Picasso's Early Works Display A Complex Artistic Heritage

Picasso: The Early Years, 1892-1906

Edited by Marilyn McCully

National Gallery of Art, Washington

374 pp., $70

Just when you think there is nothing new to say about the artistic accomplishments of Pablo Picasso, along comes a new show with a fine catalog to prove that there is plenty of room to look anew at the life and accomplishments of the Spanish master.

The subject of "Picasso: The Early Years, 1892-1906," is Picasso's artistic accomplishments prior to the birth of Cubism. While earlier exhibitions and books have looked at one aspect or another of Picasso's pre-Cubist oeuvre, this is the first comprehensive examination of that period.

The volume is beautifully illustrated, and the color of the reproductions is far better than those one usually sees in books of this type. It covers Picasso's training in Malaga and Barcelona; the Blue Period when he shuttled between Paris and Spain and painted with a monochromatic palette; the Rose Period when his palette featured that more colorful hue; and a brief but artistically productive trip to Gosol in the Spanish Pyrenees in the summer of 1906.

Edited by Marilyn McCully, the nine essays in this book taken together make several general points about the emergence of the 20th century's most discussed artist.

From the beginning, Picasso's art was highly autobiographical. In the words of the show's curators, "Tragedy, comedy, sentiment and eros are all expressed in a somewhat confessional fashion as the artist put himself and his community at the center of his art." This theme recurs repeatedly in the paintings on display.

In his early career Picasso also experimented with the style of many different artists as he sought his own artistic voice. Several of his early paintings appear, on quick examination, to be the work of Monet, Van Gogh, or Toulouse-Lautrec. Other works are obviously influenced by Degas, Rodin, El Greco, Ingres, and Goya.

By drawing on such a complex artistic heritage and by trying out different styles, Picasso was able to keep those elements that seemed central to his work while disregarding others. Through this process he arrived at a truly original art.

Picasso's early career was shaped by his identification with the avant-garde and the idea of the artist as a bohemian and a provocateur. As Robert Lubar notes in his essay, "Barcelona Blues," the social unrest of fin de sicle Spain provided a rich vein of social alienation and turmoil for the artist to mine.

Picasso's enormous skill as a draftsman was apparent even when he was a teenager. This essential but easily overlooked tool of artistic practice was in his hands a powerful creative force that underlay all his artistic accomplishments.

The book begins with a "Chronology," by McCully. Far more than a simple listing of dates and accomplishments, this chapter is a solid biographical sketch of Picasso that is enormously useful as a way of keeping track of the peripatetic artist's movements and friendships in this era. This alone is worth the price of the book.

The book's essays offer further insights into the factors that shaped Picasso's work or the themes in his paintings. All are fresh perspectives that add considerably to the significant body of Picasso's early works presented in this book.

Phillip Dennis Cate analyzes the ways that new artistic methods influenced Picasso's emergence as an artist. The development of color lithography and photo-mechanical printing, for example, gave young artists much greater aesthetic flexibility.

Jeffrey Weiss looks at what led the artist to focus on individuals who occupied the margins of society: circus performers, the poor, the blind, and the despondent. Robert Rosenblum considers Picasso's artistic output in the summer of 1906 when he experimented with a number of new ideas that would be amplified in the years ahead.

Peter Read reviews the impact of French literature, poetry, and theater on Picasso's painting. The significant influence that he finds comes as a surprise given that Picasso learned to speak the French language reluctantly.

Though the academic emphasis of some of the individual essays may discourage the general reader, the enormous range of this show and the many factors that shaped Picasso's artistic development make this a must-have volume for anyone with an interest in 20th-century art.

* Terry W. Hartle is a freelance art critic and vice president for governmental affairs for the American Council on Education in Washington.

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