Byline: EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK BRIAN SEWELL
PICASSO: CHALLENGING THE PAST National Gallery
PICASSO was a painter. At 14, he was a precocious brat to scare the wits out of the Zarzuela world of fin-de-siecle Barcelona. At 19, he was in Paris, gulping down Gauguin and Van Gogh. At 20 -- yes, at 20 -- his Blue Period began, the tender ethereal palette complementing his compassion for the pathos of love and death, all the developments from Impressionism firmly rejected in favour of plastic form and emotional subject matter. At 25, already and always the brilliant thief of ideas, he grasped the twin inspirations of crude Iberian sculpture and African masks and totems, and painted the great Demoiselles d'Avignon, the outrage that even his friends Matisse and Braque found difficult to stomach.
With this one picture, unevenly finished and quite certainly unresolved, he outstripped the slow history of art and stormed into the unknown of the 20th century; Congo barbarism became Cubism, the conventions of perspective were abandoned and, as the mannerisms of the movement developed through their several phases, forms were shattered into crystal facets and set into a plane, and the presence of the subject faded in these new fields of lowtoned paint.
Picasso invested too much in Cubism.
When, after the brief decade of its life, 1908-1918, it proved to be a cul-de-sac, he could only escape its barren end by reverting to motifs of his Pink and Blue Periods and by turning to the classicism of antique Rome. It was for him the end of logical or progressive development and his career became a thing of fits and starts. Guernica of 1937, in which the horrors of war were reflected in the deliberate distortion and corruption of subjects and dismantled forms, was the only other forward leap to match the importance of the Demoiselles but even this new vocabulary lost its energy and, debased in repetition …