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How Picasso’s world is filled with drama, destitution, and despair

The new AGO exhibit is food for the melancholic soul
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Picasso’s paintings highlighted the deep imbrication between art and artist. COURTESY OF NATHAN LAUREL/FLICKR
Picasso’s paintings highlighted the deep imbrication between art and artist. COURTESY OF NATHAN LAUREL/FLICKR

Content warning: This article mentions suicide.

Picasso: Painting the Blue Period was so rife with feeling that it’s difficult to put the exhibit into words. I suppose this is the challenge of writing about art — how does one convert sensations and scenes into mere text?

As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art.”

The best I can do, then, is to write simply about the new Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) exhibit featuring Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period artworks. And, to put it simply, sauntering through room after room of blue paintings hung on white walls was a solemn experience, which made me feel a little sad.

The Blue Period commenced when Picasso, 19 years old at the time, lost his best friend and fellow painter — Carles Casagemas — to suicide. After that, Picasso wandered through the streets of Montmartre, visited the infamous Saint-Lazare hospital prison, witnessed mass homelessness in his home of Barcelona, and suffered through poverty. 

Although there are arguments that we should separate the art from the artist, I could only think about the deep imbrication between art and artist, and art and context, as I gazed at Picasso’s paintings. The Blue Period, after all, was the era in which the modernist master painted almost exclusively in blue and blue-green hues — colours often associated with sadness.

Perhaps the most somber and haunting painting I wandered upon was “The Blue Room.” In it, a nude woman is standing in a bathtub, slouching as she rubs a wet rag by the side of her right leg, letting water trickle down to the base. Despite not being completely lifeless, her drooping posture portrays her resignation. 

Behind this woman hangs a portrait of a young girl wearing a billowing dress with a bright pink underlining as she skips through a gravel street, her arms daintily holding the ends of her skirt. Both the woman and the young girl have blonde hair. 

Perhaps it’s just my own ambivalence toward aging, but the painting struck me. The juxtaposition between the resigned woman and the lively girl reminded me of the transition we all make from the carefree realm of childhood to the more mundane slog of adulthood. Though I remain hopeful that this transition is not one to mourn over, “The Blue Room” took on a perspective that’s marked by a destruction of dreams and a loss of vivacity.

Picasso’s paintings were been coloured in dark blue hues and the bodies and the objects in them cast sharp shadows, but the real melancholy of Picasso’s works emanated from the scenes themselves. “Melancholy Woman” depicted an inmate sitting alone in an underground cell, looking downward and deep in thought, while “The Dead Woman” was Picasso’s chilling replication of a corpse’s face — painted up close.

Consistent across Picasso’s works were also slumps — the consistent sagging of shoulders, the limp bending of knees, and the downward waves of long robes. These elements not only culminated in a collective sinking feeling but also allowed Picasso’s technique to shine through.

I noticed that Picasso’s paintings were heavily influenced by sculptures. The movement and texture of drapes — the crevices, dimples, depths, and flow of the clothes clinging to the body’s curves — depicted in Picasso’s works followed the same strong, smooth curves of sculptures.

Picasso: Painting the Blue Period featured over 100 artworks from 15 countries. It mapped the evolution of Picasso’s work, from the peripheries of the Blue Period until the early days of the Rose Period. At the AGO, I saw the evolution of Picasso’s artistic style, and more generally, how the artist was able to improve and master his craft over time. 

For example, the first few paintings from the Blue Period featured pronounced and broken brushstrokes tinted with warm colors. The faces of Picasso’s subjects here did not contain much detail — they were blurry. Ultimately, I found these early Blue Period works underwhelming.

But at the height of the Blue Period, Picasso’s brushstrokes became continuous and smooth. The artworks here had more shadow and depth, increasing the drama of the scenes they depicted.

It was in this exhibit that I learned how art could capture the subjective human experience. As Picasso ached through his own pains and as the cities around him ached through societal and national pains, his artworks were coloured in shades of blue and quiet despair.

To me, art is a largely sensory and subjective experience. Though I tried to describe Picasso’s works here as best as I could, you ultimately have to visit the exhibit in person in order to experience the quiet solemnity of the Blue Period artworks. 

Picasso: Painting the Blue Period will be at the AGO until January 16. 


If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call: 

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566 
  • Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454 
  • Connex Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600 
  • Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200 
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030 

Warning signs of suicide include: 

  • Talking about wanting to die 
  • Looking for a way to end one’s life 
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose 
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain 
  • Talking about being a burden to others 
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs 
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or reckless 
  • Sleeping too little or too much 
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated 
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge 
  • Displaying extreme mood swings 

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.