WASHINGTON - In the first dozen years of his career, Pablo Picasso traveled from the rigorous conservatism of the traditional painting academy to the radical verge of cubism. That's further than ordinary artists travel in a lifetime. But right from the beginning, Picasso demonstrated that he was anything but ordinary.
By age 15, he could draw and paint as well as his father, who was an art teacher. A profile portrait of his mother in pastel that he executed at about that age demonstrates not only skill in capturing her likeness but sensitivity to mood, which one doesn't expect in a teen-ager.
Picasso quickly surpassed his father, an artist of limited vision who had the good sense to let his talented son have his head.
By 1900, Picasso had tasted the avant-garde of Barcelona and had made his first trip to Paris.
By 1907, when he painted "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," he had emerged as the most potent force in modern art.
"Picasso: The Early Years" at the National Gallery of Art examines this first phase of Picasso's career, a phase that is nearly a career in itself. It's an exhibition of about 150 paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints made between 1892, when Picasso enrolled in the art school in La Coruna, Spain, where his father taught, to 1906, when the first glimmerings of cubism began to appear in his figures.
While this period has been covered in other Picasso exhibitions, this is the first one devoted exclusively to it. The show will be at the National Gallery through July 27, then travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, its only other venue, from Sept. 10 to Jan. 4, 1998.
Picasso's early career is interesting for several reasons. It allows us to fully appreciate the magnitude of his precocity, and to understand how completely he mastered the fundamentals of traditional art. His later manipulations, many of them extreme, can be seen as proceeding from a solid grounding in art history and practice.
The show also permits a more leisurely examination of the famous Blue and Rose Periods, which are usually regarded as way stations on the road to cubism.
Perhaps the most valuable insight the exhibition offers is the view of Picasso trying, as all young artists do, to find his voice. His early work shows that he was subject to the prevailing currents of the time, such as symbolism.
It also shows that even very early in his career he was willing and able to change direction abruptly. Critics applaud shifts when they seem "progressive," as when Picasso moved from Rose Period sentimentality into the more formally rigorous and emotionally neutral cubism. But they hated his later move from cubism into his monumentally retrograde neoclassicism.
To his credit, Picasso never paid much attention to critics. He pursued an idea until it no longer interested him, then went on to something else. After 1907, he displayed the courage of his convictions. But in the early years, when he was still relatively unsophisticated, he tried on several stylistic suits.
No matter how often one has seen the evidence, one is always startled at how good Picasso was so early. The two most familiar set pieces of his teen-age years are two academic genre paintings, "First Communion" of 1896 and "Science and Charity" of 1897, which depicts a doctor attending a woman who is apparently dying.
"Science and Charity," painted when Picasso was about 16, won several prizes, including a gold medal at an exhibition in his home town of Malaga. It's a standard exercise, but it establishes the fact that Picasso began his career at a point that many artists of the late 19th century considered maturity. For him, it was merely a kind of orientation, or a rite of passage to be completed as quickly as possible.
This exhibition doesn't have these two paintings, but it doesn't lack evidence of youthful skill that's nearly comparable. There's a portrait of an elderly fisherman, which, like the portrait of his mother, looks like a studio exercise. There's a portrait of his sister, Lola, looking a bit Lautrec-ish in a pink dress, and a sensitive, carefully executed crayon portrait of his father.
Better yet are two small atmospheric oils. One, painted in his birthplace of Malaga, is titled as a seascape, although it's really a building cut diagonally by a sharp shadow. The other is the interior of a carriage shed, with two carriages and some barrels.
Picasso's family moved to Barcelona in 1895, and by 1899, when he was 18, he had joined the city's avant-garde, especially the crowd that frequented the tavern called The 4 Cats. The Barcelona interval lasted until Picasso moved permanently to Paris in 1904.
Earlier trips there, the first in 1900, broadened his outlook. Many of his paintings around the turn of the century reflect the influence of post-impressionism, or even of impressionism. In the fall of 1900, he painted dancers at the Moulin de la Galette, as Renoir had done. A 1901 scene on the Boulevard de Clichy resonates strongly of Monet or Pissarro.