Courtauld bequeathed it in 1947. It is probably the first work by
Picasso to enter a British collection (it was with the Alexander
Reid gallery in 1924), and should be acquired for the Courtauld
collection; but this may well be the last chance to see it
publicly. This picture should be kept in the UK if we claim to be a
nation of culture and distinction.
The last wall is the saddest of all, with an imaginary scene set
in the morgue. The gaping wound in Casagemas's right temple has
been painted out, as if undertakers have worked their cosmetic
posthumous magic. Instead, the artist drowns in the melancholy blue
of Picasso's defeatist imagining, swathed in the false comfort of
his death clouts. Picasso had read his Nietzsche, and here
convulsively painted The Birth of Tragedy.
The vertical narrative of Evocation (The Burial of
Casagemas), from the Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris, is a secular
and almost blasphemous altarpiece for his friend's burial.
Reimagining works by El Greco and Courbet, Picasso, a thieving
magpie if ever there was when it comes to artistic inspiration, has
staged the apotheosis for his boon companion, attended by the
whores of St Lazare and "a Madonna" much like Germaine Gargallo.
But the boy done good, and for another 70 years he commanded the
art world, as recent auction prices still suggest.
"Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901" is at the Courtauld Gallery,
Somerset House, Strand, London WC2, until 26 May. Phone 020 7848
2526 (24 hr recorded information).