SAY the word "Picasso" and what floods your mind? Garish, tormented figures with two eyes on one side of a nose? An irascible gnome, thumbing his nose at the bourgeoisie?
Perhaps. But Pablo Picasso - the painter, sculptor, printmaker whose life spanned nine decades of the 19th and 20th centuries, lived from 1881 to 1973 - and changed the course of Western art forever.
From where did genius come? At the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, an exploration of works, many seen for the first time, is simply titled "Picasso - The Early Years, 1892-1906." The paintings flow like a great river develops, slowly, with academic exercises at its source, and from there gathering strength, depth and width, and it rolled into the flood called cubism, a movement that astounded the world. Picasso absorbed styles of art from classical Greece and provincial Spain and from Africa, and he transformed them into his own. The boy could draw, but more than that, his talent must have felt like fire in his fing er tips. He had to paint. Pablo Ruiz Picasso was born Oct. 25, 1881, in Malaga, Spain. His father was a drawing instructor, and his son's first teacher and model. His mother, lively and warm, encouraged her son. "When I was a child, my mother said to me, `If you become a soldier you'll be a general. If you become a monk, you'll end up as the Pope.' Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso." Picasso was educated in the rigid Spanish academic tradition of copying classical art and imitating master artists, earning honor grades and winning gold medals at art exhibitions. The National Gallery has assembled a rich array of works showing this fledgling genius. "Study of a Torso, After a Plaster Cast" (1893) shows a mastery of technique that deftly conveys a sense of solidity and heaviness of a form in space. His portraits show a keen insight into the psyche of the sitter. His mother, drawn in pastel in 1896, is caught resting for a moment. Her graying hair is unraveling, her skin is soft and translucent, her mouth is tightly shut. His father, drawn in 1899 in crayon, is a kindly eyed gentleman, almost hidden in an overcoat. As a teen-ager, Picasso began a pattern that stayed with him all his life. In 1897 he openly rebelled against the academy's dictums. Calling himself the "heir to El Greco," after the 16th-century artist, he began using distorted forms and bold outlines, as in "Face in the Style of El Greco" (1899). Picasso was caught up in the social upheaval in Catalonia demanding bet ter living conditions for the lower classes. The plight of wounded soldiers flooding the country after defeats in Cuba and the Philippines touched his conscience. "The End of the Road" (1899-1900), with humped over figures trudging toward a death head, eerily presages his tormented "Blue Period." In 1900, at the age of 19, he made his first trip to Paris, with his great friend, Carles Casagemus. He rented a studio in Montmartre and signed a contract with the art dealer Pere Manach and dove into the avant-garde. Dancing in the bohemian swirl, Picasso experimented in expressionist paintings of lovers and painted bordellos and bars in riotous color. His art exuded freshness and swagger. He began to use the now famous "PICASSO" signature. His first exhibition at the influential gallery of Ambroise Vollard was a critical and financial success. …