To see this series of Cubist portraits by Pablo Picasso is to witness the re-creation of the birth of one of modern art's most significant movements.
This compact, in-depth exhibition of portraits of Fernande Olivier - assembled for the first time in a show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. - is an exploration of process. It reveals how conventional notions of beauty and aesthetics fell away as Picasso ventured more deeply into a new way of seeing and rendering the human figure that was later given the somewhat misleading label "Cubism."
Most of the 52 works of art in the exhibit - which culminates in an important bronze Cubist bust of Olivier, Picasso's first great love - were last together in his studio at Horta de Ebro, Spain.
Picasso created the artworks over a 10-month period in 1909. The sweep of the series provides insight as to how he began to see form, take figures apart into their geometric constituents, and render multiple perspectives simultaneously.
"When we invented Cubism," Picasso said of the intuitive evolution the technique, "we had no intention whatever of inventing Cubism."
Cubism often bewilders and alienates viewers. To realize that the label is something of a misnomer and that the cube - although it may be present in some pictures - is not the building block of "Cubism," is a good place to start.
Cubist pictures are based on the plane, the simplest geometrical surface. The paintings themselves, however, are complex. "I paint forms as I think them, not as I see them," Picasso said.
"Seated Woman," pictured here, shows Picasso's developing Cubist technique, a technique brought to its logical extreme in the work he did with fellow artist Georges Braque in Paris. Here, Picasso has rendered the long- suffering Olivier in gemlike facets that reveal the human face as a new kind of structure: that of startling artistic possibility.
• 'Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier' is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., until Jan. 18, 2004. It will then appear at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas from Feb. 15 to May 9, 2004.