Picasso’s Blue Period: La Vie
Shades of Blue
Though lasting only three years, Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period is recognized as one of his most iconic series of works. Picasso was nineteen at the time, and had found no real artistic style. This dejected sense of self, as well as the deplorable conditions witnessed in his native Spain, inspired the anguish of Picasso’s paintings: melancholy strokes of blue and sorrowful green, rigid subjects almost resigned to their fates, and ethereal, gloomy atmospheres. Above all rested the heavy burden of the death of Picasso’s dear friend and acclaimed Spanish poet Carlos Casagemas in 1901. His public suicide at a dinner party on a cold Paris night in February spurred Picasso to relieve his pain in the form of art. While some subjects bear witness to the late Casagemas during this time, such as The Death of Casagemas (1901) and La Vie (1903), much of Picasso's Blue Period work depicted the plight of the anguished: prostitutes, the sick and disabled, prisoners, and beggars.
Despite La Vie not being Picasso’s first Blue Period piece, it is arguably his most influential. Painted two years into Picasso’s severe depression, La Vie depicts a mother and child on one side, and a man and his lover, naked, on the other, in front of sketches of cowering figures. X-rays reveal that the piece had another original work underneath that dealt with Picasso himself as the subject, before it was changed to represent Casagemas. This perhaps suggests the reflection of pain that both Casagemas dealt with, and Picasso’s guilt for abandoning his dear friend in his time of need.
Hope in Despair
Oddly, there is a faint glint of hope in this piece, which is unusual given the subject matter. The posture of Casagemas suggests a bold stance and motivation: he gestures with his hand, and his foot points outward towards the viewer. Additionally, it’s important to note that Casagemas killed himself after being rejected by Germaine Pichot, a woman who would later appear as a model for Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Despite this, Picasso painted Casagemas with a young woman in his embrace. The title of the piece also speaks to hope which lies in darkness: la vie, life.
La Vie may also be seen as a confrontation between the directionless Picasso stuck in mourning and beholden to an audience who would not purchase his work, and the limitless, free expression that an artist is forever striving towards. It was not until 2003 that scholars noticed the similarity in gesture between Casagemas and Noli Me Tangere (1523-4), a depiction of Jesus uttering the phrase to a distraught Mary Magdalene. La Vie now hangs in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Though the debate continues, the fact remains that Picasso’s Blue Period set the stage for the young artist to advance on a path of mastering his craft, finding beauty in pain, and turning anguish, suffering, loss, into breathtaking works of art.