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Paris show blends happiness and melancholia of young Picasso

More than 300 works from two key periods in Pablo Picasso's early years go on display in Paris on Tuesday, the first time they have been brought together in the city where the Spanish master took his first steps toward revolutionary new territories of modern art.

Paris show blends happiness and melancholia of young Picasso
Photo: AFP

“Picasso: Blue and Rose” delves into the formative days from 1900 to 1906 when the young artist was living the Bohemian life in a Montmartre studio, at times burning his works to ward off the cold.

“The strongest walls would open before me,” he would proudly write while absorbing the influence of Manet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh. 

The exhibition at the Musee d'Orsay was conceived with the Picasso and Orangerie museums in Paris as well as the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, which will also show the works early next year.

Curators managed to secure exceptional loans of works from the Picasso Museum in Barcelona and institutions in the US, Switzerland and Russia as well as from private collections rarely open to the public.

The works include some 80 paintings and 150 drawings by the artist in his early 20s as he absorbed what would become his adopted country, and several sculptures alongside portrayals of Picasso by other artists.

“It's the first show in France to consider a period overlooked by art historians, allowing a chance to re-evaluate the early Picasso,” said Laurence des Cars, the Orsay's director.

The museum was chosen because it is where the 18-year-old artist arrived when it was still a train station, to represent Spain at the Universal Exposition in October 1900.

“It could only be here,” des Cars said.

Light and dark

“We're going to discover Picasso at 18 to 25 years old, before cubism. It's all taking shape,” said Stephanie Molins, a curator of the show.

“He's not only the unrivalled master of the 20th century but also a child of the 19th century,” she said.

The show begins with the Blue period, marked by the artist's frequent travels between Paris and Barcelona, discovering the possibilities of avant-garde expressionisms while still under the more classic influences of his father, an art teacher.

An early work includes “Yo Picasso” (I Picasso), a vivid self-portrait showing him confident at his easel.

But just a few months later the paintings take on a markedly sombre tone, following the death of his fellow painter and close friend Carles Casagemas, who shot himself in the head at a Montmartre cafe following a soured love affair.

Many of the Blue period works are nearly monochromatic and depictions of poverty and old age recurring subjects, including prostitutes with a child languishing in a prison cell.

There are also several funereal portrayals of Casagemas, culminating in the 1903 masterpiece “La Vie” (Life), where his body is embraced by a nude woman alongside a mother holding her child.

Yet starting in 1904 his paintings, if not carefree, begin exploring lighter subjects suffused with the muted yet warmer hues of the Rose period, while also hinting at the explorations with fragmentation to come.

Harlequins and acrobats abound in the works, as well as erotic scenes that coincide with the artist's affair with Fernande Olivier, a fellow artist who appears in dozens of his works.

“The show is filled with a form of happiness but melancholy as well, in tune with its time,” said Laurent Le Bon, president of the Orsay museum.

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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