Becoming Picas

March 31, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Review: The National Gallery's remarkable new exhibit shows us the formative years of the 20th-century's greatest artist.SUN ART CRITIC

When Pablo Picasso was a child, his mother told him that if he became a soldier he would become a general; if he went into the church he would become the pope. "Instead," he said, "I became a painter and wound up as Picasso."

In a sense he was always Picasso -- always brilliant, restless, curious, always creating and always changing. But in another sense he had to become Picasso, the giant of 20th century art, and "Picasso: The Early Years, 1892-1906" shows him getting there.

This extraordinary exhibit, which opened yesterday at Washington's National Gallery of Art, is the most complete ever devoted to Picasso's early years. Composed of 152 works from public and private collections all over the world, it traces his development from the age of 11 to 25.

It includes the Blue Period and the succeeding Rose Period, so named for the deep blue and then pinker palettes he used, as well as their darker and lighter emotional tones. The show ends as Picasso takes steps that will lead to cubism.

The exhibit demonstrates convincingly that these years are all part of Picasso's formative period. The homogeneity of subject matter and palette in the Blue and Rose periods makes us think of them as distinct and self-contained episodes in Picasso's career. Distinct they were, but they, and especially the Blue Period, reveal Picasso still struggling with issues that had to be resolved before he could be fully himself. Great as they are, the Blue and Rose periods belong to his youth, and what followed to his maturity.

Born in 1881 in Malaga, Spain, the son of an artist and art teacher, Picasso was first his father's pupil. Subsequently he entered the art school at Barcelona when his father obtained a position there in 1895. His brilliance was already evident. There is a drawing of a torso executed when he was about 12 that already shows great technical draftsmanship. The show's catalog quotes Manuel Pallares, a fellow student at Barcelona, recalling, "[Picasso] was way ahead of the other students, who were all five or six years older. Although he paid no apparent attention to what the professors were saying, he instantly grasped what he was taught."

His art would become radically different from anything the world had seen, but he always absorbed everything that came his way. That included his teachers' traditional training, reflected here in his 1890s' realistic portraits and figure studies.

In 1900 he made the first of several extended trips to Paris before settling there in 1904. His early works there show him working his way through the influence of other styles and painters. "Moulin de la Gallette" (1900) reflects the night-life milieu of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and "Boulevard de Clichy" (1901) is strongly impressionistic.

Abrupt change

But abruptly, in the fall of 1901, his work changes. The February before, his close friend, artist and writer Carles Casagemas, committed suicide. Picasso internalized the shock for a time. Then he created four works on Casagemas' death, largely painted in hues of blue.

A couple of blue paintings in the exhibit predate these works. But they lack the somber melancholy that, beginning with the Casagemas works, becomes the dominant mood of Picasso's painting into 1904.

Picasso's work was always intensely personal and psychological, and the gloom of these works appears to reflect his struggles with the issues of personal destiny and mortality. Moreover, in these years he was shuttling back and forth between Paris and Barcelona, between the life of the Paris avant-garde art world and the life of his childhood and conservative training.

Two particular elements in the most important Blue Period paintings may reflect Picasso's exorcism of traditional influences. (In a sense he was painting them out of his system.) One was the strong religious overtone in his elongated figures, reminiscent of El Greco. The other was his remarkable use of the hand.

To an artist, the image of the hand can stand for painterly technique, as the eye can stand for vision and the mind for concept. In some Blue Period paintings, the hands are not shown at all -- the figures' backs are turned, or the hands are tucked into their clothing. They include "Saint-Lazare Woman by Moonlight" (1901), "Two Women at a Bar" (1902), "Crouching Woman" (1902) and "Self-Portrait" (1901).

In the religion-oriented paintings, however, the hand has great symbolic significance.

"La Vie" (1903) is an allegorical work including a young man and woman on the left and a mother and child on the right. The figures on the left have been interpreted as Adam and Eve expelled from the garden of Eden, and Adam raises his left forefinger in a gesture resembling Michelangelo's Adam in "The Creation of Man." The mother and child of course suggest a Madonna. In "Woman and Child by the Sea" (1902), another Madonna-like work, the woman's hand holding a flower is raised in the traditional gesture of prayer.

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