Picasso: A Detailed Portrait of a Legendary Artist as a Young Man

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We could argue that we've had enough Picasso shows, most notably curator William Rubin's definitive "Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective" at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1980 and his "Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation" at the same museum last summer.

Yet the sensitive and beautifully put together "Picasso: The Early Years, 1892-1906," which opens today at the National Gallery of Art, will play a special role in the history of Picasso exhibitions: It is the first in the United States, and the most comprehensive, to survey the roots of Picasso's restless search for artistic styles, of his omnivorous approach to art.

It was almost 100 years ago, in February 1900, that this archetypal 20th-century artist mounted his first show in a Barcelona tavern, Els Quatre Gats. Pablo Ruiz y Picasso, born in 1881, had been encouraged by his artist father and had trained in academies in Madrid and Barcelona since he was 11.

In the Barcelona exhibit, the young Picasso, who was all of 19, already displayed his exceptional gift for drawing as a vehicle for ideas and as a tool for portraiture, especially self-portraiture. He had rejected academic study and had joined a group of young Barcelona avant-garde artists who espoused social causes, among them the plight of the urban poor. The disenfranchised, such as syphilitic prostitutes, beggars, vagabonds, fellow artists and writers and circus performers, would be the subjects for his Blue and Rose periods, the high points of the National Gallery exhibit.

Exhibit co-curator Jeffrey Weiss, National Gallery associate curator for 20th-century art, emphasizes that Picasso's work in these 14 years, from ages 11 through 25, constitutes an independent body of work, with "a beginning, a middle and an end." Mr. Weiss and co-curators Mark Rosenthal, former National Gallery curator of 20th-century art, and Robert Boardingham of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts set out to show us this with 152 paintings, drawings, pastels, prints, ceramics and sculptures.

Many of these works have been seen before, especially in the 1980 Museum of Modern Art exhibit, but it is the intensity of the presentation - masterpiece after masterpiece - that is the special strength of this show.

From the Rose Period we have the monumental and mysterious "Family of Saltimbanques". Look, also, at his puzzling Blue Period "La Vie" (1903), in which he featured his dead friend, Carles Casagemas, as the protagonist. Elongated and enigmatic, the three main figures have been interpreted as an allegory of birth, death and redemption, or as symbols of sacred and profane love.

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Picasso's lifelong preoccupation with portraiture, especially self-portraiture, begins in these early years. The portraits of himself mirror perfectly his restless search for a stylistic and psychic identity. Here, especially, we see how he projected a sense of self that was larger than life, and how he saw his art as an extension of himself. The autobiographical nature of Picasso's early work, which was not limited to this period, is best seen in the portraits, usually of friends and lovers, and self-portraits.

His early self-portraits, several of them drawings, have the same direct, powerful gaze outwards as does the last self-portrait in the exhibit, "Self-Portrait With Palette" of 1906. His Blue Period "Self-Portrait," in which he paints himself in several shades of blue, is riveting both in its melancholia and in its gaze, which seems to grapple with the viewer's.

That there are so many portraits of him throughout his career, and in this exhibition, emphasizes Picasso's liking - even need - to put himself at the center of things. With these self-portraits, Picasso is finding his own style and his own identity. Even when he projects himself as one of his favorite alter egos, that of the harlequin in the "Family of Saltimbanques," he's again looking at himself as if to say, "Who am I? …