Was there a Picasso before Cubism? The answer, made clear by the National Gallery of Art's "Picasso, the Early Years, 1892-1906," is a resounding "yes."
Although best known for his Cubist statements - such as "Guernica" of 1937, his protest against the brutality of the Spanish Civil War, and his fractured "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" of 1907 - Picasso also produced a rich body of work between the ages of 11 and 25.
In 152 paintings, drawings, pastels, prints, and sculpture from this period, some borrowed from as far away as Russia and the Czech Republic, we see Picasso's restless search for new kinds of expression. They also show the artist's passion for, and obsession with, the human form, and his use of the human figure in all his styles and expressions.
Trying on styles
As exhibit co-curator Jeffrey Weiss emphasizes, "Picasso set a quick pace of change in these early years. He was omnivorous in moving from style to style."
Mr. Weiss characterizes this early work spanning 14 years, "as a separate and definite body of work, distinct from his other styles, and having a beginning, a middle, and an end."
Picasso moved through the styles of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masters Pissarro, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, even Munch, and Spanish painters Ribera, Velazquez, Goya, and El Greco to forge first a strongly linear, realistic style; then his idealized sorrowful Blue and Rose Period images; and, finally, his expressively classic nudes painted in Gosol and Paris in 1906.
He was trying on styles, much as women try on hats and actors experiment with new roles. He was also testing different masks, much like the African ones that inspired him in his psychically fascinating "Portrait of Gertrude Stein," lent for the exhibit by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The center of the exhibition is Picasso's monumental, Rose Period "Family of the Saltimbanques," 1905, from the Gallery's Chester Dale Collection. (Because of the stipulations of Dale's bequest, this painting will not travel to Boston.) Alienation had long been a preoccupation with Picasso, and it's here expressed by these enigmatic, disconnected figures of circus performers he saw in Paris.
Painter of the poor
In Barcelona in 1899, where he had joined a group of Catalan avant-garde artists and writers, Picasso became aware of social issues, specifically the plight of the urban poor. In his Blue Period, in both Barcelona and Paris, he painted homeless people on the fringes of society - beggars, prostitutes in prison with their children, vagabonds, thieves - in El Greco-like elongated, shades-of-blue images. Picasso himself was desperately poor in those days, and he could easily identify with these people. Picasso and his fellow artists and writers were also outcasts of society.
This fin-de-sicle concept, of the artist as outsider, seer and hero, began not only with Picasso, but also with Oscar Wilde, Nietzche, Wagner, and Guillaume Apollinaire, among others. In Apollinaire's poems, saltimbanques - circus acrobats, musicians, and clowns - are cloaked with mystery and enchantment, as are Picasso's.
Paul Gauguin, too, had explored the period's dissatisfactions with civilization, as voiced by its artists and writers, escaping to Tahiti and asking the big questions in paintings such as, "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?"
Picasso's "Family of the Saltimbanques," painted just a few years later in 1905, could be his equivalent to Gauguin's masterpiece. Both paintings are monumentally large, and both are mystical and mysterious. Set in a desolate landscape, the figures gather together but fail to interact. They are strangely isolated, as if existing in a dream.
Interestingly, Picasso has painted himself in at the left, as a tall, black-haired, thin harlequin. The harlequin image, a self-portrait and alter ego of the artist, would continue throughout Picasso's career.
The artist was never far away from drawing, nor from his Mediterranean roots. In the summer of 1906, after the Paris dealer Ambroise Vollard bought most of his recent work, he was able to paint in the remote Pyrenees village of Gosol. There, he escaped the melancholy of his previous work, to create joyful male and female nudes and celebratory portraits of his mistress Fernande.
Vibrant browns and oranges, and classicizing images that clearly look back to Greek vase painting, become the norm. A calligraphic line thickens and thins in outlining the contours of figures such as "Two Brothers."
Some paintings like "Two Nudes," in their monumental proportions and planar dislocation, clearly look to his Cubist period. Others are more lyric, as with "Nude Combing Her Hair," a loving painting of Fernande done after his return to Paris in the autumn of 1906.
Appropriately, we exit the show with Picasso's "Self-Portrait With Palette," also of the fall, 1906, in which he looks out from a masklike self depiction. He seems to ask, "Where am I going now?"
* 'Picasso, the Early Years, 1892-1906' remains at the National Gallery through July 27 before appearing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from Sept. 10 until Jan. 4, 1998.