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

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 30, 1997 | Go to article overview

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

Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)

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.

* * *

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?"

Picasso also changed the course of 20th-century portraiture. He tried out other styles, such as those of Toulouse-Lautrec, Diego Velasquez and El Greco first. His early "Lady in Blue," which Mr. Weiss describes as "Velasquez done by a pastry chef," is an almost satiric impasto portrait of a Spanish courtesan.

By the time Gertrude Stein commissioned him to paint her portrait in 1906, Picasso had traveled a long road from his early, realistic portraiture, through the idealized sadness of his Blue and Rose periods, to classicizing and modeling his figures. He had begun to transform the portrait from a primarily objective document to a frankly subjective one. With his painting of Stein, he was well on his way to creating the first modernist portrait.

It was no easy task, however. Picasso worked on the picture for three months, painting out the head completely after some 80 or 90 sittings in the winter and spring of 1906. After a summer break at the Spanish village of Gosol, he returned to paint in her face in a single day, giving it the masklike appearance it holds today.

As Margaret Werth writes in the catalog, "The mask in `Gertrude Stein' elicits different associations: obscurity, remoteness, obdurateness, implacability." Picasso had captured her essence through a dislocation of her features - her hooded eyes are at different levels, and the right eye is larger than the recessive, smaller left one. Through the distortions and dislocations, the artist created a disturbing and vital psychological presence. It would be just a few more steps into dissolving the figure completely and into cubism.

Showing his customary arrogance and humor afterward, Picasso said of the portrait, according to Roland Penrose in his "Picasso: His Life and Work": "Everybody thinks she is not at all like her portrait. But, never mind. In the end she will manage to look just like it."

* * *

Another overriding theme of Picasso's, and well documented here, was that of alienation. Like many contemporaries, such as Paul Gauguin (whom Picasso greatly admired), Picasso came out of the fin-de-siecle and symbolist questioning of life's values and directions.

Gauguin, in his 1897 masterpiece "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" summed up artists' and writers' dissatisfaction with civilization - its psychic strains and the degradation and sorrow it could impose. Picasso would express these concerns in the idealized, sorrowful, often puzzling, El Greco-elongated figures of his Blue and Rose periods.

Mr. Weiss and his colleagues managed to collect many of the major stars of these periods, among them "Tragedy" (1903), showing three figures on a desolate beach, their heads bowed; "La Celestina" (1904), which portrays a Barcelona procuress with a diseased eye; and "Blind Man's Meal" (1903), among others.

In these, Picasso uses sight and touch as metaphors for higher states of being. The blind man turns his sight inward for a heightened internal vision, while he seems to caress the jug of milk in front of him. Picasso also painted a series on prostitutes who were jailed, often with their children, in the women's prison of Saint-Lazare.

In the Rose Period, Picasso turned to others on the edge of society, artists like himself and circus performers he observed in Paris and at the Cirque Medrano. His "Family of Saltimbanques," part of the National Gallery's Chester Dale Collection, could be his equivalent to Gauguin's "Where Do We Come From?" Both paintings are monumentally large, and both are mystical and ambiguous. Interestingly, Picasso painted himself as a tall, dark-haired, slender harlequin at the left, certainly not a physically accurate self-image. Again, the artist paints isolation and dislocation in the figures' disconnectedness from one another.

* * *

The exhibition ends with what has been called Picasso's "Gosol Period," when he dispelled the melancholy of his previous work to paint classiclike nudes in the remote Pyrenees village of Gosol. He returned to his Mediterranean roots in painting both male and female nudes, often of monumental girth. His line becomes electric as it narrows and widens, as in "Two Brothers" (1906), and in the many joyous, lyrical paintings of his mistress Fernande, who had accompanied him to Gosol.

Mr. Weiss says he purposely ended the exhibition just short of Picasso's landmark "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" (1907), in which the breaking of planes, begun in the Gertrude Stein portrait, is carried still further into pre-cubism.

If the heavy, handsomely illustrated catalog, with essays by 10 Picasso scholars, is not enough to round out the show, exhibit sponsor Bell Atlantic has provided computer quizzes for young visitors as they leave the exhibition. In one, viewers click and drag images from the artist's Blue, Rose and classical periods to arrange them on the correct walls of the virtual museum. In the other, they must match works with the years they were created and the historical events of those years. The "tests" are available in English, Spanish and Japanese.

***** WHAT: "Picasso: The Early Years, 1892-1906"

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays, through July 27

TICKETS: Free. Passes required on weekends and federal holidays.

PHONE: 202/842-6713 or 202/737-4215

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